My low-impact life

  • Junkyard cabin

    Bill Bilverstone
  • The author, bathing outside his cabin

    Bill Bilverstone

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With school still 10 months off, I worked as a part-time dispatcher for Joe’s fleet of blue-and-white tow trucks and shoveled snow. The following summer, I returned to landscaping. I bought my first computer -- an inexpensive, inefficient and practically indestructible Wal-Mart kludge -- took a bonehead computer course and explored Montana State from the library through the gym. Even without my hair loss and crow’s feet, my mother wouldn’t have recognized the eager student who showed up for class the following September.

At first, a full class load was a challenge for a guy who’d been out of school for 25 years and worked at least two part-time jobs. More than one dawn found me in bed and in doubt, chanting the refrain from The Little Engine That Could, that plucky tale my parents had read to me as a child. Apparently there was still some magic in it. After a dozen bars of “I think I can, I think I can,” I never failed to roll out of bed and chug off to school.

Four years later, I received a degree in film and television and shared the award for best senior film with a pair of talented 20-somethings. I was extremely proud of my award, but harbored no illusions of creative genius. The savvy youngsters had crafted their slick neo-noir thriller in a single semester, while I’d labored on my documentary for over a year.

Most of my fellow graduates took off for New York or Los Angeles, but I’d fled Hartford back in the ’70s and had no intention of returning to a grimy megalopolis. Debt-free and with minimal expenses, I had the luxury of freelancing on low-budget Montana films until I won a job as promotions manager/producer at KUSM, the eastern division of Montana PBS, just down the road at my recent alma mater.

Everyone assumed I’d move to town once I found a steady job, but here it is 2012 and I’m still in that little cedar cabin with the red trim, still mostly surrounded by grasslands, hayfields and trees. Red-shafted flickers rat-a-tat-tat on my stovepipe, and I’m blessed by the occasional shooting star on my way to the jakes.

Not that it’s always idyllic out here on the fringe where, despite 1994’s lofty intentions, I’ve managed to remain. There’s wood to chop and water to haul. The deer lust after my sunflowers, and a tire shop has moved in across the street. I tell myself that shoveling 75 backbreaking yards of snow after the occasional dump will keep me young.

Then there’s the plumbing. The outhouse can be nippy and the trough-cum-bathtub is too darn big to fill with genuinely hot water. It’s a pride-inciting nippy, though. Sitting in the outhouse at 20 degrees below zero, I’m as skeptical of the pampered and plumbed as they are of me.

And that brings us  to social consequences of the life I’ve created. Five guests in my little cabin leaves three of them sitting on the bed like owls on a branch. Some folks -- no matter how many rural affectations they’ve taken on -- are flat horrified by the outhouse, while -- with one very special exception -- my love life has been a hilarious tale of attraction at the party or checkout line and panic at the sight of my cabin out there among the junks.

That’s to be expected. If you color outside the lines, you can’t expect to be carried on the shoulders of a cheering throng.

Gone, though, are the impoverished days of siphoning gas from the wrecks, whose numbers are much reduced now that Joe is semi-retired and raising chickens. I’m no longer at Montana PBS, where they were awfully good to me, but I am pleased with my new life as a freelance writer/photographer. It wasn’t the following summer, but we did eventually dig up the waterline and rebury it at the proper depth. These days, the hydrant outside my door operates year-round.

I said at the outset that my low-impact life had nothing to do with lofty ideals. That remains largely true. It’s been about expediency, economy, the freedom that comes with economy and an insouciant glee at defying society’s drift. If I’ve picked up some questionable habits along the way -- a greenhouse, a bit of recycling and a certain sympathy for green politics -- well, I’m only human.