Though You May Want to Cowboy Camp
Words and Photos by Tina Haver Currin
I made a mistake last week. A big mistake. Here on the Pacific Crest Trail, rain has been sparse, and tent sites frequently provide nothing if not a difficult pitch—think soft sand or lumpy lava rock. As such, most (ok, most ultralight) hikers routinely do something called "cowboy camping," which is a romantic way of saying that they sleep under the stars without the protection or security of a tent. It's a lovely way to camp, which promises the highest level of set-up/tear-down efficiency and limits the smells and stiff elbows when you're hiking with a friend (indeed, you can read my partner's recent ode to cowboy camping in Outside Magazine.)
Each night, I throw down my ground cloth, inflate my sleeping pad, toss my bag on top. I then turn towards more important chores, like eating and reading and laughing about the day's comical capers—there's always at least one caper—with my hiking buddies. But last week, I made a mistake.
The mistake occurred in a beautiful stretch of Oregon's lava country, where the soil almost shines in vibrant shades of orange or black, and the surreal rock formations stack up like gates to some desolate, cosmic landscape. It's beautiful but slow going. The trail is covered in slippery little rocks made of basalt and andesite, and their rough, mottled nature means that they're crazy abrasive (think pumice stone!) on shoes, skin, and gear. And when they erode, the stones turn to fine powder, which makes pitching a tent near impossible. It's a section that's tailor-made for cowboy camping.
But this desolate, prickly wilderness is also a place where you can make a mistake.
After a long slog through a dense lava field, my husband, Grayson, and I began a fruitless search for the third member of our hiking party, with whom we have an informal camping arrangement. While the sun began its inevitable march towards the horizon, we busied ourselves in the tall stacks of lava, hardly noticing the shift in light filtered through the gauzy mist of wildfire haze that hung in the air all day.
We hiked on, hoping to find our buddy until the sun finally set and the clouds rolled in. They were plump and gray and misty, and we should have taken the cue, but the ground was soft, and the stones were abrasive, and pitching a tent had become a generally unpalatable idea even in the best of conditions. So, we threw down our ground cloth and readied ourselves for sleep.
The drizzle began around midnight. "This is fine," we thought as we pulled our tent over our sleeping bags like a rainproof wrapper. But when the drizzle turned to rain, our bags began to show signs of saturation. "This will pass," we said aloud as the wind picked up. It took two miserable hours for us to admit our mistake and reconcile ourselves to the idea of packing up our sopping wet gear in the pelting storm. Still, once we resolved to move, we did so quickly, tossing everything into our packs and hiking—nay, running—to the nearest stand of trees with solid soil.
It was 2:30 in the morning when we finally settled down in our beloved white pyramid of protection, pitched from memory in the dark. We huddled together in a puddle of our own making that night, shivering and longing for morning's first light. But I was endlessly thankful for our tent and our continued commitment to carrying it. It was our one good decision in a sea of bad ones.
The next morning, we sloshed up to our hiking buddy at the trailhead, who was blissfully dry and eager to get into town. With squeaky shoes and stinking gear, it would take several loads of laundry and just as many beers before we were ready to dish, but boy, did we have one hell of a caper to share.
Tina Haver Currin is writer, activist, and outdoors enthusiast based in North Carolina. From 2016 - 2018, she lived in a Sprinter with her husband, two cats, and a dog, climbing as many mountains, running as many trails, and seeing as many National Parks as humanely possible. Whether climbing in the Rockies, bushwhacking through Arctic backcountry, hiking deep within the Grand Canyon — or, most recently, thru-hiking the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails— she discovered the variety of experiences one can have in our wild spaces and the joy of sharing what she has learned with others. Tina currently spends her time writing, hiking, eating, and working as a ranger in the Blue Ridge Mountains.