By Rachel MillS
Fed up with paying rent, one couple moves into a tent and cooks improvised meals with whatever they have on hand.
“I don’t care if we have to live in a damn tent,” I exclaimed one tension-filled evening. My boyfriend, Orson, and I were attempting, yet again, to puzzle together the myriad life choices and short timeline before our lease was up and we had to move. “I don’t want to rent anymore.”
We were tired of living in someone else’s home, working our asses off every day to pay someone else $1000 a month for a modular pre-fab that made me feel like one of the three little pigs because the walls were glorified cardboard.
Here I was, one more post-thirty-something with creative aspirations trying to “find herself” amidst stereotypical parental/societal expectations, in a small town, two-plus years out of a divorce. I had more than $45,000 in school loans. My sole employment was working
as a contingent English instructor, a position paying less than $20,000 a
year, no benefits. A common story of passionate teachers across the
nation: life fulfillment over financial security.
Orson is an arborist, and that can pay good money, but climbing trees with a chainsaw also comes with an inherent risk.
We were trying to do the jobs we loved, but renting was too expensive, and we could never get ahead. Like millions of post-thirty-somethings, we lived paycheck to paycheck, wanting to stay true to ourselves, but also wanting to stop spinning our tires in this financial and domestic rut.
A fulfilling life should entail living by the philosophies you speak. We wanted our lives to exemplify our belief systems: growing our own garden, working in an inspirational space, owning a piece of land to steward, many adventures in all their manifestations.
Attempts to find balance took me away from my former husband and little cedar cabin in the woods — a lifetime of stability — to vagabonding for two years. Learning the lesson that your life can change overnight. And that the power of choice is in your hands. I lived in many places over those two years: my grandma’s cabin; a brief attempted stint in my childhood bedroom at home; my boyfriend, Orsons’ orange and purple Mountain Hardware tent in overnight locations too numerous to count; a five bedroom guest house on the grounds of a locked and abandoned hotel where I’d worked as a waitress eight years before; a modular cardboard box on two acres that always smelled of its previous owners.
Sitting in the kitchen of the modular, as the single-pane windows dripped condensation — a reaction to the -3 degree temperature, Orson and I came to the conclusion that buying a house was the only way we’d ultimately have the ability to live the way we wanted. A reasonably priced house and mortgage would cost less than half what we paid in rent, allowing us to get ahead financially, invest in property and perhaps even save for travel. We’d be able to have a garden, act as keepers to a piece of land and hone our various artistic aspirations.
A solid plan, but we needed a place to live in the meantime. We had four months, May through August, to find a house before school started in the fall.
“Ok,” Orson said slowly, as though afraid any sudden moves might spook me. “What if we camp for the summer and look for a house to buy in the meantime?”
The idea had merit, and fell in line with my fumbling attempts at “balance.”
“But I don’t think I can live a whole summer in the little Mountain Hardware tent,” I said, remembering the month and a half Orson, me, and our large smelly German Shorthair, Gus, spent in the tiny tent two summers before.
That brief stint of playing “professor in the classroom and tent-dweller after-hours” ended when a microburst with 100 mph winds flattened our tent, with us in it, on the shores of Lake Superior the night before school started. The adventures made for precious and irreplaceable memories, but a person doesn’t have to be that adventurous for an entire summer to live a more aware life.
Besides, I’m a food writer.
“I want to be able to cook,” I said after a moment’s thought. “And write about it.” Visions of delicious, locally sourced, improvised meals danced in my head.
“Well,” Orson replied with a grin remarkably like that of a fox approaching a chicken, “I’ve looked into these kickass canvas wall tents. I’ve always wanted to live in one.”
And so it began.
Orson researched canvas wall tent companies. After hours of YouTube videos, endless reviews and lots of bickering, we decided on a Bravo, a company out of Washington. 12 by 15 feet seemed an adequate amount of living space, and they were able to accommodate our rushed order, as all jobs are custom. When it arrived, we set it up in the backyard, marveling at the way sunlight played across the canvas.
We looked at countless pictures of “glamping”, laughing at the term but marveling at the possibilities living in a large canvas wall tent could afford. We planned, argued, laughed, packed late into the evening, and on June 1st headed down to Orson’s dad’s lakefront property to begin our vagabond summer.
6-9-15: The Tent Glows In Twisting Mist
The mist on Crooked Lake rises in spectral tendrils. A dazzle of sparkling sunlight stretches like a glittering crown across a pale brow.
The air is chilly, mist and sunlight vying for supremacy. Orson built up the fire in our little black woodstove before heading out to fish, and I cut into a loaf of cinnamon-seamed peach bread.
The tent glows, magical and alluring in twisting mist. Our new home.
It’s complete with a floor, warm wood stove, camp oven, gas stove, sofa-bed, kitchen shelves and writing desk, where I record these diary notes and recipes.
Orson is fishing while I write this, fly-rod zinging through the evening air. The garden sits to my left, fresh turned soil and newly sewn seeds, a gambler’s bet on the future.
The conversation that began all this seems like an age ago. It’s just the beginning, and August, our deadline, feels far away. For the first time, I feel fully present. I remember a line from my favorite Laura Ingalls Wilder book, “Little House in the Big Woods”: “She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the firelight gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting. She thought to herself, “This is now.” She was glad that the cozy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”
“First Week in the Tent — It’s Early Spring and there isn’t Much in the Garden”
For those culinary-minded individuals living in Northern climes, the first warm weeks of spring can be something of a tease and frustration. The days are warm but the nights can suddenly drop to frost, ruining a gardener’s newly sprouted first crop. “Plant after the last full moon in May” (even if that happens to come in the first week of June) is the adage I’ve always gone by. To those further south, this must seem preposterously late in the season, but losing a hard-worked-for crop to frost is a weighty disappointment.
We set such hope in seeds planted in rows, pots and porch-side planters.
- Linguine noodles dressed with a sauce made of garlic, butter, olive oil, and reserved pasta water.
- Sautéed Vidalia onions (brought from Georgia!) and garlic scapes from the home-tent garden
- Leftover brats
- At the end mixed with basil, mint, parsley, chives, chive flowers, and arugula from the home-tent garden.
6-10-15: Rain Patters On the Canvas
It’s been raining steadily on and off since the tent was erected, but last night we survived our first large storm. I went outside to pee at about 4 a.m. and the atmosphere was of a held breath before a sneeze. Just as I drifted back to sleep, I heard rain patter on canvas. Moments later, the sky erupted in an undulating rumble of thunder. It rolled, unspooling on and on, followed by strobe lightning that partied into dawn.
We listened to rain pour down and marveled at how a tarp and stretch of canvas could keep us so warm and dry. Gus, exhausted from the stress of moving, finally slept the sleep of a relaxed dog, his snoring competition with the thunder.
Morning sun broke the clouds, and we exited the tent to a world burnished new by hard rain, electric lightning pulses and bass thunder shudders.
“I’m going to make you breakfast,” Orson announced. He turned and marched toward the old camper that houses the fridge where we store our perishables, returning with a package of bacon. A month ago, we only had to turn from the stove and open the fridge, but now, just having a fridge available feels like luxury.
I sit in the sunshine, facing the lake, a new book open in front of me. I’ve imagined moments such as this, thinking they were beyond what life had in store. Many choices, monstrously difficult and joyfully easy, lie between my past incarnation and this moment by the lake. But here I am.
Bacony aromas waft from the open tent flap and my stomach growls. Orson emerges, a triumphant smile on his face and the most exquisite open-faced breakfast sandwich in his hand. Balanced on a crusty slice of baguette is an achingly ripe slice of local tomato, creamy green avocado wedge and salty bacon slice sprinkled with crushed black pepper. I take a bite and moan. Warm sunshine caresses my shoulders, my love sits across from me and my faithful old brown dog at my feet — all elements that make up the flavors of this moment.
“Would it all feel this good, if the past hadn’t been so hard?” I ask myself.
A stray lake breeze whispers, “It doesn’t matter.” Or at least that’s what I think I hear.
“Never Underestimate Potato Salad — Using Up the Leftovers”
- Mix: diced tomatoes, chopped chives and chive flowers, parsley, Dijon mustard, minced garlic, mayonnaise (I used sricha mayo), salt, pepper and boiled potatoes.
6-23-15: Tent Living Isn’t Always Easy Living
Even inside the car and tent, the no-see-ums still bite me. Their little bodies are so tiny they’re barely detectable amongst the freckles and moles peppering my body like constellations in a clear night sky.
Mosquitoes hum, swarming tenderest bits of skin every time I expose myself to pee.
Blackflies attack my ankles, leaving dark bruised hickies and bright blood trickles.
Orson, Gus and I lumber into the riverside camping spot. The normally resilient 2008 Rav 4 feels cumbersome, unyielding on the bumpy, rutted gravel two-track. The camping area, flat and pine-needle-padded, is a waterfall crowned and hemlock roofed peninsula. An ethereal space. A place to rest after days spent vagabonding away from our home-tent. It turns out, that, while the tent is amazing, it isn’t easy, as a 31-year-old, to live on your dad’s property. A good excuse to drive north, look at real estate and do some rock climbing.
As the Rav negotiates the sandy, steep, blind corner we come face to face with a full encampment in our desired destination. A screen tent, regular tent, and blue jeep block our path. But it’s the fishing line strung across the trail in front of our hood, which arrests our attention.
“What the hell!” Orson and I exclaim in unison. He slams on the brakes, thumping Gus, sleeping soundly in the back of the car, against the rear seat.
An androgynous figure garbed in motocross racing gear and flanked by two large dogs, starts towards us. Nope. We reverse, quickly, abdicating our space to the figure and their dogs. We turn the car for plan B — a camping spot at the base of the climbing area.
We are frustrated and more than a bit pissed at the intrusion into what we’ve begun to feel is our special place. Other than a few passing fishermen, we’ve never seen anyone else out here, making the sense of privacy a fragile, false cocoon.
We’ve chosen to live in the Upper Peninsula partly because of the sense of isolation and privacy available in deep stretches of woods, rock, and lake that make up the U.P. However, seclusion can be difficult to attain. Many times we’ve gone to great trouble, seeking out the most isolated destination we can think of to claim a few quiet moments away from humanity, only to cross paths with other humans. Solitude, in our crowded world, is an indulgence difficult to attain.
By now it’s 10 p.m. and almost dark. We’re both hungry, exhausted, and impatient for a place to sleep — conditions that make for a really fun car ride.
Sometimes, vagabonding is eating a decadent and easy meal, cooked on the Camp Chef propane stove. Sometimes, vagabonding is artisan bread and gourmet cheese when there’s no flame to cook with. Sometimes, vagabonding is bug bites and no time or energy to cook.
We set up camp in the dark. Road-travel-tense, we munch trail mix, read a few pages and snuggle into down blankets, trying to ignore how each muscle and bone senses every uneven inch of ground.
“Taking Care of Little Sister Garbanzo Bean Salad”
- Boiled garbanzo beans (not from a can)
- Salt the water after boiling
- Olive oil, balsamic vinegar, minced garlic, hand-shredded fresh herbs (mint, chives, basil, dill), arugula, diced Kalamata olives and diced balsamic Parmesan cheese
8-12-15: A Modest Epiphany
My sister is reading a book titled “How to Sit.” It’s full of useful, thoughtful blurbs explaining how to lead a more conscious existence.
I read Eckert Tolle’s wise thoughts on attempting a more aware life, returning again and again to his admonishments to “[not] take your thoughts so seriously.”
I can’t help but marvel, sometimes, at my own need for such reminders — how quickly I drift from a balanced mental state to anxiousness and worry. It’s the same anxiousness and worry that afflicts so much of the Western world — an inability to distinguish want vs. need and a capitalistic societal myth that holds us captive if we don’t acknowledge its presence.
Moving into the tent really brought these sentiments home to me. We packed totes full of books, clothes, dishes and household decorations I thought we’d “need” living in the tent. Turns out, we have a trailer full of items I haven’t thought about once in three months. I know most of it’s valuable to me, but right now, I’m not sure why.
If I don’t miss them, do I still need them?
Monday afternoon, I stand in front of the home-tent, cutting vegetables for a roasted beet salad and “use-up-many-many-veggies” risotto.
Orson sits in a camp chair beside me, his fingers skimming, effortless, over singing guitar strings.
Soft duck splashes and murmurs — mallards feeding out front — elevate the evening’s resonance.
The moss beneath my toes is springy from occasional rain sprinkles drifting over the lake throughout the day.
Right now, I need no wise reminder from sage writers. In this moment, I am confident we’ll find a house to buy, and things will fall into place. And that’s enough. My knife thunks against the cutting board. The air tastes of onions.
The food I’ve learned to cook has taught me larger life lessons: the best meals I create occur spontaneously and usually out of necessity. We have a tight budget and I often don’t have a close, reliable source of groceries. We’re forced to make do and from our ingenuity comes culinary wisdom, and pleasure. I’m more fearless and experimental. It’s more satisfying when my resources are limited and my flavor/ingredient experiments yield delicious results. The general ideas usually come from a recipe, a remembered meal, a picture, or a loved one’s guidance. But the interpretation is my own.
It’s a food philosophy for life too: asking not, “What do I need,” but, “What do I have.”
“Ashley’s Bluestem Farms CSA, First Dinner in the Tent, and… Bacon”
- Polenta — This method made a delicious consistency and made dinner preparation much more relaxed, as I made it ahead of time and then was able to focus on the rest of the meal while the polenta self-cooked.
- Stirred with salt, pepper and garlic on a very low simmer. Before all of the water is absorbed, turn off heat and let sit until ready to eat dinner
- Layered on the polenta:
- Roasted acorn squash (in the Coleman camp oven)
- Topped with pepper, salt, and butter
- Bluestem Farms Bacon
- Cubed Gouda Cheese
- Hand-shredded self-seeded arugula picked from the compost pile behind the home-tent
- On the Side: Sautéed (balsamic, garlic, butter, olive oil, braggs) onion, broccoli, chard and turnips
- Green Salad made with lettuce from the Marquette Food Co-op and my sister’s Marquette garden (hand-delivered when she came down for the Charlevoix Art Fair).
- Topped with Bluestem Farms carrots, radishes, sweet white turnips, and dressed with minced garlic, balsamic, and olive oil dressing and blue cheese.
Rachel Mills is a Michigan-based food writer and English instructor.