I’ve Lived in a Tent Every Summer for 35+ Years and Always Will—Here’s Why
Four months, one tent: Welcome to Jennifer Walsh's paradise
Simple sounds of nature have such restorative effects on the body and brain. The trill of birdsong, the rasp of blowing leaves, the patter of rainfall and the crash of ocean waves are almost universally calming, which is why so many people use them to quiet the mind and lull the body into sleep. I, for one, relish those moments in which nature’s rhythms are louder than man-made noise. It’s one of the reasons I make an annual trek from the buzzing Big Apple to the quiet of Ocean Grove’s Tent City.
Each spring, I leave my New York City apartment and move into a tent in Ocean Grove, New Jersey. I’ve lived there every summer for the past 35 years, sharing a space with my family. For those four months of every year, the sounds of the natural world envelop me from sunup to sundown.
I like to say that I stay in a living structure with walls that ebb and flow with the breeze. I can hear the push and pull of the ropes that keep the canvas in place. I can smell the first drops of rain the minute they hit the soil. I can tell how foggy it might be at the beach, two-and-a-half blocks away, based on how fragrant the scent of the brine is coming off the ocean. I rise with the first light, and my home changes color—turning vibrant pastels in shades of orange, pink and purple—with the magnificent shades of the summer sunset.
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The making of Tent City
Courtesy Jennifer Walsh
Ocean Grove is a quaint and historic beach community located just shy of two hours south of New York City. Flanked by two lakes and bordering the Atlantic Ocean, it’s a summertime oasis with a long history. Methodist settlers set up camp here and established the town in 1869. They were part of the camp meeting movement of the 19th century, which saw groups of people of various Protestant denominations pitching their tents across America and gathering for camp activities like religious worship, singing and praying.
As tents and cabins were erected on this stretch of New Jersey shore, the story of Ocean Grove began. My Ocean Grove story begins anew each spring. On May 15, I join 113 other “tenters” for a move into our tents for the season. We stay until Sept. 15, when it is time to close up for the fall and winter months.
While we’re there, visitors from all over the country stroll through the town and meander through the tent community to get a look at what life is like in Ocean Grove’s Tent City. When asked, I always say it’s magical. It is such a unique way to exist and be part of something so special. I never take a moment here for granted.
Today, walking through the town is like stepping back in time. It’s full of beautiful old Victorian homes and crowned by the must-visit Great Auditorium. Surrounded by Ocean Grove’s Tent City, the Great Auditorium was completed in 1894 and can house nearly 7,000 people, who come for church services, concerts and speakers. In the past, it’s played host to speakers like presidents Nixon, Roosevelt and Wilson. And many who have performed concerts here compare the acoustics to that of the famed Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Main Street ushers guests through the main gates, past storefronts full of small businesses and lovely little eateries, and on to the ocean. One of the best aspects of living here is its walkability. When I stay in Ocean Grove’s Tent City, I can traverse the town with ease—and explore the surrounding areas too.
Just north of Ocean Grove, Asbury Park is full of hip restaurants, bars and countless shops. And then there’s the historic Stone Pony, where Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi used to play regularly and where you can catch indoor and outdoor concerts from some of the biggest names in music all summer long. There is always something going on in Ocean Grove, in Asbury Park and in the other adjoining beach communities, which are all connected along the boardwalk.
But I don’t have to go far to find something to do. In the summer months, most people entertain on their front porches in both the tent community and the Victorian homes residents live in year-round. The city is full of life and conversations with neighbors. We often joke about how long it takes to walk a block—there’s always someone (or someones) you can stop and speak with.
A summer community
Courtesy Jennifer Walsh
To the uninitiated, Ocean Grove’s Tent City may conjure images of national park camping, with its portable tents and potential for bear sightings. But tent life in this small New Jersey enclave is a different sort of experience, which may be why the tents are hard to come by. Right now, there is close to a 10-year wait-list for one.
These tents are family heirlooms of sorts, handed down from generation to generation. There are strict rules against renting out a tent or turning it into an Airbnb experience, so I’m not surrounded by strangers. I’ve known my neighbors for decades. Though we’re seasonal residents, tenters are an active part of the community all summer long, and most volunteer at the countless fun events the town puts together for locals and visitors alike.
The gift of time
Tent life is a simplified life, and that’s a good thing. Our quarters are small but offer everything we need. Each tent connects to a cabin that houses a bathroom, kitchen and living area. We have running water and air conditioning in the cabin, and almost everyone has Wi-Fi. (The cabin’s use goes beyond space: In the fall and winter, we move all our furniture from the tent to the cabin and board it up for safekeeping during the colder months.)
Most of these structures are more than 140 years old, and no two tents are alike. Our homes are full of personality, with almost all the 114 tents measuring slightly different in terms of square footage. Everyone decorates their tent in a unique way too.
Tenters come from all over the country, so when they get here, they often stay for the entire four-month season. I share this space with my parents. Many others live with multiple family members—and yes, it is a small space for more than two to three people. (If you’ve ever gone car camping, though, you could handle it with ease.)
Living with multiple generations is a gift that many other cultures take such pride and joy in. For me, the greatest gift the experience offers is time. I have time with my parents, and that is the ultimate joy.
The allure of living simply
During the summer of 2020, Ocean Grove’s Tent City gave me another gift: freedom. I lived outdoors for a full four months at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a time when indoor activity was restricted. We said goodbye to indoor dining, movies in theaters, museum visits and so many other activities we were used to. But in this tent community, we sat on front porches and in backyards experiencing togetherness in a safer environment.
I rarely went home to my New York City apartment that summer, and why would I? Those four months of living outdoors transformed me and my work. It helped me step into a greater understanding of what it meant to live simply, to need very little and to have a solid community of people of all ages that would check on one another and share meals and food from our gardens.
I was so thankful for that laughter and joy in an otherwise challenging and uncertain time. It was honestly the best place to be to “hunker down” during the first few months of the COVID-19 storm.
Society today encourages nonstop stimulus from technology and jam-packed schedules. We’re trapped indoors, burned out and isolated. But living in harmony with nature and those around us is tonic for the soul.
If you get a chance to slow down for a day, a weekend or longer, I recommend finding spaces and places that fill your heart and soul with joy and kindness and offer a slower pace to life. Whether you nab a tent in Ocean Grove’s community, book a glamping vacation or do some free camping in your area, experience tent living with your whole body. Listen, smell and see the beauty of life and the beauty of nature. Notice how you feel. Seek the moments of quiet, stillness and beauty, and never underestimate the power of community for your health and well-being.