Sunday, July 22, 2012

Truck-dwelling at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks

For reasons I don't want to go into, I’ve been living in a truck in a campus parking lot at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks for the past week. 

I'm in a large parking lot—called the Taku Parking Lot—on the east side of campus that is free to visitors during the summer months. The truck, an $800 Nissan Datsun, may very well be the most pitiful vehicle I’ve ever driven. When driving it over small cracks in the road—the sort that people in other vehicles wouldn’t even notice—the Datsun rattles and shakes with a violence that will cause passengers' prostates to flare. Making a left hand turn requires that the driver turn the steering wheel with bulged arm muscles.

Apparently the truck has been in and out of people’s hands so much that it’s earned itself a reputation locally. When I was under the truck's hood at the post office pushing some plug back into place (that had rattled out when driving along a gravel road), an old-timer, who called himself “Geezer,” hissed at the truck and said, knowingly, that it had been “giving a lot of people trouble for years.”

I’ve been sleeping in the bed in the back of the truck, next to a gasoline canister and a spare tire. The back reeks of oil and gasoline, and there’s a leak in the roof above my ankles. Given the many contaminants, I wouldn't dare cook in it, so I've been eating nothing but cereal and powdered milk, bananas, and summer sausage that I cut up and put inside tortillas.

My parking lot is also where the town comes to distribute its recycleables, so I’m usually woken around 7:30 am by the sounds of smashing glass and clanging tin.

I’ll read in bed for an hour before heading to the library to write my Duke Magazine article about Andrew Skurka (which I’ve mentioned in a previous post).

I find that—in order to effectively write—I need three things: internet, electricity, and my laptop. It’s amazing how dependent I’ve become on these technologies, as I probably could get by with a regular pen and paper, but that’s an entry for another day…

The library—which offers all the necessary services—is open till 10 pm on the weekdays, but it’s only open for a couple of hours during the weekends. I know how college campuses work, so I thought that I could probably find a way around the weekend situation. It’s a safe bet that on a college campus, if you pull enough doors, one of them will eventually open. All buildings, of course, have electrical sockets and wi-fi. I've found that as long as you look like a student, and that you look like you’ve been there before or know where you’re going, no one will bother you. Everyone just presumes you're another student.

In five days, I’ve done a good deal of trespassing, but I’ve only spoken to two people on campus. The first was an older lady. The first thing she said to me was “Thank cod. Halibut be thy name.” It was a Sunday afternoon, and she’d just gotten out of mass. She said that I looked like her son, “who is in heaven,” and an Iranian hitchhiker she once picked up in British Columbia. The other person was a security guard, who came up to me in one of the vacant buildings at 10:30 pm.

“Hello sir. Can I see your ID?” he said.

“I’m afraid I don’t have one," I said. "I’m not a student here.” I figured I had a better chance of getting out of this situation with charm and honesty than awkwardness and falsehoods. I worried, though, that this might be the end of my Fairbanks stay, and that I’d be asked to leave campus. But he kindly told me that any ID would do. After I showed him my driver’s license, he told me the building was closing. I left, he locked up, and we wished each other a good night. I of course came back the next morning.


Hawaiian woman on dashboard.

Home sweet home.

A shovel handle props the back open.

Mooching free electricity and wi-fi from a classroom after hours.


All in all, I’ve found that I have access to everything I need from 8 am to 10:30 pm, any day of the week, which is more than enough time for me to focus on my writing project.

The truck is definitely a step down from my beloved Econoline, but it’s totally adequate, and I find myself growing fond again of the vandwelling lifestyle. It’s not necessarily the act of living in a vehicle that’s so fulfilling. What’s fulfilling is simply being on your own and having as much time to bask in the warm rays of solitude as you like.

I’ve been in close contact with people for a while now, and when I find myself in a state of constant companionship, I’m reminded of how ugly of a person I can be. Forced to talk, I find that I am more bitter, sarcastic, melancholic, and misanthropic than I may want to be. It’s seems impossible for me to be a communicative and honest human being and remain happy-go-lucky. Disillusionment and despondency seems like a more fitting state, given the nature of things.

But when I'm alone, I escape myself. No, I don’t go solo to be with myself. I go solo to get the hell away from myself. When I’m alone, I no longer have to listen to myself opine about how amoral the gas industry is. I no longer go on endless rants about how disappointing Prometheus was. I no longer tell stupid jokes or make fun of this or that person. Basically, I just shut the hell up. And I intake. I intake books and movies and music and whatever sights and sounds coffeeshops and campuses offer. When I'm alone, I don’t go looking for insights. Rather, insights come looking for me. I intake everything and output nothing. Being alone is like enjoying an endless buffet, and never having to deal with the hassle of digestion. 

Eventually, though, I’ll get lonely. Solitude is only good in short spurts. Books and movies and Word documents can only entertain me for so long. Soon, I’ll need companionship.

But for someone who wants to spend a whole summer doing what I’m doing—working on some sort of literary project or self-educating themselves—I think one could live quite comfortably in a parking lot at a college campus for the length of a summer.

Let’s say it’s your goal to write a book, or self-educate yourself in hydrology with the help of a library and internet connection… Assuming that you have the necessaries of vandwelling (vehicle, laptop, headlamp, clothes, pot & pan, soap, etc.) you could live extremely cheaply for three whole months.

Here’s a possible breakdown:

Food:   $35/week;   $152.40/month
Showers (showers are $3 at campus gym):   $6/week;   $27/month
Car Insurance:   $7.77/week;   $35/month
Bus tickets to buy more food and supplies:   $5/week;   $22.50/month
Miscellaneous:   $5/week;   $22.50 month

Total:   $59/week;   $259/month
For a three-month summer: $777

Someone making as little as $10/hour could save up for a whole summer of study with about two weeks of work.

Lastly, some pics of campus....

The Taku Parking lot. You can see the recycle bins around the truck.

The University at Fairbanks is really bland and austere, like a military barracks. The buildings in the picture below are the dorms.

Ubiquitous campus development and growth.

Some photos from their botanical gardens...

They have a reindeer farm on campus, too.


Anonymous said...

Hey stranger. You are welcome to save $27 a month and use the shower at my place. I live only a few miles from campus and I'm hardly ever here thanks to long hours at work coupled with the fact that it's summer and I've got things to do in the midnight sun! Steff

LauraK said...

I would also say that possibly you should consider doing some Artist In Residence programs. They have those ALL OVER - overseas and here in National Parks as well as other places where people like to help artists. Just search in Google, you'll find plenty. Not that I want the competition...

Anonymous said...

That looks like a very gas efficient, hardy and convenient little truck. Maybe even a touch better looking than the van. Hope it's treating you well

Trish said...

Wow, that is amazing insight into yourself. I feel the same way- when I am not with another person, just me and my dogs, I am not that bitter sarcastic person, making fun of those who love themselves too much for my taste. I just never thought of it in those terms. But I have always felt that i absolutely have to spend some time each day alone. I reach a saturation point with human interaction.

Trish said...

I was reading this again Ken, and wondering how many people would actually rather go into debt than sacrifice like you are, and did as a grad student as well. I think you are made of sterner stuff. I'm just glad that I went to college last century when it was, like, waaay cheaper.

Anonymous said...

haha,, you are in the parking lot again because . who ever you had planned to bum off of for a couple weeks got sick of your instant liberal whining. whining about America , whining about everything that makes your easy life possible.
your whiner ken, people grow weary of self centered whiners like you very quickly.. you should have kept your van. that is funny , you think the truck is not good enough for you to cook in. then you sleep with a gas can and summer sausage. Wellll ?? i guess you have to something new to whine about.

Ken said...

Steff—Thanks for the offer. You’ve been facebook-messaged.

Laura—Nice recommendation. I’ve only done a little bit of research into artist-in-residency programs, but I've identified a few complications: 1. You usually have to have some reasonably impressive credentials (one residency program turned me down because all applicants needed to have already published a book); 2. I’ve noticed that there’s sometimes a small rent fee, as well. And few, if any, offer food funds. Still, though, I’m sure this would work for those who have impressive portfolios.

Anon—Ha, it’s small, but I’d hardly call it “gas efficient.” And there’s no way it’s prettier than my van. ;)

Trish—Kind of you to say that I’m made of “stern stuff,” but I really don’t think I’m sacrificing much comfort. Today, I went for a jog, took a shower at the gym, and have been working in the library all afternoon, while reading—off and on—Tina Fey’s “Bossypants,” which is so far so good. It’s actually been quite leisurely…

Anon—Hmm… I don’t remember my previous housemates getting sick of “instant liberal whining.” I think we all did a lot of instant liberal whining together. Why shouldn’t I sleep with my summer sausage?

Brie said...

Congrats on getting a book deal. :) What an exciting crossing into an adventurous career. It was clearly an important milestone in your hero’s journey and I am very happy for you. How thrilling for you to leave behind known limits and venturing into the “dangerous” and the unknown where no 9-to-5- cubicle-existence rules and restrictions bind you. I implore you to share more of your quests of self-discovery. Especially, your meeting with the Goddess. Did you meet up with THE ONE who got away? Whatever happened to your Econoline? Was Prometheus really that bad? BTW, your 'sleeping with the summer sausage' comment made me laugh. :)

Anonymous said...

Oh goodness Ken, love seeing you in the back for a vehicle again as that is what drew me to your blog so long ago! Although your return is mysterious...which is a good lead in for me to keep checking your blog regularly! Thank-you for wonderful reads about your adventures. You probably get tired of hearing it, but I read and live thorough your eyes which is a great adventure. Many thanks, from long time reader Ruth from N.H.

Ken said...

Brie—“Prometheus” was extremely disappointing. Between the accomplished actors and director, a promising premise—not to mention an amazingly enticing trailer—the film fell way short of its potential. They breezed through subplots, relied too much on mindless special effects, it was cratered with meteoric plot holes, plus there was a lame “setting up for a sequel” feel to it.

Ruth—Thanks so much. I think my adventures in vehicle-dwelling days will be short lived, but I have a big adventure planned for this fall that might be bloggable.

Unknown said...

Ken, thoroughly enjoyed this most recent blog. Ah, solitude...and you define it so well. Looking forward to your next post. Doug