Bring Me Down
My queendom for a bag
BY MARY O’BRIEN
In 1972, my husband O’B and I lived in Beograd, Yugoslavia with our newborn son. Handwashing diapers, sheets, and jeans that year instilled in me a lifelong appreciation for access to a clothes washer. A dryer? Unnecessary, and a large energy suck. But a clothes washer? Really a help.
Last week, as I listened to owls in a Hells Canyon pre-dawn, I realized another invention sits right alongside the clothes washer in my heart: the down sleeping bag.
Actor Steve McQueen was once quoted saying, “I’d rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on Earth.” I bet he really meant he would rather wake up in the middle of nowhere in a down sleeping bag. It’s the ultimate in wakening. The air is cool, you’re hearing the first birds call, watching the last bats dart, seeing the dawn light up a ponderosa pine; and you’re rested, enveloped in warmth.
In early summer 1967, O’B and I were given two zip-together flannel sleeping bags as a wedding gift. There were two major problems with these bags. First, their lining depicted grizzly bears rising up out of a stream on their hind legs, water dripping from their jaws and salmon impaled on their claws. Not good for someone who was trying to learn that you can get through a night in the wilderness alive. Second, they were not warm. Not only was I expecting that bears could soon arrive to kill me, but I was on that high alert all night because I was too cold to sleep.
I remember the fall afternoon of that same year, in our Madison, Wisc., apartment, when the box from REI arrived with two expedition-strength down sleeping bags. They were blue, warm, and fluffy. A number of years later, they inevitably began to lose their loft from extensive use. They then lived with us many more years as blankets for our two little boys, Josh and Zeke, who referred to them as the “blue clouds.” Now, Josh’s 22-month son Linus calls backpacking tents “flying houses.” Imagine going to sleep in a blue cloud, in a screened flying house, and you come close to what it’s all about. Or maybe you’ve been there and you remember.
Here are three sleeping bag memories:
• 1981. We’re backpacking in the mountains of Norway for a month in early summer with 7-year old Zeke and 9-year old Josh. It’s raining every day in the highlands; sometimes only part of the day, but sometimes nonstop. By evening, everything is damp, our energy is running low, and we’re finally feeling chilled. But then we get into our down sleeping bags that have been protected in a waterproof bag all day. They unfailingly work their magic: We sleep warm and dry, and wake up the next morning with our internal batteries fully charged.
• 1993. I’m sleeping without a tent, beside some of my University of Montana students, near the Wallowa Mountains. My head is inside the sleeping bag. I hear a “Wow! “and peer out into the morning. An inch of snow has blanketed our bags during the night, and we have slept through that, oblivious.
• 2007. On sand and slickrock beside the Green River, Utah. It’s still hot in the evening, so we sprawl naked on a thin liner on top of our bags, protected from bugs by our flying screened house. At some point in the night, I awake, chilled. I drape an edge of the unzipped sleeping bag over me and drift back to sleep at a perfect temperature.
OK, there are the other nights. Like the night when the bears did come and ate our five days’ food supply a few feet away. Or when we got caught in a shrieking storm all night in a saddle of Australia’s Stirling Ranges and had to wring our soaked bags out before stuffing them in our backpack as soon as there was enough morning light to escape downslope. But such nights are few and far between, like nuggets in whipped cream.
As I write this, it is midnight, and beyond time to head to bed. Not to a sleeping bag? Well, “bed” for the past 25 years in Eugene hasn’t strayed far from that beloved invention: we sleep outdoors year-round, beneath a screened-in roof, under … yup, a fluffy down blanket.
Mary O’Brien of Eugene has worked as a public interest scientist since 1981. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org