Glamping at the Red

Canvas Camp Sibley Pro 500 Tent and Winnerwell Stove

“Um, Hello? Hi there. So, I think you’ve set up in our site,” a polite but strained voice spoke into the chilly Kentucky darkness.  I looked up from the kindling I was chopping and met the speaker’s blinding LED gaze with my own headlamp.  Hatchet still in hand, I stood up and replied, “I know.  I’m really sorry.  We got in late last night and the directions were hard to follow.  The lady who runs the campground saw our tent here this morning and basically took pity on us.  She thought you’d be able to fit your camper in our site, and she told us we could just stay here.”  As I was talking, I noticed the headlamp beam scan the tent over my shoulder: “Yeah, wow,” she said, “That’s a really big tent, like a circus tent or something.  Are you glamping?  At the Red?”  Guilt-ridden for taking this other family’s campsite and suddenly ashamed of my tent, I offered every accommodation I could think of short of moving.  Relocating my tent was impossible at this point in the evening though — not only were my two children fast asleep in their beds, I had a fire roaring in the woodstove.

The misplaced tent at issue was my brand-new Canvas Camp Sibley 500 Pro.  It’s a giant conical bell tent made of treated cotton canvas, the sort of shelter you might see Ulysses S. Grant lounging in front of or that might show up in photos of nineteenth-century National Geographic expeditions.   The “500” in the tent’s name describes its diameter at ground level:  5.00 meters or sixteen and a half feet.  It’s held up by a central pole that raises the tent’s peak 9’10” above the floor.  The eight-foot radius between this pole and the tent wall is plenty big enough to fit a queen mattress lengthwise.  Twenty-seven stakes and fourteen guy lines hold the tent to the ground.  The wood stove that made moving the tent impossible — not just inconvenient — is a Winnerwell Woodlander, a stainless-steel camp stove that folds into a duffle bag about the size of a 70L Patagonia Black Hole.  At thirty-five pounds, it’s not the sort of thing you’d take backpacking, but it’s easy enough to move from the car to the tent, when it’s cool.  We bought the Double View model, so called because windows line both its sides. 

Photo: Paper Antler Ltd.

My campground neighbor’s circus tent comparison stung because I had the exact same thought when I set the new tent up in my yard two days before our trip.  Seeing it staked out for the first time, I couldn’t possibly imagine pitching it at a climbers’ campground.  “It’s ridiculous,” I said to my wife Kerstin when she came out to see the tent.  “It is big,” she acknowledged, “but it’s smaller than a Sprinter van.”  Kerstin wasn’t exactly right — the tent’s square footage is about fifty percent greater than a Sprinter’s — but her perspective helped me recalibrate my assessment.  To this point, I had been thinking of it as an embarrassingly excessive tent instead of as a principled rejection of #vanlife.  In truth, the bell tent and stove fit somewhere between the nylon austerity of a backpacking tent and the bourgeois excess of a converted Sprinter.   Both extremes were untenable for our family and both approaches to travel jeopardized the long-term sustainability of early spring and late fall climbing. 

Our purchase of the Sibley tent two weeks before an October trip to the Red River Gorge was an impulsive solution to a problem at least a year in the making.  The previous October, Kerstin and I took our six- and eight-year-old kids to the Red for the first time.  We stayed at Miguels’, which I love and where I have stayed on all of my previous trips.  It was different with kids.  It was cold, and it rained for most of the weekend.  We found overhanging rock to climb out of the rain, but we never shook the damp chill that we picked up the moment we arrived.  Like every other climber at Miguel’s, we hovered over people finishing their pizza at tables in the dining room so we could sit and eat out of the cold.  We eventually found seats at a table and ate our pizza while other cold climbers hovered around us.  Then, we made our way to our tent in the misty darkness and zipped ourselves into sleeping bags at 7:00 pm, not really ready for sleep but finding our mummy bags to be the only habitable space available. I tried to read, but shining my headlamp so close to my six- and eight-year-olds’ faces made it impossible for them to settle.  Awake in my clammy bag and with a root pushing through my partially deflated Therm-a-rest, I rolled over and whispered to Kerstin, “We’re getting too old for this.”  “Tell me about it,” she replied.  We managed two more nights at Miguel’s in our REI Half Dome but packed up the last morning knowing something had to change.

Unlike the previous October when we jostled with other climbers for room to sit inside at Miguel’s, this year’s sunsets sent us scurrying for the warmth of our tent.  As the temperatures dipped close to freezing in an unseasonably cold early-October weekend, the Winnerwell Double View kept the temperature inside the tent close to seventy.  We set the tent up with two air mattresses — a queen Aerobed for Kerstin and me and a Coleman double mattress for the kids.  We made the beds with sheets and comforters from our beds at home.   Even after accounting for the mattresses, the stove, duffle bags of clothes, backpacks, and stray climbing gear, at least a third of the tent’s square feet remained unused and therefore available for sitting in camp chairs, making coffee, or laying on the ground to play chess.  I was surprised to find that there was so much space inside the tent that we didn’t have to reconfigure or reorganize to move from one activity to the next.  There was no changing pants while lying down, tossing gear around to get comfortable, or crawling over somebody to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

In contrast to the  synthetic world of our backpacking tent, the Sibley interior was cozily organic.  Cotton may kill in the alpine, but cotton canvas tent walls, cotton sheets, and cotton and down duvets came as a relief after a day of cragging.   I cannot overstate the pleasure I derived from sitting in a camp chair in jeans and a flannel shirt by the light and warmth of the woodstove.  I sorted the rack and ticked and read the guidebook by firelight for hours while my children slept.  My concerns about how well the treated canvas tent body would keep out rain proved unfounded.  It didn’t rain on our Kentucky trip this fall, but I did leave the tent set up in the rain in our backyard to test it before we left and found the interior totally dry the morning after a downpour. 

The tent is not without challenges.  It weighs ninety pounds. The tent’s bodybag-sized stuff sack took up more than half the space in our trunk.  The chief disadvantagea of the tent compared to a Sprinter van are of course its obtrusiveness and its set up time.  You can’t pitch a tent in a Cabela’s parking lot and you can’t crawl directly from the driver’s seat onto an air mattress the moment you pull into a campsite.  While the tent setup doesn’t compare to the convenience of a van, I noticed that pitching it took about the same amount of time it took my neighbors to set up their pull-behind camper.  It probably took my nine-year-old and me fifteen minutes to raise the poles, pound the stakes, and tension the guy lines; this is maybe five minutes more than it takes us to pitch our four-person backpacking tent.  Pack-up is a bit of a challenge too.  The tent and all its furnishings and linens do fit in our Camry, but they fit just so.  By far the biggest drawback of the tent is the need to completely dry it before putting it into storage.  All tents need to be dried, but finding a room big enough to lay out a sixteen-foot circle or a line strong enough to hang ninety pounds of canvas is a challenge.  Fortunately, the day after we returned from our trip was sunny, warm, and breezy, so I tossed the tent over our picnic table and dried it quickly.  If it had been rainy, I’m not exactly sure what I would have done.  These are relatively minor quibbles though.  To paraphrase Thoreau, I will gladly buy a van or rent a cabin as soon as it pleases me as much and costs me no more than my current shelter.

As infatuated as I am with our new bell tent, I shudder to think of climbers’ camps overrun by a glamping arms race.  I write not to those young climbers who are comfortable in their backcountry tents, but to those older climbers (especially climbers with families) who are either contemplating a camper or are discontented with the cramped confines of their vans.   I’m ok with more climbers choosing to buy bigger tents if it means that fewer climbers will burn fewer gallons of diesel fuel in Sprinter vans and that fewer hilltops and ridges will be leveled for new AirBnB cabins and second homes.  The guy with the glamping tent in the climber camp protests too much, you say?  Fine.  I’ve got my eye on Horseshoe Canyon in February.

After Apple-Planting

I wrote about planting apple trees this spring Front Porch Republic:

Stoughton, WI. “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces,” Martin Luther is reported to have said, “I would still plant my apple tree.” I had always thought of the quotation as mere bluster, better suited to Hobby Lobby word art or Arbor Day Foundation mailers than a second thought. The thing is though, I spent the first week of the coronavirus quarantine planting not one, but forty-three apple trees while the world fell apart. Luther’s apocryphal line doesn’t feel quite so cliché to me anymore. It feels more like a test I’ve accidentally passed.

Kerstin and I planted trees during the quarantine because we have grown accustomed to planting trees in March . . .

The Names of Things – Front Porch Republic


I wrote about our farm for Front Porch Republic.  The essay is called “The Names of Things”


An old painting by John Miles of Northleach imagines Adam in the midst of naming all the animals in the Garden of Eden. Adam stands in the middle of the frame; the animals surround him waiting to receive their names. Unlike earlier versions that show Adam receiving just a few animals, Miles’ version captures the overwhelming scope of the task by lining up animals nose to tail back and forth across the scene like people waiting for the Jungle Cruise at Walt Disney World or in an understaffed passport control line. I have been where that lion in the foreground is. Stuck in an absurd, unmoving line, he has let go of his mind. He is past frustration, rage, and tears. He lies down next to a lamb, not in supernatural peace or out of any interspecies fraternity, but out of pure, absolute resignation and ennui. The king of the jungle has been reduced to one direct and knowing look: “you see what I’m dealing with here, right?” his eyes dimly blink. The tiger behind him is even worse off. Drape the tiger’s paw over a dead body, and he is . . .

The Nose

Image result for the nose el cap
As a decrepit father takes delight
To see his active child do deeds of youth,
So I, made lame by fortune’s dearest spite,
Take all my comfort of thy worth and truth.
For whether beauty, birth, or wealth, or wit,
Or any of these all, or all, or more,
Entitled in thy parts do crowned sit,
I make my love engrafted to this store:
So then I am not lame, poor, nor despised,
Whilst that this shadow doth such substance give
That I in thy abundance am sufficed
And by a part of all thy glory live.
Look, what is best, that best I wish in thee:
This wish I have; then ten times happy me!
                                     -Shakespeare, Sonnet 37

As we were getting ready for bed last night, my seven-year-old asked me, “If you train really hard, do you think you would like to climb the Nose someday?”  

The question wasn’t totally out of the blue.  We had watched The Dawn Wall the night before.  Peter understood the movie’s message well —  except for just a couple of people, the Dawn Wall is impossible to climb.  So he asked if I was interested in climbing the Nose, which is easier.

The Nose is also really hard.  Warren Harding, Wayne Merry, and George Whitmore, spent 47 days climbing it in 1958 to complete the first ascent.  They drilled bolt ladders and hung on gear the whole way up.  Nobody climbed it without hanging on bolts and gear until Lynn Hill freed it in 1993.  In the 25 years since Hill’s first free ascent, only a half dozen people have repeated the climb free.  Lots of people do the aid climb each year, but most who try it, fail.

Warren-Harding-El-Cap  Lynn-on-Pancake-Flake-Nose-2

So when Peter asked if I was planning to climb the Nose, I answered immediately and decisively, “No. It’s too hard.  I’m too old.”  A look of shock and dismay spread across his face.  He was crestfallen.  

Peter’s dejection was born out of his experience watching me climb. Since the first of the year I’ve been climbing a lot.  Feeling old and out of shape, I started training again like I did in my mid-20s.  I’ve taken the kids along several times.  I belay them and they watch me boulder.  Peter knows that I can climb things that he can’t even start. He thinks I am very strong.  I can do pull-ups and push ups.  I can carry him sleeping from the car to his bed.  I can lift rocks and logs that he can’t push.  I open plastic bottles that his hands can’t twist. But he doesn’t know how sore my back can get from sitting in a chair.  He doesn’t know that I pull hamstrings if I don’t jog and stretch for twenty minutes before I climb.  He doesn’t know how much I worry about my finger tendons.

Though he’s not as absolutely strong as me, Peter is a really good seven-year-old climber.  He moves with balance and boldnesss.  He’s often too short to reach holds set for adult climbers, so he figures out clever, reachy solutions. He moves off of tiny handholds that are really just foot chips with amazing finger strength.

A moment after I told him that I would never be able to climb the Nose, I added, “But you might be able to do it someday.”  His look of dismay broke, and a huge smile broke across his face.  “Maybe I could lead it and then help you up,” he said.  “I would love that,” I said, unable to contain my own enormous smile.

Not fifteen minutes later, I found him trying to traverse from a door jam to a window casing along the baseboard in bare feet.  It was a really great move; he was super stretched out and barely got a finger tip to the window casing.  I am pretty sure he was pretending to be Kevin Jorgeson on pitch fifteen.

A (non-contiguous) Week on the Wisconsin and Fox Rivers

fox riverI’m putting together a panel for next summer’s ASLE conference.  The idea is to turn the panel’s revised essays into an edited collection.  Let me know if you are interested in the project but aren’t able to make the trip to UC-Davis for ASLE.  Here’s the plan:

Just fifteen miles separate Aldo Leopold’s Shack from the farm where John Muir spent his boyhood. Twenty-five miles of Wisconsin and Fox River water (and one mucky canal) connects them. For so important a cultural landscape, this river route is surprisingly unexplored and unremarked upon. This panel aims to bring together scholars, writers, and thinkers to explore this stretch of river and write about it in a compelling way.

All panel participants will make the journey from Leopold’s Shack to Muir’s farm (hopefully by canoe, but perhaps by bike, on foot, or on skis instead) and will write about what they saw, experienced, or discovered. A dream panel would consist of some of the following: an archaeologist, a poet, a hydrologist, an ornithologist, former inhabitants and native peoples, a geographer, a limnologist, an entomologist, a geologist, an historian, Native American studies scholars, visual artists, and photographers. In gathering voices from across the arts, humanities, and sciences, the panel builds upon Scott Slovic and Nalini Nadkarni’s 2017 ASLE seminar “To Feel and To Know: The Art and Science of Environmental Writing” which brought together “thinkers who might not otherwise readily meet each other: ecocritics and environmental artists, academics and public officials, humanists and scientists.”

Approaches to the essays and their emphases will vary (the diversity of writing about a relatively narrowly defined place will be one of the panel’s chief appeals), but hopefully all the authors will “mov[e] through the landscape with wonder, but also with care” and “aspire to see with a scientific eye and write with literary effect” as Jason Cowley has described the best of the New Nature Writing. Collaborations are especially welcome between scientists who are less comfortable writing with literary effect and writers whose scientific eyesight is less sharp than they would hope. The panel organizers are willing to help coordinate these collaborations as well as travel arrangements.

Please send questions and proposals to Josh Mabie (


“Oh” to the West Wind


“Oh” to the West Wind

Well I suppose you are expecting thanks

For that black cherry tree, or half a tree

You laid across my field two nights ago.


I realize now you must have seen me cut

And roughly plane cap’lin from God knows where:

“Its lumber local, something with a story.”


They always say it is the thought that counts;

Forgive me though, if I seem less than thrilled

About your gift so wantonly given.


You see I’m not that kind of farmer yet

My chainsaw is still in its Christmas box

I have no uncle or cousin I could call.


The grass is high, the garden full of weeds.

What would I do right now with a cord of wood?

Or hundred feet of board too green to work?


Your unsought gift was right and true, and pure, but

Before you go knock down my other trees

Won’t you just ask if I would like them please.

Dawn and the Highest of the Arts


“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”

Last night at bedtime my kindergartner asked me if we could wake up “still in the nighttime” and go on an adventure before school. I told him sure, but that he’d have to wake me up. This morning at precisely 6:15 am, I felt a small hand on my shoulder and a whispered, “Dad, it’s getup time.” Without opening my eyes I whispered back, “ok just a few minutes.” He refused to snooze and appealed to my sense of honor: “You promised last night that we could get up in the nighttime. Is it morningtime now?” I acquiesced and rolled out of bed. Within five minutes we were both stepping into wellies and zipping up down jackets. He wore a hat. I couldn’t find mine.

I have wanted to go for a dawn walk in the woods for the past couple of weeks now. I even worked out a plan for doing a morning walk at exactly the same time and on the exact same route every morning for a year and writing about it, a sort of human time lapse. Such rigid discipline appeals to my imagination, but not to my body. It took a persistent five-year-old to actually get me out into the woods at dawn.

Yesterday I walked around the farm on a cloudy afternoon to take some pictures for this website. Except for the green halo around a few just-budded maple trees, the whole farm was a flat duochrome of gray and brown. This morning everything was soaked in the golden orange of low-angle dawn light. The same green buds and grass now sparkled with heavy dew. Long tree shadows reached far into the meadow and field.

We grabbed the Nikon before we went out, and I let him carry it. Yesterday when I was taking pictures, I moved fallen branches that cluttered a shot of the woods and a long orange cinch strap out of a picture of the barn. I stood next to the Weber grill so that it would be out of the home page picture. My son hasn’t yet learned to frame discordant or ugly elements out of his shots, and the result is a pure form of realism. He’s just trying to capture the world he sees; he’s not trying to present it to anybody. His camera work captured a couple embarrassing pictures of soggy moving boxes that have cluttered our driveway for far too long and a couple of beautiful low angle (ie. from about 3’6”) shots of the sunrise. My favorite is this one,  “Broken Down Tree.” The picture and its title are all his.


Aldo Leopold famously wrote that the chief spiritual dangers of not owning a farm are the faulty suppositions that food comes from a grocery and that heat comes from a furnace. Fair enough, but, having recently purchased a farm, I have become well acquainted with farms’ many, many hazards. Some of the dangers, like Leopold’s benefits, are spiritual, but just as many are physical and economic.

I can’t say that I wasn’t warned about farm ownership. Thoreau is clear about the hazards:

I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. Who made them serfs of the soil? Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt? Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born?

I read these lines with glee as an unlanded and untethered twenty-year-old, and they have never been far from my mind in the years since, bubbling up to the foreground of my consciousness at title company closing tables and Home Depot checkout lines. I’ve always kind of regarded Thoreau’s warning as a sort of metaphorical exhortation about the dangers of material possessions generally, not farm ownership specifically. Once again I am reminded that it’s always a danger to abstract Thoreau too far from the particular thing he describes. A pond bottom, a mountain ridge, or a farm may point at some other truth, but it’s never just a symbol of a spiritual fact. A pond is a pond, a mountain is a mountain, and in this case, a farm really is a farm.

My farmhouse has occupied nearly every non-working[1], waking minute of my life since we closed on it in October. Sometimes the work is a joy,  as it was yesterday when I was jointing the edges of cherry shelves with a no. 5 Stanley plane in spring sunshine. If there is a more elegant tool than a well-tuned jack plane I haven’t come across it.   Other times the work does indeed feel like a march towards death, as when I pulled rotten plaster and mouse droppings and insulation down on my head in search of something, anything, sound to which I could anchor a new ceiling. Or when I nearly cut the top of my right thumb off reaching blindly into my tool box in search of a phillips screw driver, finding only the edge of an open PEX cutter. That thumb has almost healed enough to allow me to button shirts or buckle carseats without excruciating pain, and this is a good thing, because I’ve recently lost pain-free use of my left index finger to a nasty splinter.

But the thing is, my children who are directly in line to someday inherit the farm, its house, its barn, its tools, they love it. On Sunday afternoon I hung a hammock with them at the edge of the woods and the meadow to loaf in the first truly warm day of the spring: “you can read books with them and maybe even snooze a bit with them,” Kerstin told me optimistically as she climbed into the car to run to the grocery store unencumbered. I lay in the bottom of the hammock trying to steal a few moments of sleep, but they quickly imagined the hammock into a ship on the high seas. Small knees and feet and elbows kneeled and stepped and pressed on me as my children took turns climbing to the hammock’s prow to lean out over the prairie grass as a figurehead and to hike out over its nylon gunwale. These inadvertent steps I could mostly ignore, but eventually my children interrupted whatever snatches of sleep (seconds really, definitely not minutes) I had stollen with shark attacks and giant swells that swayed and rolled the hammock-ship. I finally abandoned my attempts to sleep in favor of landing shrieking and laughing sharks.

I love the farm too, now that I’ve had a few moments to enjoy it. Last night I read eighty pages of Nikolaus Butler’s The Hearts of Men for pleasure while my family slept. Sensing that I was reading far too late into the night, I turned off the light exhausted. I couldn’t sleep though, so I got up, made myself some herbal tea, and set up shop to do some writing in my Morris chair. It was the first time I had read for pleasure in a long time and the first time I sat in a chair in the living room, even though I had lived in the house for two weeks. I had often imagined myself reading and writing in the house as I worked on it, and these few stolen minutes late at night were a joy that I paid for with a sort of literary hangover this morning.

[1] Working, here, means reading and summarizing seventeenth-century books of travel as I promised I would do in my fellowship application.