How I Avoided College Debt With a 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.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.