Tuesday, April 10, 2012

How the Tipi Came To Be

Tomorrow I set up my tipi.

I took it down a few days ago. It was the first time I disassemble it by myself. The final stage, lowering three poles tied together into a tri-pod, was the only tricky part (read: slightly hazardous).

I've lived in my tipi for almost four years, though I wizened up over time and now move indoors during the winter. I usually move back outdoors at the start of May and find a warm place to hole up by mid-October. I lived in the Bay Area for a short stint prior to my tipi days, and that's when I subconsciously set my intention to create the life I live today.

In California I had grown tired of my job; the daily grind wore at my free spirit. I worked to pay my rent, I paid my rent so I could go to work. I felt drained and out of place. I was missing a sense of purpose that was driven by my heart. Back in Colorado Rebecca, my soul-sister, encouraged me to follow my heart and come on home. I called Bill Star, friend to itinerant wanderers and artists, and he agreed to let me crash at his place for the summer on the Mesa. 

That summer I casually browsed yurt web sites and dreamed about the possibilities. I wanted my home to be something that I could afford and easily transport but found that yurts were beyond my means. Tipis, on the other hand, were do-able.  And, fancy that, a tipi company operated just miles from our home on the Mesa (because every city has a tipi company, right?!). After dropping Rebecca off at the airport one day I spontaneously made my way over to the shop. 

When I arrived, things felt strangely quiet. I expected the door to be locked judging by the drawn blinds, but when I checked the handle it opened without resistance. It was dark and quiet within. I hesitated for a moment, calling out for anyone who might be inside beyond the entrance, down a narrow hall (ready to murder me....?). No response. I left the door wide open thinking that if I needed to make a run for it I'd better make my escape route easy to navigate. I walked down the hallway and entered an enormous, unlit workroom that most notably contained sowing machines and tipi poles. I continued to call out as I wandered around, constantly looking over my shoulder. Something about the dark, empty building gave me the creeps.

As I rounded the corner I saw florescent light spilling from a room. 

A young woman, still in her teens, perched in front of a computer at a tidy desk. She had pin straight hair, which matched her long, thin limbs. It smelled like she had recently smoked a cigarette.  Her eyes looked tired and she seemed genuinely surprised to see me. We talked about the company and tipis. Cory pulled out papers from her well-organized files to provide me with detailed answers to my many questions.  My curiosity got the best of me and I started asking her personal questions.  At just eighteen Cory managed the many details of the tipi operation. In spite of her young and weary appearance, she handled the business with ease and intelligence. I decided quickly that I liked her.

We started to talk about the potential for a work-trade and Cory agreed to call the owner to see if I could come over to look at a tipi in his backyard and to propose my work-trade idea. It was close to noon and he was just waking up. Red Flag.

Cory gave me directions to Richard's place. He showed me the tipi and talked my ear off, as if he was recently released from solitary confinement. Red Flag. I feigned interest. He did not pretend to be interested in me beyond my ability to listen to him talk. I decide quickly that I did not like him. After my endless tour around Richard's small yard we sat down to talk business. It was the first time I spoke since I introduced myself, but I was promptly interrupted by his cell phone, which he answered without hesitation.

"Richard, I can't come tonight.....mumble mumble mumble," I heard the woman on the line say. Richard shrugged and told her they would reschedule next week. Somehow, I knew they were talking about sex, Red Flag, but I was determined to take control of the conversation and eagerly commented on the honey bees in his yard after he put down the phone. But, sadly, Richard enthusiastically shared with me that the woman on the phone started her period and wouldn't be able to film the pornography that Richard proudly made. 

Red Flag. Red Flag! Red Flag!!!! Oh shit. Oh shit. Did he really just say that? What do I do? Can he tell I am freaking out? Is my I-deal-with-porno-creeps-all-the goddamn-time face believable? Oh right.... Richard doesn't notice anything but his creepy self... I'm off the hook. Now, do I really want to continue our talk about work trade after this brilliant tidbit of information!?! 

I wrapped things up quickly from there and raced back to Rebecca's car. 

A few hours later Cory called to say that Richard agreed to arrange a work-trade with me. "No pornos?" I asked. Cory had my back, and it became clear that without her I wouldn't have gotten my work trade.  

That summer, in addition to selling cherries and peaches from the Western Slope, I spent several weeks in the sketchy cave of a tipi shop, cutting, folding, and painting canvases that would be shipped around the world. I learned secondhand the grimy details about the exploitative way Richard made pornography.

My tipi was one of the last made before the company shut down its operations. Apparently, Richard made some changes to his business model, which had been a family operated company for two generations. One change to his business plan included putting all the money from the tipi business into his side project, which was unsurprisingly an unprofitable drain.

Cory, years later, is now a Mama to a beautiful boy and runs her own business, Tiny Tipis (catch her on Etsy!) (A Tiny Tipi image)
She makes authentic crow tipis, dream catchers, and other crafty things. (Tiny Tipi image)
Note: Unfortunately, I ran into camera issues this week (they were all erased!) and promise some action photos next week.


  1. So when you hibernate in the winter indoors, where do you go?

    1. Well, I seasoned the winter in my tipi my first year...I spent a LOT of time indoors with various friends. My second winter I went to Peru for three months where my best friend from high school had just had a baby. The past two winters I've found six-month long house sitting gigs! Word's gone out around town that the lady livin' in the tipi needs a warm home...so, I've lucked out!

  2. marian, i love your writing. looking forward to more stories. and dreaming of the day we can take a road trip to visit you.

    1. Kate, know you'll be very welcome whenever you get here. So many people and places so deserving of visits. Life seems to demand that I stay right here most of the time. Just checked out your blog and I l o v e your photos! Inspiring!!

  3. having known Richard and the last days...it was sad that things happened. He and his crew made great tipis. I was there for a few days to see the group in action sewing tipis, cutting, and the painting. You were a good bunch of workers.

    I still love tipis and continue to promote them...even tiny ones. And I love your blog...very well written.
    Linda Holley www.tipi.org

  4. Thanks Linda! I agree, it was sad to see things fall apart and amazing to see how it's all done. I have and love your book. It has a special space on my shelf.