College senior gives new meaning to ‘off-campus’ with hut 

Photo by Michael Rubinkam | AP Photo  This March 23, 2015 photo shows the hut that Juniata College senior Dylan Miller built in the woods near campus in Huntingdon, Pa. For his senior research project on simple living, Miller decided to emulate Thoreau instead of just reading his work. So, deep in the woods about a half-hour's walk from campus, he built a hut out of fallen trees, leaves and a tarp - unheated, no plumbing - and has been living there since the beginning of the school year, studying by lantern and chasing away the occasional bear.

Photo by Michael Rubinkam | AP Photo
This March 23, 2015 photo shows the hut that Juniata College senior Dylan Miller built in the woods near campus in Huntingdon, Pa. For his senior research project on simple living, Miller decided to emulate Thoreau instead of just reading his work. So, deep in the woods about a half-hour’s walk from campus, he built a hut out of fallen trees, leaves and a tarp – unheated, no plumbing – and has been living there since the beginning of the school year, studying by lantern and chasing away the occasional bear.

MICHAEL RUBINKAM, Associated Press

HUNTINGDON, Pa. (AP) — You’d think Dylan Miller would have looked forward to spring, considering he spent his senior year of college living off-campus — WAY off campus — in a sturdy but rudimentary shelter he built in the woods.

But he didn’t mind eating, studying and sleeping in winter’s chill. Really.

“It’s a lot like jumping into a cold lake, and after a minute you’re used to it and you’re swimming around happily,” said Miller, a student at central Pennsylvania’s Juniata College. “I just wore shorts all winter because my body was so well acclimated.”

It’s not the only change that took place within the philosophy and English major, who decided to live like Thoreau — not just read his work — for his senior research project on simple living.

Last summer, Miller built a 17-by-17 hut from fallen timber, using leaves as insulation and a tarp for a roof, and lugged essentials up a steep trail as classmates settled into their dorm rooms and apartments.

Photo by Michael Rubinkam | AP Photo  In this March 23, 2015 photo, Dylan Miller, a senior at Juniata College, poses in front of his shelter in the woods near campus in Huntingdon, Pa.

Photo by Michael Rubinkam | AP Photo
In this March 23, 2015 photo, Dylan Miller, a senior at Juniata College, poses in front of his shelter in the woods near campus in Huntingdon, Pa.

Happily trading climate control, indoor plumbing and electricity for the solitude of the woods, Miller, 22, of Meadville, spent months studying by candlelight, drinking tea and keeping a wary eye on the occasional bear as he tested the notion that one can live with less and still find contentment.

“He wanted to see how he could live minimally and still kind of maintain a lifestyle that worked in the contemporary world,” said his academic adviser, Will Dickey, an assistant professor of English at the small liberal arts school.

The title of his project — Content with Nothing — carries a double meaning.

“The first meaning is the problem. We can’t be content with anything, really. Nothing can make us content; we’re always looking for something else,” Miller said.

“And then the solution, content with nothing, means we are content with having nothing. We don’t look externally for satisfaction or desire luxury. So the whole project is how to get to that final state of contentment.”

Officials at the small liberal arts college were initially skeptical of Miller’s idea to live in the woods about a 30-minute walk from campus, but warmed to it after he submitted a 21-page proposal and addressed their concerns about his well-being and the academic rigor of his project.

He agreed to keep a cellphone with him for emergencies, and stayed with friends for about a week when temperatures dipped below zero and it became too dangerous to sleep in the hut.

Beyond those concessions to safety, Miller is fairly self-reliant. He hauls propane tanks and gallons of water up the hill and carts his trash back down, uses an outdoor latrine, and subsists on rice, beans and dried soup. The interior is surprisingly cozy and comfortable, with wooden floors, a writing desk lined with books and a small heater that works down to about 20 degrees.

“Since this is my home now and it’s become normal to me, it doesn’t really feel like an endurance contest anymore, or a project. It’s just where I live,” he said.

Not for much longer. Miller plans to tear down his shelter when he graduates next month. It’ll be a fitting coda to his year of living simply.

“Everything in the woods rots and changes and becomes everything else,” Miller said. “So I wouldn’t have it any other way with the shelter.”

 

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