Winter nights in the desert are spectacular, but cold. To get a good night's sleep, you need Big Agnes.
One of the great joys of hiking in the desert is sleeping under the brilliant, ever-present stars and the even more prominent planets, accompanied by gentle breezes, the smells of the desert, and often, the serenade of coyotes. In the crystalline air far from the light of cities, the dazzle of the stars and planets is unparalleled, and the experience one to savor.
There are other sights and sounds as well, especially when camping near an air force bases (which is likely to be the case, given how many are spread around the Southwest, and the fact that the word "near," in this context, can mean pretty far away). Last night four jets streaked and wheeled overhead while I looked up at the sky, two almost wingtip to wingtip, and the second pair much farther apart, and farther ahead. Each had strobe lights that flashed in a manic syncopation reminiscent of a 1970's disco. Others flew silently at supersonic speeds at extreme altitude, seeming to travel more swiftly than could be possible.
All of which is well and good, if one can look forward after tiring of the show to a good, solid night’s sleep. For that, you sometimes need Big Agnes in.
But first, some background.
In some ways, it’s surprising that I still enjoy camping. When I first started sleeping out as a boy scout in the early 1960’s, modern camping equipment was unknown. Gear came from a sporting goods store or perhaps Sears Roebuck, and was all the same wherever you bought it, anyway. Our first tent was what was referred to as a “pup tent,” (I have no idea why), and was made of heavy, stiff canvas. If you were really serious, you could order better gear from L.L.Bean, which in those days was a single-location store of about 1/10th its current size, and actually an outfitter, rather than a clothing emporium that keeps a few fishing expensive rods around for atmosphere.
Wherever you got your gear (other than from L.L.Bean), a pack was a sack with canvas straps that sought to divide your shoulders from the rest of your body when it was full, and a sleeping bag was a also a sack, of the rectangular persuasion, that cost about 20 bucks, was probably lined with flannel, and used cotton batting as insulation. Even such basic camping gear as someone growing up today would assume Noah carried off the Ark did not exist — no pack frames, or even what would pass as a usable camp mattress (you could, of course, buy a narrow rubber and canvas inflatable mattress that resembled a pool float, and then spend the rest of the night trying not to slide off of it).
Camping, therefore, provided neither an opportunity to make a fashion statement nor an occasion to indulge in a love of gadgetry. Nor, for that matter, did it even offer to most mortals a realistic hope of getting a good night’s sleep — especially in winter.
In consequence, my own early experiences in camping always went something like this:
Act I (In which the subject of our drama turns in with trepidation): Pitch tent, lay out sleeping bag, cook and eat burnt food, hack around for awhile, put on long underwear, shirt, pants, and two pairs of socks. Fall asleep.
Act II (In which the Gods of Camping begin to toy with our hero): Wake up one half hour later covered in sweat. Take off shirt, pants, socks and long johns. Fall back asleep.
Act III (In which the Gods of Camping call all their friends in to share the fun): Wake up shivering; put clothing back on and huddle in sleeping bag. Fall asleep for one half hour. Wake up shivering and put on any other clothing one can find. Try unsuccessfully to get back to sleep.
Act IV (In which our hero realizes that his heroic and tragic destiny must be faced):Confirm that there is no more clothing to put on. Get up and chop wood until dawn in order to stay warm.
The Gods of Camping aside, which are only hypothetical, the above tragicomedy is a sadly accurate rendition of most of my early camping experiences, other than those in the summer.
With time, of course, I got more savvy about such gear as was available, and did lots of backpacking and camping, winter and summer. But as the gear got better, I also got to be a lighter sleeper. Always, that ephemeral good night’s sleep lay just beyond my grasp, even though various companies came to realize that there was a lot of money to be made from high tech camping gear.
So it was that about fifteen years ago I bought my first down sleeping bag. It handily solved the temperature problem, even on pretty cold nights, and light enough for back packing (if you could stuff it into a sack smaller than a Volkswagen Bug). But by then, mummy bags had become the norm, and while I may have been warm, I also felt as confined as a mummy. Sleeping in my usual elbow-out, arm under the pillow, knee out to the side position was impossible. And rolling over in a mummy bag is an athletic experience, and difficult to pull off absent a fair degree of exertion and liberal muttering of whatever selection of words you find to be most useful in similar situations.
Thus it was that before heading West this time, I was determined to find a sleeping bag that would be both warm, practical in size, and sufficiently roomy to sleep in whatever position I chose, as well as permit being shifting position without breaking a sweat. Naturally, I turned to the Web.
I soon found that rectangular sleeping bags still exist. Now, they are sold by K-Mart, Wal-Mart and on-line vendors that probably buy their goods from the same overseas sweatshops. Each one (still) costs about 20 bucks, is probably lined with flannel, and uses cotton batting as insulation. So much for that.
So the next question was whether I could find something in between — light and warm, but also reasonably roomy. I looked with increasing discouragement at site after site, each of which only had high-end straitjackets or low-end rectangular ice chests.
Until…There she was — the mummy sleeping bag line of my dreams. And, she had a name: “Big Agnes.”
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, given our Super Sized nation. With 300 million people now, there must be a need for camping gear for the, how to say, “fully figured” (both male and female). The matchmaking site where I met my own particular Big Agnes included helpful statistics for girth as well as height (mine, not hers), as well as her over-all proportions. Besides having great vital statistics and room to move, Big Agnes has many other becoming features as well: her bottom is a full length sleeve, into which you can slide, not a paltry 20″ wide sleeping pad, but a full 25″ wide number. It was love at first sight, and my fingers flew to the shopping cart icon.
So it was that this week, with the greatest of anticipation, and for the firsgt time, I lay myself down on the desert floor, stared up at the stars blazing overhead, and fell blissfully to sleep, cradled in the warm, welcoming, ample bosom of Big Agnes.
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