Sophomore Willy Oppenheim lives off-campus in the single of his dreams, and he does not pay a cent for housing fees or rent. Granted, he does not have access to running water, electricity, or even a bed—but commodities such as these are not to be expected in a tent.
Oppenheim's white canvas tent, which is set up in a Bowdoin professor's backyard on a side street a couple blocks from campus, measures ten by 12 feet and it is eight feet tall at its peak, so there is plenty of room to stand and walk around inside. His "library," a few cardboard boxes full of books, is located at the back of the tent, and he keeps his clothes in a plastic car-top carrier just to the right of the entrance. A stove, which Oppenheim said is more for ambience than warmth, is situated near the middle of the tent, with its chimney extending through the roof.
Oppenheim sleeps on a multi-layer pallet on the floor of the tent that consists of pine branches, blankets, a faux sheepskin, and sleeping bags. The pine branches are for cushioning as well as for the scent, he said.
At night, a propane lantern lights the tent and gives it an enchanting glow from the outside. The interior walls of the tent are decorated by pictures and quotations that Oppenheim and his friends have added over time. He keeps a stash of permanent markers so that anyone who visits the tent can contribute to the gallery.
Although a tent is an unconventional choice of housing for a college student, the idea is not new to Oppenheim. After high school, Oppenheim took a year off, during which time he spent three months in a monastary in India and six months in Colorado teaching ski school and working in construction. When he arrived in Colorado, he had plans to find a place to stay and pay rent, but these plans were abandoned when he got a new idea.
"I thought it would be more fun and cheaper to live in this tent," he said.
He spent his time in Colorado, which included the winter months, living in his tent and cooking meals such as omelets and stir-fry on his stove.
Oppenheim said that his time in the Indian monastery affected his decision not to have any furniture. He loves to stretch, and he believes that living in a tent without furniture is conducive to stretching and the awareness of body that comes with it.
Last fall, as a first-year student, Oppenheim was unhappy with his living situation in Coleman dorm, and he spent most nights staying with friends in other dorms.
"I was thinking I'd love to be living in a tent," he said.
Without even having to ask, one of Oppenheim's professors offered his backyard as a site for Oppenheim to set up his tent. Since he already was not staying in his own room in Coleman, Oppenheim said it seemed liked a natural progression to move to the tent. At the start of second semester, during the coldest time of the year, he made the transition.
Oppenheim said even though there are many things he likes about Bowdoin, when friends and relatives back home ask him about college, the first thing he tells them is, "I live in a tent, and I'm so happy in the tent."
When asked what his parents think of his living space, he laughed and said, "It's cheap for them!"
But Oppenheim's tent-living should come as no surprise to his parents. After all, he built a lean-to outside his house in Connecticut. Although he is not home a great deal of time, he often sleeps in the lean-to when he is.
"I haven't slept in a bed in the summer for about four or five years," he said.
Oppenheim feels that spending so much time in class inside is very confining, so sleeping outside "serves as a necessary counterbalance," he said.
Additionally, he thinks that his tent is quieter, cleaner, and more private than alternate housing options.
"I'm very conscious of the way that one's living space is more than raw physical area," he said. "I recognize the connection between where you're living and the state of mind you're in," he continued.
Although many people may find the prospect of sleeping outside during the Maine winter bone-chilling, Oppenheim said he has never been cold in his tent. He has a stove, but he said that his own body serves as his primary source of heat. In fact, Oppenheim said that sometimes in the winter his tent becomes so warm that he sleeps without clothing.
Oppenheim also believes that people have misconceptions about tent-livers' hygiene. Despite his lack of plumbing, Oppenheim said he showers every day.
"I have a few strategically located towels and soap stashes in friends' apartments around campus," he said.
Oppenheim is just as serious about his dental hygiene. He has several toothbrushes and floss containers in his tent, and he is very diligent about using them. In fact, his dentist is concerned that he may have gum damage because he brushes too firmly. In addition to his extreme seriousness regarding teeth brushing, the way he does it also sets him apart.
"People think you need water to brush your teeth—I don't think you do," he said.
To Oppenheim, the trail that he takes to access the tent is of the utmost importance. The start of the worn pathway is marked by a small stake on the edge of the driveway, and it winds through shrubbery and trees for about thirty feet. Although it would probably be quicker and easier to access the tent by cutting across the yard, Oppenheim always takes the circuitous route.
"Walking on the path is very important because it ritualizes the process of coming home every night and leaving every morning," he said. "It's almost like saying grace before you eat a meal," he added.
Oppenheim gladly welcomes visitors to his tent, even if he isn't home.
"There is no lock on this door," he said.
Some of his happiest memories from this past spring were when he came home after staying late at the library to find four or five friends hanging out in his tent.
"I don't think of it as my tent—it is the tent," he said.