College is expensive. Between soaring textbook prices, expensive meal plans, and weekend beer runs, it's enough to make anyone reconsider the value of that college degree. But one senior at Pennsylvania's Juniata College has found a creative way to cut down on the costs: He's ditched the dorms to live in the woods.
For the past 10 months, Dylan Miller, 22, has been redefining "off-campus" living by residing in a rudimentary 17-by-17-foot shelter he built himself on a nature reserve near his school.
And while most eager students are working toward a degree to avoid, well, having to live in the woods, Miller says his lifestyle is totally by design.
"I was 'that guy' on campus before, but now I'm definitely that guy!" he laughs.
The literary and philosophical studies student says his shelter was inspired by a longstanding interest in survival and primitive camping; he'd actually spent his junior year living out of his car and sleeping in a nearby cave. "Saving money was a side effect," he explains. "But mostly it was in order to discipline myself." Miller found that the longer he lived without societal comforts like indoor plumbing, Netflix, and an extensive wardrobe, the happier he felt. So when his dad joked that he follow in the footsteps of his literary heroes and go live in the woods, Miller decided to do just that.
"I grew up in the woods," he says. "When I was younger I used to read stories like 'My Side of the Mountain' and 'Hatchet.' I was really influenced by Chris McCandless' story in 'Into the Wild.'"
Walking through the woods approximately 30 minutes from campus, Miller stumbled across a sparse area of woodland with a small patch of grass. "It felt very comfortable," he remembers. "Something about that spot made me want to build there."
But first, he'd have to convince school officials his idea was plausible—and safe. He submitted a 21-page proposal addressing concerns about sanitation and his general well being, as well as the logistics of building his shelter and the educational value. He called his project "Content with Nothing," and once approved, he got to work.
Miller says it took him an entire summer to build the shelter, armed only with a handsaw and basic building materials. He chopped down dead standing pine trees for the hut's foundation, used rope to construct windows, and ordered a $200 tarp for his roof when he ran out of time to use natural materials. "Almost everything in the shelter is something I found or already had," he says. "The wooden floor is made out of floorboards from a friend's barn. I made a desk out of wood, a table, a bed. It's quite cozy in there. I wanted it to look like a student was living there, so it's kind of set up like a dorm."
Still, life in the woods is obviously a far cry from life in the dorms. Miller admits that winter was difficult at first; his small propane heater can warm up the shelter only 20 degrees from whatever the outside temperature is. But Miller insists his body quickly acclimated to the extreme Northeast winter. "It got to the point where I only put on pants once this winter," he laughs. "For some reason, my body became a furnace." In fact, besides the occasional visits from a curious bear, the most difficult aspect of shelter life for Miller has been all the attention his story has garnered—that, and the food: "Rice and beans gets pretty old."
Miller spends his nights sipping tea and studying by candlelight, his mornings lugging supplies up the steep uphill hike from campus. His friends occasionally make the trek out for weekend bonfires. Sounds idyllic, right? But it begs the question: Doesn't Miller miss that quintessential college experience of dorm life?
"Sometimes I do," he admits. "But I think the quintessential college experience is seeing yourself change. That's what's important: to look back on where you started and measure definitively how you've changed. I think that's the function of college in a lot of ways."
More from GrindTV