HUNTINGDON, Pennsylvania — When classes wrap up for the day at Juniata College, most students head back to their residence hall or an off-campus apartment. Dylan Miller heads into the woods where he lives in a 17 foot-by-17-foot hut that he built last summer.
"I've gotten used to roughing it," Miller said. "I'm comfortable sleeping here now and walking around in the woods. I feel very free."
Miller, a senior from Meadville who is working on a bachelor's degree in English and philosophy, built the one-room structure on Juniata College's Baker-Henry Nature Reserve. He used trees and rope to create the structure, along with vegetation for insulation. Oak planks from a friend's barn were used for the floor. A large tarp is the main roofing material.
"I think it's quite amazing what he did," said fellow senior Dan Phillips, a psychology major. "Considering the tools he had, the work he did there last summer with help from one friend, I think it's just amazing."
The reason behind the structure, Miller said, is a research project focused on minimalism to cap off his undergraduate studies.
"I think my generation is going to make a lot of sacrifices for a healthy future when it comes to materialism and energy usage," the 21-year-old collegian said. "A lot of people associate giving up things with less happiness. But I want to show people that you can live like a king, even if you have very little."
Will Dickey, assistant professor of English and one of Miller's advisers, said he was not surprised by Miller's idea to undertake the research project and the construction.
"Knowing him as I do, I thought it was a fantastic idea," Dickey said. "It's what Dylan is all about. He loves literature, learning about religion and learning about nature as well. And he loves to study. This project brings all of those things together."
In a 21-page proposal about his research project, Miller pledged to create a journal documenting his lifestyle, along with his thoughts as a window into the understanding of philosophers such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
"Most of us are happy to watch TV at night to unwind," Dickey said. "But Dylan is interested in a firsthand experience: mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. As Thoreau said in 'Walden," I'm fronting only the essentials in life and living it firsthand."
To be collegian in today's world, however, requires a few modern conveniences, such as a computer that Miller uses for writing and homework assignments while in his hut. He charges the computer, along with his cellphone, during daily trips to campus.
"But I don't have any Internet access out here. And there's no TV or radio," he said. "I have books and that's about it."
With no running water in the hut, Miller depends on outdoor portable toilet that became the target of a bear attack in early October. "I woke up one night to hear the toilet being bashed against my shelter," he said.
In response, he grabbed a flashlight, ran outside and shouted.
"The bear ran away," Miller said. "In the morning, I saw the teeth marks and claw holes in the toilet. ... It was still usable."
Phillips said he stayed one night with Miller and enjoyed the atmosphere.
"It is definitely a good place to get some studying done," Phillips said. "And it's great to cook over an open fire, even when it's pretty cold out."
Wade Roberts, an assistant professor of philosophy, said he initially reacted to Miller's proposed project with a mix of intrigue and skepticism.
"I had questions about the adequacy of the dwelling, certainly the safety and the academic rigor of his proposal," Roberts said. "But he has addressed everything."
Fellow collegians may have similar questions.
"A lot of people on campus know there's some guy living up in the woods, and they say that's crazy," Phillips said. "But he deserves a lot of credit for what he's done."
When graduation nears in the spring, Miller said he will need to make plans to tear down his hut, which will likely be bittersweet.
"But that will be a teaching in itself," Miller said. "Nothing lasts forever."
Information from: Altoona Mirror, http://www.altoonamirror.com
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