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My First Tent

My first tent under the stars. Joshua Tree National Park, California.

My first tent under the stars. Joshua Tree National Park, California.

Camping was something I did occasionally as a kid.  My first camping memory was with my cousins in Vermont.  My brother and I got in a fight over Oreos in the afternoon but by evening all I cared about were marshmallows.  A year later my aunt and uncle gave us a hand-me-down Eureka that weighed at least thirty pounds.  My brother and I each took turns carrying it out to a bass pond in our hometown of Kennebunk, ME.  Our family had a sweet pop-up camper, decked out with colorful owl lanterns, that I remember taking to a lake at least once. 

In middle school after my parents split, my mother dated, married and later divorced a guy big into the outdoors and we went camping all over Maine in every season.  In eighth grade my brother gave me a ‘Hillary’ big-box brand tent he’d been gifted after getting busted sleeping in his car in Yosemite.  It was a bad tent with a good story that I’d put up in the yard sometimes.  On camping trips or bike races in high school I’d borrow my mom’s tent or bunk with a friend.  So it wasn’t until I was twenty, after my sophomore year of college that I finally got my own tent.  My first tent.

By the time I was fourteen I’d lived in fifteen different houses.  By twenty I was up to seventeen, plus three dorms at two different colleges.  My mother had moved out of Kennebunk and my friend John and I had been scheming since April to spend the summer camping on a small island in a protected cove in town.  Vaughn’s Island was a well-known place for keg parties in high school but it also has beautiful trails and campsites, a wild and wooded North Atlantic island.  It’s on a tidal creek that drains every low tide, so, if timed right, you can walk to and from the island through the mud, making things like work and socializing more straightforward.  In any event, a swim or paddle is no more than fifty yards.  It was a beautiful plan and the first week out of college I went to LL Bean to outfit the adventure.

My grandfather had died seven months beforehand and in cleaning his things from the family farm in Vermont, I’d made out with a sizable collection of LL Bean flannel shirts.  Some fit excellently, others, like potato sacks.  For a forty year collection, you can’t blame a guy for fluctuating some.  At the time, LL Bean had a no questions, lifetime guarantee, so I simply exchanged a handful of the bigger shirts for store credit to finance my camping gear.  I’m not unaware that this behavior contributed in some small way to LL Bean revoking their hundred year pledge toward customer satisfaction but it was available to me at the time and they’ve done quite well since.  The guarantee should remain today.

Anyway, with Granddad’s endowment I bought a headlamp, a pocketknife and a blue, two-person, three season, two-door, free standing tent named the Borealis Dome.  It was only $120 but it impressed the hell out of me.  I laid in the floor model for only a few moments before I knew it was a quality bargain.  The tent for me.  It was about 8 lbs and not small when stuffed but it was a gem. 

I was staying with my friend Turtle ahead of my move onto the island.  As soon as I got back from shopping I set the tent up in his driveway.  It would be perfect.  It was perfect.  I already owned my bag and pad.  A day later I talked Turtle and my friend Mike to head out to Vaughn’s for a practice camp.  John hadn’t gotten home so I was a couple weeks away from getting setup permanently on the island. 

That first night we grilled hot dogs on a small grate on the far peninsula of the island, a rocky wedge with a beach of sand, grass and bleached stone.  Turtle and Mike had their own tent and I set mine up close to the water, on a sandy parcel among the sea grass.  We hung by the driftwood fire a while and I turned in around ten. 

Alone in my tent I felt at home.  In my mind I was preparing to live on the island but the sense of belonging was within the nylon walls of the tent.  I’d moved around so much up to that date.  It seems rather interesting and fun looking back.  It inspires me to this day to move around and see fresh sights, to enjoy change.  But it was a huge pain in the ass and heart attaching to a place and leaving every August.  On the tip of Vaughn’s Island I was in my own home.  And wherever I went I’d have it. 

I didn’t end up spending the summer on Vaughn’s Island.  John bailed and Turtle and his family let me live with them in their home.  I was grateful as hell.  But that night on the island was profound—and rather fitting that my first night in my first tent was there in my hometown.

From that day it went to bike races in Vermont and campouts on my family’s farm.  I met my wife and our first night camping, it poured.  In the morning our friends were gone, their tent flooded, while we were high and dry.  We moved to California, stopping in Zion along the way.  We went to Yosemite for the first time, still one of my favorite backpacking trips ever.  We’ve camped at hot springs and on mountains and beaches from Catalina to Big Sur.  We’ve slept in it on two Hawaiian islands.  It’s been popped in national parks, state parks, campgrounds, wildernesses, BLM lands, Phish shows, living rooms and backyards all over the country.  For the last thirteen years I’ve added a dozen more addresses to my list, (29 in total if you’re playing along at home), grown, gotten married, had a shit ton of jobs, lost loved ones, lost identities, seen a ton, done a ton, and I’ve had the Borealis Dome the whole time. 

It’s showing some age.  One weekend I let it get mildewed in my pack and was overgenerous with bleach scrubbing her out.  The rain fly's been replaced once by a stroke of inventory luck (the tent’s been discontinued for years).  My collection’s also grown.  Working an Outdoor Retailer next to the Nemo crew resulted in a sweet deal on an ultralight Hornet 2P.  It’s insanely light and very comfortable. I really like it. But I continue to find myself willing to lug the extra six pounds for the Borealis on all but the most difficult trips.

When I’m traveling or adventuring far afield, seeking new scenery and experiences, sometimes stressed or homesick, there’s something special about unzipping the door of my first home, the one I pitched for the first time off the coast of where I’m from.  It gives me peace, stability, control and shelter. I hope I can keep it—and some of those feelings—forever.