Every morning, local man Brett Butler rolls out of bed, steps out his front door, and looks at the sun rising over the mountains in the east just like everybody else - except Butler’s front door is the flap of his tipi.
Butler, who works at West Jefferson’s The Honey Hole of the Blue Ridge and owns an educational presentation company called Field Trips Delivered, said he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I love it,” said Butler. “I get up every morning and look at the place that inspired me to do this right out my front door. I started living in the tipi in Asheville, then Boone, and now here, so it’s kind of come full circle.”
As a boy, Butler loved ‘Hatchet’ and ‘My Side of the Mountain,’ both Newberry winning stories about young men embracing the challenge of surviving, and thriving, in the wild with little more than their wits.
“I loved those books,” said Butler. “As a kid, I thought they were awesome. They were the original inspiration for my doing this.”
Butler grew up in Winston-Salem, but his family ties to Ashe County go back generations. The land his tipi now sits on was once owned by his great-grandparents Butch and Opal Dollar Blevins. In total, Butler’s family have owned the land where his tipi sits for close to a century.
The idea to live in a tipi started more than six years ago for Butler, a student at the University of North Carolina-Asheville in 2006, while living in the on-campus dorms. Though his parents embrace the fact he lives in a tipi now, he said it wasn’t always that way.
“My mom was always overprotective, and when I told her I was going to live in a tipi, she said I had to do it,” said Butler with a laugh. “My dad, who was an Eagle Scout, said, ‘No way. I won’t pay for your school.”
Undaunted, Butler forged ahead.
“I bought the tipi and figured, hey, dad never comes up to Asheville anyway,” Butler said laughing. “So, I just bought it and moved into it and invited him up for a weekend. He stayed with me, stayed warm, stayed dry and he finally said, ‘I’m cool with it.”
Butler isn’t shy about the fact that he lives in a tipi, and said he gets two reactions when he tells people about it.
“People say, ‘That is awesome’ or ‘You are crazy’,” said Butler with a big grin. “It’s one or the other, and one is going to turn to the other. ‘You’re crazy’ turns into ‘That’s awesome,’ and all it takes is an explanation. That is the only difference between the two. And pictures, sometimes. I pull out my laptop and show them the pictures of my tipi, and that’s it, people are sold.”
Tipi’s were once the traditional dwelling of transient tribes of Indians in the wide plains of the American west. The tipi enabled its inhabitants to stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The design is sturdy and upright, and can be broken down for transport in just a couple hours.
Even though Native Americans used the structures for generations, much of what Butler has learned over the past six years has been trial and error, including the best ways to optimize his 256 square feet of living space, and how to sew an interior liner that keeps the tipi warmer in the winter.
Other skills and knowledge he picked up from Eustace Conway, one of the current stars of The History Channel’s ‘Mountain Men.’ Conway, the subject of Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2002 book, The Last American Man, lived in a tipi for 17 years.
“I picked other people’s brains,” said Butler. “I grew up backpacking, camping, and was a boy scout so I had that experience, but the tipi itself I picked up from Eustace Conway.”
While studying at Appalachian, between 2008 and 2011, Butler lived outside Boone, near Conway’s 1,000 acre Turtle Island Preserve.
Butler’s tipi includes the traditional portions of the tipi, including the poles, an outer fabric made from material used for sailboat sails, and an inner liner that fits around the bottom inside edge of the tipi that keeps cold outside air from blowing up and in. Butler has also installed another inner liner that sits higher, that also acts as a barrier to rain and the cold.
Butler’s tipi sits on a wooden platform and the interior includes his bed, storage containers, a small kitchen complete with a propane stove, and a handmade wood stove that dominates the center of the tipi. The stove’s pipe rises through a hole in the center of the tipi’s inner liner, that allows smoke to rise out of the top of the tipi. Blue sky can be seen through the open hole at the tipi’s top.
“When it rains, typically what it’s going to do is catch (on the inner liner) and run down the pole, and into the ground,” said Butler. “It’s really not a problem.”
Butler said one of the most important pieces of his tipi is its inner liner that keeps the living space warm in winter.
“Without this, you basically have to have a raging fire in here to keep warm,” said Butler. “It stops the air flow, and you’re not heating the entire top of the tipi, you’re only heating the bottom where you’re hanging out.”
Butler has also embraced the ‘do it yourself’ philosophy since embarking on his tipi journey. The inner tipi liner was hand-sewn by Butler, and he learned metalworking while building his wood stove. He also drove more than 4,000 miles cross country to Montana and back to get his lodge poles.
“By driving out there and buying them directly, I paid $220 a set,” said Butler. “That trip cut the cost of the poles in half.”
There was a catch, however. Butler had to fashion wood frames that would fit the front and rear of his single cab Toyota Tacoma that would allow him to lash down and support the the unwieldy 27-foot long poles.
“I got it done and got them back here,” said Butler with a laugh.
Ultimately, Butler hopes to have a collection of multiple tipis and storage areas, and build an off-grid solar power supply. When asked if Butler intends to live in his tipi forever, he just grins.
“We’ll see,” he said with a laugh. “Right now, I like it, and I basically have no bills, and I won’t ever complain about that.”