Tent Wars – Episode IV: A New Tent

Most tenting careers start with “I borrowed a tent from…” – in my case: my brother. It was introduced to me as “Zelti das Zelt” (“Tenti the Tent”) and had seen many successful uses, primarily in Dutch dunes.

Every tent I owned after it would forever be called Tenti.

This is the story of the original Tenti.

I had just broken with a couple of jobs that were not for me and had snagged what back then I had considered the opportunity of a lifetime. The new job didn’t start until September though, and it was July and vacation time. I hadn’t planned to go anywhere, but Stefanie was visiting and we were bored, with a couple of weeks to burn.

Don’t get me wrong, the summer in Rheinhessen is fantastic: sunny, hot, dry (mainly), with plenty of fresh air in the countryside and pleasant breezes up in the vineyards. But it’s the same backyard I’d seen for the last few months and I needed a change of scenery after months of trying to figure out what to do, fighting with rejections and just generally being exhausted.

“Let’s go somewhere” Stefanie finally said, and so I peeled myself off the porch swing, careful not to push the cat off, and went to dig up the old World Atlas from my Dad’s study. I opened the Europe page to Mainz and we started looking for interesting locations that we could drive to within a day.

The northern coast of France stood out as a place that neither of us had been to, so we picked an arbitrary place, grabbed some road maps and off we went.

We did no research and packed no guides, this was the most spontaneous trip ever. How we managed to pick Étretat, one of the biggest tourist attractions of the region, as our starting point I still don’t know.

The drive there was fairly uneventful. Germany’s Autobahn lets you leave the country faster than you can blink and we crossed the border near Saarbrücken. Thanks to Schengen, border crossings in Europe are not a passport-worthy occasion anymore. Instead, they are a matter of spotting the “Welcome to France” sign and generally associated with panically trying to remember French speed limits once you realize that you can’t floor it anymore.

If you decide to stick with the toll roads, French highways are just as good and fast as German ones. So we passed Metz, stopped for a quick excursion to visit some WWI sites at Verdun, turned north towards Amiens (both locations would haunt me at work roughly 10 years later) and after some seven or eight hours pulled into Étretat, looking for a campground.

Étretat chalk cliffs

Let me reiterate that this is the middle of summer and we had nothing booked.

Étretat has one campground.

The sign on its door said “Complet” – which does not imply an all-inclusive service, but rather the non-existence of available campsites. But, because we figured we don’t take up much space, we went in and asked about a place for our tent anyway.

Succès! La madame behind the counter apparently thought so too, so she assigned us a spot in the lot’s back corner.

Time to unveil Tenti!

We unwrap the tent to figure out how to set it up. It should be pretty simple, with just three tent poles, two tent layers and a handful of pegs. The poles go into the plastic lanes along the outer layer and a little metal pin at the end gets folded over to lock the poles into place.

In theory.

While we easily manage to slide the poles into the canvas, somehow we just can’t manage to get the pin in place.

The wind has picked up considerably and we’re assembling the tent almost in midair.

No turning left, turning right, pushing, pulling, swapping positions helps – the poles are just the tiniest bit too long to let us use the pin.

All of this battling with Tenti has caused much amusement for our camping neighbours – two guys from Switzerland.

“Do you girls want us to set up your tent for you?” one of them asks and at this point we’re too frustrated to let pride stand in our way of some manly display of tent building.

The two set their beers down and take over the tent from us. They bend the poles, tighten the tarp… the pin does not go in.

“What the hell?”

They pull harder, bend further, try to lock the pole whichever way they can think of. It only takes them about five minutes to realize that Tenti is winning the battle of strength and they give up, looking somewhat sheepish, slinking back to their beers.

“Hmmm.” I scratch my non-existent beard and have a closer look at the tent canvas. “I think it’s inside out.”

I flip the canvas and stick the pin in without problem.

And so the four of us had just stood there for 15 minutes and no one had realized that the tent was the wrong way around.

After this Tenti was a mostly well behaved tent and its spirit lived on in any tents I owned and trekked with ever since.

Until one fateful night near Mount St. Helens, Washington, USA…

Stay tuned for Tent Wars – Episode V: The Tentpire strikes back!

The Original Zelti
The original Zelti – hard at work at the Omaha Beach campground, Normandy.


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