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Walden on Wheels: On The Open Road from Debt to Freedom Paperback – May 14, 2013

4.5 out of 5 stars 541 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Most college students these days take burdensome, long-term loans for granted as the obligatory cost of earning their degrees. For recent University of Buffalo liberal-arts graduate Ilgunas, however, the sight of $32,000 printed in black and white on a Sallie Mae loan statement yielded a life-changing epiphany. Instead of remaining shackled to his low-wage job at a Niagara Falls Home Depot and rooming with his parents to better whittle away his debt, Ilgunas struck off to remote Coldfoot, Alaska, to get a taste of wilderness living while working as a cook and sometime nature guide. Many years, odd jobs, and escapades later, including hitchhiking across the U.S., paddling a canoe as a “voyageur” across Northern Canada, and joining a cleanup crew in Katrina-ravaged rural Mississippi, Ilgunas was finally debt-free. Yet a new epiphany led him back to college for a master’s degree. Inspired by Thoreau’s example of low-impact living, and determined to minimize housing expenses to avoid another mountain of debt, Ilgunas spent the last of his savings on a used vehicle he variously dubs the titular “Walden on wheels” or “a creepy red van.” Replete with colorful anecdotes and disarming wit, Ilgunas’ account is both a goad for chronic debtors and an irresistibly engrossing true-life adventure tale. --Carl Hays

Review

"Walden on Wheels [is] a remarkable memoir that manages to stay light on its feet while saying a great deal about the state of modern American society. Ilgunas is a rare and wonderful travel companion. Along the way, he describes natural phenomena so skillfully that you might be compelled to flee your desk and head for the hills, walking stick in hand." —Washington Post

"Ilgunas penned the most readable of the tomes on education this year. Ilgunas lives [the educational crisis] and tells quite the adventure tale. His education – flawed and expensive as it was – pays off." —The Globe and Mail

"[Walden on Wheels is] searching and ambitious—one of the best books I've read this year." —LA Review of Books

"Walden on Wheels is a funny and poetic tale of personal growth, suburban angst, and beef jerky." —A.J. Jacobs, author of Drop Dead Healthy and The Year of Living Biblically

"A thoroughly endearing account." —The Wall Street Journal

"Replete with colorful anecdotes and disarming wit, Ilgunas’ account is both a goad for chronic debtors and an irresistibly engrossing true-life adventure tale." —Booklist, Starred Review

"Walden on Wheels should be required reading for every student, not to mention every elected official and candidate for office." —BizPac Review

"[Ilgunas] tells a good, refreshingly honest story about one young man’s quest for freedom, a story that has something to say to Americans, whatever their age." —Greensboro News and Record

"Walden on Wheels is essential reading for liberal arts majors because it will inspire you to follow your dreams." LiberalArtsSurvival.com

"Walden on Wheels, a remarkable memoir that manages to stay light on its feet while saying a great deal about the state of modern American society. Ilgunas is a rare and wonderful travel companion" —Tampa Tribune

"Ilgunas' radical approach to life and unique sense of humor is what makes Walden on Wheels a great read." —Metro

"A funny and poignant take on debt in America, education, and making the most out of life." —Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine

"This enthralling account …is richly layered with both humor and deep circumspection. Thoughtful and well-crafted, [and] inspiring to read, Walden on Wheels, reminds one that life is made up of the little things, the experiences gained, the adventures survived, rather than the consumables acquired." —Summit Daily

"Ilgunas heroically (and often comically) maps out a life beholden to no one. Standing against the madness of conformity, Ilgunas offers what could be the Walden of our age." —Andrew Steele, former head writer of Saturday Night Live and creative director of Funny or Die

"Wrapped in a powerfully told, often self-deprecating travel memoir, Walden on Wheels delivers important, even life-changing, insights into navigating your way to a saner life in a sometimes insane, debt-driven, consumer culture." —Jeff Yeager, author of The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road Map to True Riches

"Walden on Wheels is a powerful narrative that puts a human face on the problem facing too many college graduates these days as tuition prices and student debt continue to climb. Ken Ilgunas' humorous coming of age story should be a warning to any student who doesn't worry about how taking on excessive debt might impact them." —Jeffrey J. Selingo, author of College (Un)bound

"Give him anger or give him tears, but nothing's going to hem in the energy force that is Ken Ilgunas." —Daniel Asa Rose, author of Larry's Kidney

"Loved this book — and was both entertained and encouraged — from page one to the very end." —Backwoods Home Magazine

"Among many other delights, Ken Ilgunas offers a fresh, provocative perspective on the student debt debate in his rollicking coming-of-age memoir—a funny and inspirational debut." —Robert Twigger, author of Angry White Pyjamas

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: New Harvest (May 14, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 054402883X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0544028838
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (541 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #36,992 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Theoden Humphrey VINE VOICE on May 10, 2013
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
"He was many things -- a surveyor, a naturalist, a handyman, a pencil-maker -- but I thought of Thoreau as a writer more than anything else. And his greatest story wasn't one of his essays, or 'Walden.' His greatest story, I thought, was his life. He knew that anything is possible when you wield the pen and claim your life as your own. . . . [F]or those of us who can, should it not be our great privilege to live the lives we've imagined? To be who we want to be? To go on our own great journeys and share our experiences with others?"

It's interesting that Ken Ilgunas describes himself, repeatedly, as a slacker: apathetic and indolent throughout his high school and undergraduate career, he finished college with a degree he didn't particularly care for (though he had found some inspiration in the last year or so of college, some thirst for knowledge, some interest in writing) and $32,000 in debt. But a slacker would never have done what Ilgunas did: he found work during a recession and despite the enormous surfeit of college graduates with degrees but little passion, he worked at crappy jobs in ugly circumstances, worked extra hours (60, 70, 80 a week) as much as possible, he saved every penny he could, he bought almost nothing for himself -- and he paid off his debt. And then, he went back to school. But to ensure that he did not go back into debt -- a promise he had made to himself while chipping away at the mountain of his first batch of student loans -- he chose to live in a van.

Ilgunas calling himself a slacker reminds me of a favorite quote from Lech Walesa, the Polish union organizer who brought his country from communism to democracy in the 1970's and 1980's: "I'm lazy.
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Author Ken Kilgunas graduated from the University at Buffalo owing $32,000 and with a degree in history and English. (Fortunately, he'd limited his debt by working over 30 hours/week at a Home Depot - $8/hour.) Unable to find work, he ended up taking a $9/hour job and tour guide and cook at a Coldfoot truck stop about 174 miles into the mostly gravel Dalton Highway and 60 miels north of the Arctic Circle, mostly used by truckers en route to Prudhoe Bay from Fairbanks.(He notes in 2009 there were 17.4 million college graduates in jobs not requiring a degree, including 365,000 cashiers and over 100,000 janitors - 5,057 with doctorate or professional degrees.) Clothes came from donation bins, friends cut his hair. The 'good news' is that the nearest store was in Fairbanks (no temptation to spend money), there was no cellphone reception (no temptation to sign onto a phone plan), and he got free room and board. One year later, he'd paid off $18,000. A year later he got a better-paying seasonal job as a back country ranger with the Park Service at the Gates of the Arctic National Park, and after 2.5 years, was debt free.

In Alaska, Kilgunas also learned about subsistence living and worked with a 74-year-old maintenance man living in his 1980 Chevy Suburban. Wanting to continue his education, he applied to and was accepted at Duke. Living quarters would be a 1994 Ford Econoline van he bought for $1,500 (complete with bald tires) - for two years! Internet and electricity - available at the library. Showers, via a cheap campus gym membership. The bathroom was a quarter-mile from his parking space. Food - he cooked himself in the van, averaging $4.34/day, much cheaper than Duke's cheapest on-campus meal plan $15/day. Their cheapest dorm rooms cost 18X what he paid for his parking permit.
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Ken Ilgunas' book gives me some hope for the future. Ken's story proves that the American suburbs and the American education system can still -- at least on rare occasions -- produce a genuine, thinking, feeling, conscious, self-directed human being.

What does it take to do that? A fertile and rebellious young mind with a hunger for books and genuine experience, plus exposure to the writings of the best minds of the past: In other words, a liberal arts education.

Young though he may be, Ken is a natural-born philosopher, just as he is a natural-born writer. Though he makes much of his slacker, frat-boy origins, no doubt that is part of a writerly device to keep his feet on the ground, even when the wind is in his wings. Slacker frat-boys don't get to speak at Duke graduations, nor are they capable of conceiving, or finding words for, Ken's powerful appeal for the liberals arts, which brought tears to my eyes in an era in which universities are spending borrowed money to build yet more business schools.

I want to take issue with a couple of reviews that have attempted to police and scold Ilgunas for occasionally being politically incorrect. One review lifts out of context a passage in which Ilgunas expresses thoughts of aggression toward a homeless guy who had duped him. I must police and scold such careless reviewers, who lack the insight to realize that Ilgunas really was expressing anger at himself, and questioning his own self-worth, because it was a low point in his journey. Of course Ilgunas is occasionally politically incorrect. He is a truth-seeker and a truth-teller, with no time for frauds and scams.

I eagerly await Ilgunas' future writings. For better or for worse, he is never going to be able to live the way other people live.
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