My friends, family, and I enjoyed a fun and enlightened Kerrville Wine and Music Festival over the first September weekend. Besides the tastings and tunes, another main attraction for many folks is the experience of living outdoors. Others, most notably Dyanne Fry Cortez, write about Kerrville’s remarkable subculture, but this post might be the first detailed look at camping itself. Here is an account of the steps I take each festival to thrive without electricity, running water, or a flush toilet.
Background: I’ve been attending various Kerrville music events since 1979. Even that first year, camping seemed the best way to fully experience the amazing scene. I’d camped for years before, on my own and with various significant others and friends. But at Kerrville in the beautiful Texas Hill Country, I began to raise outdoor living to a fine art.
Beginning in 1973 with the simplest of equipment—a pup tent, mess kit, and folding chair—I gradually collected additional stuff. Soon, more items required crates and bags in which to tote them. Before long, things got jumbled and inconvenient. My first significant innovation was a chuck box, which I built in the early 80s.
Stacked Chuck Boxes
Made of scrap lumber, the device features numerous compartments for plates, saucepans, a griddle, utensils, foil, hot pads, cutting boards, cups, and spices. A hinged front drops down to create a work surface held up with chains. Rope handles make it easy to carry, and a set of removable legs keeps it off the ground. Needless to say, the chuck box revolutionized our camping experience. I added a second “storey” to it in the late 80s, a miniature clone that created more storage space and another shelf.
Tents began small, got big during family times, and shrunk again as the nest emptied. In Texas, we’re not as concerned with staying warm as we are keeping cool. Most people don’t spend much time in a tent during the day, but use it for sleeping and as a clothes closet. Ideally, a good tent provides lots of ventilation but must also be ready for the inevitable downpours. Normal rain flies seldom suffice, so we learned to stretch plastic tarps over our cloth houses. More on tents shortly.
Since a tent is rather confining, we needed a place to hang out while conversing, eating, and reading. Awnings to the rescue! Eschewing the pre-made pop-ups and mass-marketed screened cabanas, I realized that a plastic tarp is great over a tent to keep rain off, but lousy to sit under during the day. It’s noisy in the breeze and hot beneath. Desiring more earthy materials, I fell in love with untreated canvas.
Awning on Poles
Such are hard to find in stores these days, but available through the mail. I used a couple of small ones at first, propped up on cedar poles that I myself had sawed. With a growing camp population, we needed more space. With friend Michael Dennis’s tipi-making skills, we sewed our own giant awning out of cotton duck in the early 90s. It measures some 9 x 13 feet and includes grommets and a rope sewn into the hem for added strength. In a nod to modern materials, a telescopic PVC pole holds up its middle. My auxiliary tarps can be attached in many ways to extend the shade. Canvas is quiet and cool. If the day is too warm, I wet the tarps to provide evaporative cooling.
To assure that a heavy awning withstands the vicissitudes of wind and weather, I need good ropes and good stakes. Long ago I became enamored with braided chord, the type used in Venetian blinds. I employ both cotton and nylon. It’s easily coiled into a hank and holds a knot well. I make constant use of five basic knots: bowline, two half-hitches, tautline hitch, sheet bend, and square knot. To secure a rope to the earth, I utilize flagged 60d nails (d being the old abbreviation for penny). These I discovered while working as a surveyor (a connection to maps and geography). In fact, the dude who introduced me to the Kerrville festival was Craig Crosby Cregar, a fellow surveyor. The nails are six inches long and easy to recover because of their bright ribbons. For heavier applications, I use 100d and 120d spikes, all driven in with a 3-pound sledge hammer named Mjolnir Junior. Bungee chords are also mighty handy around camp.
Collapsing Chair, Stool, Table
One of the disadvantages of going around on only two legs is that we must sit down often. My campers tried many varieties of nomadic chairs over these decades, but it’s hard to beat the humble folding camp stool. It’s comfortable to rest on and you can put a piece of plywood on it to form an instant side table. The prize-winning chair design is the one pictured below with the official Kerrville logo emblazoned on its front. I picked up a couple of these at a festival in the 80s and have used them ever since. The seat comes out from the bottom and slides into the back to form a compact shape. Their solid oak structure make them durable. I’ve replaced the canvas on both. The wooden table and camp stool also fold away.
Of course, we environmental types are attempting to wean ourselves from fossil fuel, but I draw the line at cooking and illumination. The Coleman-style camp stove is efficient and ubiquitous. Instead of buying the small disposable propane canisters, I use a refillable tank. Coleman lanterns are almost as widespread, but I don’t like their too-bright glare. As an alternative, I choose the soft glow of old-fashioned hurricane lanterns. My favorite brand is Dietz, filled with highly refined oil. They’re easily dimmed and provide gentle ambient light that aesthetically fits our canvas roof.
Dietz Lanterns of Many Colors
As you can guess, the camp kept getting more elaborate every year. In the early days, we located in the meadow, which sports mostly level soft ground. But being in a low place between hills, it tends to flood and is then called the Mud-ow. The wettest festival year was in 1987, when skies rained for 15 out of 18 days. There was no dry pace in the entire campground, but areas with higher elevation at least didn’t contain standing water. That was the year my family—pregnant wife Vicki and three-year-old daughter Kristiana—moved up-slope to Sumac Ridge. It’s been my Kerrville site ever since.
View from Sumac Ridge
Another tradition at the festival is to give your camp a name, especially if it’s a longstanding one with many inhabitants. In existence were such places as Camp Sweetness and Light, Camp Cuisine, and Camp Moco Verde. I searched for a moniker for mine. Ever since 1971, I’ve worn essence of patchouli, a pungent flower in the mint family. It was so deemed, and the name stuck. You can see Camp Patchouli on signs, equipment, and banners throughout the site. I also always fly the Earth Flag to announce my presence.
The only way to get water up Sumac Ridge is to carry it a jug at a time. By elevating certain containers, I set up a siphon or gravity-fed system for drinking and chores. We save melt water from ice chests to do dishes. We conserve ice by covering the chests with old sleeping bags as insulation.
Gravity-Fed Water System
Sleeping is always an issue, especially in a tent pitched on the Ranch’s rocky ground. I make sure the bed’s head slopes slightly uphill. Under ideal feng-shui conditions, our feet point south, but that’s not always possible given the terrain. We’ve tried many kinds of inflatable mattresses, but they never ever hold air throughout a night. A stack of closed-cell foam pads works much better. I get my best Zs sleeping at Kerrville.
As my equipment collection got ever bigger, I needed a way to keep track of all those items. Solution: checklists. These got more elaborate, too. My current one is arranged geographically, corresponding to Camp Patchouli’s layout. It’s easier to remember things in groups.
The growing bulk of paraphernalia gave rise to a storage crisis. For many years, I simply stashed everything in the bottom of a closet. It was getting harder to access and a pain to haul out and pack. The crisis came to a head when I put my South Austin house on the market in 2006. Everything had to be moved. It was a perfect opportunity to build something Boy Scouts have used for years: a gear trailer. Such would provide secure storage and easy transport to camping events. Mine, however, would assuredly advance to another level of functionality and elegance.
Packed and Ready for Travel
Welcome the Chuck Wagon. It’s sort of an enlarged version of the chuck box, built on an off-the-shelf 4 x 6-foot trailer. The canvas and wood contrivance offers the expected stowage and mobility, but also becomes the camp kitchen and spare bedroom when emptied. A side hinges up to form an ample work surface. The roof raises to create a bit of shade and rain shed beneath. The opposite side also becomes an awning and lets breeze flow through.
Chuck Wagon Open and Bedecked
Chuck Wagon as RV
Historical footnote: “Chuck” got its name from Charles Goodnight, famed Texas cattleman. He invented the chuck wagon to carry equipment and supplies for the long cattle drives up the trail. Chuck also denotes food, as in “up-chuck.”
Cowboy-Style Chuck Wagon
Kup and Glasses
In 1991, festival founder Rod Kennedy banned disposable vessels from the main theater area. This drastically reduced trash accumulation and, too, gave rise to the Kerr Kup, a reusable 16-ounce plastic container that comes with a circular clip to hang on your belt loop or pocket edge. Emblazoned with the festival logo, these kups in their many hues have become collectors’ items. I wear mine constantly every festival. Wine events issue similar souvenir wine glasses, with a different color every year. Two of the stemware reside in the chuck box, protected by beer koozies during transport.
Chameleon as Sunshade
Another fascinating product I discovered in the theater craft booths one year was the chameleon. This is a multipurpose garment that’s a cape, shirt, skirt, bag, pants, or dress, depending on your need at the time.
Crates Form Side Table
A great container for comparable miscellaneous gear is the milk crate. Light weight, durability, inexpensiveness, standard size, and interlocking design all contribute to their indispensability.
Carpets and Paving
Another feature that adds pure comfort to the experience is rugs and mats. I use square-foot woven rice fiber ones at the tent’s threshold and brightly painted upside-down carpet remnants in front of the Chuck Wagon. Because our site on Sumac Ridge be relatively permanent, I laid down flagstones as pavement and salvaged 2×6’s to devise terracing. These stay put when we’re not at festival.
For many years, Quiet Valley Ranch had no scale map. Being the inveterate cartographer and surveyor, I took on the task to provide one. With help from my tipi friend and my son Sol’s classmates, we used a transit, range pole, and 100’ tape to fix locations of the grounds’ major places. I also dreamed up names for campground areas, such as Fenceline Heights, Sunrise Strip, and Sumac Ridge. I’ve published and sold this map since 1993 in both paper and cloth formats. On the reverse side, I include camping hints, a plant and animal inventory, and an essay on the ranch’s natural history. This geographer’s tool informs the nature walks I lead on every Sunday of every festival. The MapKerrChief comes in blue, tan, yellow, and goldenrod colors with hundreds of uses.
MapKerrChiefs with Patchouli Located
Leading a Nature Hike
With the frequent drawing and reading that happens in camp, where do you keep your papers and books? Here’s the field desk:
Close-Up and In Use
It’s got compartments for maps, field guides, novels, pencils, pens, and other necessities. Akin to a chuck box, the field desk features a flat work surface. All told, the cute thing serves as the campground office.
Kerrville remains an inseparable part of my life, and I’m pleased have contributed to its success over the years. There’s just no place like Kerrville, and there are few places as homey as Camp Patchouli. Why not join us next festival?
Please share you own camping experiences and comments.