A Sheltered Life

I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.

Eudora Welty

Each week when I start work on a new post, I select the topic and then search for a quote I think will enhance whatever it is I want to communicate. I like that other writers, philosophers, and mystics seem to think along the same lines as I do and that most of the time I find someone who agrees with me. I especially like the agreeable part.

This week, however, was different. I found the quote first…I cannot remember where…and knew that I had to write about it, a sheltered life, that is. Writing about a sheltered life can be boring. For that matter, living a sheltered life can be boring. Since I have never tolerated boredom very well, I had to find a way for it to be daring. And I carried my shelter with me. It went through various permutations over the years.

On backpacking trips with my family as a young child, we slept on canvases on the ground, spread out neatly beneath our dacron sleeping bags. When rain appeared to be imminent, we would sleep with out heads against a large log, and my dad would fashion a lean-to with another canvas, the high part anchored to the log. There always seemed to be a log in just the right place. Those canvases were heavy, but so was all the rest of our gear in those days, and we never hiked much more than three to four miles in a single day as a young family. If the weather was too grisly we simply returned to our waiting car at the trailhead.

It would be many years before a tent became part of my gear. As a teenager and young woman I carried a rain poncho, which doubled as a ground cover at night. If it rained I would fold it over on top like a taco. Needless to say, it was not very effective, and I experienced some wet nights in addition to the dampness from my own sweat. This was well before the invention of breathable rain gear like Gore-Tex.

My husband and I purchased our first backpacking tent at a hardware store for $39.99. I think that I remember the price because it reflected its value as a shelter. There was no rain fly, so we draped a clear piece of plastic over it when it rained. By morning the dampness from condensation was dripping onto us from the ceiling of the tent, and we seemed to be as wet as if we had slept in a downpour.

When I started backpacking alone I had to take survival and safety more seriously. By this time I was taking everything more seriously, including hypothermia, for I had endured a wet and cold night in the old tent. Though by then I had a reliable goose down sleeping bag, down loses its insulating property when it gets wet, and I had definitely gotten wet. It was not pleasant. I purchased a kind of engineering marvel that possessed a total of sixteen lines, all of them connected to various stakes and poles. It had a nice big vestibule that was big enough for me to sit under, and with the door open, I could even cook sitting in the vestibule if I needed to. It never once leaked, and the ventilation was sufficient that condensation was never a problem. In many ways it was the perfect tent except for one thing: It weighed a total of eight pounds. With all of those stakes and poles and flaps it was built to be sturdy, also large, for it comfortably slept two very large people. I hiked alone, however, and was definitely not large. It was simply too big and heavy for this solo hiker.

Tent number three was purchased after hiking with a friend who set up her funnel tent in about two minutes. Quite the opposite of my engineering marvel, it possessed only two lines, front and back with U-shaped poles, and the rainfly was attached so it did not have to be packed or set up separately. Without the lines and multiple stakes, it was quite a bit lighter than any tent I had ever owned. The ease with which it went up was part of the appeal, as the eight pound tent was both cumbersome and time consuming, each of the sixteen lines requiring just the right amount of tension to keep the tent upright and secure.

I took the new tent on a ten day hike in the Pasayten Wilderness, a particularly wild adventure on a long stretch of trail over Shell Rock Pass, which had not been maintained for several years. It was raining as I got to camp that night, and I was pleased to have a tent that went up so quickly. I retreated hastily and then watched as the rain fell, inside and out, leaking through the seams in big drops of water that fell onto the floor of the tent, pooling around my feet. I used an extra pair of socks to sop it up.

Fortunately that was the last of the rain on that trip. When I returned home I called the company to complain about the new tent that leaked so badly and was chastised for putting it up incorrectly, as if that were the only possible explanation for the equipment failure. This seemed unlikely, as the tent required two poles, two lines, and two stakes. There was not much to do wrong. As I was a struggling single mother in those days, I had to carefully budget for each item of new equipment I acquired. I was pleased then to be visiting REI during their Labor Day Weekend sale a few weeks later when I spotted a two-person Kelty on sale for just eighty-nine dollars. I reasoned that it could not possibly be worse than the last tent. It turned out to be the best one I ever had.

I carried that tent with me on the trail for the next twelve years, and it weathered many rain showers. I continued my hikes in the Pasayten Wilderness, the slopes of Mt. Adams, the Olympics, and it moved with me to Wyoming, where the tent provided shelter in the Bighorns, Winds, and Beartooth Mountains. I even took it to the southwest, where I pitched it on slick rock, using rocks to secure the lines instead of stakes. It became a reassuring piece of equipment for me, for whatever the weather had in mind, I always knew that I would be warm and dry in my tent at the end of the day.

Its reliability became even more impressive after a bear ripped a hole in both the rainfly and the tent when coffee was left inside by a former boyfriend when we left our camp to day hike. He made the repair, a big red patch, which I came to view as a sort of badge of honor, the tent that survived a bear attack. This patch never leaked, though every year I would reapply a line of Seam Seal along its edges. The patch also became an interesting conversation piece. When other hikers asked about it, I would respond, “There was a bear,” and then I had everyone’s rapt attention.

All good things must have an ending, and so it was with that fine tent when the seams began to rip as I pulled the lines tightly. I felt as though I had betrayed a good friend, one that had served me reliably over twelve years. In subsequent years there were more tents on the trail with me, each one lighter than the last, but that dependable Kelty holds almost the same degree of reverence as my old green plastic teacup. It is sitting somewhere on a shelf. I could never part with it, too many memories are held within its ripstop nylon walls. Its patch serves to remind me as well of the daring part of a sheltered life, a red badge of courage.

Published by Colleen Drake

Colleen Drake (AKA Teacup) has over sixty years of hiking exerience (yes, I'm really old) and has seen some pretty big changes over those many years. Join her on the Solitude Trail & share some of these adventures while exploring with her the value of solitude in the wilderness.

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