I’ve slept outdoors hundreds, perhaps thousands of nights. We began as kids and would lay a tarp in the yard in the summertime with our rectangular sleeping bags with flannel deer and pine tree linings, dozing under the desert stars for weeks at a time.
A little older, I spent countless nights in the Cascade and Sierra wilderness, wandering, climbing and exploring. We’d put up the tent only when it rained or snowed. My body absorbed the sounds and stillness at night, the temperature changes and the shadows moving about in the dark.
Once I was violently ill, sleeping in the desert north of Las Vegas. Retching into the Teddy Bear cholla, on hands and knees in the sand under a full moon, I was at peace.
Away from cities, humans do not rule the night.
These days, during Covid-19, I sleep in our tiny zendo, maybe ten feet by ten feet. We do this for corona-safety. One of us works with the homeless; the other is in multiple high-risk categories. So we’re careful. Neither of us likes it this way, but it’s sound practice.
I moved one tatami on top of the other and double stacked the zabutans. So our four-seat zendo now sits two, with my single airbed on one side of the altar. The zendo has four windows, two on the east side, and two on the north. There are no curtains. Morning light fills the room. The air moves through as the mountain inhales and exhales.
We live at over 7,000 feet in forestland facing east below the continental divide. It’s dark at night and always quiet. Few of us have fences, something of a pact, so the four-leggeds and wingeds and spirits can roam as they are inclined. There are turkeys, foxes, bears, lions, rabbits, owls, jays, woodpeckers and ghosts of the Arapahoe.
The best part of sleeping in the zendo is I like it cold, with the windows all open, able to see the stars, feel the mountain breathe, and hear scuttering and squabbling birds and squirrels and foxes and snorting deer outside. They don’t know I’m in here. So they have a casual attitude, kind of relaxed and insouciant. They quiet down after midnight. Sitting this morning in the dark, a buck was butting the side of the house and scraping his horns. Clack, clack, clack!!!
Fall is my favorite season. The air thins and crisps and the nights are a cold sleepers delight.
Have you noticed that before dawn, maybe 3:30 or so, the temperature suddenly drops ten degrees or more? It’s palpable. I have a Pendleton blanket Ian gave us that I pull up over my head when that happens. I have my deepest sleeps with the best dreams when I wrap myself in my woolen blanket in the cold.
Soon it will be too cold to have the windows open. Below 30 degrees is a limit. I will need to notice something else then, at 3:30.
My blanket has four Native American women, with western hats and boots, mountains in the background, but very impressionistic, using just five or six colors. They stand with their backs to us and they wear their own blankets. My blanket of Native women keeps me warm in the hours before dawn.
Pendleton engaged artist and activist Apalonia Susana Santos to design my blanket against the 3:30 chill. She called it Rodeo Sisters.
I know it’s only eight in the evening. Perhaps it’s due to being older or knowing the alarm will ring at 4:30 or maybe I have grown weary of “muscling up” after too few hours sleep. But here I go, down under my rodeo hermanas, into the warmth surrounded by the chill breeze blowing through my sleepy zendo, with the “clack, clack, clack” outside. The birds are already asleep. Do you hear them? Not a sound.
The cold moves in and I dig deeper.