Jeff Hammer: Tent Memories

With any overnight travel, whether it’s for business or pleasure or for whatever, one must have accommodations. Over the course of my lifetime, I have stayed in some pretty nice motel and hotel rooms and other rooms that were not so nice. During the summer and fall of 1977, my nineteenth year, I was employed with Brazel and Sims Construction Company. From August to October of that year, I spent four nights a week on the second floor at the old Farson Hotel in the small town of the same name seventy-some miles to the south of Lander. During the days, I helped build the right-of-way fence along Wyoming Highway 28, which up until that time traversed its way through open range. The accommodations there were spartan, and I’m being much more generous than the room deserved; but at $25 per week, one should not expect The Ritz-Carlton. The broken window provided a little character and a nice breeze when the wind blew, which was quite often. The bathroom was down the hall, and the shower was downstairs, one floor below the store. That situation was inconvenient, but not a deal breaker.

In contrast, when my younger daughter was still in high school, my wife made reservations for a one night stay at a hotel on the beach in Miami. The next day we were to board a cruise ship for a seven day spring break Caribbean cruise. We arrived at the hotel late, and when we were checking in, the desk clerk informed us that there was only one room left.

“I’m afraid we’ll have to put you in the Presidential Suite. There will be no extra charge, of course.” he said.

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From behind me, I heard my daughter exclaim in a low voice, “Sweeeeeeet!”

Well if that’s all you have, I guess we’ll have to make do, I thought, but there was no way I was going to say that out loud.

Trying not to smile too broadly, we made our way to the fifth floor and entered…THE PRESIDENTIAL SUITE.

Yes, the space was very nice, probably the nicest several rooms in which I’ve ever spent the night, but I guess I expected a little more elbow room and a little more luxury for a President. The bathroom fixtures were not even gold plated, for crying out loud, and I kind of expected the master bed would be placed on a spinning pedestal, remotely controlled by a technician back in Washington D.C. No such luck.

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Sometimes, however, when one is away from home, a rented room is just not convenient or maybe just not affordable. Travel trailers are nice, but they are not cheap. One can pay for a lot of hotel rooms for the price of a trailer, even a nice used one. The most affordable and oftentimes the most convenient solution is to bring a tent and sleeping bags as one’s sleeping arrangements.

When I remember back over the years, which is something folks my age do a lot, some of my favorite and most interesting memories were made possible because of the convenience and affordability of spending my nighttime hours in a tent. 

The first tent, the only tent really, I remember my family having was a square canvas pole tent. If I recall correctly, it was about 6 feet on each side, which is just about right for a few preadolescent boys like my brothers and me. I’m sure we used that tent before my parents purchased a small used camper trailer, but I cannot remember where or when that might have been…the back yard probably. 

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The first time I remember using it for real camping was after my father was permanently paralyzed in a construction accident. My sister and her husband then and their three kids slept in our small trailer and my brothers, Bob and Tim, and I slept in the tent during the last weekend of August for the opening of sage grouse season near where the rest area is now located on South Pass along the Sweetwater River. That, of course, was when sage grouse populations were high, and the season opened at least three weeks earlier than presently.

One of my jobs was to carry water in a metal bucket from the river to our camp so that it could be heated and dishes could be washed. On opening morning we arose in the gray light of dawn to find an inch of ice in the half filled bucket and a thick layer of frost on all outside surfaces; however, I don’t remember my body being cold in the tent during the night. My hands holding a cold shotgun that morning were a different story. Needing a light pair of gloves didn’t even enter my thought process when collecting the necessary gear for the trip. Lesson learned. Now I always have extra clothes, including both a light pair and a heavy pair of gloves in my pickup.

About two decades later, my wife, my older daughter, who was a few months less than two years old, and I were tent camping in Yellowstone, at the Bridge Bay Campground during the middle of August. Next to us, a retired couple from Florida were camping, if one can call it that, in a monstrous motorhome. They were completely friendly and were excellent neighbors, very talkative with that smooth southern accent that makes conversations interesting; but they were at a financial point in their lives where, for them, money was not a concern, unlike us.

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Nights were uncommonly cold during the few days we were there, and each morning frost covered everything. They must have thought we were neglective parents, subjecting our daughter to such cold, because each morning the wife, who always dressed to the nines complete with perfect makeup and hair, would bring Erin a steaming cup of hot chocolate, tsk tsking all the while. Gayla and I were never offered any.

One tent memory which I shall never forget occurred in mid September of 2001, a few days after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the failed attack of Flight 93, which crashed in a rural field in Pennsylvania. Y.T. Sempert, a teacher at LVHS then, and I were camping near Little Rock Creek near South Pass. He was bow hunting elk, while I was pursuing the wiley blue grouse, AKA “the fool hen.”

All commercial flights had been canceled because of the attacks, but we laid awake (at least I did) most of the two nights we were there as we listened to wave after wave of military planes flying somewhere in preparation, I am assuming, for the inevitable invasion of Afghanistan, which eventually did happen on October 7th. The nights there were cloudless, and without wind, which hardly ever happens, but one wave of aircraft would take a few minutes to pass over, and then the night would become completely and eerily still. Fifteen minutes later another wave of planes would pass. The ominous procession lasted until the early morning hours when I think I finally fell asleep. 

Gayla and I most recently put a tent to good use a couple of weeks ago where we pitched my old Cabela’s Outback at the Big Sandy Campground near the trailhead of the same name on the west side of the Wind River Mountains.

My wife has taken a liking to maps over the past few years, which is more ominous (at least for me) than it appears on its face, because eventually I know that I’m in for a long hike at some point in the future. Between the internet and a hard copy of a map of the southern Winds, she had been spending a lot of time planning what I knew would inevitably be the longest hike of my life. 

Finally, a few weeks ago, she showed me the circular route about which she had read. Most often, the hike is completed by backpackers in two to five days, depending on how serious or physically fit they are. Our hike was to be a day hike. The trek, which would start and end at the Big Sandy Trailhead, would follow a clockwise loop from the trailhead northwest to several high country lakes. After about eight miles, we would turn east past a series of higher lakes, over Texas Pass, down into Lonesome Lake below the Cirque of the Towers, up over Jackass Pass, and then turn south back to the trailhead, an ambitious 24.5 miles if the trail distances on the hardcopy map are to be believed.

The only way we could accomplish that goal was to start early in the morning, knowing we would not finish until the evening, which meant we would have to camp near the trailhead to get an early start. 

We arrived at the campground on a Monday afternoon, where we set up camp. At seven o’clock the next morning we set out on the trail. At about 7:45 that evening, I sat my tired butt down at the picnic table at our campsite and drank the coldest, most refreshing beer of my life, and celebrated an accomplishment we had completed just a few minutes earlier, one I had previously thought not possible. 

After dinner and cleaning up a little, I was grateful for a cot, a sleeping bag, and a worn but perfectly functional tent, one that has traveled many thousands of miles by automobile and plane to provide shelter when none other was affordable or available. That’s how memories are made.

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