I would tell someone about my plans to live in a tent all summer – my colleague Gus Jarvis, for example, who has promised a chapter devoted to me in his prospective book about people who treat their dogs like children and other dysfunctional pet relationships – and the eyebrows would immediately go askance.
“You are going to live in a tent, yeah, right,” he snorted, along with countless other non-believers who imagined that just because I like to wear lipstick and occasionally wear high heels while navigating Telluride’s River Trail on my way to work, there is no possible way I could make it through a weekend, much less an entire summer, without a blow-dryer.
Well they didn’t know me, nor some of the curious circumstances in which I’ve found myself – situations requiring adaptability and, at times, a very strong stomach.
They didn’t know that my husband, Trevor, and I spent five months living out of backpacks in South America, including one extremely cold night sleeping on bags of rice in the back of a flatbed semi-trailer after a trip to Bolivia’s stunning Salar de Uyuni salt flat went sour and our inebriated guide left us stranded on the side of the road; or how we slogged barefoot through a swamp under the weight of full backpacks – only to find out later that we had just traversed prime anaconda habitat.
Nor did they know about the three-day river trip that turned into more than a week spent in stifling humidity on a boat hauling bananas along a tributary of the Amazon River in Bolivia. All I can say is the boat’s cockroach-infested head contained nothing but a toilet bowl that emptied directly into the river, and inconveniently shared a wall with the “kitchen,” where the strips of salted and dried beef called charque that dominated the majority of the crew’s meals we shared sat out to cure in the open air.
It was better not to think about it too much.
Needless to say, I’m not as delicate as I may first appear, and I was determined to spend some time on the parcel of land Trevor and I bought between Placerville and Ridgway on Hastings Mesa in the months following 9/11.
We sort of imagined we would eventually build a dream home there – probably fitted with all the high-end finishes, amenities and appliances that society tells us we’re supposed to want – but seven years later, we had only ever camped on it a couple of times.
So we dove in and committed to four months roughing it on the land – during which time we realized that for us the whole point of spending summers on the mesa is to live outside as much as possible, and that any eventual “dream home” we might build wouldn’t need a bunch of stuff to fit that description.
To set the record straight, yes, we were camping; but please banish any thoughts of a mesh-walled dome tent and inflatable sleeping pads that might come to mind.
Trevor is an architectural designer who has spent much of his career making even slivers of space feel liveable and lovely, so if we were going to spend one-third of the year living outdoors without running water or electricity, he would find a way to make up for the lack of creature comforts with ingenuity
We started by building a level platform on which to pitch a 10-foot by 12-foot canvas wall tent a couple feet off the ground – a particularly smart move that kept our abode cozy and dry despite Southwest Colorado’s monsoons.
Next we reinforced the tent to withstand the mesa’s hurricane-force winds (we had a few close calls, but it survived). Inside went our queen-sized bed and several new-to-us furnishings including a purposely kitschy, Pirates of the Caribbean-style trunk in red and gold, a Victorian settee in red velvet bleached rose by the sun, and an old Hoosier cabinet doing double duty as a bookshelf and dresser – all inexpensive and found in antique stores in Ridgway and Montrose.
We threw in a couple of area rugs, some faux wenge storage cubes, and strategically staged a seltzer siphon and martini shaker. Suddenly the traditional outfitter’s tent had morphed into a stylishly funky Out of Africa-meets-shabby-chic dwelling that immediately elicited another predictable response.
“That’s not a tent,” said anyone who saw it. “That is really nice.”
our first night
After spending our first night under an old comforter that worked just fine in a New York City apartment heated by clunking radiators, we discovered it was woefully inadequate for nighttime at 9,000 feet. I made an executive decision the following day and purchased the warmest, and subsequently most expensive down duvet I could find, online. My decision met with Trevor’s immediate skepticism, but once it arrived, we never spent another uncomfortable night in the tent. He ultimately admitted that not only was it not the foolhardy purchase he originally imagined, but it probably made all the difference between having a good versus bad summer on the mesa.
To prevent a chance encounter with a bear lured into our bedroom by food smells, we erected our kitchen some distance from the tent, and ate all our meals there.
It contained nothing more than a simple countertop fashioned from rough-cut boards that held a dish rack, knife block, camp stove and cutting boards, and had room to store dishes, cutlery and cans of food underneath. It was a far cry from a stainless steel chef’s kitchen, but it worked.
We placed the counter under a sun shelter, set up low-slung festival chairs before a picnic bench-turned-table and pretended every day was the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. We ate, read and talked watching the mesa come to life in the mornings, while a parliament of owls returned each evening to silently swoop above us in the alpenglow.
Following dinner I made a funny sight crouched over a wide tin pan full of hot, soapy water set on the ground between sagebrush shrubs, where I scrubbed away at soot-stained pots and pans in bright yellow dish gloves.
Once our chores were complete we returned to the tent, which glowed like a gigantic Japanese lantern against the star-studded mesa sky when we brought our lanterns inside.
Nights were usually quiet save for bleating sheep that grazed on the land for a few weeks, and later the piercing bugle calls of elk during mating season.
Some people might call us overprotective, but inside the tent we kept our dog Powder attached to a long lead so she couldn’t sneak out in the middle of the night. After being awakened several times by a cacophony of yipping coyotes in a pack large enough and close enough to tie knots in my stomach, we never again felt silly for worrying about her safety.
We became adept at sponge baths in kettle-heated water, doing laundry in a five-gallon bucket by swirling it with what looked like an oversized potato masher, and cooking one-pot meals.
Life was no longer as simple as jumping in the shower to get clean or throwing a load of laundry in the washing machine, but it felt better.
In the end we realized that for us, summer on the mesa is about being outdoors watching sunsets and hoping for a chance glimpse of a deer or even a bear, and not sitting inside a “dream home” separated from the glorious landscape that surrounds and shapes us.
I won’t pretend that I wouldn’t prefer a hot shower to huddling over a bowl of water in the chill morning air, but I’m pretty sure a remote-controlled whirlpool tub is not in our Hastings Mesa future.
Trevor James is available for tent and other interior design consultations – visit www.tljstudio.com to see examples of his work.
Photos by Brett Schreckengost