A few summers ago I had the opportunity to be involved in a mountain goat research project. Needless to say, I was excited by the prospect of spending half a year in the wilds of Montana ... but I did foresee one serious problem. My assistant and I planned to live—from summer through early winter—on top of an 8,660-foot peak ... but we weren't sure just what in blue blazes we were going to live in!
I studied the alternatives and rejected everything from "space age" tents (too cramped) to geodesic domes (not practical) to log cabins (too permanent ... suppose the goats moved?). No, we had to have something roomy, portable, inexpensive, easy to build, and able to adjust to a wide range of temperatures. In short, what we needed was a tipi!
THE "PLAINS" ADVANTAGES
Most folks will probably be surprised—as I was—to learn that the best movable shelter ever devised was perfected hundreds of years ago by the Plains Indians of the American Southwest. But the more I looked into the subject, the more convinced I became that—although they look like uncomplicated structures—tipis are actually more precisely designed than most of the "high technology" houses that are being built today!
As Caleb Clark, the old trapper in Ernest Thompson Seton's Two Little Savages, said: "Ye kin live in it forty below zero and fifty 'bove suffocation an' still be happy. It's the changeablest kind of a layout for livin' in." And Caleb wasn't talking majority, either. A tipi can be snugged down to endure subfreezing winters or—with its skirts lifted—will keep its residents cool in roasting summer weather. Its conical shape sheds rain ... and withstands hurricane winds that would dislodge any tent (and a good many stone or brick homes!). And the Indian dwelling will hold the heat-but not the smoke -of a toasty f ire.
I was also surprised to discover how spacious the cone-shaped homes are. My fellow -goater"' and I found we had plenty of room in our 16-foot-diameter shelter. In fact, on occasion we had five people bedded down 'round the fire ... without a single crowding problem. And these practical accommodations have another, more subtle, advantage: Living in a tipi provides a unique, at-one-with-nature experience. A cone dweller is in touch with—and yet shielded from—all the changing whims of weather. Tipi walls let the sun illuminate the interior by day ... and provide a curved screen for firelit shadow dances at night Chipmunks may perch on the shelter's poles , violets sprout from its floor, or moonlight stream through the smoke hole—mixing with the glow of a fading fire—and form a sight too beautiful for words. Little wonder the Indians (who revered nature) considered a tipi a temple as well as a home.