First Gear

I bought a used tent on eBay this week, a discontinued Kelty that the seller said was used only a few times by Girl Scouts. Cookies weren’t included in the price but I did get four stakes and a rain fly. I wouldn’t ask a Sherpa to carry this—it weighs eighteen pounds with a center height of six feet—but maybe my grandsons will give me a hand with it when we go camping. Maybe.

Over the years I’ve owned several tents and I now recognize the fluctuating correlation they’ve shared with camera equipment and the vehicles I’ve driven. For a layman it’s basic physics: given a larger space, camera equipment expands, much like the universe.

I started a serious life in photography (though I didn’t know it then) with a Minolta SRT-101, and a long-forgotten nylon tent. I do recall that the fly didn’t work well—you never forget a wet tent. A VW Bug got me around in those days, and then a Toyota Hi-lux pickup. There was a surge in the size of my camera bag—a second body appeared and three or four new lenses. Next came a hard-sided case, and a cabin tent.

A Mamiya twin-lens camera and three lenses—my first brush with larger formats—arrived on scene about the time I bought a Toyota hatchback. Everything (and more) fit with the rear seat folded down.

When I traded the hatchback for another pickup I surrendered a lot of storage space, so the hard-sided case, full of Minolta and Mamiya, went in trade for a Canon system. Still, I crammed a lot of gear into the front seat of that little truck. And when I arrived somewhere it all seemed to end up on my back.

Then my life changed dramatically—I married. Two may travel as cheaply as one, but they must share storage space. That’s at a premium in a tiny Datsun wagon, especially on extended road trips. If I really didn’t need a piece of gear it stayed home. The old canvas tent enjoyed a brief revival before it ended up in a garage sale, and we settled into a spacious nylon dome that was easier to set up but did require crawling into.

The universe really expanded when we bought a travel trailer. We’d moved on to a full-sized pickup and my mother-in-law gifted us the money to buy an old Kit that would tag along behind us for several years. It was short—only twelve feet—but it held everything we needed. I could stash two tripods and any number of bags in it, and it didn’t leak. A Pentax 6×7 appeared for a while, and later a Toyo 4×5 field camera.

When we upgraded to a newer pickup and a nineteen-foot Nash trailer we’d reached our zenith—it’s been a downhill arc since. But I mean that in a positive sense. I was (mostly) past acquiring new camera gear by then—it doesn’t take bags of gear to enjoy photography. And we discovered, not for the first time, that simpler (for us) works. Our tandem-axled home away from home, nice as it was, wasn’t us, and so it gave way after a couple of years to another fine discovery, the Bed-and-Breakfast.

We have a Toyota 4Runner now, for those off-roads too rough for the car, but that cavern behind the driver’s seat won’t be filled with camera bags—I can do a big trip with one camera body and three lenses now, two if I’m traveling really light (I shoot 35mm exclusively today). That space is reserved for more important items—sleeping bags, camp chairs, a stove, cooler, and the other necessities that make camping out enjoyable. If I’m traveling alone there’s enough leg-room to stretch out comfortably in back on my REI camp bed.

And when the weather’s fair, and I’ve got twin ten-year-olds copiloting, there’s nothing better under the universe than a tent and a big bag of cookies. Simply add milk.


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