What I Learned from Living in a Tepee

February 23, 2018
living in a tepee
Courtesy of Kate BurgessThe author finds that some days are sunnier than others when you’re living in a tepee.

It’s 3 a.m., and I’m huddled in my car. Outside the safety of this metal box, Mother Nature is releasing her wrath. Rain and snow are pouring sideways; the wind roars with a vengeance; and thunder and lightning boom, crash, and flash like dueling percussionists in the sky. In the distant shadows, I see my tepee standing tall in the field, a sitting duck. I had sprinted from that canvas cone moments earlier, afraid of being zapped.

Embarrassment and fear are tied for first in the race of my emotions, my dignity already having called it quits. As my heart rate slows, I sigh heavily. Is this even worth it?

Months prior, I’d had a deep think about my values as a student of environmental education. Every day I’d wake up in a warm apartment, drive to school, and arrive at class in time to shake my head in concert with others, lamenting the latest threat to environmental policy. I decided that, for my last semester in college,  I’d try practicing what I preached.

I toyed with several ideas, including one that would’ve involved getting real cozy with squirrels, but I ultimately settled on the tepee. It was ergonomically designed, historically tested, and although she was hesitant at first, mother-approved. I bought a 12-footer from a company out in Oregon, and with lots of help from my dad, set it up in just under a day.

It’s worth mentioning that I’m of European descent, and choosing the tepee was in no way an effort to try and assume the values of a culture not my own—especially one whose ancestors were oppressed by mine. (I did spend time researching the tepee’s origins and knew I would learn from the experience.) Neither was I naïve enough to believe I’d save the world by living in a triangle for four months. In many ways, this project was self-indulgent—certainly a personal journey.

Thankfully, Mother Nature had a special way of bringing me back down to Earth whenever I got on my high horse. She sent floods, snakes in my rug, hornets in my grill, midnight thunderstorms, shivering temperature plunges, and the like. It was humbling.

I had guessed weather would be the biggest challenge to my well-being, and while snow and rain occasionally threw a wrench in my plans, more often these events empowered me. The biggest challenges, then, were logistics and loneliness. Having my shower in one university building, my kitchen in another, with both closed at key hours, proved frustrating. There were a few hangry mornings.

As for the solitude, the lack of human connection at the beginnings and ends of my days was trying. While the spiders and hornets provided some company, I eventually had to evict them for not paying rent. But as winter crept in, the days shortened, and my animal neighbors retreated to their cozy dens, the silence was deafening at times.

And yet, with hardship comes knowledge. Every time I’d get a little lonely or a little hungry, I’d remind myself that living this way was a choice, and I learned to own my choices. With electricity and Wi-Fi unavailable, I was able to focus on the call of the barred owl and the timing of the sunrise—signs of nature I previously overlooked. But the biggest takeaway was knowing anything that got wet eventually would dry out. I began to see how this lesson extended to other parts of my life and that practicing patience was a virtue.

Back outside, the winds die to a whimper. The thunder passes, and I see my chance to return safely to the upside-down ice cream cone I call home. I tuck myself into my sleeping bag, once again at Mother Nature’s mercy. Yeah, it’s worth it.

A new graduate of New Hampshire’s Plymouth State University, Kate Burgess is headed west to explore sustainable living, to get to know the desert, and to work as a wilderness therapy guide. 


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