A Morgantown couple has found a rent-life balance that works for them.
At the end of a productive work day, Aysha Mahmood drives home in her Mercedes-Benz, reflecting on the meetings she had with clients. She parks her car. She’s looking forward to putting her feet up, seeing her fiance, Christopher Lazzell, and eating dinner. But first, she has to switch out her dress and high-fashion stilettos for her Carhartt pants and a pair of boots, then trek up a steep and muddy hillside to the abode she and Lazzell share: a teepee that sits atop one of the highest points in the Morgantown area, just a five-minute drive from downtown.
Along the way, she’s likely greeted by Frank, the donkey who roams the land. If it’s a cold day, chances are good that when she finally steps foot inside the teepee, her cat, Roshni, is cozied up taking a warm evening nap by the fire that Lazzell spent the last 30 minutes getting started in the wood burner.
There is no electricity on top of the hill—or running water, for that matter—so the fire is not only their source of heat, but also their means of cooking food. Just because they’ve chosen a lifestyle that’s off the beaten path doesn’t mean they’re totally off the grid, though; nor do they consider themselves minimalists by any stretch of the imagination. “It’s not necessarily that we’re going completely green or not participating in society,” Lazzell says. “It’s just that we want to produce more than we consume.”
Lazzell started living on the property, which is owned by a family friend, in June of 2015 after he decided he no longer wanted to continue renting apartments and working as an accountant. At that time, it was just him living by himself in a tent. “It was about me figuring out how to be sustainable and provide the basics in life for myself,” he says. “I thought, if I want to be a successful person in life and grow an empire and start a business and a family, I need to start from square one. Everything I’ve learned in life has taught me to build the foundation first, so I wanted to learn how to get food, water, and shelter figured out.”
Mahmood, on the other hand, admittedly hates bugs and “critters,” yet she found something compelling about the life Lazzell was creating. When the couple started dating in 2015, Mahmood, who is from the Washington, D.C., area, was used to city living. Her parents had moved to the United States from Pakistan to pursue the American dream. So when she expressed interest in relocating to Morgantown to live with Lazzell in the middle of the woods, she was met with puzzled looks.
“My parents came from villages in Pakistan where people live on dirt roads and have no shoes, so they couldn’t understand why I wanted to do this,” she says.
But Mahmood was determined to give it a shot. “That was about two years ago,” she says. “I’d never been in the woods in my life. The first time I came out here to visit Chris, I was trying to walk up the hill and it was pitch dark and I just couldn’t do it. I ended up sleeping in his truck that night.”
Much has changed since Mahmood first moved into the tent in March of 2016. She came to love breathing the fresh air, eating the berries off the bushes, drinking water from the natural spring at the bottom of the hill, and waking up with the birds and the sun. She and Lazzell adjusted nicely to life in the tent. But as winter arrived and weather got colder, they needed to come up with an alternative.
Mahmood and Lazzell agreed an apartment was out of the question, because they had grown accustomed to sleeping outdoors and didn’t want to spend money on rent—an expense they believe yields them no return. So, through discussions and brainstorming, the idea for the teepee was born. “There’s a reason the Native Americans have been living in these for 2,000 years and have never really changed the design,” Lazzell says. “They found something that works really well.”
To make their dream a reality, Lazzell and Mahmood got in touch with Native Americans out West who hand-stitched a canvas that would form the walls of the teepee. Then, Lazzell cut down 17 cherry logs, and the couple hand-processed each one to create poles for the structure of the teepee.
“We took all of the bark off by hand, sanded them, and polished them down,” Mahmood says. “It took about four to five hours to do each log.”
When it was all said and done, the process took about six weeks and cost them less than $3,000. Now, the 17-foot-tall, 13-foot-across teepee is even furnished with decorative pillows and baskets, each of which has been carried up the hill on their shoulders.
Originally, the plan was for the couple to live in the teepee for a few months while they built a house in the woods made entirely of materials from the land. They still plan to build, but for now, Mahmood and Lazzell, who are entrepreneurs, are taking their time and allowing themselves to focus on personal and career growth.
“We keep ourselves really busy,” Mahmood says. “If we would’ve built the house two years ago when we wanted to, I would’ve felt like we missed out on a lot because of all the stuff we’ve learned since then.”
That doesn’t mean it’s been a smooth ride. “There are always little adjustments that need to be made,” Lazzell says. “The whole thing has been an extreme learning experience.” For example, when Lazzell and Mahmood noticed that the smoke from their wood burner wasn’t rising to the top of the teepee and exiting through its flaps, they needed to get resourceful.
“You can’t just Google solutions here,” says Mahmood.
With time and experience, they’ve found solutions—like installing a double-walled, insulated chimney to get rid of smoke, building a trench around the teepee to eliminate flooding, opting for canned goods like lentils and chicken soup to avoid attracting wildlife visitors, and barking loudly to ward off the occasional pack of coyotes.
Not only have they adapted to their lifestyle—they prefer it.
“We are truly content at this point in our lives, where we are right now, in the teepee,” Mahmood says. “Yes, I curse about it and it’s difficult sometimes, but when you wake up here, it’s like paradise. We traveled the world this winter, and all we could think about was how much we missed it here while we were away.”
Contrary to what some may believe, living modestly doesn’t impose limits on what the couple can and can’t do. “Quite the opposite,” says Lazzell. “It allows us to do more.” When he mentions to clients or business partners that he lives in a teepee, they often think he’s joking. “I pull up in a brand new car, wearing dress pants and dress shoes, and to them, it doesn’t add up,” he says. “But it’s about priorities. We’ve decompressed the stress and allowed ourselves to really flourish, spread our wings, grow in a way that we want to grow, and be able to take care of the things we want to take care of.”
As for sharing such close quarters with another person? Mahmood and Lazzell agree that the expansive outdoors beyond their teepee’s walls is all the space they need. “Living here is so free, so quiet, and so healing—there’s a certain energetic aspect to it,” says Lazzell. “When we’re up here, the stress and things from the day are so much easier to let go.”
Lazzell and Mahmood hope their experience can be an example to others who crave a lifestyle beyond conventional standards. “I want others to be able to picture themselves doing something like this, because of the reward it entails,” Mahmood says. “I really want people to know this is attainable.”
written by Kaylyn Christopher
photographed by Carla Witt Ford