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for people who care about the West

My low-impact life


My low-impact life did not grow out of my concern for the environment, or anything the least bit altruistic. It sprang from my desire to get an education without falling into debt. Just back from caretaking an isolated Canadian fishing camp, I faced the challenge of finding an inexpensive place to rent in Bozeman, Mont., where the housing market had gone berserk.

An old friend invited me to stay in his junkyard while I looked around. Joe operated a towing and vehicle-repair business seven miles west of town, and an aged blue-and-white camper squatted among the wrecks behind his shop. It was stale and gritty from lack of use, but staying in it beat camping on someone’s couch. Besides, the neighbors were earthy and unflappable. A pair of cows grazed between the junks, and a lonely old buckskin named Dusty gobbled carrots from my hand.

A run of good news (my ancient community college credits would transfer, the state of Montana offered a tuition break for Vietnam vets) was tempered by the looming certainty that inexpensive rentals had gone the way of the triceratops. It was 1994, and Bozeman had begun showing up in magazines touting lists of “Best Places to Live.” I wasn’t going to find another inexpensive bunkhouse nestled in a canyon or $65-a-month cabin within sight of Bridger Bowl. Pushing 50, I couldn’t get excited about another winter in a teepee. Truth be told, I’d only lasted through November the first time, and that was back in the ‘70s.

One glum evening as I trudged over to Bozeman Hot Springs for a shower and a soak, I noticed a row of pint-sized cabins hired out to tourists. Next morning, I found Joe changing the oil in a battered green Civic and suggested I build a cabin in the junkyard. Build it on skids and rent the ground until I graduated and hauled it away.

Joe said he’d think about it.

Two days later I caught up with him as he pulled a handful of wrenches from a hulking red and chrome Snap-On toolbox.

“How about,” he said, “if I buy the materials and I own the cabin? You do the building and keep track of your wages, and once you move in, your wages go toward rent. After you burn that up, you pay me.

“How much?”

“$175 a month, including utilities.”

Joe is three inches taller than me and 40 pounds heavier, but I may have crushed the burly ex-Marine’s hand in my eagerness to close the deal.

Fact is, after 20 years of living on the fringe, I could tell some pretty good tales, but they didn’t feature terms like Dow Jones, equity or interest. In other words: My caretaking wages were all the money I had in the world. Purchasing materials would have meant putting off school an extra year or taking out student loans, something I was loath to do. I may not have been a corporate raider, but I hadn’t owed a cent in 15 years.

I began construction in June, dividing my days between the cabin and -- since I was saving my nest egg for books and tuition -- a landscaping job. I built a 12-foot-by-20-foot one-room frame structure with a gable roof and wired it for electricity. I built the bed a little high for the sake of storage room underneath it, the kitchen counter long enough to support a dorm-size fridge, and installed a pair of stoves: A propane stove for cooking and a woodstove for heat. I scrounged the propane stove, sink and fridge from the junkyard and rounded out my dorm-gothic furnishings with yard sale and second-hand store treasures.

And I did build the cabin on skids. Great 8–inch-by-8-inch treated timbers bolted together, with angle irons cut and drilled in the shop. If Joe needed to haul the cabin around, he could hook up to the ring bolts socked into the timber’s east and west ends.

Gray November had clamped down and a storm was looming like a sooty fist by the time we got my electrical service and sketchy waterline planted. I say sketchy waterline because the West Gallatin River was a quarter-mile down the road and the 80-yard excavation from the shop to the cabin must have crossed the old riverbed. What with the bowling-ball-sized boulders, the sandy, constantly caving earth and the ancient backhoe groaning like a ruptured septuagenarian, we’d started too late to trench below the frost. At least until summer, the electrician’s shallow ditch would have to do. Which meant I’d be hauling the occasional bucket of water from the shop during the coldest months. Which wasn’t even a bump on my freeway.

The cheapest rental I’d found cost more than three times what Joe was asking. It did not include utilities, although it did include a deposit, an oppressive rental agreement and the lingering tang of cat pee and boiled potatoes. Besides, living in the camper and building the cabin had given me plenty of time to look around. The hulking and admittedly homely shop sheltered me from the road, while a nearly unbroken vista of hayfields, cottonwoods and grasslands flowed away to the north, east and west of Joe’s land. Whitetail and cottontails were legion, skunk and raccoon were well represented, and bald eagles patrolled the blue-ribbon trout stream just down the road. As to the wrecks in my yard, they were a good deal more expressive than the wagons, wagon wheels and flowery mounds that adorned Bozeman lawns.

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.