Tuesday, March 07, 2006


So I thought to myself, How can I get smaller and lighter? From whence will come my newest portable shelter? Am I destined to sleep in bubble wrap? Then so I shall!

Well, no. I didn’t want to sleep in bubble wrap. I still don’t. Try to imagine that. The wrap would be comfortable, yes, but every time I rolled over I would pop and wake myself up. And not just one pop, but dozens of them. Rolling from my side to my back, I would sound like the Fourth of July; Independence Day in the middle of the woods; the crackle of machine gun fire; Jiffy Pop that can’t sleep. What I needed was a bivy bag.

“Bivy” is short for “bivouac,” which, according to the Rand McNally Collegiate Dictionary, is “a military encampment made with tents of improvised shelters, usually without shelter or protection from enemy fire.” Soldiers camped in open spaces require proximity to the ground; jutting into the horizon even a foot could spell the loss of a foot, or another vital appendage. The bivy sack, then, was not a tent, but a glorified bag encasing the sleeper, shedding rain, fellowshipping with the groundlife. Because campgrounds on the Pittsburgh walk might not appear when I want them to, I felt I needed stealth camping capability. (That is, trespassing capability.) And nothing seemed better suited to that than a bivy.

Stealth camping is not my method of choice; I would prefer a bonafide campsite. I have never stealth camped in my life. Okay, I take that back. My friend Jim and I stealth camped in the Mojave Desert once, near an on-ramp to Interstate 15, outside Barstow, California. My wife and I stealth camped in a cemetery. (Yes, we did. Scenery Hill, Pennsylvania. September, 1984.) And I stealth camped at a rest stop in Utah once, in the woods behind the restrooms. I also just remembered that my same friend Jim and I “stealth” camped on a bench at a shopping plaza in Monroe, Michigan. We also “stealth” camped on the town green in Hemet, California. And Melody and I “stealth” camped on a town green in Fresno, Ohio.

I put “stealth” in quotation marks in the above examples because it’s not stealth camping when you’re in the middle of the middle of a town beneath an orange halogen lamp. This is bold, stupid and thus, perhaps, brilliant. No one bothers you—at least this has been my experience. People assume you have permission. No one is so bold to camp in sight of the world unless they’ve consent from the police, the mayor, and a majority of city council. But now that I think about it, camping in shameless places may be the best option yet. The choices become limitless: restaurant parking lots (tough to drive stakes through), schoolyards, churchyards, the post office, the library, next to the civil war cannon (or, for solo campers, in it), between the pumps at the BP.

I want nature, though. I want simplicity. I crave a degree of remoteness on this trip. I don’t want to hear mail sorted, or the clanking, through the night, of book and video return chutes. I do not want shot from a canyon, nor do I wish to mingle with the demons of the churchyard. I should not reek of wiper fluid in the morning; I should not want my oil checked.

I could lay my bivy bag anywhere in any woods—if need be; that is, if no proper campgrounds manifested themselves.

So I went online and googled “bivy bags.” I may as well have googled “death shrouds.”

Might I say: these products lacked size. Occupied, they resembled large and very uncomfortable caterpillars. (Struggling caterpillars, even; hurting and discouraged caterpillars.) Some of the bags had a small pole at the head that formed a hoop the circumference of a basketball. This feature kept the top of the bag three inches off the camper’s face. This was what I wanted, for sure. I wanted that kind of luxury. I wanted to be able to blink and stick my tongue out if I wanted to. I wanted to be able to itch my nose. These models were advertised as “SPACIOUS!” “ROOMY!” and “BIG ENOUGH TO SNEEZE IN!” This was for me. Still, I kept looking for something better.

Two days ago, I found it: www.hennessyhammock.com. A hammock! Look at this. At only 32 ounces, it rolls up smaller than a package of hamburger. It includes a rain fly that is strung just above the mosquito netting and staked out for total rain coverage. Two trees, and you’re up. Smooth, level ground? The hammocker doesn’t need them! The hammock takes three minutes to hang, four if you’re an idiot. You enter it by poking your head up the middle; yes. There’s a slit at the bottom, running halfway up. You poke in your head, turn around, sit down, bring up your feet, lay down, and your weight makes the slit disappear. Magic!

In pleasant weather, you stare through the mosquito netting at the stars while no insect on earth, no matter its size, disturbs your reverie. In windy weather, you rock gently to sleep. Position yourself diagonally and the hammock lays magically flat. There is room to spare at both your head and feet. The netting rests taut, a foot off your face. You may thus eat, read, or play pattycake with visible planets.

Suspended in the air! My realm is inherent among the celestials, so what better way to sleep, for me, than suspended off the ground? No terrestrial soldier, I! Son of the living God; my God! He, Himself, is enthroned on high in the company of angels. Besides, I don’t want to be trampled by deer, mice and rabbits.

I have pictured myself in a driving rainstorm at night, high and dry, a small electric lantern clipped to an interior hook, reading a book, snuggled into my down sleeping bag, dipping at leisure from a bag of pretzels; at one side my glowing blue Sirius radio—a Christmas gift from my sister—the antenna snaking up the tree at my head, dutifully receiving signals from a satellite in space; at my other side a cell phone, connected to Melody with whom I am whispering through a tiny headset—all while suspended between two trees in the middle of a Pennsylvania woods; I want this.

Hammocks, I have discovered, are as old as man. The Mayas used them exclusively; you would never catch a Mayan on a cot, or a Sealy Posturepedic. They napped, overnighted, made love, birthed, lived and died in their hammocks. It is probable that our Lord, while asleep in the fishing boat on Galilee during the storm, lay ensconced in a hammock. Mariners have utilized hammocks for centuries, stringing unused sails between masts and enjoying a restful night’s sleep no matter the waves.

According to a testimony on the website, a sixty year-old man, a nature lover, thought his camping days were over. He suffered hip pain, back pain, pain in his shoulder, pain in his pain. Simply contemplating a night in a tent on the unforgiving ground made his joints throb. Then someone told him about the Hennessey Hammock. He tried it on a short camping trip and—Glory! For the first time in four years, he awoke feeling fine. The guy was so excited that he came home, pounded two giant eyebolts into posts in his living room, and strung his hammock there. Now whenever he wants assured of a painless night’s sleep, into the Hennessey he goes.

I intend now to save up for the backpacker, ultralight version. In the meantime, I dream about it: a bag of pretzels, calm nights, stars or rain, swaying to sleep in a gentle breeze. With sustenance and shelter we shall be sufficed.

And now, “May the Lord answer you in the day of trouble! May the name of The God of Jacob set you securely on high!” (Psalm 20:1).

© 2006 by Martin Zender