Oval Intention: an essay

  • The author's mother in the Oval Intention tent during a 1983 camping trip in the San Juan islands.

    Gail Todd

In the buttery early morning light at Tuolumne Meadows, my 8-year-old son and I contemplate a heap of fabric and jumbled poles. We'd woken early to claim a good campsite, but only now do I recall the difficulty of assembling my father's ancient tent. He and my daughter are still sleeping, miles away. The instructions vanished long ago. I've done it before; threading the poles was once as easy as lacing my boots, but I've forgotten everything except how I talked myself through: "Just remember, it is completely counterintuitive."

Like a squashed spider, a sinking boat, our efforts list and crumple. Eventually, two grizzled Yosemite veterans lend a hand. After their suggestions and several more tries I remember: The longest and shortest poles flare out like flower petals before the mid-length ones, finally, logically, overlap in the middle. Triangles upon triangles. Almost 40 years old, the tent shows its age in details that would be shunned by contemporary weight-conscious backpackers; six poles, instead of two or three, pass through metal rings rather than fabric sleeves. But it pops into shape, suddenly youthful, and crouches on the ground, bark-and mustard-colored like a beetle or frog, taut and ready to scuttle off.

One of the guys pats it affectionately and says, "It should be in a museum."

The first geodesic tent, designed to distribute tension evenly over its surface, the Oval Intention tempted my father through a display window in Berkeley, Calif., in 1976. Berkeley is populated by tinkerers, do-gooders, visionary and demented engineers. If the city had a patron saint, it might be Buckminster Fuller, popularizer of the geodesic dome. To Fuller, it represented the embodiment of his desire to do "more with less," as much a philosophy as an architectural feat: wedding grace and strength, promoting energy efficiency, hinting at a utopian future.

My father already had a tent: a nylon cylinder held up by a string tied between two trees. As a child, I refused to enter it, and his friend asked, eyebrow raised, "You let your wife sleep in that?" I suspect the geodesic tent cost a lot, even marked down for a streak in the fabric. But the salesman assured my frugal father: "It's the last tent you will ever need to buy."

Campers go into the woods to experience limitless space, then carve it back down to a manageable size with a patch of cloth. The Oval Intention was the tent of my childhood. My sister, parents and I camped in Montana, Colorado and Wyoming, and the tent was where we sat out rainstorms, yelled at each other for letting mosquitoes in, read Nancy Drew and told stories in the dark about girls who wandered away from their parents and the adventures they had. I learned how to improvise by watching my father use a beer-can tab to fix a broken pole, and learned to take care of gear by helping him brush off every pine needle and campfire ash as he rolled the tent to stow in its tattered stuff sack.

A decade later, when college friends and I borrowed the tent for a road trip, my father demonstrated the set-up on the front lawn of our house on a busy Berkeley street.  The tent had been on the grass only five minutes before a man stopped. "Is that an original North Face Oval Intention? Can I have a look?" He stuck his head eagerly through the half-zipped door.

Now I am introducing my own children to camping, borrowing the tent yet again for their first trip to Yosemite. After a searing hot day on the crowded valley floor, we retreat to the site and my father inspects our handiwork. A pole has come apart, segments reluctant to lock. Like the tent, my father is not a product of our disposable age. As the kids and I crawl sun-drunk through the flap, he stands outside in the dusk with a tube of lubricating oil, easing the metal together.

In his sleeping bag, my son plunges into unconsciousness in midsentence about Half Dome, holding my hand with marshmallow-sticky fingers. My daughter breathes deeply, a stack of books as her pillow. Perhaps they are dreaming of scaling mountains. Or perhaps they have slipped into the tent museum, where yurts made of willow poles and yak wool hunch in a cavernous room, still smelling of the Mongolian steppe; an early Boy Scout pup tent flaunts complex diagrams on the interpretive sign; a big top for the flea circus, small as a pea, comes equipped with a magnifying glass; a silk chuppah flaps in the back courtyard; the big transparent one drifts up high, hot plastic searing onto the stars. They wander through the mazy halls, marveling at all the landscapes to explore, all the promises of shelter.

Kim Todd's most recent books are Sparrow and Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis.

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