When I was ten years old, I moved out of my bedroom in my parents’ house and into a small canvas tent. From 10 years old, until I shipped out for the US Army at almost 18 years old, I lived in this tent, and a couple more, year round. Rain and shine, winter and summer. I loved every minute of it, too.
You see, my folks owned a cattle ranch, so I was raised on a large piece of rural land that had, let’s say, very loose property boundaries. I was, when not a prisoner of the educational system, free to roam and lose myself among the forests and creeks of the foothills. I had campfires and lots of starlight. I hunkered down through terrifying rainstorms and had many close encounters with coyotes and other creatures of the night. But most nights were spent reading poetry, books on mountaineering, listening to classical on the FM, or just listening to my fire and resting my head on one of our sheep dogs as they snoozed on my blanket. It was a charmed life.
I don’t ever recall my mother or father being upset with me living in a tent. They never asked me to come inside during the northernCalifornia winters, or even cautioned me about my bonfires or midnight mountain rambles. The few times it came up in conversation, it was more like, “Does Steve sleep on the ground?” (I had a cot) or, “Isn’t he scared of being alone out there…?” (Never. Not once do I ever recall being afraid of the dark or the forest), or the one that was asked over and over, “Isn’t it uncomfortable living in a tent? Your parents have provided a good home for you, and you are just being difficult.” That one was from a friend of the family who was, and still is, a boring, spoiled, yuppie dipshit!
This tent life led me to wander out into the higher canyons and mountains of my forest home, which soon led me to being in the mountains nearly every weekend. I would get out of school, run home to my tent, grab my backpack, and sometimes not return until Sunday afternoon. Or I would ask my folks to drop me off at the head of some trail near Coloma, or Downieville, or North San Juan, and off I would go. About this, too, they never raised a fuss. The first time I wanted to go snow camping, my father took me down to REI and spent a small fortune on a good sleeping bag, jacket, and thick mat to sleep on. What a guy!
But it was never about being comfortable. “Warm” became relative. Eating was something I just had to do, and I didn’t give a damn how it tasted. I wore second hand blue jeans, and old wool lumberjack shirts that I bought at Goodwill. (I am sure my folks would have bought me that stuff new, but after reading The Dharma Bums, I thought that it was very romantic and wild zen to pick out clothes second hand.) The one extravagance was a pair of expensive Austrian Reichle hiking boots, which I fancied made me look like my hero, Japhy Ryder!
I never told anyone at school about my life or adventures. My close friends knew, or course. They were similar to me, but most slept in beds. Sometimes one would join me for a weekend adventure to the middle fork of the American, or to the Sierra Buttes, but most of my adventures were solo, just me and the mountains. As I got older, I would skip a weekend camp out and venture to the city for a punk show, or marathon film watching, but it was always back to the peace of my hills, my real home.
This life of my teenage years never seemed odd to me, until it began to be reflected back to me in my adult life. People assumed that I must have had a bad home life, or that we were poor and that we all lived in the tent. None of the above. I liked my sleeping bag, and I never thought that it was weird to spend so much time alone in the woods. Honestly, I still sleep in a sleeping bag in my cabin.
Call it one of my eccentricities.