RALEIGH — For Jordan Childress, a message from the cosmos arrived one day in Kaplan Drive Park, when he and his dog Bubbles spotted a pair of sticks leaning up against a tree.
The shape reminded him of a tepee, maybe left behind from a kids’ game of cowboys and Indians, so he picked up some more sticks nearby and propped them against the tree.
His creation pleased him, so he added more sticks on each visit, and to his delight, mysterious strangers started joining in. Soon, he had a full-sized tepee, big enough to crawl inside and meditate. He built another. And another. Then a fourth, fifth and sixth – painting them in bright reds, blues and yellows.
“I just got really lucky,” said Childress, 26. “It’s like the universe said, ‘Here’s something good to do.’ It’s like a head-flip and a half. It’s been an adventure so far.”
Thus inspired, Childress started a fundraising campaign on kickstarter.com aimed at turning his idea into a nonprofit so he can continue “tepee-ing like a madman.” As of Sunday, he’d raised $868 – just short of his $1,000 goal.
He imagines a string of tepees in parks and backyards across Raleigh, even in shopping centers, offering the populace a natural place to unwind – a convenient hut to ruminate, heal or chill. Two of his tepees, one at Kaplan Drive and one in nearby Lake Johnson Park, come equipped with lawn chairs inside.
Childress describes the tepees’ appeal in his Kickstarter pitch:
“There, I took one of the deepest, most relaxing breaths that I’d allowed time for in ages, whereupon I learned to handle problems in my life like sticks on the tepees, one at a time.”
Tall and bushy-bearded, Childress is three-quarters of the way through his biology degree at N.C. State University. He describes himself as being unable to pass a piece of litter without picking it up and tossing it. So in a way, his tepee project is a grand attempt at house-cleaning – gathering together what nature has scattered.
The additions of others
He uses the term “head-flip” frequently, which as far as I can tell is a Childress-created term for a feeling of wonder and astonishment. He gets the biggest head-flips from seeing kids playing inside his tepees, which my own son Sam did with gusto last Friday. You can climb a tree inside a stack of tree branches, which is enough to flip a first-grader’s wig.
But another thrill for Childress comes from seeing sticks added to the piles. Probably 10 percent of all logs applied to the project came by other people’s hands. You can tell because those sticks don’t have any paint. Childress invites whatever ad-libbed tepee adjustments a visitor cares to make.
“Somebody could paint it pink and I wouldn’t care,” he said. “They came. They saw. Let it be.”
The city has gotten wind of his tepees, but Childress said it has cast a tolerant eye on his work thus far, seeing as he’s not using any wood that wasn’t already there. And soon, he’ll start part-time work on the dock at Lake Johnson Park, not far from one of his tallest and most colorful pieces.
“Even if you don’t hire me,” Childress told the city, “I’m probably going to be out here picking up trash.”
Not everyone feels the tepee vibe. An apartment complex tore down Childress’ third structure, though a sign remains as a memorial. Someone took a four-wheeler to one of the three on display at Kaplan Drive, so he repaired it and added a sign reading, “Felled by four wheels, rebuilt by four hands.”
But he’s untroubled by meanness, too focused on tepee-based harmony to let the doubters get him down.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “they’re just sticks.”
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