Settling In

At the beginning of October, we moved into our 20 ft Whiteduck Outdoors Avalon canvas bell tent. We had been living in our 6-person Northface Wawona nylon tent, sleeping on the ground on our camping pads. We were in a little clearing sheltered by bamboo, rhododendrons, and chestnut trees. While I didn’t mind sleeping on the ground, waking up to soaked blankets due to condensation got old, fast. The weather was getting colder and wetter, making us look forward to getting set up in the canvas tent and having a shelter that was more durable. We had also received our Camp Chef Alpine woodstove and spent an afternoon seasoning it. We were excited to use it during the increasingly chilly nights.

I didn’t fully realize just how large the tent would be until we laid out the tarp – it was huge! With most of the farm overgrown with Himalayan blackberries, it was difficult to find an area that would be able to properly hold the tent and its guylines.  Even if we had a flat cleared area for the tarp, we needed to have an additional three feet (minimum) on all sides for the guylines. Our only option at the time was to set up in the high fields while we worked on clearing the land down below.

It took us about an hour to set up the tent and get it tensioned properly. Pounding the stakes into the ground was an exercise in frustration as they were cheaply made and would instantly bend. It didn’t help that the mallet was also poorly made and would fly apart after a few whacks. But finally, the tent was up – and it was beautiful. I felt joy seeing our new home standing up, shining in the sun. I still remember the relief and happiness I felt that night, laying under the vaulted canvas panels. We were finally in the canvas tent we had waited so long for – a piece of our dream was now a tangible experience. Even though we were still sleeping on our camping pads it felt different, more secure. We had moved into the bones of our new home and now needed to make it truly ours.

With a rented Uhaul truck, we took a day trip to our storage unit to get furniture and other items we wanted. I was most excited about having our bed set up – the ground was getting extremely cold at night and the bed would help insulate us. The trip took most of the day, since the drive alone was 3+ hours, and by the time we returned to the farm, the light was fading quickly. We had previously emptied the tent so that Pat could shift it slightly to a hopefully flatter area. He also rotated the tent so that the stove pipe would exit on a side that wouldn’t have the wind drag ash or sparks over the canvas material. Though we were heading into the rainy season and the fire danger was low, we were in a grass field and wanted to take every precaution when we used the stove. That night we moved all the furniture into the tent, our hands gong numb as the temperature dropped.  I remember crawling into the bed that night, exhausted and cold but happy.

During the fall, I loved being up in the field. It felt cocooned and safe, held in the bowl of the hills. I loved being able to see out across the whole valley. On clear nights the stars were incredible. During the early morning when we left the tent, we watched the fog swirl around us and shimmer in the valley. On very cold mornings, the fields were covered in glittering frost that cracked under our feet as we walked down the hill. It was beautiful, and peaceful. The only downside to being up in the fields was that we were further away from our systems (kitchen, washroom) and that the tent was more exposed to the weather. The wind coming in off the coast didn’t have a tree break before it hit the tent. This gave us the motivation to continue to work hard at preparing a space for the tent that was down lower and more protected for winter. But, for the time being, we enjoyed our perch up in the rolling hills.

Three weeks after moving into our tent, we built our first fire in the woodstove and experienced our ‘hot tent.’ We had been waiting until the ground seemed saturated enough from rainy days that if a spark escaped from the stove pipe’s spark arrestor, it wouldn’t be able to catch on the grass. The woodstove heated the tent quickly and thoroughly – it must have been 70 degrees in the tent! I loved the smell and feel of a woodstove fire – I lounged in the bed feeling truly warm and dry for the first time in awhile. Living in a hot tent during late fall or winter was a luxury: the dark, cold nights didn’t seem so long now that we had the woodstove.

September

September passed in a blaze of heat, sunlight, and smoke. The days were meltingly hot as the summer faded– I remember sitting in the shade, midday, with full-body sweats due to the intense heat and humidity. Poor tiny Pendulum (our kitten) endured the heat in his fur suit! We gave him ice cubes to play with and rubbed him down with water.

Early in September, some friends of ours arrived after completing their quarantine. We had hopes of completing some farm projects, fishing for salmon, and practicing wilderness skills together. Like many of our planning efforts, things changed suddenly and viciously. The night of September 7, severe winds, ash and choking smoke swept into our little valley, forcing us to evacuate.

That night, we abandoned the tents and slept in our car, intermittently turning on the fan/internal car filter to try to clear out some of the smoke that was creeping in. What a strange, scary, and surreal experience – it was incredibly hot, with the car reading over 80 degrees at midnight. The winds howled and moaned through the trees, with huge gusts depositing ash that coated the trees, cars, and tents. No one was able to sleep much at all.

I was worried that a nearby fire was coming over the ridge. The past week had been smoky, ever since an arsonist set fire to old growth forest less than 15 miles away from the farm. That fire ended up consuming 500 acres of land and forced a series of evacuations. However, the smoke and ash that we experienced on the night of September 7th were from much larger fires raging across Oregon and California. Without cell service to drip feed us information, we had no idea the scope and magnitude of what we were facing. We would later learn tragic news, these fires consumed whole towns and were responsible for many fatalities.

The next morning the weather was the same, though the smoke was worse. It was like a solid entity, obscuring any view and burning the lungs with every breath. The air quality rose above 1000 PPM, which was well beyond double the ‘hazardous’ air quality rating. It felt apocalyptic – the sun was a flaming red orb in a soupy, mustard-yellow sky. We drove into town to try to figure out the situation and hopefully get some respite from the smoke. However, the Verizon cell towers were down, and we could not access the internet, make calls or text. Our friends decided to head south down the coast to see if they find a pocket of clean air. Another friend who lived in town invited us to stay in his spare room while we figured out a plan, which was a huge relief.

After spending a few days at our friend’s house, we packed up and left early in the morning to drive to Pat’s parent’s house in Washington, where we would stay until it was safe for us to return to the farm. The drive was horrible – we wore double masks because the smoke was so pervasive. Even with multiple masks and an agreement to run the air purification setting every 10-15 minutes, we spent most of the drive nauseous from smoke inhalation. The visibility was low, and sections of the highway were closed off further south and east because of the rapid spread of the wildfires. Finally, we made it to Longview. Since we had not been able to quarantine before arriving, we were careful in limiting our interactions. However, Penny was still able to meet a new cat (his first time meeting a cat since he left his litter). He was pining to be friends, but the other cat was older and uninterested in sharing her territory. Penny was undeterred! It was also Penny’s first experience with a bed and with carpet – both things he now deeply enjoys.

We were emotionally and physically exhausted by the time we reached Longview, and it felt good to hibernate in a house, safe from smoke. While it was nice to have internet, our lives quickly returned to gross amounts of television and anxiety over air quality reports. After a few days we began to feel restless to be back outside. I realized how much I missed the farm: being outside every day, watching the various wildlife, and working the land. Finally, 12 days after evacuating, we were able to return. It felt good to come home! There was plenty of clean-up to do – between the smoke, the wind damage, and the rodents and other critters that had gone wild while we were gone – but it did not faze us. After learning of the extent of the fire damage elsewhere, and the many lives forever altered, we were fortunate to be safe and back on the land that we love.

The end of my journal entry for when we returned reads:

[…] When we finally were able to come back to the farm because the air had improved, I realized how excited I was. It feels good to be back. I have already done a bunch of tasks/chores and it felt nice. I know moving forward there will be times when I don’t want to do chores, or I will wish that we had Internet access. But for the time being, I am going to lean into this feeling of joy at being back on the land.

Right now, Pen and I are in the tent while Pat is at Sean’s, and we can hear the water drops falling off the surrounding trees and plants. The air feels exceptionally clean and it is a beautiful relief to be able to breathe again.

The days that followed were rainy, with sweet, clean air. The fog that I love so much billowed up through the valley, floating through the trees and obscuring the far ridges. We returned to our schedule, rising early in the morning, wandering down to the makeshift kitchen in the garage to begin the day. These mornings were peaceful – they felt like a blessing, a devotion. I began to understand the peace that was available here. Easily we fell back into our jobs – Pat working on removing blackberries while I clipped my way into the snarl of roses in the garden. Penny played and wandered, jumping around in the trees, and excavating holes while we worked. At night, we listened to the elk herd bugle to each other on the high valley ridges, and heard three different species of owl – Bard, Screech and Great Horned – vocalize during their nighttime hunts. All the while, the shift of the seasons became apparent – the wet earth smell, the changing leaves, the way the sun looked filtering through the trees. 

After a hot, smoky summer, I embraced the coming autumn.  

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