Walden, with palm trees

Troy Billings

Photo by Larry Dalton

Troy Billings, a 22-year-old Sacramentan, took a two-week Hawaiian vacation and returned transformed. Within weeks, he’d given up his apartment, sold his possessions and said goodbye to his family and friends. On August 3, he flew to the big island of Hawaii with only a backpack, a bicycle and his life savings. His plan? To buy a few acres, build a self-sustaining cabin and live off the land. Like a tropical, modern-day Thoreau, Billings has left everything behind for a life of simplicity and quiet contemplation. Days before his departure, he paused to reflect on the importance of solitude and the potential risks of lava and loneliness.

How did you decide to quit your job, sell your belongings and take off?

I was visiting Hawaii with my brother on vacation and I had this epiphany. I love Hawaii, I’ve always wanted to build my own place and I realized I could have both at the same time. Over the next two weeks of vacation, my brother and I planned how I could do it. It was so much fun to sit and brainstorm ideas.

What’s your plan?

I want to buy a piece of land, build a small home there and try to live off the land as much as possible. The land I’m buying is a stretch of weed and fern-covered lava rock, but it’s unimaginably beautiful. The sun, the wind, even the rain is beautiful. And the trees! Everything is so green. It’s such a vibrant place.

What’s the price of land on the Big Island?

Well, I’m hunting for the cheapest possible land.

Is that right next to the volcano?

Yes. It’s in a “danger zone,” but what’s danger? [Laughs] The parcels I’m looking at run $5,000 for 3 acres.

Is there volcano insurance?

Yes indeed! If it takes your land, the insurance provides money to set up your life somewhere else.

What are the odds of your home being submerged in lava?

The impression I’ve been given is 50/50 over a span of 20 to 30 years. I’m willing to take that chance, considering there’s no life threat. When the lava comes, it comes slowly, so you have lots of time to get away.

Describe your new home.

Imagine a cozy barn. An interesting feature, if you’re not familiar with Hawaii, is that it will be open-walled. In Hawaii it’s very temperate, so you don’t need insulated walls. There are mosquitoes, though, so you do need netting unless you’re a selfless, blood-giving ascetic—which I’m not.

Are there utilities out there?

Only phone lines. Everything else must be created or supplied.

How will you do that?

I’m building a compost toilet outhouse. I’m installing a solar panel to cover my electricity needs. I’m building a cistern, a big bowl that catches rainwater. You run pipes into your house and run it through a filter.

Do you have any help with construction?

It’s just me, which is so great! There’ll be no one there to pressure me or say I’m doing things wrong. It’s empowering and stress-free.

What’s your budget?

It’s going to take everything I’ve got, which is around $9,000. It’s money I could have used later in life for buying a nice, stately normal-person home, but I’ve decided, at the ripe age of 22, that I’m never going to live in something like that. I’m going to use everything I’ve got right now for what I know I want.

Will you be lonely out there?

Right now, I’m so jazzed that I can’t think about loneliness. Of course, I’m going to try to distract myself at night with books and letters to friends, because those are going to be some really long nights. It’s a great opportunity for development, though. I can teach myself hobbies and crafts. All the things I never got around to in a 9-to-5 schedule, I can do now.

Are you escaping?

I could see it as an escape from society, but I prefer to say I’m running to the kind of life I want.

What will you miss most about Sacramento?

Lately, I’ve had this homey feeling just walking around the streets, either alone or with a friend. It’s a nice city here. That’s what I’ll miss—a feeling of home.

What do you hope to gain from the experience?

I’m really feeling the need to spend some “Troy time.” In a city like Sacramento where cars are rushing around and life is pretty fast-paced, it’s hard to spend quality time with yourself without working to shut out the rest of the world. In Hawaii, it’s like there is no “rest of the world” to shut out. There’s nothing left to do but meditate and work on yourself. I’m missing that.

What’s your advice for people who want to leave it all behind?

Well, it takes a certain gritty sort of person to want to live through the worst of it. In the coming months, I imagine I’ll be in some sullied conditions. Ultimately, it’ll be for the best, because the end product will be so wonderful. But a lot of people, maybe, aren’t ready for that. There’s a price to every dream and part of it is to live dirty and spend everything you’ve got and use faith to help you through. If you’re ready for that, go for it!

Any parting words before you head into the unknown?

I want to thank my brother Thomas who, with his invite to Hawaii that came out of nowhere, made space for this transformation to happen. In those two weeks, he helped me settle some doubts and fears that might have shut me down. So, here goes! Wish me luck!