Tale of a Tent

Rick Kempa

Driving back in the last light in a windstorm to our camp on Muley Point at the Goosenecks of the San Juan River, still flushed from our adventure—having forded muddy Butler Wash, climbed the tilted sandstone flank of Comb Ridge to its crest, where windblasts turned our eyeballs inside out and speared our faces with grains of sand, and then worked our way back down; a day lived very well together, we all agreed—my son Adam, nephew Aaron and I on our first hike together, having come from 900 miles apart, north and south, to rendezvous in this wild spot; driving back, content but also tired and sore and hungry and cold, it occurs to me to wonder if our tents have withstood the tempest.

I arrived at Muley yesterday in the early afternoon. The meeting place I chose was a flat-topped treeless isthmus at road’s end, around which the San Juan River coils in its gorge below, describing one of its gigantic lazy loops. As usual, I walked the full length of the narrow neck before selecting a spot that was in truth not much different from anywhere else up there, which at the time seemed best. I pitched the two tents—the big Base Camp dome for Adam and Aaron, my sleek little backpacker affair for myself. The earth was too fine-grained and moist for the stakes to get good purchase, so I put a rock on top of each one. In a few places the bedrock was just below the surface, so I hauled over more rocks and looped guy-lines around them. For good measure, I also put hefty rocks in the inside corners of the tents. Being the perpetrator and host of this rendezvous, I furnished the dome with two full-length four-inch-thick cushions from my camper trailer and blankets and pillows and even a cute little battery-powered lantern. (Aaron, admiring the opulence, later dubbed it the “Taj Mahal.”) My nesting instinct satisfied, I kicked back in my easy chair with beer bottles and books and Navajo flute music playing a continuous loop on the car stereo. It was going to be a long wait; they had not even left Tucson yet. Not that I cared. It was as calm and clear a day as one could ask for, a blessing after a wild wet spring, and I was enjoying my first sun bath of the year.

In Geology Underfoot in Southern Utah, by Richard Orndorff, Robert Wieder, and David Futey, I found a chapter on the Goosenecks, in which the authors took time out from their rock-talk to issue this warning: “In a classic case of ‘do as we say, not as we do,’ be careful about camping at the canyon rim,” and they describe a beautiful day gone bad when wind and rain set in. “There are probably better places to camp,” they conclude. What a bunch of wimps, I thought when I read that. They had a bad trip, so they’re laying it on the rest of us. With its great vault of sky above and the river’s fantastic contortions below, this seemed as good a place as any in the world to camp, and better than most.

On the home stretch now, a thread of blacktop that cuts through the barren, blasted land towards the big dropoff, with the SUV shuddering and snow pellets smacking the glass, those words stand forth ominously. Oh ye foolhardy mortals, ignore the prophets at thy peril! When we reach Mile Marker 0, we turn left and bump along the dirt path beside the cliff. Broadsided, the car is swaying back and forth on its shocks, and snow flashes by sideways. I lean forward from the back seat, peering between the other two for the telltale flash of nylon—the yellow of the small tent, the orange of the dome. The beams catch the reflectors on Adam’s car, and then the hearth and our stack of wood, and a collapsed folding chair. The tents are gone.

Aaron and Adam have been rocking and rolling to Led Zeppelin, and did not expect this. Their chatter abruptly stops. “This ain’t right,” Aaron says.

“Quick, let me out!” I say, as if time, which meant so little all day long, was suddenly a precious thing. And to Adam in the shotgun seat: “Hand me my headlamp.” I strap it on and yank the handle, and the door lurches open, bouncing on its hinges. I jump out and am punched, thrown sideways by a fist of wind. My hat flies off my head into the night. I follow after it, scanning my beam from side to side for anything worth saving. There against a clump of sage is my little tent, the two orange poles popped from their grommets flailing in the dark, the nylon body crumpled beneath. Adam comes over to secure the site and I strike off downwind, looking for the dome.

Aaron points the SUV that way, turns on the brights, and hustles after me. Talk is impossible. Wind is beating against the drums of our ears and ripping through the sage. Every step forward is adding to the fight we will wage on our return. There’s nothing else out there that we can see, and it’s soon clear that, in such a storm, there’s nothing else to be done. So we turn back, help Adam wrestle the smaller tent into the car, and retreat.

We head for Mexican Hat, a tiny town less than ten miles away. On the drive down, the guys are solicitous of my loss.

“It’s no one’s fault, really,” Adam says, reading what’s on my mind (for I am going over the details of what I did and did not do when I made camp the day before). “It’s just a freak event.”

“This sounds weird,” Aaron declares, “but if I were forced to choose between having this day, with our glorious hike and even with the lost tent—or not having it at all, I would take it as it was.”

“That’s easy for you to say,” I retort, and Adam chimes in, “You’re right, that does sound weird.”

But there’s nothing doleful about our evening. In Mexican Hat, we get a room at the San Juan Inn, eat a big dinner, buy some beer, break out Risk, and play deep into the night. The search and rescue operation can wait until we struggle out of sleep, douse our heads with water and dose them with caffeine, sort and pack our remaining gear.


The Goosenecks is as calm in the morning as when I arrived two days before, and the baby blue sky gives the lie to last night’s storm—but I’m wiser now, I know this mood to be guile. We park alongside the hearth. At once, we see the glint of gear on the land. Excitement ripples through our ranks, and we pile out.

“Here’s my shoes!” Adam shouts. They are side-by-side in the orange earth where he arranged them by the door of the tent. A few feet beyond, tangled in some sage, is the nylon footprint, left behind when the tent took off. And here are three tent stakes. And there is my hat, the embossed image of the raven glinting in the sun. And here is a glove, and there a pillow and a blanket—we are all moving now in a line, tracking the path the tent took when it began skidding and skipping like an immense orange tumbleweed across the ground. Adam holds up the little lantern that was in the tent. Aaron heads for one of the big pink cushions. I snatch a tangled blanket from a sage bush. We make a pile of our booty and head towards the cliff at the east end of the ridge.

“Say, did you guys zip up the tent yesterday morning when we headed out?” I ask.

They think they did, but naturally they’re not sure. If so, then this harvest suggests the floor of the tent was already torn when it began its ramble. Bad idea, to put those boulders in it.

Soon we arrive at the big drop off, a series of cliffs and rubbly slopes, outthrusts and ravines that writhe their way down nearly a thousand feet to the brown river. We range along the rim, looking for a route through the first cliff-bank. I am thinking how the rainfly was fastened to the tent by straps. When the stakes pulled loose from the wet sand and the wind got in between, the whole thing would have ballooned like the mainmast of a galleon. Rid of her ballast when the bottom fell out, she was the most seaworthy vessel on the tide last night.

“There’s no way you’ll find it,” Adam says.

“You may be right,” I say. “But I have to look.” I pick my way through the first set of cliffs, zigzag down the slope to the next set, peer over, hoping the tent might have dropped out of the gale and wedged among the boulders below. I repeat the process—descend, zigzag, peer—two more times, gravity and my inner drive egging me on. Aaron too has gone overboard somewhere to my left, while Adam, up top, serves as a marker for where she went over—and, as he shrinks in size, a marker as well for how far down we’ve gone. There’s no stopping until I get to the last (and tallest) line of cliffs. I squint long and hard into the river gorge. No tent or shred of tent or anything human is down there.

I start back up, angling away from where Adam waits, so as to cover new ground. A couple of hundred feet from the top I suddenly encounter my purple pillow. I snatch it and hold it overhead, shouting, “A pillow! I found a pillow!” Two figures are standing on the ridge above, etched against the sky—Aaron and Adam, I assume. They stare down at me like I’m some kind of apparition. Eventually I figure out that it’s two other guys—where in the hell did they come from? When I offer up the tale of the tent, speaking loudly to span the space but no longer shouting, they ask its color, make a few wisecracks (“Good thing you weren’t in it! Har, har!”), then claim, lamely, that they would help “if they had time.” I wave them on.

Soon Adam and Aaron are there. They’re getting anxious to hit the road, I can tell, but the imperative is clear: The pillow has given the first true marker of where the tent met the edge. I prop it on a big rock and shout up to them, “I’ll be quick. I’m just heading back to the next set of cliffs, and then I’ll stop.” But there’s nothing else lower down. Looking way back up at them, I see a cream-colored slab just below the cliff on which they stand—the second cushion! That’ll have to do.

Back at the rim, Adam goes to get the car and pull it closer to our pile of gear. Aaron moves along the cliff, hoping to see the big cairn he was inspired to build down there (all that time when I thought he was helping me search). I wander a bit farther the other way, where I have not yet been. I am hoping for a miracle now, that some crosscurrent caught her and swept her laterally from the main blow. A gust sweeps through, and for a second I interpret the sound to be one of wind on nylon.

This is a siren-song, I realize, trying to lure me for the third time to descend. “I give up,” I say. “I give up my tent.” Aaron with his pile of stones has a greater chance of finding something of his own, some sign that he was here, ten or twenty years hence, than I have today or tomorrow or any other day. Still, as I walk back to the car I move my head from side to side, hoping to spy the one other object that I know the tent contained—a glove to match the one I found.

Such a sacrifice as this—one’s domicile—would be a sacred act, meriting a store of karma, if it were intentional. But I never surrender anything willingly. Even the little pile of wood in its wobbly crate that I hauled down from Wyoming and will now, at Aaron’s suggestion, leave at the campsite—a gift of real value out here—even this is tainted because it is begrudged.

Before parting ways—Aaron to head south, Adam to join me for the ride north—we stand once more on the opposite, downstream side of Muley Point and peer into the canyon. I would not be surprised to see our Taj Mahal floating down the channel; either it already has or, given the slow current and the long sweep of the river around our reef of rock, it eventually will, a portable palace bound for Lake Powell where—unhappy fate!—it will bob in the backwash amidst the houseboats and jet-skis of the carbon-culture recreationalists—an unholy end for one who was baptized by resin from Engelmann Spruce at tree line and anointed by candlewax from late-night reveries and sanctified by lovemaking.

I shake my head to banish the thought. I choose instead to envision the moment when, having bumped and rolled ungracefully this way and that across the thorny sage flat, torn open, disgorging all her human freight, growing ever lighter, moving faster, she arrived at last at the edge of earth, paused there, then was seized by a mighty force and accomplished what her former occupants on restless nights under creaking trees do only in their dreams—she flew.

Author Portrait

Poet and essayist Rick Kempa lives in Rock Springs, Wyoming, where he teaches at Western Wyoming College. Rick is editor of the anthology ON FOOT: Grand Canyon Backpacking Stories, (Vishnu Temple Press, 2014) and co-editor, with Peter Anderson, of Going Down Grand: Poems from the Canyon (Lithic Press, 2015). His latest poetry collection is Ten Thousand Voices (Littoral Press, 2014). Other recent open-air essays of his can be found in Pinyon, Manifest West: Serenity and Severity, Blue Lyra Review, and in the Spring 2015 issue of Watershed Review.

View the website of Rick Kempa