Needed: Outdoor-Friendly Lodging Options for College

12Jun10

College is looking a bit pricey these days.  At the same time, we have successive generations of young people whose alienation from nature stems from their training for lives and careers indoors.  This has happened despite their occasional discovery that some of their own best experiences – from childhood on through summertime experiences in high school and thereafter – have taken place outdoors.

There are college students who could use some help in cutting costs, and there is an environment, out there, that might be grateful if they would get a clue about the place where our food, air, and water come from.  So instead of looking down our noses at life in the outdoors, how about orienting college students toward the lovely benefits of a quasi-outdoor lifestyle?

There are many steps along the spectrum from abject homelessness to plush digs.  There is, of course, the simple tent, with all facilities outdoors, and with a lifestyle of matching simplicity, favoring activity by day and sleep at night.  There is also the lifestyle of an earlier America, in which indoor sleeping and (to varying extents) food preparation were combined with outdoor toilets, bathing, and other facilities.  Outhouses are hardly charming.  Yet those who have observed the cleaning habits of college students might wonder whether a well-designed outdoor composting toilet could actually contribute to a superior lifestyle in some cases.

There is also the reverse option of a building or common area for shared functions – cooking, for example, and studying – combined with individual sleeping space elsewhere.  Like at the more expensive campgrounds:  you get to sleep outside, but you can still have hot showers.  In this scenario, the sleeping quarters can range from the humble tent, through the Hobo Condo and the modified shipping container, to the RV or hardsided trailer that a college student might buy and call home for four years or more.

I wish I, myself, had been able to pursue that kind of opportunity.  I did take a somewhat similar approach during a year of graduate study at the University of Missouri:  tenting out, often in wilderness areas, combined with access to a gym and a place to store food and cook meals indoors.  I also knew a woman at Columbia Law School who slept in her boat at the 79th Street Marina.  It could be very nice to pitch your tent on a gently rocking float.

In all of these options, the utilities can also be made more realistic and natural.  For instance, much of the ordinary life can unfold without electricity; and where electricity is involved, it can originate off the grid as well as on.  The obligation to crank your own electricity, to mind the solar panels and batteries, to pump your own water, and to be concerned about nearby threats to its drinkability – these bits of daily exposure to reality might stimulate a greater sense of personal responsibility for the stuff.

Colleges try to teach students to think creatively, to look for novel solutions, to experiment and explore.  College is a place where people should be encouraged to live outside the box.

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