Reflections on wall tent life

Joseph Bullington —
Tuesday, January 8, 2019
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These merged photos show Joseph Bullington’s wall tent at the beginning and end of his stay on Quinn Creek in July and October.

Enterprise photos by Joseph Bullington


I bought the tent for 600 bucks off an old outfitter toward the end of my season as innkeeper at the Crazy Mountain Inn in Martinsdale. It measured 12 feet wide by 10 feet long, with 5-foot sidewalls, and it came with a folding iron woodstove. The guy helped me measure and cut a frame out of metal electrical pipe and I drove off with it all in the back of the old 4Runner, rejoicing as only a first-time homeowner can.

The pay at the inn wasn’t much, but there was nowhere to spend it and I had a room and meals for free. I hoped to leverage the tent and a thousand saved dollars into a winter of not having to work a job. I didn’t foresee, then, that I would later live in the tent for the summer and fall of 2018, that I would wake up in it each morning and start a fire and stand close to the woodstove to put on “business casual” clothes before I drove into Livingston to work at my first newspaper job. But nor would it have surprised me — that’s what the tent was for.

That was the freedom the tent represented — the freedom to live, whenever I needed or wanted, without having to pay rent. I saw the tent as my own small counterstrike in what Ivan Illich calls the 500 year war against subsistence — a war which we, the defeated, now sit on the far and losing end of.

I also considered the tent a step toward living how I wanted to live — outside, the unfavored side of the walls our culture has erected between us humans and the rest of the wild world. It was, I had to admit, a wall tent, but, I reasoned, at least the walls were thinner.

Besides, my ideal home is somewhat off-limits for the moment, situated as it is in the middle of a national park. My accomplice Ariety and I had come across it earlier that summer in the canyonlands of Utah — a great, discus-shaped, warehouse-sized boulder of red rock that sits on the desert like a huge, squat mushroom. The rock is circumscribed by a human-scale passageway, sheltered by the overhanging stone, which opens into room-like caves with ceilings, walls, and their wide mouths open forever to the desert. One of these “rooms” holds the remnants of an old cowboy camp — horse corral, fireplace, broken shelves with old coffee and bean cans. In another room, a spring seeps from the rock, which is blanketed there with dark green moss, and on the stone walls nearby white pigment handprints of ancient desert dwellers wave from a lost world.

I thought it was the most perfect home I had ever seen — a sweet spot between shelterless suffering and the air-conditioned sheetrock cubes in which we quarantine ourselves away from the world...

* * *

At the time I bought the tent, though, these thoughts were secondary.

It was the fall of 2016, and the uprising at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline was in full swing. Thousands of people in the pipeline resistance camps were digging in for the coming cold weather, and I wanted to be there, to live with them and report on what was happening at Standing Rock. The tent, therefore, had a purpose to serve — namely, to keep Ariety and I and various friends, family members, and strangers alive through winter on the North Dakota plains.

It was a night in late November when Ariety and I arrived at the main camp at Standing Rock with my mom, brother, and Ariety’s dad. After checking in at the main gate we found room to pitch the tent on the southern edge of camp near the Cannonball River. I hadn’t had time to set up the tent since I got it and was nervous, with the five of us depending on it for a warm place to sleep that night, that something would go wrong. But it came together beautifully, and we had the tent up and staked down and the chimney up and also staked down against the wind and the bottom of the stove spread with an inch of dirt from the riverbank (to prevent the thin metal from warping) and a fire blazing by the time my mom had a pot of chili simmering on the Coleman stove. We sat around the woodstove in our shirt sleeves to eat and marvel at what a wonderful thing was the tent.

The next day, the first snowstorm of the season blew in hard, and except for the 10-by-12-foot rectangle of trampled-down dry grass that made up our floor, I didn’t see dry ground again until the snow began to melt into mud in February.

Our families left, and two friends arrived and then they, too, left. The snow and wind kept arriving. Temperatures often fell below zero, not counting the wind, and 15 degrees and sunny and no wind became a warm day, a reason to rejoice.

On some of the dangerously cold days, there were few reasons to go out at all, and Ariety and I would hunker in the tent with a batterypowered radio, a pile of books on the card table and a bottomless pot of tea on the woodstove. We would toast bread on the stove top and eat it with a tablespoon of butter, understanding why fat is eaten by itself among cultures of the far North. In that kind of cold, you can’t get too many calories.

The wall tent held up admirably, but that North Dakota wind taught me that the teepee didn’t come about by accident, that there’s a reason it was the tent of choice for plains nomads. The lesson was hammered home nightly as the wind plowed into one of the four sail-like walls of the tent, which held its ground by brute force not elegance of design.

* * *

When I arrived in Livingston in June, to start this job, I was looking for a place to rent until, after touring the few options available in my price range, I realized I didn’t want to live the summer inside — ever again, if I could help it.

I asked around for a place to set up camp, and got several kind offers. One day after work, I drove up the Bozeman pass to check out Traci and Jamie Isaly’s property on Quinn Creek. Jaime walked me up above the pasture west of their house, across a trickle of a creek, to a little meadow of sagebrush and purple lupine concealed from the neighbor’s houses by willows and a few evergreens. This was the place. With my younger brother’s help, I set up camp there that weekend.

I wasn’t the first to live in a wall tent on the property, I found out, and Traci and Jamie themselves move into a teepee in their yard every summer. The place was outfitted with all the luxuries: an outhouse with composting toilet, a spigot hooked to a gravity-fed spring where we could fill our five-gallon jugs with water as cold and good as you’ll find anywhere, even a greenhouse full of tomatoes and peppers — all of it a 150 yard walk from camp. It also turned out the tent site was surrounded with bushes that I didn’t know were serviceberries until they hung heavy with fruit in July and August.

When Ariety arrived to join me a couple weeks later, the floor of the tent was still grass — tall, green grass, slowly losing its color. She set it straight right away that if we were actually going to live there, we were going to have a floor. It’s not that she wasn’t tough enough to live with a grass floor — she is — it’s that she was smart enough to foresee how nice it would be to not lay down to sleep with daddy longlegs spiders crawling over our faces in our own enclosed jungle.

We bought concrete blocks and two-by-fours and OSB board (which we call “scrapple board,” unable to remember the acronym and finding our name more descriptive anyway). With a level, drill and circular saw, we framed a 12-foot-wide by 16-foot-long floor atop the foundation of concrete blocks, with joists every 16 inches, and then sheathed it with the halfinch scrapple board. With the help of a friend, we walked the tent onto its floor. The extra length of the platform left a 4-foot porch jutting off the front, where we sometimes cooked and often sat in the shade of the tent and nearby trees to escape the heat of the summer sun.

Some aspects of the tent life are universal, essences of the thing itself — hauling your water, no refrigeration or electricity, peeing in the bushes. These things aren’t hard to live with and they make you more aware — you won’t find yourself wasting water you had to haul uphill or leaving lamps on that had to charge in the sun all day to get you a couple hours of light — but they do take time. It takes time to carry your water, time to plan your meals when you can’t keep much food around, time to preserve and store your food the ways people used to, before what the great fermentation specialist Sandor Katz calls the short historical bubble of refrigeration. More time, still, if you want to hunt or gather or plant your food instead of going to the grocery store. An amount of time I don’t mind giving, but an amount, in short, that is incompatible with a full-time job.

Other aspects of the tent life are unique to the particular camp, its time and place. I am thinking, for example, of the little brown field mice who so innocently and happily moved in with us a few weeks into the summer. They weren’t there for food, but for shelter and warmth — our food was stored away and they went about diligently stockpiling their own stores of colorful wild grains. We lived together for the next three months in relative harmony, with one exception. There was one mouse who had arrived before the others who we called Bindle Mouse because of our tent’s closeness to the railroad tracks and because of his tendency to try to live inside our guitar. Now, I’ve conducted my share of mouse slaughters, but I couldn’t seem to justify it in this case — after all, I felt, we had moved into their home, not the other way around. Then one morning I discovered that Bindle Mouse and his mate had moved back into the guitar, where it now hung on the wall, and built a comfortable nest from the foam lining of the guitar case. I lost it when I dumped him out and he didn’t even run, just sidled away, and I murdered him with a piece of firewood and felt bad about it.

Aside from the mice, the birds, and a few whitetail deer, we didn’t see much wildlife around our camp. I wondered about it for a while, but then the culprit became clear. Just 75 yards south of camp, the four never-silent lanes of Interstate 90 cut across on their important way between Livingston and Bozeman. It seemed to form an all but impassable barrier to any animals that might attempt to migrate from the southern stretch of the Gallatin range, and the animals on the north side of it seemed to keep their distance.

Instead, we spent our time until October intricately and involuntarily learning the schedules of the freight trains, which rumbled by so loud and close that I often woke from dreams terrified that the tent had somehow been transplanted directly onto the tracks.

They get a lot of snow up on the pass, and when the first of it came in October Traci and Jamie warned us that the smart thing to do would be to break camp or else we might not be able to til spring. We dismantled the floor and folded the tent and stored them away, until next time. We bid goodbye to the camping place, sad to leave and grateful for what it had given us.

* * *

If I learned one thing, if there’s one overarching lesson, I guess it’s this: It’s not hard to live in a tent — not overly laborious or dreary. What can be hard is to live in a tent while also trying to be part of a society that doesn’t live in tents.

And so, until we’re all living in tents again — until the days when we follow the replenished herds of bison across the plains and hunt elk in the mountains and meet, as Charles Bowden predicts, in the summers in the hollow shells of the old cities for great festivals of music and fires and dancing and poetry-reading and love-making — until then, I guess, I’ll continue struggling upstream and going to work smelling like woodsmoke.