Tent Life

We’d hung out again with the couple I’m calling Lester and Joanna. Whatever discomfort had come from our dalliance with four marriage seemed to have faded over the two years that had passed. All of us had gone through many changes since our time on the road in the buses and there was some renewed incentive for couples who wertente still living alone in buses or small tents to become more communal – to form more multi-family households.

Stephen had mentioned this on several occasions at services – that if we were going to really live the teachings, we had to put ourselves into situations that pushed us a little harder to drop our egos. Sharing a household was one of those situations, and Lester – being the Farm’s “scammer” – was bringing home more of the Army surplus squad tents that could accommodate two small families.

We’d been living in buses for over two years and moving into a 16 x 32-foot tent sounded almost luxurious, even if it was with another couple. Anita was pregnant with our fourth kid and I had begun to work as a nailbanger with our neighbor Michael, who came to the Farm with some construction experience. I’d smashed a few fingers in the learning process, but I was beginning to feel competent at swinging a heavy framing hammer, driving soaped-up 20-penny nails into rough-cut green oak timbers. I could put together the deck upon which we’d mount our tent.

We found a nice spot on a gentle slope at the end of what was being called Oak Ridge. This ridge ran off of Third Road and paralleled Second Road. It was a pretty remote spot compared to what we’d become used to, living at the Head of the Roads. No more easy walk to fill the propane tank or pick up the rationed groceries. No more of the convenience or being close to the main traffic where we could hitch rides to other destinations or to the House or the Gate. We’d be at the end of the line, down a rough logging road that was quickly beginning to erode.

We secured some posts – 6-inch in diameter tree trunk sections provided by the chain saw crew – and dug post holes to hold them. I’d learned the basics of laying out square, plumb and level construction and got the crude foundation and floor framing together. Lester delivered us some salvaged tongue and groove flooring he’d gotten through the wrecking crew. Over the course of a few days we had ourselves a tent platform. With help from a few of the neighbors on the ridge we erected the tent and tied it down.

The tents had small, translucent plastic windows with tie-down canvas covers. Their doors were canvas curtains sliding on steel cables. At the eves they were about 5-feet tall and at the peaks about 10. There was a heat-resistant grommet in the roof through which you could pass a stovepipe. We moved in as soon as the tent was up and we arranged with the Housing Lady to bequeath our bus – the former Santa Rosa bus, with attached bread van – to another family.

Lester brought home more salvaged lumber and a few old window sashes. We built simple frames for the tent walls and mounted the window sashes in them to provide more light and ventilation. We build bed platforms for ourselves and the kids. We got ourselves an upright coal-burning stove in which we’d burn wood. The advantage of these coal burners was that they were lined with bricks that would hold the heat longer during cold nights.

We’d moved in during the spring and living the tent through the summer was not so bad. It was cooler down on the lower end of the ridge than it was up near the open space at the Head of the Roads. Not much breeze, but complete shade. We’d keep the windows and doors opened, but still it was cave-like inside with the dark green canvas absorbing whatever cheerfulness the light might bring. Lester scammed some rugs to lay on the splintery floors, and even managed to score some old chairs for us to sit in.

We were fortunate that Lester – being the scammer – got use of a banged up pickup truck that allowed us to haul laundry, propane tanks and water containers (our water system had not yet reached the end of Oak Ridge), and provide us and our kids transportation to the store, the school the rest of the Farm.

There was a narrow trail that led down through the holler and up again onto Second Road. We took that trail to Sunday morning services and to the store when the truck wasn’t available. We walked a lot, covering several miles in an average day. We hauled loads by hand, carried kids, food, tools…if it was portable, we carried it.

I’d brought back my old 26-inch bike from a visit to my parents and that would come in handy for quick trips involving one person with nothing to carry. When I had Gate duty, I’d walk the bike up the steep end of Oak Ridge Road and then pedal the 2-plus miles to the Gatehouse. That bike did not last very long; the Farm wore it out quickly.

Tim, being over a year old, was walking but could not be expected to keep up on such long distance treks, so he spent a lot of time on my shoulders. And as Anita got further along in her pregnancy, she, too required more help getting around. We found out soon after moving in that Joanna was also pregnant. We’d be having two birthings in the tent as we headed into winter.

I knew from visiting some of the earlier tent families during the previous winter that the canvas shelters were almost impossible to heat. How we’d make it through – with firewood needs, two newborns and three other kids, a remote location and the rain, ice and snow that we’d experienced those first two winters – I had no idea. But we felt strong and indomitable. We didn’t spend time worrying; we just expected that we’d figure it out.

We did get into a pretty intense sort-out at about the third month of our cohabitation with Lester and Joanna. Somehow, as these thing seemed to develop, Joanna’s number was up and her problems got all the attention. It had to do with stodginess or – as we would frame it – an unwillingness to drop her thing. She was a nice lady but Lester had begun to feel that her being reserved and less outgoing than him was somehow preventing us all from getting as high as we could have been. And, as usually happened in such cases, the more attention was put on Joanna to change, the more into her shell she retreated. Which would lead to yet more attention being focused on her and the situation continued a downward spiral.

Anita and I joined in, piling on Joanna to the point that we both began to feel ripped off by her refusal to cop. In frustration, we contacted the somewhat priestly four-marriage that lived across the holler on Creekview and asked if we could bring our problem to them for counsel. They invited us and we accompanied Joanna – like a condemned prisoner – to the encounter group.

I’d been living in the Farm’s developing culture for over two years, but I still felt like a neophyte when it came to matters of personality change and social intervention. I was willing to follow Lester’s lead, but when he couldn’t even get his own wife to change, I wondered where the boundaries might lie – what was fair or unfair?

The members of the four-marriage could see the energy dynamics and it was a relief to see other adults take over the process for an hour. By the time we left, the three of us felt vindicated, but poor Joanna was still lost in the ruins of her upbringing, unable to see the path to resolution.

Some time later, Joanna moved in to Stephen’s household for a week. She returned a changed woman, or at least with more of a clue as to how to behave to avoid further scrutiny. And sometime after that – but before the due dates of our two babies – Stephen went to Europe. He had a court date for sentencing coming up and he felt he had work today across the Atlantic. Autumn rolled in. The leaves turned and began to fall. We battened down the tent and started stockpiling firewood.

It was like camping out, and yet it wasn’t.



  1. Don James said,

    July 13, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    I don’t know how you adjusted to the southern climate in that kind of housing. I’m sure if I would have said that when I was there, they would have called me a spoiled city guy. I guess they would have been right 🙂 I never really lived in a southern climate without air conditioning. I grew up in the SF bay area which is naturally air conditioned. We never had that growing up or felt we needed it. It’s pretty much 65-80 degrees all year. When I moved away from CA in ’92 to Philadelphia I was “oh my god” because it got hot and humid there. But then when I moved to NC in ’97, wow, even hotter and humider. But you get used to it. Now, after 11 years in the south it’s no big deal. I lived in Colorado in the summer but it had a window unit. I lived in Tucson in the summer and geez, like the surface of the sun. Over 105 every day and don’t give me that “it’s a dry heat” baloney. I got out of there as soon as I could and metaphorically kissed the ground when I got to San Diego. I like the Atlantic beach because it’s much warmer than the Pacific (in NC). When I was in Colorado, I thought I liked Colorado best but after I came back to Santa Cruz County I guess that’s my favorite place to live, climate-wise. I can’t stand the economics tho, too inhuman.

  2. Don James said,

    July 25, 2009 at 10:28 am

    I was looking thru your facebook friends and saw Joseph Perkins’ picture which jarred a memory for me. I had spent one day working with him, moving some stuff is about as much as I remember of it. But what was clear was I had decided to leave but wanted to have something to leave to, which was very awkward. I would go into Nashville and try and find a job. I figured once I had a full-time job, then I could leave, but I couldn’t find a full-time job without spending a lot of time there. And while I was there, I didn’t feel like I could ask the farm for money for food. So I wound up getting part-time jobs, day jobs. Then I would come back to the farm because I didn’t know how to live on the streets. Then I’d sleep there and go back to Nashville. This was very weird and uncomfortable. I wish I had had some rich relatives to bankroll me but that wasn’t the case. But apparently word got out and people knew what I was doing. And one day I was at Canning and Freezing standing in line for some food. And a couple of guys from one of the crews just went up in front of me when it was my turn as if I wasn’t there. Now of course it was because I was leaving and I was being shunned, more or less. The ladies that were serving were eager to serve those guys and Joseph happened to see it all happen. He laid into both those guys and the ladies, basically he yelled at everyone. And they did serve me next. It was just one of those moments that made me want to have integrity for the rest of my life and I think for the most part I have lived up to that as best as I can. It didn’t make me want to stay at the farm, that was just too intense for me at that point in my life. But it was one of the good things I took away with me and did/do my best to continue to pass on.

  3. Karen said,

    August 1, 2009 at 9:22 pm

    I would like to hear how the winter went for all of you in the canvas tent. I am considering living in a canvas tent for an extended period of time with my husband and five children and would like advice.

    How did the birthings go?

    Did everyone adjust to living with another family? That seems like it would have it’s challenges to me. We all have our little annoying quirks that need to be kept in check I suppose.

    Very interesting blog. Thanks for sharing.

  4. cfigallo said,

    August 2, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    Hi and thanks for reading. My one winter in a tent was cold, but I don’t remember it as being inhumane or like torture. It was about what you’d guess it to be in a not-too-extreme climate. Luckily we didn’t have any record low temperatures (like the 12-below-zero night we had during the first winter.

    Two important factors – insulation and weathersealing. If you can insulate the floor and even suspend another layer of wind-proofing on the walls and ceilings, you’ll prevent a lot of heat loss. Sealing your door and window openings to prevent drafts is also crucial. We did neither of these.

    All of the birthings of my sons went pretty smoothly. In my case, it seemed to be all about the vibes, especially between my wife and I. If we were feeling high together, the labor progressed steadily. I was around quite a few birthings in my various households and none of them had complications, but there were some that didn’t go so well. From all I’ve heard, the Farm’s birthing statistics for complications were significantly better than those or the general population in the U.S. But best to ask the women who actually went through the birthings.

    Most of us adjusted to multi-family living the best we could. Sometimes it was fun, sometimes not. Some people were not good matches for co-housing. There was always a lot of shuffling going on. The whole idea was to “get over” those annoying quirks and be harmonious. Easier said than done, but well worth the effort. The fact that so many of us still love and trust one another shows me that we were being real then, not faking it.

  5. Karen said,

    August 5, 2009 at 4:56 pm

    Another Karen! Hello.
    I lived in a bus one winter in Montana with no electricity and only a small wood stove for heat. I worried about freezing to death at night, because like Cliff described in an earlier post, small stoves did not keep wood burning for long. My method in the morning was a bit different. I had the firewood and kindling all laid out, but next to me, often under the covers with me were my hat, socks, coat. You couldn’t sleep in your same clothes that you wore all day because body moisture can make them colder at night, but I always tossed on my hat, coat, pants (over bed-time long johns), socks, then got the fire going, then went out to the outhouse, then came back in to fuel the fire. Once it got warmed up in there, I could sit in my T-shirt! My bus was well insulated since it was made over in Colorado.
    I’m curious about a really nice 2-story wood or log house that I visited when i was there that I think was off Third road — maybe straight up from the road in, but way past First road and Second road. I never got to see any tents or buses people were living in, only heard about them. I was given a glossy tour, I think. Who lived in that nice house? I can’t remember their names. It gave me the impression that all the housing was that nice until someone set me straight.

  6. Don James said,

    September 10, 2009 at 11:44 am

    So Cliff, this is just year 2 of over 10 years that you lived there, right? What happened next? We are just DYING to know 🙂 Please can you tell us? Please?

  7. Don James said,

    October 10, 2009 at 9:52 am

    Cliff, is your social alchemy email still good? I tried sending you an email
    and it was rejected. Are you on vacation of something?

  8. Don James said,

    December 7, 2009 at 9:55 am

    Nice touch from wordpress to have it snow today. What with global warming, we’ve hardly seen any snow here in Raleigh for a couple of years. We were supposed to yesterday but it didn’t happen (not that I really want it, it’s nasty to drive on, haha).

  9. Judith said,

    December 10, 2009 at 12:18 am

    well, it snowed down to 350 feet in the East Bay, bu ton the leeward (east) side of the hills on Monday. Mount Diablo was closed to traffic because of it. they closed the roads onto the main but a bunch of people parked nearby and walked in, some with their dogs. the general trend is that parts of California have been warmer but the weather has been freaky…big storms in some places, early, and getting warmer overall, everywhere. I have bananas growing outside in Berkeley! we’ll see how it ripens.

    last year, I had perennial tomatoes, eggplant, and two hot pepper plants lasted to the following year. kind of spooky. tomatoes are a perennial in Mexico but here in the Bay Area?

    and Martin, who’s from Vermont, will be interested to hear that the rising sap for the sugar maples is a few days earlier all the time. I did a little research project on it for an environmental science class.

    I;ve been too busy to get out and see Mount Diablo, maybe this weekend when my parents are here. I went up there on a cold clear day a couple winters ago with my daughter, her former teacher (from 3rd and 4th grade at the Montessori school), and her teacher’s kid and we could see clear out to Yosemite…wow.

    now what were we saying ’bout tent life , brrr….

  10. Don James said,

    December 10, 2009 at 8:02 am

    that’s sure unusual, I went to high school in Fremont and spent nearly 20 years in Santa Cruz County. I sure don’t remember snow. But since ’92, I spent 5 years in Philadelphia (oodles of snow and yikes, black ice). And the last 13 years here in North Carolahna (correct southernspeak). Not much snow here, but we ususally get 2-3″ per winter. In 2000 we got 24″ in one day! Raleigh was stranded for most of a week. I couldn’t get out of my subdivision for 5 days (gravel roads, can’t plow em). Umm, year 3?

    • Judith said,

      December 11, 2009 at 12:35 am

      the is someimes snow on the summit going into Santa Cruz sometimes; was like that when we went to see Elizaabeth a few nmonths before she died (she;d gone to the hospitl with brething problems for a few days in February.) then there was a hailstorm and I heard it most of the night on the roof of her old Winnebago camper, which she called the Winning Bagel and painted with pine-covered mountains on the side.

      it’s been getting to or near or below freezing he last few days. bless all the seasons. I have a photo of my m other at age 10 or so in LA< so this would have been maybe 1939 holding a snowball in front of her home in Hollywood! rare but thus magical when it does happen.

      "no we should not curse the winter, and December least of all." (old folk Christmas song)

  11. Don James said,

    December 11, 2009 at 5:57 am

    I have to admit I miss the bay area once in a while. I used to miss it constantly when I first moved, but you get used to wherever you are and really, it’s nice where I live. Not as dramatically beautiful as Felton, but nice. Speaking of Winnegagos, my 80 year old brother visited recently, 4 or 5 weeks after he had a double heart bypass. Their camper was very nice, the cab part was car-like. It had a shower and toilet, full-size fridge, 4 burner stove and double bed in the back. Behind the front seat was a fold-down table (plus chairs). Pretty slick, really. He drove it from Seattle to Cleveland, then down to my area, Raleigh, NC. Then to Arizona to see his daughter, and maybe up to the Sierras to visit my two (and his) brothers who live about 20 miles apart just below the snow line. My younger brother still commutes about an hour each way to teach classes in Modesto. I believe he rides a big Harley on good days. Me, I love to watch the snow (on tv). I’ll be going down to Orlando in a few weeks where their winter is 75 degrees. Brrrr, haha.

  12. Judith said,

    January 6, 2010 at 11:50 pm

    well, I made my usual annual Christmas trek to Sierra Hot Springs. this year I got in between the snowstorms; it was very cold, clear and dry with snow sparkling on the ground when I was there. nothing quite like floating about in a pool or warm mineral water with the wintry morning sky above you. thing is, I had ice in my hair from leaving the lodge with damp hair and waling the short distance to the pools. when you have an inexhaustible supply of hot weather and a warm dressing room, doesn’t matter much.

    I really love things rustic, but hot water under pressure is one bi of modern technology that vastly enhances my enjoyment of the world of varied weather. the Roman Empire left us at least a few blessings.

    you know that women in Finland and Scandinavia routinely gave birth in the sauna? makes sense; where else is it warm enough to take off your long johns si months out of the year in that part of the world. funny; in the US there is a lot of medical fear round too much heat during pregnancy but hot springs, hot pools, and saunas are routine parts of life in other countries fpr pregnant women.

  13. Don said,

    January 21, 2010 at 8:49 am

    You have to love the young people. They have the energy and the
    enthusiasm to do things that older people sometimes just lose
    the ability to. Or just get tired and worn down. I recently visited
    my 28 year old daughter in Orlando, FL and she is both dieting
    and exercising. And just being around her got me going, got
    me remembering that I too, once was young and took care of
    myself better than I do now. Now it’s been a couple of weeks and
    I’ve lost 5 pounds and done my 1 mile walk 12 out of 13 days.
    This Phoenix may once again rise out of it’s ashes, hahaha.

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