Why I Live in a Tent

Do you remember what being a kid was like? The freedom? The excitement over little things? The tingly feeling when you dared to do something you knew you shouldn’t do? Like most folks, I can recollect certain aspects of my childhood and can sometimes, late at night, even feel that I’m back there again, studying a grasshopper in the alfalfa field or riding my metallic green stingray with the white banana seat up to the school grounds to run through the sprinklers.

But by far my most enduring memories are of the forts I built. What is it about kids and forts anyway? Why do children construct raggedy tree houses, blanket forts, and snow igloos? Do we share a basic need to make cozy, private spaces where we are free to be ourselves?

Whatever the reasons, I was hit especially hard by this primal urge. One of my earliest abodes was nothing more than a dirty backyard hole with a plywood roof. Most of the forts my brothers and I built were erected from makeshift scrap heaps of whatever we happened to run across. Soon after the dirt pit, we graduated to sheet and blanket tents, one of which we set aflame on a disastrous Fourth of July night.

Then in 1973 I came upon The Hobbit, and my life was forever changed. For the next 10 years I was haunted by its beginning: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: It was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

“It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with paneled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats–the hobbit was fond of visitors. The best rooms were all on the lefthand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden, and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.”

I became transfixed by that hobbit house, and I found the rest of the book about battles with trolls, dwarfs, and dragons boring by comparison. I dreamed of that place and drew endless plans, hoping someday to build one just like it.

I was finally inspired to build my first hideaway soon after my junior high school shop class built a small log house. I sneaked my dad’s smallest chain saw out and cut down about 50 small pine trees on a hillside high above our valley. Every spare hour I spent sawing, chopping, and nailing it together. By late fall the thing was standing–kinda wobbly, but standing. After much hand wringing I broke the secret to my family and they helped me finish off the roof, each carrying a wide board up the dusty trail. And so my dream was realized, a private getaway in the woods. A dry bed, a barrel stove, and a can of soup in the cupboard. I think I only slept there twice.

Soon afterward I was swept away into adulthood, marriage, jobs, and cars, but I kept dreaming. A lone tepee on a distant ridgetop could set my heart pounding. I began keeping photo files and intricate journals filled with radical house-building ideas.

I was uncomfortable with having joined the ranks of ordinary buyers and renters and especially with spending such a large chunk of my earnings for a place to live. It seemed ridiculous, even obscene. Then my wife left.

Two dwellings later, sitting in a tiny flophouse room above an old bar in Joseph, Oregon, with my toaster oven, squeaky bed, and ideas for simple structures, I’d go obsessive, thinking like a maniac half the night. How could I simplify? What basic living structure would allow me to run a small business requiring lights, a desk, and a copy machine? One frosty morning in 1990, I happened upon a two-acre meadow fronting a river on the edge of town. I spent the entire night devising a plan to lease the property for $100 a year: I would erect a tepee there and become a sort of caretaker of the land, rebuilding fences and doing general cleanup.

My plan was accepted. I lived in a 16-foot tepee with underground electricity for two years, then built and lived in a 9-foot by 12-foot red-willow hut for another two years, eventually simplifying to the point of needing only a medium-sized backpacking tent. Now all that’s in the meadow is a 6-foot by 10-foot studio (for books), a propane sweat lodge (for bathing), and several flat tent sites. When the old Dodge starts honkin’ for a road trip, I simply roll up the tent, lock the studio door, and hit the road.

If you’ve done any camping, you know the joys of riding out a nasty storm or listening to a hoot owl through a thin tent wall while you’re dry, warm, and content in your miniature house. Tents don’t require poured concrete foundations or tricky building codes. I can live anywhere there’s a flat spot, leaving behind only flattened grass when I go. With no more rent or mortgage I can sleep till 10, read a book till noon, or fish in the nearby river all day, and spend my money eating well and traveling often.

As Thoreau wrote 150 years ago, anyone with a love of nature and a yearning for simpler ways can become nomadic and dwell in tents, or lease some land and live on it the way our ancestors did. My only regret is not realizing earlier that, yes, fort building is important to our well-being, and that we all can and probably should build our own retreats in the woods and live there, learning to be quiet and still and happy without so many things. Less can be more and is sometimes much better.

–Yellowstone Park, free employee cabin
–Portland, Oregon, tiny walk-up studio in NW section near park, $118/month
–McPherson, Kansas, one-bedroom house complete with cockroaches, $145
–Ogden, Utah, a very noisy basement apartment with cozy kitchen, $185
–Enterprise, Oregon, small house with big yard and garden, no mower, $225
–Joseph, Oregon, flophouse hotel room above old bar, bathroom down hall, $85

From Mountainfreak (Summer 1999). Subscriptions: $12/yr. (4 issues) from Box 4149, Telluride, CO 81435-9953.

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