In the early morning before six, that time of skim-milk light that precedes dawn, my sleeping bag is covered with a skiff of frost. I barely open my eyes and look toward the dinosaur-back ridgelines of Blair Valley in the Anza-Borrego desert, where the yucca spears march in silhouette against a cirrus-rumpled sky. At that moment I thought of an open-air bed in an apartment house in Berkeley, but I'll come back to that...
This is the way I like to wake up: head hidden by folds of down-filled nylon and an old wool watch cap, hands so bound by the mummy bag that I must unburrow myself from the cocoon, shoulder stiff where the collarbone tries to tell me that it is not a shock-absorber, it won’t give, it won’t yield in any way to the hard ground quite the way I want it to. And most important, the air around me is fresh, cool or even freezing cold.
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The beds we make for ourselves, the places in which we turn thrice like restless lap dogs near the fire before settling down, are at the center of our romantic notions about houses...or any shelter. Our beds are our sanctuaries where our health renews, babies are made, and the dreams come in waves from a place in the brain no one yet understands.
I remember all my beds. Some were mountain ranges of Egyptian cotton pillowcases and duvets holding their treasure of European goose down. Others sulked near the floor, as simple as a pallet beneath a cotton futon, or a single mattress during college days. Some weren’t true beds at all, but sagging couches at friends’ houses—and those, thankfully, were also during those restless college days.
When I am safe in a place where windows open and close against the extremes, I tend to sleep with the windows open all the same, inviting a wave of cold air to flow in and over the sill and then prowl the room. Far down the hill, the clapping of ocean waves against sand and cliff metronome me to sleep, and in the darkness before dawn, an occasional mockingbird sits in a sycamore in the garden and shares the latest repertoire of electronic-sounding chirps.
Sleeping in the fresh air, during the time of plagues and contagions of all sorts, was once considered an essential health regimen. Houses had “sleeping porches.” Stuffy air, shared with others, was to be feared.
I remember an unusual sleeping “porch” from my (here we go again) college days at Berkeley. The bed was in an early 1900s apartment house on Ridge Road, on the north side of campus.
I didn’t live there, but she did. She was just a friend, more my roommate’s than mine, but she invited me over for a cup of espresso one night so we could talk about a Lit class she was taking. She couldn’t figure out Ulysses. Neither, of course, could I, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to try.
Her studio apartment was in Treehaven, a Craftsman-style early-1900s structure (pictured above). We walked up the dim stairway and down a dark hall. Her place was a true studio: you could take it in at a glance. It was immediately obvious, thanks to my somewhat lasciviously heightened level of curiosity, that it had no bed. Nothing even like a bed.
I had to ask.
“How do you sleep? There’s no bed.”
“Oh, but there is,” she said. “Come and sit next to me.”
I sat down on a narrow cushioned built-in bench right against one wall. She twisted around, reached into the gap between the cushion and the wooden-paneled wall, and voila! She slid an entire section of paneling up toward the ceiling. It was on some kind of tracks.
Now the bench was no longer a bench, but a wider bed that extended into a very dark “cave” that had been hidden behind the panel.
“Here, crawl in with me and lie down,” she said. I did so, scooting on my back next to her, looking up at some kind of metal curved roof only a foot or two above us. We appeared to be inside a metal breadbox or something akin to a roll-top desk.
With a gleeful laugh, she exclaimed, “Watch this!” and grabbed some other hidden handles and slid the curved metal “roof” over our heads so that it closed off the apartment’s interior and left us...
...in a bed, perched on a balcony three floors up, with only the stars overhead! (You can see this porch-like appendage in the historic photo above, lower left. In this image, the roll top "roof" for the bed is closed.)
This wasn’t a sleeping porch, but a variation on a hidden Murphy bed meant to give you the option of sleeping outside any night of the year—except when it rained. ("Murphy" beds became an almost-generic term for any hide-a-bed, even the oddball rollout one pictured above, lower right, being operated by the main with a Mona Lisa smile.)
For a long time we lay there and talked, and watched the stars, and—after all, she was just a friend—we finally rolled the roof back over and were inside again, away from the fog...and the fog of entangling possibilities.
Many years later, I still sleep outside whenever I can. It puts me on the hard ground. My ear is near the earth, and the cool air seeps in around my face. My body seems to recognize that it was made for this long ago. For at least one night, my wellness needs nothing more than a few blankets, a roof of stars, and a river of dreams.
TOP PHOTO: A view of Blair Valley in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California via Flickr