Letting some of it trickle out while trying to soak it all in

Monday, June 24, 2013

The cost of living

March 2007
“Free Paper!”
“He’s not a very good salesman,” I mutter to myself. “He didn’t even look at me.” As I pass, an article about Utah groundwater disputes catches my attention; I’ve always had a soft spot for aquifers. Despite the risk of smashing a passer-by with my protrusive, stuffed-to-capacity, daypack, I whirl around in the crowded hallway to face the Salt Lake Tribune subscription pusher.
            He is perched on a long-legged stool, hunkered over dual stacks of his “free” newspapers like a fisherman hovering above his hook. Now wanting the paper’s weather report, I interrupt his sermon on the excellent annual rates “offered exclusively to USU students.”
            “Do you deliver to PO boxes?”
            “We can deliver to your house or apartment.” Classic sales-speak: never admit that you can’t do something, just answer a new question that you can say yes to.
            “I only have a PO box here in the TSC. I live outside.”
            “Well . . .” I can almost hear him wince as he realizes that the Trib isn’t able to deal with this particular contingency and that I am going to get away with a free paper (as offered) but no subscription. “. . . OK then, have a nice day.”
            I thank him politely and spin back into the flow of students with my paper, eager to catch up on the “Western Water War.”

             In an effort to expose myself to the natural world, I live without walls, outside in the elements. Our beliefs are shaped by what we experience and by the eyes through which we see those experiences. After having lived a specific event, we incorporate it into our ideology with comparisons and liaisons, boxes and bridges. We think: “good” or “bad,” “possible” or “inapplicable.” These labels and groupings allow us to interpret the world around us. They also can trap us if we don’t methodically challenge the assumptions and lenses the world around us offers.
In the fall of 2003, due to increased costs of living, particularly of the non-monetary sort, I decided to live outdoors. I wanted to explore, to see and better understand my conditioning and true dependencies. I wanted to hear the deer tiptoe down the limestone scree each evening. My skin wanted to touch the night air. I wanted to know what I really needed and what I had just been taught to need.
College students are generally curious and sociable. In most conversations the question eventually comes up, “and you Ben, where do you live?” After admitting that I “camp-out,” as levelheadedly as I can manage, the person I’m speaking with goes all squinty-eyed, leans back and suspiciously contests my claim. “Nuh-uh.” I try not to justify myself, instead relying on the silence to assert, in effect “I can’t prove it to you, but yes, I really do live outside.” Once my credibility is established, cascade of incredulous inquiries ensues. I’m always grateful for these impromptu interrogators. Indeed, their questions reveal what amenities, habits, and behaviors they consider to be the most indispensable.

“Where do you Shower?”
“. . . three, four, five” I count the liquid hand-soap dispenser pumps. “Just enough for a good washing.” My bare feet squeak on the tiled floor as I slide past the toilet stalls to the tan, utilitarian shower room. Carefully cupping the gelatinous detergent in my left hand and sheltering it behind my back, I pull the unwieldy faucet and twist it all the way to the “H.” The pad of early morning joggers percolates into the acoustically sensitive room from the indoor track, mingling with a wetly whistled version of “Born on the Bayou.” I cock my head to listen for the 6:30 wave of ROTC students. They always go straight for the toilets. Using a urinal isn’t, in itself, inconsiderate, but the flush chokes the usually robust shower-stream to a pitiful trickle, which is tepid and inconvenient. Grateful for my solitude, I lather the rich, pink hand-soap into my drenched hair. The shampoo industry is a crock.
Bathing is an important behavior socially, hygienically, and psychologically. Since it requires a highly specialized, even sophisticated dwelling, it was one of the first issues I had to deal with in order to move outside. For $30.00 a semester you can rent a brown 10” by 24” locker in the Field House. Though designed to hold a towel and running shorts, it also fits books, shaving cream, a helmet, biking shoes and a full wardrobe of clothes. One day, on the way to the laundromat my friend Tommy told me, “You have fewer clothes than my 5 year old has socks.”  The Field House fee also gives you access to a fresh, white towel. Once soiled, you simply toss it into an oversized, wheeled hamper near the building’s north entrance and a friendly, but professional, staff member hands you a new one.
A communal shower eliminates my dependence on a personally-owned facility. It also connects me to an unlikely, but delightful social network.
There is an odd camaraderie between users of the shower-room. We see a lot of each other but not very often. Most people go there once a day to lift weights, play basketball or take a physical education course. Because the Field House serves as my shower room and storage unit I go there considerably more frequently. Whenever I want to go on a bike-ride or read from “Eco-Economy” for my Watershed Science class, I have to pop into that steamy, tiled changing room. The inordinate amount of time I spend there usually goes unnoticed since none of the other “tenants” linger long enough to realize how consistently I’m there. This phenomenon of anonymity, combined with the fact that people are much less inquisitive when they’re naked, accounts for why I haven’t once been asked why I have so much crap crammed into that high aluminum box in the wall.

 “Where do you sleep?”
The crunch of tennis shoes on gravel wrenches me from sleep. Hoping I’m far enough off the trail not to be seen, I sink into my mummy-bag and try to blend into the underbrush. Something smashes into my foot.
“Ooof! What the . . .? Ah!”
The footsteps, initially sluggish, now sprint off into the early morning mist.
“They should hire me to rouse students every morning on their way to class; I bet that would vastly improve participation in early-morning courses,” I chuckle to myself, though I’m actually as worried as the poor girl who stepped on me. I quickly roll up my gear, in case she returns, and briskly walk to the Field House where my hot, dry towel awaits.
It takes me just over three minutes to unfold my red tarp, unroll my orange, self-inflating pad, and extract my blue and black sleeping bag from its tight compression sack. As far as “housekeeping” convenience goes, this lifestyle is pretty well unparalleled. Where security is concerned, however, things aren’t quiet as sure. After a few weeks “in the open” you build up a repertoire of camping nooks with little-to-no risk of discovery or harassment. There’s a great alcove just south of the Fine-Arts building, and an extensive patch of trees and shrubbery west of the Institute complex. Even when sleeping on campus I rarely worry about someone seeing me. The main danger of detection comes from the ruckus I make rolling up in the morning. Zippers, tarps and valves buzz, crinkle and hiss unless packed painfully slow. This caution used to retard my routine but I’ve learned that an explosive burst from the bushes draws less attention. Once in the open I take my time drying and packing my gear in the hot Utah sun.

“Where do you go during the day?”
The moisture from my damp sleeping bag humidifies the bright corner on the second floor of the Merrill-Cazier Library. Grateful for the wide windows, I lean back in the richly upholstered chair, cracking my back over its back. Cracker crumbs, dislodged from my mustache, fall to the floor where my gear lies steaming in the sun. Students, scattered along the handsome wooden study-stations type studiously, apparently indifferent of my unorthodox use of the public space we share.
            The library, Student Center, Fine Arts Building and Natural Resources Building are my most frequent haunts. In their halls, classrooms and student lounges, I do homework, eat, socialize and play. My access to these areas, assured by my status as a student, provides me with space, heat, water, toilets and internet access. While it’s nice to never need to clean the bathroom, it’s also humbling to have no control over the space you inhabit.
Outside, I don’t experience the same uneasiness concerning property rights. I’m most comfortable in the canyons or hills. We attempt to divide natural resources and fence off parcels of wilderness, but the nature of Nature eludes ownership altogether. We all have equal rights in the landscape to which we belong.

“What about when it gets cold?”
An unidentified liquid, most likely drool or dew, oozes across my clammy cheek and drips onto my synthetic sleeping bag where it freezes. I can’t feel my nose. My hands won’t close the zipper on my coat. Morning moisture flakes and falls from my frosty bike to the icy ground as I hurriedly secure my bulging backpack in the basket.
I have a sleeping bag rated to zero degrees Fahrenheit. I was unaware, however, when I purchased the inexpensive sack, that this is a “survival rating.” When supplemented by an emergency blanket, a good pad, and every article of clothing I own, my “High Mountain” bag keeps me from freezing to death. On really cold nights I sleep on a ventilation grate. Every morning I’m temporarily deafened by the rumbling, but the warmth is worth it. There are advantages to cold spells. I can be sure that no one has visited my “campsite”—the snow keeps track for me. Also, around the 15th of September the mosquitoes, ants, and spiders stop trying to sleep with me. On the subject of intimacy, living outdoors I’m connected to the earth’s circadian rhythms and aware of its moods, patterns, and changes. The weather controls my life more than the typical collegiate.

What do you eat?”
“Ding, Ding, Ding,” the cheerful microwave chime calls me from the corner of the Student Center “Hub.” I hurry over and peer through the dim window to see if my meal is ready. Slurping the instant potatoes (watered down into a drinkable soup) from my “Rubbermaid” lidded bowl, I smile. That bowl’s the best $2.39 I’ve ever spent. It has survived countless nukings.
With 23,000 undergraduates currently enrolled at Utah State, there is a free dinner, lunch, or opening social almost every day. With selective attention to the events calendar, and by getting on a half-dozen club e-mailing lists, you can count on at least 2,500 calories a day. I supplement my scavenged diet with “Quaker Instant Oatmeal” packets, dehydrated potatoes and rice, and an occasional loaf from the “Wonder-Bread” outlet’s dumpster down on First West. My eating expenses are almost zero but my food intake is largely determined by chance and luck.

“What do your parents think about it?”
“Have a good semester and be safe honey.” My short, brown-haired mother ushered me out the door, unperturbed and confidently unconcerned about my decision to camp here and there.
 “Serious students need a place to study and stack their books. You’re going to expend all your energy on subsisting,” my father fretted when I proposed the idea to him (a few days before heading up to school). Despite his apprehensions he drove me up to Logan my first semester outside. I assured him that it wasn’t financial or social constraints causing me to camp out. I buttered him up a little, reasoning that I’d be able to give more time to my studies since I wouldn’t be so immersed in the dorm social scene. The jury’s still out as to whether my decent grades are due to my alternative lifestyle or just a healthy fear of losing my tuition waiver, but this explanation seemed to calm my father. Subsequently, he has become a great supporter and chronicler of my experiment.

“How do you date?”
“Should we meet at your place or at mine?”
“I’ll come by at 8:30 OK?” I respond quickly, without hesitation, grateful she had posed the question that way.
“OK, what’s your number?”
“Uh,” This time I stall, looking upward for inspiration. “E-mail is the best way to get a hold of me. Send me a message if you can’t make it, alright?”
“Sounds good. Are you driving or me?”
“How bout we walk?”
“Uh, sure. OK see ya!”
The puzzled girl I just asked out waves politely as she steps through the library doors. I turn back my to research. It will be easier to explain once we’re actually on the date. 
With no house, car, phone, roommates, or consistent venue for socializing, I encounter a selective slice of the student population. These challenges haven’t seriously impeded my social success, however. My camping out is often considered novel and interesting. My homelessness isn’t ultimately motivated by a desire to pick up on women, but my occasional attempts at drawing their attention are helped more than inhibited by this peculiarity.

“Why do you do it?”
The buzz and snap of my bike’s tires heightens as I pick up momentum on the old banked hill, just west of campus. My shoulders shudder involuntarily, not from the cold, but from a jubilant impulse issuing from every corner of my body. I hoot and then yelp, unable to contain the surge of compact speed and hearty simplicity the early morning trip to the laundromat infuses me with. Distributed between my backpack and my bike-basket, I’m carrying everything I own.
I camp out because I feel invigorated by the whiff and bite of winter wind; because it minimizes my ecological footprint; because I feel more aware of what is necessary and what is expendable; because I don’t need an alarm clock or vacuum cleaner. There is something primal and earthy about the daily necessities of rolling up camp, finding places to stay dry, and having to expend energy to assure myself a consistent caloric intake. When the sun hangs low over the Wellsvilles around 5:00 pm, or when the temperature plummets unexpectedly, I often feel an intimate communion with the hundreds of thousands of other human beings who live, or have lived, from day to day, between buildings and beside trees. It’s a curious sensation and surprisingly appropriate to life.

Living outside has afforded me a delicious sensation of communion with nature, freedom and mobility. Freedom isn’t, however, inversely proportional to dependence. Those who own or use more than I do aren’t necessarily enslaved by their possessions. Nonetheless our ability to live deliberately is compromised when we are ignorant of the fact that our so-called “dependencies” are often imposed by others’ preferences and traditions. The longer I live under the liquid moon the more I’m convinced that exposure to night air teaches us our true context and place in the world. The more aware we are of what we truly need to be happy, the more we can serve those around us—the more we can relish the ironies and idiosyncrasies of this lopsided and unlikely existence. With new experience comes exciting detachment—new perspective that permits us to see our worlds from the outside. So I’m willing to live without.

To hear the wind through the trees
I took down my four walls
and stepped quietly into the moonlight
to the sound of snowfalls.

Ben Abbott, November First 2006


  1. this is great, I only have one question.
    how well would something similar work in Alaska?

    1. It would be even more epic! When I first got here to UAF I thought about the same thing--a snowcave up on West Ridge or back in the experimental forest. Plenty of space for a student to live outside. You interested in trying it out?

    2. somewhat, yes
      the problem I see is getting a bag that is small enough to be packed away but is still warm enough. any suggestions?

    3. I initially used a huge synthetic -15F bag that was really cheap and really warm but also really huge. I usually didn't even pack it up completely, I would just stuff it in my backpack and stash it in the bushes somewhere. After a couple years I switched to a Marmot Col MemBraine -20F bag and it was much warmer and packs down pretty small. That's what I used at Lost Lake when it was -60F and I slept in the snowbank. I wasn't warm at that temp I wasn't dead either which I consider high marks for that bag :). That was a few years ago so they may have something better nowadays.