The Great American Backyard Campout arrives Saturday, June 23—a good excuse to beat this summer's early heat with a cool overnighter on your own back 40.
Some other reasons why backyard camping scores high on the outdoor-fun scale:
• Low travel time: About 15 steps from your backdoor.
• Minimal setup: Maybe 15 minutes to prop up a tent and throw down a sleeping bag and pad. (Backyard camping = simplest outdoor adventure ever.)
• A new world revealed: Frogs croaking, owls hooting, wildlife howling, breezes stirring, a moon floating and stars circling. Welcome to the all-natural side of your heat wave-stuffy bedroom walls.
I remember my first backyard campout fondly. It wasn't in the company of family or buddies. Instead, I was a Los Angeles-based writer for Billboard magazine far from home in 1988, and I had brashly invited myself to plop down in the backyard of someone I had never met, a popular Seattle-area acoustic guitarist named Eric Tingstad.
Eric and I knew of each other, just had never met. Now, only a few hours after first shaking hands, I'm stretched out on a midsummer's night in the Pacific Northwest in a tent next to Tingstad's neat rows of raspberry canes, listening to the wind in the Douglas firs and the hum of distant traffic.
Tingstad's record label at the time had contracted me to write bios for Eric and his recording partner, oboist Nancy Rumbel. I was already planning a hiking vacation to the Northwest, so why not toss this in, too?
But I was squeaking by on a nickels-and-dimes budget, meaning I couldn't handle Motel 6 much less the Four Seasons. So I improvised; I requested advance OKs from Eric and Nancy that I, the hiking scribe, could crash in their respective backyards while passing through. When they both agreed, I knew I was going to meet a pair of cool musicians.
In 1988, my first stop was Eric and Carol Tingstad's house. The wake-up call I got the first morning in their yard is a memory that still makes us laugh. Their daughter Jennifer, age 3, walked into the backyard to collect raspberries—her customary morning task. That's where she found a tent with a snoozing camper inside.
It was time for me to get in tune with the family routine. "Man," she said, speaking insistently at the door of my tent. "Mr. Man. It's time to get up, Mr. Man."
And so I did.
With the eighth edition of the Great American Backyard Campout approaching and that flashback in mind, this week I invited myself over to Eric and Carol's house for a reprise of that backyard campout. It was a good excuse to drop in, say Hi and catch up.
Eric and family have moved twice since Campout I. He and Carol have logged close to 20 years in their current home, a 1.25-acre mini-arboretum where Eric's horticultural instincts and admiration for landscape architect/park designer Frederick Law Olmstead have enjoyed free range.
Tingstad has raised an assortment of nearly 20 trees on the property, a variety of species that range from 60 to 100+ feet in height, all started from seeds or cuttings. Many are cedars, including a Lebanon cedar, atlas cedar, deodar cedar and Cyprus cedar. No surprise that an early Tingstad and Rumbel recording was titled Woodlands.
He also planted dozens of rhododendron bushes that illuminate the space with springtime color. Over the years Eric's self-made greenbelt (including a hand-built frontyard pond) has attracted visits from deer, bear, coyote and bobcats—all within city limits of a suburb east of Seattle. What a cool place to camp.
A free-thinking fellow, Eric can describe the difference between true and false cedars, then switch mental gears and tackle the theories of author James Gleick (Chaos: Making a New Science).
Interesting guy. His solo instrumental album, Southwest, was nominated for a Grammy in 2007, and his latest recording, Badlands, reflects his pursuit of "ambient Americana," as he calls it, "just with more of a Texas twang."
A few conversational highlights:
We got to play at Glacier Point, literally at the spot where they used to throw fire off the cliff [a tradition known as the Yosemite firefall, halted in 1998]. It was in the evening, and we played pretty close to the edge, with a full moon in the sky and some sun still on Half Dome.
It was a beautiful view. We probably spent half our time with our backs to the audience, taking it all in. The only bad thing was afterward we had to wash off all our equipment to clean off all this of fine, dusty dirt.
Your recordings have been connected to a number of groups, from the Trust for Public Land to the National Gardening Association to the Center for Plant Conservation. I recall dreaming up the term "environmental troubadour" to describe you. Does the phrase fit you?
I think lot of my environmental leanings and attitudes were in some ways are more from a selfish point of reference. "Hey; I need that tree to write a song. Don't cut it down." I think I'd call myself a conservationist or preservationist more than an environmentalist.
The word environmentalist sometimes conjures up conflict, with 2 side competing and both sides having anger. There were some issues where I had that attitude, whereas a good conservationist/preservationist, there's no anger involved. It's about moving ahead and doing the right things using negotiations. We learned that from Marty Rosen [founder of the Trust for Public Land].
When did the outdoors become a factor in your life?
I grew up in south Seattle and we lived right on the edge of some woods. One of my earliest childhood activities was taking a long walk through the woods and onto a beach. I built a lot of forts in those woods.
Ever go camping with your parents?
A couple of times per year, I think. A friend once told my parents, "Eric's the only person who sleeps at 25 miles per hour," I guess I was a restless sleeper.
How does the outdoors affect your music?
I've never quite been able to figure this out, but when I'm outside I feel very connected to the music. When I was studying music in college, a friend's house on Orcas Island had a patio with a great view. When I played there my fingers were really moving. Back at school it didn't sound like it did up there. I even mentioned that to my instructor, and he said, "Yep, that's what happens." He didn't have any logical explanation for it. Neither did I.
But I learned my music isn't just about the outdoors. It's more about creating a sense of place, an environment. Growing up my grandma lived down the street in this beautiful house with beautiful gardens, and my parents created a Zen-like motif in our house. I realized there's just as much music in a really great building as there is in a forest. I enjoy being inspired by my surroundings.
What inspired the music in Badlands?
Whereas Southwest was about the beauty, spirituality and just the vastness of the desert and the Four Corners area, Badlands has a little more cowboy in it, a little more about West Texas and Oklahoma. It's all about the boots, man.
I play a Martin acoustic steel-string and some Breedlove acoustic on it, but I redid "Johnny Appleseed" and "Chaco" with a dobro. You can hear a lot of steel guitar, pedal steel guitar and Telecaster electric, but still with that underlying shamanic drum groove—with an udu, a Native American frame drum—that was also the basis for Southwest.
When I started playing guitar my sound was similar to John Fahey or early Leo Kottke—king of bluesy, alternate picking, even Travis picking [a fingerstyle technique], with some early Texas swing. Bob Wells and Hank Garland, Mickey Baker—that's the rootsy stuff that I've always thought was so beautiful.
Then along came the whole "new age" movement. People like Will Ackerman didn't want to be put in that bag. (A composition by Tingstad appeared on an early guitar sampler from Windham Hill, the seminal contemporary instrumental label Ackerman founded in the late 1970s.) I understand that. To me, it was just timing, just a category; I wasn't going to fight it.
The genre has moved into a new kind of area, and here I am still picking my guitar the way I was more than 35 years ago. My music still has that twang. It goes pretty well with a campfire.
A few tips from REI for a dandy Great American Backyard Campout:
• Pick up a few reminders on how to be safe with campfires in the REI Expert Advice article Campfire Basics.
• Size up your gear stash with REI's Family Camping Checklist.
• Review the art and science of s'mores. (Click the image to enlarge it.)
• Get inspiration from the examples of University of Washington volleyball coach Jim McLaughlin and his wife Margaret who gave backyard camping a try with their 3 daughters despite not going camping for nearly 30 years.
Enjoy the Great American Backyard Campout, everyone.