Same American Dream taste, more fulfilling

Weaving through Chism Trailer Park, west of downtown Reno, I spot Khyl Lyndgaard’s 1979 Airstream. I park near a garden gnome statue and survey the yard, neatly landscaped with grass, rocks and cinder block salvaged from a friend’s house. A large screen tent serves as work space when it’s warm—and as storage for Lyndgaard’s bike.

As it turns out, a 31-foot trailer is pretty small—in fact, it’s one-tenth of the space in which Lyndgaard lived before moving to Reno. And Lyndgaard is an average-sized guy. But the UNR graduate student calls spending the past year in the Airstream a “magnificent experiment” in modest living.

Like me, Lyndgaard is working on a doctoral degree in English in UNR’s Literature and Environment program. We’re classmates in Professor Scott Slovic’s premiere offering of a class called “The Literature of Energy.”

Our first assignment was to write a personal energy audit. Lyndgaard was well-prepared. While teaching college composition in Minnesota, he’d done something similar, assigning students to take Redefining Progress’s quiz at The online quiz gathers info about a person’s lifestyle and calculates in acres how much planet that lifestyle requires. There exists about 4.5 biologically productive acres of Earth per human. The average American uses around 24.

The quiz raised students’ awareness of energy use—but Lyndgaard was pained by his own results. Unlike his dorm-dwelling students, he owned a 13-room, 2,400-square-foot home and commuted 46 miles roundtrip each day. If everyone lived like this, the quiz concluded, we’d need 12 planets.

“I felt a little trapped in my patterns,” Lyndgaard says. “By buying a big house, I was buying into a certain lifestyle, into one vision of how to live in America. But it wasn’t the vision nearest my heart.”

When Lyndgaard came to study in Reno, he intentionally crafted simpler living arrangements. He bought the Airstream and rented space at a park close to UNR. He sold his car and rode a bike.

Now instead of buying 800-900 gallons of fuel to heat a spacious house, he uses 80 gallons of liquid propane for the whole year. His small appliances use much less energy—as do his low-watt lights. Though he recently purchased a fuel-efficient car to drive out of town for weekend hikes, he continues to use his bike around town.

His ecological footprint, as measured by Redefining Progress, went from 54 acres to less than 10.

Lyndgaard tours his living space, affectionately showing off storage bins filled with books and the shower used by his girlfriend as a closet. (Hot showers are available in a nearby brick building.) Over the stove, next to the ground cinnamon and baking soda, the Excella Solid State Control System features rows of red lights indicating the volume in the Airstream’s water, gas and waste tanks. When Lyndgaard turns the furnace on, the trailer quickly gets toasty. In the summer, Lyndgaard avoids using air conditioning, as he’s parked in the shade.

A Toshiba laptop sits on a makeshift desk. A small shelf holds books, including Four Huts: Asian Writings on the Simple Life, and a small flat-screen TV. (Last year, Lyndgaard attempted to maintain the 1970s feel of the trailer by using a black-and-white set. He caved.)

Drawbacks to Lyndgaard’s modest quarters? He admits to a bit of cabin fever in the winter. But overall, he enjoys the experiment.

“I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t fun,” he says. “I’m no less happy now than I was when I had a larger space. … There are so many different ways to live. I think people could start to think how to make themselves happier in different ways.”