Saturday, March 04, 2006


I have been thinking about shelter lately, and my walk to Pittsburgh. Some people in this world try to see how spacious and fancy they can make their earthly domiciles. I had a guy recently tell me what the square footage of his house was. He was explaining how successful he was, so I assume that the number he gave spelled a very big house for him. I wouldn’t know; I failed square footage in school. Two hundred square feet sounds like a lot to me. I assume that my house has a square footage. I cannot tell you what it is, any more than I can tell you the size of my hard drive.

As for living quarters, I go the opposite way. One of my secret passions is tents. The idea of living so lightly that one can carry one’s home, fascinates me. Turtles have it made. If I could be any animal on this planet, however, I would be a duck. (More on this another time.)

I have carried my own home on several bicycling excursions. When Melody and I did our trans-America tour in 1984, we carried a Eureka four-person Sentinel. Why a four-person tent when there were only two of us? You never know who is going to stop by. I wanted Melody to have a nice place. I wanted her to be proud of her tent. Whenever we stopped at campgrounds, I wanted Melody to be able to look down upon the other tents and their owners. I wanted her to be able to “poo-poo” our tently neighbors and feel superior to them. I wanted Melody and me to be able to stand outside our tent, hands on our hips, and feel proud of our investment.

This backfired on me, because there were more car campers at many of the campgrounds than bicycle campers, and some of these tents you could do jumping jacks in. These tents had parking spaces around them. Some had exit signs. Some had to be pitched by teams of Amishmen. Many of the tents blocked the sun, moon and stars. I tried explaining to Melody that our tent was cozy. Melody said, “uh-huh” and went to take a shower.

While Melody was in the shower, I tried to do a dozen jumping jacks in our tent—just to see if I could. I pulled all eight stakes loose during the first jumping jack. After that, the next eleven jumping jacks were easy.

For a solo bicycling trip in Michigan in 1998, I bought a Eureka Solitaire. I was trying to simplify and minimalize even more, and this was the answer. The shelter weighed only three pounds, and thus it contrasted with our Sentinel, which was like carrying a zebra. It packed so small that I could fit it into one of my panniers.

The first time I pitched it for practice, I crawled in and said, “Uh-oh.” My brain didn’t like it. The tent was roomy at the shoulders, but it tapered down, down, down, toward the feet. It could not be sat up in. Even on my back, I could not put my knees up without them hitting the top. This tent was small. Whenever I looked down toward my feet, I got the willies. So I decided to myself, I just won’t look down toward my feet. This worked! As long as I pretended that my body was only a head and two shoulders, I dodged the willies and their wicked neighbors, the creeps.

I came to love the tent. The Michigan trip was five refreshing days and nights of rudimentary living. This tent offered the same protection as four walls and a roof, but you could fold it up and stuff it into a small sack. In the mornings after packing up, I would hold the bagged Solitaire in my two upturned palms and say to it, “You are my home.” I would say this to the Solitaire. Then I would look up to heaven, as if presenting to God my firstborn, and say, “This is my home.” I was very thankful to God for allowing me the thrill of holding in my arms a temporary home.

Who needed furniture and the like? This was my thought then. I thought to myself, Who needs closets and overflowing desk drawers and high-maintenance beds that require domestic theatrics such as making? This was the simple life. I didn’t have to clean the gutters of my Solitaire, or mow around it. I didn’t have to insure it or tell delivery men how to get to it. With sustenance and shelter let us be sufficed. I’d have needle pointed this saying and hung it on the tent wall, if I’d had one.

The Solitaire was the epitome of privacy. Unlike on the ’84 tour, I did not want guests dropping by. Here was the perfect deterrent to that. No one was going to say, “Let’s go visit that man in his nylon prescription bottle.”

But now the Pittsburgh trip looms, and it’s a walk, not a bicycle ride. So you know what I am thinking: How low can I go? I’ve got to get simpler and more basic. Along this line, you will not believe what I found on the Internet today.

© 2006 by Martin Zender