Couple makes backyard camping a lifestyle

Couple makes backyard camping a lifestyle

Massachusetts pair has been sleeping outdoors for a year.
Donald E. Skinner


For all but fourteen nights of the past year Terri and Josh Shortlidge have slept in a tent in their backyard in Melrose, Mass. This adventure started simply enough a year ago when they put up a tent to participate in the annual National Wildlife Federation’s Great American Backyard Campout, a one-night invitation aimed at getting people closer to nature.

Tens of thousands of people take to their backyards for this one night each year, the NWF estimates. But for the Shortlidges, one night wasn’t enough. One became two, three, then a month, and now a year. On Saturday night, June 26, the date of the campout this year, they will mark a year in their tent.

In short, the Shortlidges, members of the Melrose Unitarian Universalist Church, found they liked sleeping outside. And they don’t have any plans to stop. Every night they leave their house and crawl into the tent in their backyard. Each morning they come out of the tent and go back into the house where they get ready for work.

The tenting experience has changed their lives. “When we wake up the first thing we see is the outside,” says Terri, 52. “It’s beautiful—the leaves in the fall, the snow, each season has its beauty. This has brought us more in contact with ourselves and with our physical world, with birds singing at sunrise, crickets at dusk, and the loveliest sound of all, rain pitter-pattering on the tent fly all night long. We have a new appreciation for the interdependent web of all existence.”

Added Josh, 50, “This experience is about creating spirituality in our own backyard. It’s all about stopping and inhaling the simple things of life. It has also brought Terri and me into closer contact with each other and added a whole new dimension to our life as a married couple.”

The pair has two grown children.

Friends from the church and elsewhere have embraced and supported their sleeping out, with gifts of flannel nightcaps, handmade neck warmers, and books of poetry for their tent-time reading.

The couple has come to regard their tent as sacred space. Said Josh, “When we withdraw into the tent each night, and the zipper closes, it’s like going into a meditative state. It also gives us a new perspective on our everyday existence.”

They have also been tweeting about their experiences ( April 22 from Josh: “It is curious to me that our backyard has become so beautiful . . . it is a very, very spiritual place.” May 8 from Josh: “Rain late last night . . . awoke to thunder and lightning this morn! Even some bird songs mixed in. Indescribably wonderful!”

Terri wrote a love story to Josh about their tent experience. “You as the protector, and I as the comforter, we create this sacred space. Rains come and you place a canopy over our tent. We can hear the sounds, smell the fresh air, see the moon and stars, and feel the intimacy. It is a wonderful place to be.”

Terri is a registered nurse and Josh an Internet database programmer. “Every day I get up and go to work and I feel like I have this smile plastered on my face,” said Terri. “There’s a little secret joy in my heart, like I have this special secret that I take with me throughout the day.”

They have the best of both worlds. If they have to get up at night a bathroom is available in the house, just a few feet away. The four nights they couldn’t sleep outside were this past winter when snow collapsed their tent. A friend fixed that problem by loaning them a geodesic dome that they placed over their tent.

Not even cold weather stops them. They simply go to bed at the same time, for combined warmth. When it got down to 3 degrees this past winter their response was, “We were quite warm with our sleeping bags zipped together, a down comforter spread over them, and a Space Blanket underneath. We hoped to break below zero, but this winter strangely never got that cold in the Boston area. We’re not as afraid of cold as we used to be, and actually are refreshed and invigorated by it!”

The Shortlidges have become missionaries, spreading the word about the joys of outdoor sleeping. At the church auction this spring they sold a night in their tent. It went for $47. Friends joined them outdoors on New Year’s Eve.

Sleeping outside also reminds them of their link to previous generations. “We have a greater appreciation for all humans now—for those who preceded us over the past millennia, and especially for those who have less than us,” said Josh.

They appreciate their UU congregation, where their backyard practice is accepted and even celebrated. “It’s wonderful to have a lot of open thinkers around us,” said Josh. The couple said, “The congregation was the first group of people, other than very close friends, that we unveiled our otherwise-private adventure to.”

“At the ‘Homecoming Weekend’ ceremony, in the fall, we played a recording of a cricket chirping outside our tent’ into the microphone, and announced that we had been ‘sleeping in a tent for the last three months.’ The response was profoundly electric.” Everyone, including their minister, the Rev. Barbara Threet, got quite excited, they said, and followed the couple’s experience closely. “As winter fell, their interest increasingly included healthy concern. It served as a learning experience for many people around us, as well as ourselves.”

Terri said, “I am an adviser for the youth group of about 20 high-schoolers, who have really rallied around my backyard experience!”

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