Broadband Internet, Yes. Toilet, No.
By SARAH MASLIN NIR
ON a trip to the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico during spring break, Bretwood Higman and Erin McKittrick found themselves on a beach, holding a battered tourist map. Sick of the collegiate shenanigans around them, Mr. Higman suggested they ditch the bars, take the map and walk the 30 miles of shoreline to the next town. “The beach is probably continuous, right?” Ms. McKittrick remembers him saying.
To his surprise, Ms. McKittrick, whom he had met while they were studying at Carleton College outside of Minneapolis, was game. “That was a defining moment,” said Mr. Higman, now 33; he knew Ms. McKittrick was the one.
Ten years later, they are married, have an 11-month-old son and have walked more than 7,000 miles together. “When we got together, it was more than the sum of the parts,” said Ms. McKittrick, 30. “Much more.”
Their last monumental trip took an entire year, during which they covered more than 4,000 miles of both urban and untouched terrain in Alaska, Washington and Canada by foot, raft and ski. Ms. McKittrick’s account of the adventure, “A Long Trek Home,” was published in October.
Though their epic expedition ended last year, they’re still camping. Today, their lives unfold under the conical eaves of a Mongolian yurt, where they have lived since November 2008, high on a spruce-covered mountainside of the Kenai Peninsula in the coastal town of Seldovia (population of around 250), where Mr. Higman grew up.
The remote town has no access to other parts of the state by road. Residents have to travel by boat or airplane. A recent passenger on Homer Air, the local airline, was a poodle on its way to the vet.
The decision to live in a yurt has forced them to confront the same questions that many people do, but their conclusions have been far different. They decided they could live without running water, shower, bath or a working toilet, but they had to have broadband Internet access.
The couple discovered yurts when they returned from their 4,000-mile trek and passed through the nearby town of Homer, where Nomad Shelter Yurts sells modern tents inspired by those used on the Mongolian steppes by nomadic herders. Unlike the Mongolian ones, which are covered with wool felt, the approximately $14,000 tent that is home to Mr. Higman and Ms. McKittrick is encased in Duro-Last roofing vinyl and backed with heavy-duty Tyvek insulation to withstand the Alaskan climate.
“Part of it was just logistical,” Mr. Higman said, explaining their decision to buy the tent. “A yurt can be set up in eight hours.” It was also in their price range, suited their minimalist approach to life and, perhaps most important, evoked the wilderness experience they cherish.
“The walls move when it blows hard,” he said. “It’s a little bit more out there in the elements.”
Ms. McKittrick, who grew up in Seattle, seems at home in a domestic setting: Her eyes never leave their baby (named Katmai, after a nearby volcano), and she can deftly whip up a salmon quiche for a large potluck. But elements of the frontierswoman are apparent as well. She can split wood and haul water and doesn’t blink when Katmai plays with a pair of big visiting dogs, or a fire poker.
Mr. Higman has a Ph.D. in geology from the University of Washington, where his wife earned her master’s degree in molecular biology.
Their domestic and professional lives play out within the yurt’s 452 square feet, though as Mr. Higman points out, “square” is a misnomer: the room is as circular as a big top.
It sits at the foot of a sloping lot they share with Mr. Higman’s mother, Dede. She bought the land and built a small house there some years after her divorce from Mr. Higman’s father, Craig, who still lives on the other side of town, where the younger Higman grew up.
The futon where the couple sleeps with their baby is cordoned off by a handmade quilt curtain. The kitchen, which is a sink with no running water (they haul water from a nearby well), is flanked by a few short feet of counter space. It is so cold that homemade yogurt resting on the plywood floor stays chilled. During the summer, the couple keep food cool in a root cellar they fashioned out of an old refrigerator.
How big or small your living space is, according to Ms. McKittrick, is a matter of perspective. When she’s cooking, she imagines the kitchen is the entire tent. “I like having only one room,” she said. “It means you can live in a small space and have it feel big.”
Three miles away is a small grocery, which they reach by walking for an hour. But the couple get most of their groceries on trips to Homer — 20 minutes by plane or 90 minutes by ferry — where they buy in bulk at a Costco reseller called Save U More.
In the center of their yurt is a small, constantly burning wood stove. In Seldovia, which can see up to 17 feet of snow in a season, even the biggest blaze offers slight warmth. It’s often freezing inside when they wake up in the morning. They feed logs into the stove every 15 to 30 minutes; the winter ritual of chopping, hauling and splitting firewood is constant and arduous.
Rather than use a propane heater, the couple chose the stove because, Mr. Higman said, “Each step you take in that direction is a step away from the wilderness.”
He explained that they decided to “build up from the ground, and see what we need” rather than establish a standard set of amenities that one would expect to find in a house.
Toilets that flush, in this calculus, were deemed superfluous. A cheerily painted outhouse takes the place of an expensive septic system. Their waste, which is untreated, eventually degrades. Showers also didn’t make the cut; they take a weekly hourlong walk to town to wash their clothes and themselves. Though they would eventually like to have a wash house, they said that trekking has taught them to cope without everyday luxuries like hot showers.
With no dishwasher or running water, they sometimes enlist dogs — their family’s and those of the neighbors — to lick plates clean before scrubbing the dishes in hand-drawn well water, which they said saves energy. For pragmatic reasons, Mr. Higman said, “We do have lower standards than a lot of people about how clean things have to be.”
But to them, the sacrifices are worth it. “I’m someone who doesn’t mind giving up some level of convenience for having an interesting experience,” Ms. McKittrick said. For the two, everything from watching bears trundle through the yard in summer to canning salmon bought by the bucket from fishermen docked in town is a fascinating departure from modern life.
Their treks are made not only for pleasure but on behalf of Ground Truth Trekking, the nonprofit group they founded. Through this organization, the couple hope to raise awareness of environmental issues across the state by visiting contentious sites like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They also consult for environmental organizations and run Sundrop Jewelry, an accessories business. Though their combined yearly income is around $25,000, the two say that their living expenses are slightly more than half that.
Time holds a higher value for them than the more lucrative jobs they might have had with their advanced degrees. Absent the need to work 9 to 5, there is time for snowshoeing in winter and gathering wild nettles to eat in the spring.
The money they save enables them to travel for long periods. Their next expedition, scheduled for late August, is a 200-mile monthlong trek to unmined coal repositories in northwest Alaska. This time, their son, who was conceived on the last trek, will ride on their backs.