Out of the nest and into a tent

by Allison Linville

I don't have a house.  It wasn't lost to foreclosure or auctioned by the bank; I have simply never owned one. As a recent college graduate, I am just now learning to pay rent, utilities and my gym membership every month, while trying to find a job that will cover my medical expenses if I wreck my car again.

Like many people of my generation, I have practiced answers to the frequent question, "What are you doing?"

"I'm not in a rush," I say sometimes. Or "Just living life!" and "I want to have fun before I get too serious."

So the idea of owning a home remains a distant goal, while for now I burn money on rent or work jobs that offer housing to keep a roof over my head. Living space to me is anything from a friend's couch to a Forest Service barracks, where I've spent the last three summers.

"Can't beat that!" my dad exclaims every time I set off for a summer where the pay for government housing is less than what my family pays to air condition the house in July. Last summer, I worked for the Forest Service and was stationed in the backcountry, 30 miles inside the Montana wilderness from any direction. Not only would I be housed in a bunkhouse with 12 other people, but once a week our food would be packed in on mules. The cuisine was along the lines of boxed mashed potatoes and Dinty Moore stew, but it was provided, and deep in the wilderness a hot meal of Rice-a-Roni tasted delicious, and a Snickers bar was heavenly. My dad said I'd found the best deal yet.

I did have to gear up for the job. I bought Carhartt jeans, a sleeping bag good for zero degrees and a cozy, two-person tent.  My bank account had dropped to $40 during the weeks before graduation, so I had to take out the second loan of my lifetime after, of course, my student loan. My father offered to pay for my gear, and the deal was that I'd pay him back in installments throughout the summer. This was no problem. Unless I hiked 30 miles to the nearest town, there was nowhere to spend a dime.

By the time my parents trekked into the wilderness to visit in late July, I had paid off the gear loan to my dad.  I was pretty excited.  "Half of all my loans are paid off!" I exclaimed when my dad let me know my balance was $0.  Of course, it was a small financial accomplishment, but it felt good.

I felt pride of ownership for the first time one rainy night on the south fork of the Flathead River.  My parents had decided to float the two-day, 30-mile trip to the trailhead to save themselves some blisters and achy knees, and I went along for the wet ride. But the raft had been packed in on mules, and the packer forgot lifejackets.  We also had too much gear. But the real problem was the rain -- on the first day it poured from the moment we got up until mid-afternoon.

Finally, during a small break in the clouds, we decided to set up camp.  I pulled my little tent out of the raft and found a flat spot under a tree to set it up.  My dad assembled my parents' tent about 30 feet away.  I was happy to realize that I had moved out of my parents' tent -- finally -- at age 22.  We ate a quick dinner, and at the first crack of thunder dove into our separate tents.  As the rain poured down, my parents yelled over the noise of the storm to see how I was doing.

"Great!" I yelled back, feeling self-sufficient.  I thought of the loan to my dad that had just been paid off and added, "This is the first living space I have ever owned!  Here I am sleeping in the first housing that is completely mine!" I was grinning with pride as the rain pounded my snug portable home. 

"And no mortgage," yelled my parents, humoring me. Thirty feet of distance and 21 square feet of ripstop nylon gave me the greatest sense of independence I've ever felt. My parents are probably hoping I'll move up the ladder of home ownership to, say, a mobile home, but for now, I'm content with a dry tent, "just living life."

Allison Linville is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She travels for work and sometimes visits home in Emmett, Idaho.

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