Modern life too much for you? Maybe a tiny box in the woods is the cure

|     Lavanya Ramanathan     |

TO COMMUNE with ourselves, we must trek two hours to Stanardsville, a town on the edge of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains whose population has stairstepped down over the years to 384 people, a country store and this wooded plot, which, before 20 tiny houses arrived this fall, was an RV campground called Heavenly Acres.

The heavenly part is debatable. On the second official day of winter, the tract is a colourless bog, surrounded by tall, barren trees and covered with a blanket of dead leaves. But this, promises Getaway – a start-up that offers these rental not-cabins and this not-camping not far from major cities – is where we may rejuvenate our very souls.

As our car crunches up the gravel driveway, we pass an ominous charcoal-gray box on wheels. A sign proclaims it “Lenore”. It is a carbon copy of Lillian, Hank, Felix and Shirley, which is the tiny house we have been assigned, we learn in a succinct text from the company that also feeds us an entry code.

Inside, couples slice avocados together. A multi-ethnic gaggle of cool kids in beanies convenes at a fire pit. Young women plant themselves in large picture windows overlooking the forest with hardcover books you can only assume are by Zadie Smith or Audre Lorde. In one image, a woman simply contorts herself in a display of yogic bliss.

The savvy emphasis on escape and disconnection and repose has resonated among the millennials Getaway aims to reach. In each of its markets, outside New York, Boston and Washington, Getaway’s houses are booked solid on weekends, and in early 2017, the company, founded by two Harvard graduates, raised $15 million in venture capital funding, which suggests that a tiny house campground may soon be coming to a forest near you.

Despite its name, Getaway does not sell the sort of wild weekend vacation you might experience in Cancun, or the food-focussed travels you might have in Portugal.

Instead, it presents a dire vision of urban life, and then offers itself as the antidote. It encourages you to use your tiny, at the rate of just over $160 a night, to finish your novel – because you obviously never have time to work on it otherwise – and insists that you remove yourself from a list of stressors. These include: work, email, texts and competition.

Getaway markets its tiny homes in the woods as a way to ‘rediscover the pleasure of boredom, solitude and unstructured time’

We punch in the code and crack open Shirley like a safe and begin to poke around. I plop down on the large, soft platform bed. I pore over the copious literature, which informs guests, among other things, that the absence of mirrors is intentional. Because only monsters think about their pores when they’re supposed to be out here like Henry David Thoreau.

We scan the kitchen, which comes with two plates, two mugs, a pan and not a single drink glass. And we encounter the wooden box where you really, really should lock away your cellphone, source of so much pain.

But just in case you can’t part with it, they’ve conveniently provided absolutely no WiFi.

“This is called camping,” you think

Not exactly. Now, in tiny houses that no one will acknowledge are honestly just what we used to call cabins, it’s called “escaping”.

Just what are we running from?

For the suburban families that have made “Tiny House Hunters” an HGTV hit, tiny houses are an alternate reality, an incredible stretch of the imagination.

“How could anyone live with so little?” is the obvious question.

The better one: “What must that be like, to not be so in debt that your skin feels like it’s on fire every moment of every waking day?”

Having only recently moved up from a series of 350-square-foot tiny houses called studio apartments, I know what it’s like to live with no doors. Anxiety is worrying that I might live like this forever, or perhaps one day live with even less.

So I can’t dismiss the popular fascination with tiny houses – little wooden temples to minimalism that on average clock in at just over 200 square feet and can be had for about $50,000 – as a misguided fad. Adorable wooden cottages on wheels have exploded in popularity not because people wanted to downsize, but because they were downsized.

We struggle “our whole lives to work hard enough so we can relax”, says Amy Turnbull, president of the American Tiny House Association. “What has changed is that millennials and the housing crisis of 2008 have shown us we ain’t got time for that. Security is a myth. Housing is beyond the reach of many. We have student loan debt. So, what’s the point?”

It’s no wonder that the tiny house, off the grid in fact and in spirit, appeals. – Text and Photo by The Washington Post