For every person who’s come to Missoula in search of the simple life and been seduced by the aspirations toward sustainable living that permeate our little nook of the last best place, Dan Price has a suggestion: move. It’s not that he doesn’t like Missoula—he does, especially compared to the sprawling cities he’s visited promoting his new guide to life, Radical Simplicity—it’s just that he says you can’t really live a stripped-down, harmonious, truly pure, “free of crap” existence in a place as popular as the Garden City.
“If you want to have some peace and quiet and live a simpler life, you probably need to find a more remote place,” he says. “The whole reason you want to live there is because it’s a neat place, and there are hip things, but unfortunately that’s what a lot of other people start thinking and it gets really crowded—too crowded. If you want to do what I’ve done, I think the first thing is you’d have to move.”
What Price has done is migrate from a six-room antebellum Kentucky mansion to a series of cabins, flophouse rooms, tipis, burlap huts, mountain tents and, for the last three years, an 80-square-foot circular underground room he calls his “Hobbit Hole,” all in an effort to simplify his life as much as possible. The journey started in the late 1980s when Price decided to leave his job as a photojournalist in the south and relocate to Oregon. Determined to adopt a more stripped-down lifestyle and avoid hassles such as mortgage payments, he approached a farming family and asked if he could rent a corner of their meadow to set up a tipi. Ever since, for a yearly rental of $100 and a promise to maintain the land, Price has built various residential structures and upgraded his plot with gardens, a compost bin/outhouse, a sweat lodge and various other amenities.
But it’s his personal transformation from normal citizen and working photographer to experimental minimalist and professional journal writer that forms the basis of Radical Simplicity, which Price touts as a how-to manual for living a “hand-made life.”
“I’d like to just honor our sacred earth by becoming so small, so quiet, and so unsubstantial that the environment I inhabit feels barely a whisper of my small existence, just a wafting spirit drifting through the trees,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “In this way, nature is free to express itself fully while I try to comprehend and appreciate its vast universal rhythms.”
But despite Price’s convictions, he’s not without modern conveniences: his “Hobbit Hole” is wired for electricity so he can, among other things, run a copy machine to publish and distribute his journal, The Moonlight Chronicles; he’s spent a significant amount of time over the years raising his two children with his partner, Lynne, all of whom live in a conventional house six miles from Price’s meadow (his children have since moved and his daughter is studying to be, of all things, a realtor); and he conducts interviews on his personal cell phone.
“I don’t think there’s a discrepancy there,” he says, speaking from Kansas City, Mo. on the cell phone. “I’m not trying to be a luddite, and I’m not trying to be a person who has no modern stuff in his life at all. I’m willing to take on the few things that I can use that make life convenient. It’s everything else that I’ve cut out.”
When Price first contemplated his move to Oregon he created a “must-have” list of items to “live successfully,” including a refrigerator, microwave, television and shower. While some of these items made temporary appearances in the meadow, Price eventually managed to eliminate all of them. He mostly eats nonperishable foods such as dried fruits and nuts, and occasionally employs a hotplate for warm meals. He bathes in his sauna or the nearby river and keeps a radio and a stack of books on hand for entertainment. All his clothing fits on a small shelf; he has only three pairs of pants.
“It’s best if you just question everything that you’re doing and how you’re spending money—‘Do I really need a big house? Do I really need a car? Do I really need a refrigerator?,’” he says of cutting down on material items—a downsizing he practiced every time he moved into a new structure. “What was neat about that time when I was going through things and chucking a lot of it out, was the coolest feeling that came over me—like the realization that gosh, I don’t need a refrigerator. Tangible gifts were given to me each time I gave something up. That’s how the universe works. We’re so much into hoarding and taking, we never do get to the other end of the spectrum where we’re giving away and not having. When you go to that other end, that’s where the universe wants you to be. It gives you gifts, it gives you everything that you need.”
When asked if he has at least one guilty pleasure, one indulgence, Price doesn’t mention his cell phone or dual living arrangement or the 1985 Astro van he’s driving cross-country for his book tour. Instead, he says it’s drawing—his illustrations complement Radical Simplicity with multiple floor plans and building designs, along with doodles of his observations in the meadow.
“I have this thing called drawing that I do, so wherever I am or whatever I’m doing it’s really neat to just draw,” he says. “But that’s it. You know, I was telling a crowd at a bookstore, I’m 48 and there’s truly nothing that I want—I don’t lust after anything. That’s probably a little unusual.”
For Missoulians, Price offers some additional suggestions for living simply, beyond questioning needs and moving to a more remote locale: go find a piece of attractive land, preferably near a water source, and don’t be afraid to approach the owners with an offer to live there. Although he acknowledges his good fortune in securing his Oregon arrangement—Price refuses to call it lucky—he says it’s reasonable for anyone to find a similar situation.
“Let ’em know you aren’t some kind of freak or a druggie or a person that would hurt their land in any way,” he says. “If you ask them, ‘Hey, can I put a tipi back there? I need a quiet place to stay,’ and then after you start staying there, if you’re cool and mellow and not tearing things up and not partying, then you can maybe move deeper and, eventually maybe go towards living in a yurt.”
Perhaps it sounds crazy, but Price has accomplished exactly that lifestyle. As he concludes in his book: “Of course the main idea behind all this seeming madness is to just go in the opposite direction from everyone else. To search far and wide for more cliff edges, to see just how minimal a person can be. All in the name of freedom. And not to just engage in some momentary weird experiment, but to discover an authentic state of true freedom, where no one is directing your actions.”
Dan Price will present a slide show and sign copies of Radical Simplicity at Fact & Fiction Saturday, Oct. 15, at 1:30 PM.