Photographs by Reelika Ramot
When I decided to drop out of college for a semester to read books, I wanted to be different than my friends, to be changed, to be extraordinary, and for some reason, I thought the only way to do this was to abandon society as much as possible and live in a shack in the woods of West Virginia. It was a time to come of age, and I knew it, and I thought I could accelerate the long process of obtaining self-knowledge by engaging in some extreme living. Was all this born out of an acute self-understanding or a sincere utopian impulse à la Thoreau? Was I a sensitive soul with a mission to study nature in an age of impending ecological disaster, or most likely, was this merely a plot to piss off my parents?
The plan was to join my friend Cody and build shacks on land, privately owned by a mutual friend, near our hometown of Wheeling, a town off I-70, in what we call the northern panhandle of West Virginia. Cody and I were highly motivated learners, but we had not adjusted well to college life. We had become disillusioned and disappointed with our schools and all the vapid social posturing required to excel. We hated the bureaucratic pressures that college required of students, and we wanted a more “authentic” educational environment. We were convinced that the schools we had invested our time and money were not places of higher education, so much as places of distraction -- training centers for a bureaucratic life, which in many ways they were of course, and we understood at some level that a reductionism calling for a simpler way was what we needed. This was a worldview calling us to action. It probably didn't help that we were very interested in philosophy.
When peers of ours were getting summer internships, seizing opportunities, and showing unbridled excitement to enter the adult world, Cody and I chose to reject that world and its conformist pressures. We were going to embrace our alienation and retreat to the woods, to dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of knowledge. In the woods, we enthusiastically envisioned living off the land, reading and studying all day, and destroying our reliance on banal comforts like television and mattresses. Like many aspiring intellectuals, we were impressed with ourselves, convinced of our own exceptionalism. We thought that because we were interested in books and grew up in West Virginia, where most people didn't seem to be interested in books, we were somehow destined to be geniuses. We were reading a lot of Ayn Rand at the time.
After spending five minutes with Cody, almost anyone would be convinced of his intellectual talent. As a precocious twenty-year-old, he could engage in stimulating conversations about literature, philosophy, mathematics, psychology, or religion, at the same time he might play you his intricate electronic music, with layer upon layer of unrecognizable samples, challenging melodies, and cryptic lyrics. Cody was the kind of guy who could be a leader of men if he wasn't so suspicious of leadership itself. Born with the body of an offensive lineman, he ended up being an offensive lineman for a bit in college, even though I know for the most part, he hated it. Often seen wearing oversized shorts and hiking boots, Cody was the friend who custom built your PC in 1999, talked about the superiority of Linux, loved Neal Stephenson, and let you know about conspiracy theories before you even knew conspiracy theories existed. He liked the Pogues, They Might Be Giants, and J.R.R. Tolkien. He introduced me to David Foster Wallace and Aphex Twin, and I remember one time he explained the Illuminati to me while smoking a pipe. Before we moved to the woods he wrote me an email that expressed his unbridled enthusiasm to drop out of society, a pep talk for our adventure, and at the time, it was what ultimately convinced me to join him.
Ben, You and I are self-actualized individuals, and our search for transcendent experience has naturally led us to the one place where it can still be found: nature. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not some kind of pseudo-spiritual Geia worshipper. I don't stare into crystals and light rings of candles when the moon is in the eighth house (hehee). I do think that humans were, and still are animals in many ways. We are slaves to our instinct, and modern life is suited in NO WAY to be an outlet for our instinctual motives. Think about it: traditionally, men are the breadwinners, the hunters, the survivalists. But as life has become more comfortable, as the act of breadwinning has diverged from a physical, manly act, to spending eight hours a day sitting on one's ass in a cubicle, man has become lost. Our biology tells us to live life as if there were no tomorrow, to hunt, to kill, to build and to destroy, but the demands of modern life are diametrically opposed! We are taught to conform, to be accommodating, to kiss ass and to be polite. To be good, law abiding citizens (heaven help us, NO!), and thus we will win bread. Thus we will have a suburban home, three cars in a three car garage, and procreate 2.8 children. Thus we will have a safe and happy retirement. Thus we will LIVE COMFORTABLY. It is no wonder our society is as fucked up as it is! Where, pray tell, are we to appease our biological motivations? Nothing good has ever come of comfortable living. Comfort breeds complacency. Only from discomfort is creativity born. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. Can you ever begin to fathom the sheer, unadulterated NECESSITY that a life in the woods will bring? The learning curve will be astronomical! We won't need to spend five years in college traipsing between majors, attempting to “find ourselves.” Ourselves will FIND US.
So in the late summer of 2000, I took my gear to West Virginia to join Cody who already had begun building a shack on the land. Our plan was to stay for the rest of the year at least. We were given permission to build dwellings for ourselves if we respected the land and didn't throw parties while the owners were away. This wouldn't be a problem because, if given the time and space, we would be too focused on the experiment and what we might accomplish. It is probably not surprising, but we were extraordinarily single, so there would be no worry of excessive social activity or any activity involving other people anyway.
We chose a plot of land in a small wooded valley near a family farm. There was a natural spring on the top of the hill near a barn where we could collect drinking water. Our camp was just a short hike downhill. When I arrived at the property sometime during August, Cody had already been there for at least a month. He had turned me on to Tom Brown's Wilderness Survival guides, and we would ultimately get our shack building ideas from these books.
On that first day, I could make out the skeleton of a circular structure from cut saplings, a kind of wigwam with a teepee in the middle. At the base of the teepee was a fire pit, surrounded by a ring of rocks. On the top of Cody’s shack was a translucent plastic that served as the roof, cut in the center so the teepee could poke through and allow smoke to escape. His original idea was to build mud walls, but he never got the right consistency of mud and straw, so there was enough trial and error to lead him to fit store bought plywood for the walls. The result was a wigwam like structure of more than twelve feet across.
As purists, we originally wanted to build our shacks with no nails or other store bought materials. We thought we could become as equally skilled as self-sufficient people of the 17th century or something by will alone. Cody showed me how to lash saplings together with jute twine. This proved to be amazingly effective. But of course, there were tools on the ground all around his shack: saws, hatchets, hammers, shovels. He would later equip his shack with bookshelves and an innovative pulley system that allowed him to lie on his bed, which was made from massive amounts of plastic bags, and pull a rope to open the door outward. Perhaps most impressively, behind his shack there was painter's plastic suspended by intricately placed jute twine tied to tree trunks that trailed up the hill in a kind of labyrinthine zig zag. Cody explained to me that he grew tired of hiking all the way up the hill to collect water, so he decided to build an aqueduct with the plastic. He showed me that if you dipped the plastic in the water at the top, it would drip in a bin right next to his shack. Cody, inspirational genius and college dropout, was experimenting with Roman technology just to confront his own laziness.
Of course, people would ask us “What are you guys doing this for?” If you asked that question you didn't get it, you didn't understand how important it was to reject society, how rigged it all was, how your choices were prefabricated. Maybe one of the reasons Cody and I got along so well was because we were both focused on process rather than results. We were trying to live better in the quotidian existence, to live more in the present.
I searched for a place to build a shack for myself. Nearby, I found a spot that would be dry about three hundred yards up the hill from Cody. I found three trees that were close together, almost in a perfect right triangle. I dug a few holes to make the fourth corner, and this is where my door would be made with simple hinges. I lashed cross beams, followed Cody’s lead with the plastic roof and the plywood, but I put in a single center pole to support the roof. The result was a rectangular structure, more bourgeois, with a fireplace on the outside rather than in the center. This was the most obvious difference from Cody’s design, which allowed for the fire to exist in the center and the smoke to escape upward. The danger of my design, I soon realized, was that at any moment I risked having my whole structure burst into flames. I also used river rocks to build my fireplace, which is beyond stupid because once the rocks dry, they expand and can explode. Basically, I managed to masterfully build a somewhat haphazard, smaller and shittier dwelling. There was a problem of insulation for both of us. We knew that the coming winter months would be a challenge. The idea was to build debris huts, to pile three or four feet of sticks, leaves, pinecones, dirt, whatever, on all sides of the existing structure to keep the cold out. For whatever reason, I never did this.
Inside my shack, I kept a plastic bin that contained my books. I had a good sleeping bag and read by candle light at night. I read Crime and Punishment, Walden, Atlas Shrugged, Richard Farina's Been Down So Long It Seems Like Up To Me, The Autobiography of Miles Davis, The Crying of Lot 49. Books that you would expect a twenty-year-old with a whiff of the counterculture and a youthful excitement in literature to pursue. Along with this I sat down to write for the first time and produced some horrendous writing that I would never reproduce here, as I apparently thought writing meant combining language from nature, jazz, pop philosophy and the Beats together with an obvious narcissism. Compare this to Thoreau who succinctly begins Walden with, “When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only.” In contrast to our hero, Henry David Thoreau, I wasn't writing seriously or laboring very hard at all.
I think Cody and I sort of forgot the labor part. We settled into a routine that mostly involved reading all day, dinner at night together at Cody’s shelter and conversation by the fire. We loved to build fires. It became a ritual for us, in the morning, at night – try to keep the embers going, boil the hell out of coffee. Mostly we ate canned food and ramen noodles. Although we read about it, neither of us was ready to kill animals and gut them. Cody had a 22-caliber rifle that I never saw him use. We had it to protect us from black bears, which I never saw. We would sit around and talk about Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky, the Pre-Socratics, whatever we learned in our 100 level college courses. The amount of obligations was fantastically lower. We didn't have to worry about making money, shitty internships, or banal responsibilities. We could sit and read whole books during the day and share our knowledge with each other at night. Often, we would hike up to my parked Subaru and listen to music. Radiohead's Kid A had just come out, and we spoke of it with awe and reverence. I remember Cody playing me Cornilius's Fantasma or the song Alberto Basalam by Aphex Twin, an instrumental track that at one point drops the melody for what sounds like a percussion bridge. Cody would speculate about the meaning of such a song suddenly self-containing itself, as if the song itself fell into a tin box. In many ways, I think we sort of did the same. We became too self-contained, too inward looking, we became comfortable too quickly, wanting to skip the labor and enjoy the benefits of woods living first. We forgot to focus on the essentials like shack insulation, the weening off store bought food staples, and the building of a more efficient water purification system. Occasionally while reading, we would be interrupted by the alarming sounds of gunshots, hunters or locals reminding us that we were not alone.
Perhaps this adventure was the result of our early education. Cody and I were both raised in religious families, and although I can't speak for him and his motivations, I know in our early college years we found philosophy and we found Nietzsche. Never underestimate the power of Nietzsche to influence an impressionable twenty-year-old. Reading Nietzsche for the first time not only seems dangerous and cool, the beginning perhaps of a predictable interest in existentialism, but it is simply intoxicating to read books, difficult and respectable books, that tell you religion is bullshit. A book like Thus Spoke Zarathustra can create a desire to be the overman, or worse can convince the undergraduate that he or she is already the overman. I wouldn't say that I convinced myself of my own extraordinariness, for I suffered like most twenty year olds from a deep lack of self-confidence, but perhaps all of this had something to do with my tendency to embrace philosophy with religious like intensity. If you learn anything from an overzealous religious childhood, you learn to attach yourself to other secular things with the same reverence. I think for me, our project was a result of what can happen when you join the philosophical and the personal. I was a young libertarian who had abandoned society for a life in the woods without ever having worked a real job.
For me, what soon developed in our “authentic” individualist pursuit was the distressing realization of just how unprepared I was to deal with the slow pace of life that the isolated woods environment provided. What is interesting about living in the woods is that time slows down to an extreme degree. Suddenly you confront yourself, and in my case, I didn't think I liked what I found. Unable to deal with solitude, I missed others terribly. The journals I've kept from this time are filled with sad romantic entries expressing unattainable love, bad poems of loneliness, and pathetic ruminations about sex and companionship. Not to risk oversimplification too much, but perhaps my libertarian adventure in the woods of West Virginia was so appealing because I was essentially just sad, and I needed a distracting project. Perhaps I wasn’t celebrating individualism so much as I was trying to separate from my parents, in what is a much more conventional, albeit Freudian way of looking at it. I could claim to not need community because I was so in need of finding community. This was not extraordinary, but predictable. In an absurdist way, I was testing the limits of individualism by taking myself hostage. By the end, I learned that I was lonely, and I didn't want to live in the woods at all.
These emotional distractions, I imagine, corrupted our project, as I constantly found excuses to leave the woods, unprepared to deal with the solitude and constant self-reflection. We often left at any time to get provisions, go to bars or concerts, or visit our families. One weekend we drove to Boston, on another we went to see a Sunny Day Real Estate concert in Pittsburgh. I began to leave every weekend, to drive to Morgantown, the closest university town, to see friends and go to parties, to interact with women, sometimes bringing Cody with me. And so began the realization that my educational experiment of life in the woods was a failure, as it was always destined to be with such idealism. What I needed to learn about was how to talk to people.
I think as I try to make sense of this woods experiment I should consider it as being a possible grappling with my home state's complicated political and cultural climate. West Virginia is often talked about as having some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country, but the state often gets an unfair reputation because of the perceived backwardness of the people. It is not always portrayed flatteringly in media representations and is usually depicted in a way that reinforces the worst Appalachia stereotypes. Consider the documentary The Wild and Wonderful Whites and the 2013 MTV show Buckwild. However, I am proud of the state, and I am proud to have grown up there, and in a weird way, I'm proud that at one time I was a wannabe Thoreau. I am not proud that West Virginia still struggles with racism, perhaps unsurprising to many who live there, but startling is its overtness to non-natives. Add to this the destruction of the natural landscape and commercial infrastructure because of rapacious corporate interests: coal and mountain top removal, natural gas and fracking, not to mention the slow erosion of small businesses because of big box stores – all of it offering limited possibilities for residents, and I'm left with conflicted feelings about the place. Perhaps my woods adventure and its libertarianism, the retreat to isolation, was an expression of dissatisfaction of having to witness a deteriorating society, the consequence of an already extreme capitalism. In retrospect, I didn't need to reject all of society, just the parts of it that were not for me.
In the influential book for educators When Students Have Power, Ira Shor writes of his conservative college students: “They focus on individualism and self-reliance two hegemonic values deeply embedded in a corporate society, but which they experience contradictorily as values to resist “the system”” (103). This line makes sense to me. The whole project was flawed from the start because I didn’t understand, as I now do, that the society that I was so dissatisfied with was already obsessed with individualism. I wanted to go more extreme in this direction, not because I was special and had some keen insight, but because it seemed the only way available to express my own form of individualism in the West Virginia milieu. There was no visible liberal culture to join. I didn’t need to focus on myself, so much as I just needed to listen to different viewpoints.
I would like to talk to Cody about all of this. I remember the day when I left the woods, leaving him there alone. I was going to continue college and study abroad in Spain, and I needed to get going. He was planning to persist, to persevere, and in the frigid cold, with the grey landscape as backdrop, I remember him wishing me well. Since this time, he has decided to sever all contact with his West Virginia friends for some reason. Recently some of those friends and I found a resume online with some of his contact information. He is living in Texas but didn’t return our phone calls. I’m sure if I wanted to, I could get his address somehow, drive to his house and show up on his doorstep, but I want to respect his privacy. While I needed the woods experience to appreciate society, to understand that I needed to become community literate, perhaps the beginning of my political awareness, Cody has stayed true to his original vision by dropping out. I imagine him writing code or something, scoffing at the Hollywood butchering of The Hobbit, writing music, reading Pynchon's latest novel, laughing. Maybe he is still apolitical and a visionary for alternative living. Maybe he is even living in the woods.