HUNTINGDON, Pa. - When classes wrap up for the day at Juniata College, most students head back to their residence halls or off-campus apartments. Dylan Miller heads into the woods, where he lives in a 17-foot-by-17-foot hut he built over the 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 the college's Baker-Henry Nature Reserve. He used trees and rope to create the hut, along with vegetation for insulation. Oak planks from a friend's barn were used for the floor. A large tarpaulin 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 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," Miller, 21, 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, an assistant professor of English and one of Miller's advisers, said he was not surprised by Miller's idea.
"Knowing him as I do, I thought it was a fantastic idea," Dickey said. "It's what Dylan is all about."
In a 21-page proposal, 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 a collegian in today's world, however, requires a few modern conveniences, such as a computer that Miller uses for writing and homework assignments 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 an 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.
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."
Wade Roberts, an assistant professor of philosophy, said he initially reacted to Miller's proposal 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."
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," he said. "Nothing lasts forever."