A day in the life of a tipi-dweller

Wow! It’s been literally years since the last installment of my tipi tales! I have so little time anymore when my mind is empty enough and the house is quiet enough for focused writing. But, oh, how I love the journeys back in time as I tell these stories. I wrote this early in the morning after nursing Seth and finding I couldn’t get back to sleep. With this installment, I will attempt to give my readers an idea of what a typically day on our homestead was like that first spring…

Continued from Episode Nine: What’s Cooking?

Daddy’s days were spent with the goal of building a more permanent dwelling for our family, hopefully before winter. As that was still 7 or 8 months away, however, and the first weeks much time was spent on other important tasks, such as establishing a good water supply for the family, making our campsite as functional and comfortable as possible, and acquiring the tools and building relationships with knowledgeable people in preparation for building our cabin. The boys, 15 and 10, were his assistants, while I spent my days with Mom, for the most part.

I cannot say our days fell into a rhythm, for it just was not so. We had embarked on such an unknown adventure, with such a steep learning curve, that each day, if not each hour brought new challenges and something to disrupt the fragile routine of our new life. Yet there were the daily chores that must be done, meals that must be prepared, and the tasks to keep our ‘home’ in the woods running as soon as possible.

The day began with the sounds of Daddy getting the fire going (either in the stove in the tipi, or in the fire pit just on the other side of the canvas from my sleeping cot, depending on the weather) and beginning breakfast preparations. Breakfast is a big deal in our family – always has been. It is not skipped, and it is usually quite hearty. On the homestead, with one of our goals being self-sufficiency, breakfast was a simpler affair than in the past. Pancakes, eggs and bacon, cooked to perfection, were a special treat saved for days when we hosted special guests, or when morale really needed a lift. Our more regular daily fare was some form of hot cereal. When we got tired of oatmeal, we switched to cornmeal mush. When that got old, we tried steel-cut oats, cooked ’till soft, with honey and peanut butter swirled in. There was also granola with fresh cow’s milk, and, yet another variation on the them – warm milk poured over dry oats, sprinkled with various nuts and dried fruit. All of these could easily be made on top of the wood stove or in a pot over an open fire.

I still remember, aided by my journal, how a typical morning might start…

“I woke up to the “whhrrr, whhrr, whhrr!” of Dad stirring the cornmeal. Dad doesn’t like lumps in the cornmeal, neither does Mom. No one else minds, but Mom and Dad go to great measures to get them out ’cause thy think WE mind. Its all a bit mixed up…”

Mom would be nursing the baby on her air mattress in the middle of the floor. Anja and Olivia, ages 8 and 5, would be awake already playing or reading books on the cushions that made their beds. The boys and I had the sense to stay in our cozy sleeping bags as long as possible. But soon as breakfast was ready, the call went out – “Feet on the floor!”. Feet still in sleeping bags didn’t count! We’d scramble out of bed and begin packing up our bedding to make a little more living room in the tipi. Sleeping bags were stuffed, Jordan’s cot was collapsed, and all bedding was folded up and stored on Joel’s cot for the day. My cot was used as a sort of a couch during the day. Mom and Dad’s air mattress was deflated and stored away each day. The little girl’s cushions were stacked in front of the book case to make another ‘couch’ of sorts. Then we were ready for breakfast.

We’d eat, balancing our stainless steel camping bowls on our knees, while Dad read devotions. Then the boys would head out with Dad while Mom and I began our chores.

Water must be hauled from the spring at the bottom of the hill to be heated for drinking and dish washing for the day. Kindling must be gathered and dead branches must be sawed into logs for the fire so we could cook. I often spent hours each day with a bow saw, sawing and stacking wood so mom could keep the fire fed. Soup would be started for dinner so it could simmer on the stove or over the fire. The campsite must be tidied and the tipi swept. In the first few weeks we did laundry by hand, but this was such an arduous and overwhelming chore, requiring so much water to haul and so much time to line dry the sopping clothes, we soon resorted to the laundromat. Laundry was done once a week, hauled in old recycling tubs to town, washed, then hauled back and hung on a series of clotheslines strung through the trees around the campground.

When chores were done, we might do something extracurricular, such as collecting wild herbs, exploring our property, or, in the spring, basket making. My mother had made baskets for years, and when we moved to the homestead, our neighbor taught us how to use the willow rods which grew along the creek and in damp areas to make sturdy, serviceable baskets for gathering eggs and herbs and produce from the garden. I fondly remember long hours trudging around in The Marsh  – the damp acre or two fed by the spring at the bottom of the hill – in my mother’s bright yellow boots, carefully selecting the longest, slenderest rods for us to weave with.  When I had collected a pile, I’d tie the rods into a bundle with smaller willow stems and haul them on my back up the hill to the campsite. Mom would be there, tending the fire and keeping an eye on the little girls while she finished up another basket.

In the afternoons I was sometimes free to tag along with the boys, or go exploring on my own. I remember that it took many weeks for me to venture outside the immediate vicinity of the campsite. Though it was thrilling to think that all the land we could see around us was ours to explore, I was not used to such wide open spaces and usually stayed in sight of the tipi. There was much to explore in just that plot of woods at the top of our land – old apple trees, gnarled and shaded by the forest grown up around them, old stone walls made by farmers in the 1800’s, rusty bits of farm equipment in the hedgerows, bird’s nests and deer tracks. It was all new and yet grew delightfully familiar as we began to feel ownership.

The evenings would find us gathered around whatever source of light there was – the campfire, or the Coleman lantern in the tipi if it was chilly outside. We often spent the evenings writing letters to friends we had left in N.C. Final trips were made to the latrine – in pairs, one to face the other way and hold the flashlight for the other. The stove was filled with logs and and the drafts closed to bank the fire in hopes of keeping coals alive till morning. Mom and Dad would take turns blowing up their mattress, bedtime stories would be read to the girls, baby would be passed around for everyone to kiss before being tucked into her bed. Then it would be lights out – I’d beg for one more minute to finish my sentence in my journal, then Dad would shut the lantern off.

As the glow from the mantles faded, I would imagine what the tipi looked like in the night – a giant, white, paper lantern, slowly fading. I’d snuggle down in my sleeping bag and listen to the night sounds…the creak of my brother’s cots, the whooshing of the air mattress as one of my parents rolled over, the ticking sound of the stove cooling down, and the wind, gently caressing the canvas and reminding us just how close to nature we were as we slept.

Suddenly we heard a rattle in the cat’s food dish, and soft little foot steps outside the tipi flap. Dad spoke up in the darkness, “Boys, tomorrow we gotta set a trap and catch whatever’s snatching the cat’s food…”

Continued in “How to Take a Bath in Your Fridge”

3 responses to “A day in the life of a tipi-dweller”

  1. […] -Trina Holden in “A day in the life of a tipi-dweller” on trinaholden.com […]

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    I'm really enjoying these posts as I well remember visiting your tipi that June.
    I wrote quite an extensive article on our family's encounter with a nocturnal visitor. One of these days I'll probably publish it.

    –Dan Buck

  3. Kateri Avatar

    Wow, reading this makes me a little sad. I do have some very good memories of the first spring and summer that your family spent on this property. And before you moved there, I made a lot of baskets from the willow in the marsh…wonder if anyone will ever pick it in the future.

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