The chocolate's so old it's chalky. And the slightly hard marshmallows stick together. The off-brand graham crackers maintain a memory of crisp.
Roasted and combined they become devine. Magical. Because they come from the heart of two very fine people, Larry and Earl. Two older fellas (they teeter on both sides of 80), who share our campground and started this evening of camaraderie.
Larry (who looks like everyone' grandfather) showed up at our campsite shortly before dinner and invited me and Allen to a campfire and s'mores. He said he'd carried the fixings for 3,300 miles (from Oregon) and tonight's the first night's the weather's been good enough to do it ...to build a fire and roast marshmallows.
How sweet, I thought. And yes, I said, we'd love to. So we do.
And we find Larry's also invited the United Nations: Johannas and Rike, a dentist and decorator from Germany; Adrian and Chantel, a young smoochy couple from Switzerland; Alan, a Hawaiian and retired nuclear engineer, and his wife Rhodda, a much younger Filipino; and Bob and Becky, a retired newspaper couple from Modesto, California.
We're a collection of differences, of uknowns, brought together by Larry and Earl, whose hearts are huge. They're best friends. And Earl thought up this Alaskan adventure to help Larry move past the grief he's feeing after his wife of 56 years died. She's been gone five months, Larry says. And it's time to live again. Or else he'll die.
So he and Earl fueled up the motorhome and drove north, to where we sit tonight. A circle of tentative friends, bridging a cultural divide with a slew of s'mores made with fixings so old, Larry's wife must have bought them a year before she passed.
The evening begins slowly. Almost proper and shy. We politely introduce ourselves and dip into esoteric conversations. About weather. Or coffee. Then someone loads marshmallows on a stick and chases our inhibitions away.
Allen's marshmallow is the first to catch fire and he waves it frantically. Plop! It falls in the dust. We laugh.
The other Alan kneels in front of the flames to produce a perfectly tanned specimen. We oohh and ahhh.
And then we laugh again, because the Germans and Swiss find s'mores addicting, but difficult to eat. Their faces and fingers get sticky. The graham crackers split and crumble. (We tell them it's a skill Americans learn in childhood.) The Hawaiian, a health-food aficionado, startles his wife by inhaling treat after treat. She finally cuts him off.
We're all laughing like kids, riding a fantastic sugar high. We swap tales of our Alaskan adventures, inquire about homelands, careers, kids. We continue to munch on the magical ancient s'mores and pick at an eclectic smorgasbord of donated oranges, a plate of peanuts, a bag of pretzels and a pot of very strong coffee brewed over the fire. We check itineraries, to see if we can meet up again, somewhere down the road.
I notice Larry's been quiet. And now he's standing, folding up his chair.
"Hey, Larry," I yell over. "Are you leaving?"
It's past his bedtime, he says. Time to yank out his hearing aids and hit the hay.
So over the din of conversations and laughter, I thank him for the party.
He smiles. And walks off. Leaving behind a legacy of friendship modeled by crumbly old chocolate, drying-out marshmallows, aging graham crackers. And, I bet, a wife's enduring love.