Chris Harne is either bonkers or brilliant. The 25-year-old middle-class suburbanite who says he doesn’t care for material consumption has a plan to live for free, or very little: set up house in a box truck.
In jeans and a used, 50-cent Wawa hoodie, Harne last week put the final touches on a secondhand, 17-foot U-Haul truck with 175,000 miles that he has recycled into a one-room domicile, complete with sink, easy chair and front porch.
He plans to call it home while he winters and works as a bicycle cabbie in Key West, Fla.
On Friday, Harne backed down the long driveway of his parents’ spacious Kennett Square home, where he’d been staying comfortably since summer, and headed south, stopping to pick up a driving companion he met on Craigslist.
"I’m trying to figure out the way to work the smallest amount possible," he said last month between customers at his last gig, working for a junk hauler – an ideal job for someone who enjoys living off others’ castaways.
"Nobody has any free time. That’s not right. You need some free time. You need to do something you care about. Or nothing. You need to spend your time for yourself instead of somebody else."
Hence the U-Haul. "That’s what the truck is all about," he said. "If you live in a truck, you can drastically slash your bills and hopefully work a lot less."
Harne, the younger child of public school teachers, has always had a thrifty gene and a hankering for adventure. He dreamed up the "truckhouse," as he calls it, some time ago.
He thought he was original. Turns out a whole underground network dwells in vans, trucks and buses.
Roger Beck, a cabinetmaker who lives in Eugene, Ore., has chronicled the subculture through photographs in the self-published Some Turtles Have Nice Shells. In the ’70s, he lived in four trucks before settling into a house. "I never had to be in a hurry to get anywhere, because wherever I was, I was home."
As Harne’s odyssey neared, the slender man with a short beard and wire-rimmed glasses got a Mohawk haircut, gave notice to 1-800-GOT-JUNK, and focused on turning the $5,000 truck he put on his credit card into a place to live.
An aluminum door with a screen was installed to afford better access than the roll-up rear door. His "porch" is the back three feet. Step "inside" and enter Harne’s 7.5-by-10-foot living room/bedroom/kitchen with (used) navy blue carpet and walls painted bright yellow.
"My apartments were the size of a box truck, anyway," he said. The ceiling just clears his 6-foot frame.
On the left is a white easy chair that dates to his parents’ marriage 35 years ago, and a green futon (one of many finds from his junk pickups) that folds out to a bed.
Forward is a storage space, a three-drawer dresser he’s had since first grade, and a large plastic sink (another on-the-job picking) with a seven-gallon water jug (Wal-Mart) placed above.
On the right, he has an Igloo cooler that serves as his pantry, a worn wooden end table (recycled, of course), where the mini Coleman stove sits, and wall art: a decent clown painting found at a dump.
That’s it. Architectural Digest isn’t likely to call.
Harne has electricity, heat and other "amenities" to add. But that’s another day’s work.
Key West is in the 80s. He’ll use public restrooms when nature calls or a "32-ounce pee bottle" for emergencies. Showers, he figures, are overrated. He’ll read by flashlight.
His five-year plan, he said, includes saving enough for land out West to park a truck, maybe connect to the grid.
One day, he plans to write a book about it all, he said.
All fine, except truck living can run afoul of ordinances.
"My officers tell me he would be breaking several laws," said Christie Phillips, communications manager for the city of Key West. Overnight camping is not allowed. Vehicles cannot be left in residential parking spaces for more than 72 hours.
"There’s an RV park right before you get to the island," Phillips offered. "He could stay there."
That would cost money, Harne said. Besides, "it’s not stealth," he said. He passed on a camper because "I really like the idea of knowing how every single tiny aspect works, designing it for exactly what I need."
Harne could be a rebel, but he is not proselytizing. "It’s not really this philosophy that I think is right for everybody. It’s not, ‘Everybody, I implore you to live off the garbage.’ "
A graduate of Kennett High School, he dropped in and out of college. He doesn’t see the point of a degree, much to his parents’ dismay. "I don’t want anything standard in this life," he said.
That’s why this whole truck thing works for him. It’s different, his take on "Go West, young man."
This year, he and a friend biked to Quebec and camped a lot.
"I was thinking, what am I going to do when I come back," he said. "It seemed like kind of scary. Another lease. Another security deposit. All this stuff."
Some might think him a slacker. "A lot of people think that, Mom included," he said.
Even he has doubts at times. He has blogged about "tough bouts of anxiety" and given himself a pep talk: "Don’t turn back and cause yourself regret before you even fully dive into the new situation."
At his best, Harne likes to think he’s a man of action. (Or is that inaction?)
"There’s this one life," he said. "Sometimes, you can think . . . to the future too much. If you give in to your anxiety, you freak out."
He wants to live for the moment.
"I wasn’t thrilled about it at first," said his father, Jim, who is retired.
"If anybody can pull it off, he will," he said. "His frugality is his strong suit. Notice I didn’t say cheapness."
Harne likes his gadgets, iPod (gift), GPS (bought), laptop (ex-girlfriend’s), as much as the next guy.
Big sis Cathy Snell, 28, a physics teacher in the Twin Valley District, takes Harne’s notions in stride. "It can be a really cool idea," she said. When home is stripped down to whatever fits in a truck, "what are you really going to miss?"
"I still take long, hot showers," Harne said.
Then, he added, as much to himself as anyone, "I’ll be fine."