"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. But it's the lazy people who invented the wheel and the bicycle because they didn't like walking or carrying things." And just like Walesa, who couldn't rationally be considered lazy, Ken Ilgunas cannot rationally be considered a slacker.
What both of these men are -- and, arguably, Henry David Thoreau before them, who served as Ilgunas's primary inspiration for his simplified life -- is dedicated. Because Ilgunas is dedicated, focused only on what was really important, he didn't spend time or effort, or money, on things that were unnecessary -- and Ilgunas has a very definite and narrow idea of what was necessary. It was only one thing: freedom. To achieve that, first he had to escape his suburban boredom, which he did by going to Alaska, and visiting one of the last truly wild places left in America; and then he had to escape his debt. Then he had to go back to school, where he discovered a new purpose -- and the answer to that new purpose was this book.
Mr. Ilgunas succeeded in this last purpose as well. Because he has inspired me, and, I have no doubt, many others, too.
It's a good story. It's an Everyman's memoir, though Ilgunas does what most of us never bring ourselves to do, to our own loss. I thought it would focus more on the actual vandwelling that features so prominently on the cover, but the first two-thirds of the book is not: it tells the story of his war with his debt. It's a good story, and a necessary one to understand the vandwelling. It's an especially good story for people today to read. I'm glad I did. I will be sharing this book with my college-bound students (I teach high school) and I will go on my own great journey, and I will share my experience with others. Yeah. I'll go for it.
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. Other expenses were covered by tutoring and becoming a test subject.
It's a shame that college costs have reached such levels that Ken had to take such actions, though obviously a great credit to him that he did it. The bad news is that he left Duke with no job and a another degree not likely to bring in a good income. Hopefully his education in living, combined with writing talent, will do what the college educations alone could not - allow Ken to live his dream. Since then he's hiked the length of the controversial Keystone Pipeline - total cost of $6,983, $5,220 of that for gear.
on May 14, 2013
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. He is a heretic, so he is doomed to re-imagine how one might live, and how one might think, in times like the times we live in. It was largely Thoreau, it seems, who helped Ilgunas climb to the peak upon which he now stands. But I have to imagine that Ilgunas is looking up toward the next level of the climb, trying to figure out what obstacles the modern world is going to throw in his way, and what insights and philosophical tools it's going to take to go higher.
on July 27, 2013
I was really looking forward to reading this book. I have been a proponent of the Voluntary Simplicity movement since the early 1990s when I happened upon a book called YOUR MONEY OR YOUR LIFE by Vicky Robin and Joe Dominguez. Through the years I have learned firsthand how frugality can ransom that most limited of commodities--TIME. I also have personal experience of the burden of student loan debt, how poor or thoughtless choices at eighteen can haunt a person for decades. So when I heard about Ken Ilgunas' efforts to escape debt and suffer a little now in return for a more peaceful life forever after, I was ready to jump right on board.
Too bad Ilgunas' head is such an unpleasant place to spend time.
Sure, it might have something to do with his age that he considers working for Home Depot more soul crushing than cleaning toilets in an Alaskan motel. The myth of Rugged Individualism and all that. He's from western New York, which these days is apparently a wasteland of suburban tract housing populated by husks of humanity cut off from nature and doomed by their demand for warm homes and cable television. Even the mighty Niagara Falls fail to move him. Forget for a moment that the state of New York is home to vast amounts of farmland and the Catskill and the Adirondack mountain ranges--perhaps that doesn't mean much in comparison to the wilds of the northern frontier. Hey, who wouldn't like to walk on a glacier or watch caribou galloping along the tundra? My quarrel with Ilgunas (besides his questionable moral code in which a co-worker who beats his girlfriend until blood seeps from her ear or pours water over dogs sleeping outside in below-freezing temperatures is treated with more compassion than a horny truck driver who eats too many fried foods) is his tendency to indulge in childish tantrums that blame society for his own choice to fritter away his teens/early twenties playing video games and emailing porn.
Does the author have some amazing stories to tell about his time in the wilderness? Absolutely. Does he show us some hard truths about the day-to-day struggles of this country's working poor? Yes. Is he correct about the damage excessive student debt can do to the individual and to society? Definitely. But apparently these life-transforming experiences and insights, which comprise 95% of the book, are not important enough to provide its marketing hook. Instead Ilgunas, critic of modern consumer culture, allowed his publisher to focus on the 5% of the book that has to do with his time actually living in his van.
I know people will ask, what's wrong with capitalizing on the current hot topic of student debt and that perennial best-seller Thoreau's WALDEN, especially if it helps another young person avoid financial trouble? Normally, nothing. But once you've read through Ilgunas' repeated tirades against capitalism and those of us who have chosen to make some peace with the world we live in--even if that world has had the bad manners to continue progressing past 1850--you'll find a problem with not getting the book he advertised.
I suppose if one person reads this book and limits the amount of student loan debt he accumulates, it's worth the cover price. But it really is just another tale of adolescent rebellion screeched at ear-splitting volume. If this was 1990, Ilgunas would have backpacked through Europe on five bucks a day, joined a kibbutz, and then come home to get his MBA.
on January 26, 2015
Too many references to others that are offensive, lots of nastiness about overweight women, a horrible analogy to describe how awful he feels, using the example of finding one's wife and child murdered and covered in semen. Disgusting and unnecessary.
on June 11, 2013
With the advent of the e-reader, I know exactly how far along I am in a book at any moment. I kept telling myself "I'll read until I get to X% and then go to bed." Well, 50% comes and goes; 65%, 80%, and I'm done before I realize it's 5 in the morning and I have to get up in a few hours.
Is the book always politically correct? No. Is it sometimes crude? Yes. But if the author had censored himself, we would have lost out on what makes the book so appealing -- its honesty. The author isn't trying to be anyone other than himself. He lets us experience his weird, idiosyncratic thoughts and feelings, some of which we can all relate to (even if we would never admit to it). And we always feel like we're right there with him, mosquito bites and all.
The book is about so much more than living in a van. As others have mentioned, the vandwelling is only covered in the last third of the book. And, for me, it wasn't just about getting out of debt either. Though I understand his circumstances and adventures were all tied back to the debt, the choices he made seemed to stem from something much deeper. Had he not had that debt, I imagine he still would have felt that same need to break free from the life he sees so many people living -- a life of staticness.
While reading this book, I was overwhelmed by an urge to do more than I'm currently doing. To travel, to fall hopelessly in love without any expectations it will last, to rid myself of excess material goods, to be better than I am. And isn't that what we want in every book we read? To feel something, anything, that we weren't feeling before we picked the book up? I would highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone, and I look forward to more stories from this author.
on January 10, 2014
I should probably mention upfront that my husband and I are both 39, so we're probably older than the majority who would gravitate to this book. Twentysomethings and fortysomethings will experience this book very differently. As ones who are about to turn forty, we chuckled a little at points in his book. Does Ken seem self-absorbed? Obsessive? Preoccupied with what he feels entitled to? A little commitment phobic? Does he seem to have all the answers in such a way as only a youngling in the world does? Absolutely. Because we were reading this aloud to one another, we both couldn't resist the urge to laugh at points by his largely self inflicted angst. Maybe we were laughing at ourselves, because we married at nineteen, and after college we bought an Airstream and lived in it for two years, seeing the country, so we saw something of ourselves in his journey. But unlike Ken, we came from very poor families, and those who grew up truly poor will always smirk or laugh at those with money who find life so…hard. Despite his very age-appropriate outrage, angst and inclination to preach, we surprised ourselves by how much we both enjoyed the book.
Overlook his shortcomings - they're largely predictable and age-appropriate. What Ken has to say is worth hearing, no matter your age. Life is lived poorly when lived in pursuit of things. He's right: you can be happy with less than you think you must have, are entitled to, cannot do without. For all your outrage in your youth at how dysfunctional the world is, as you get older, time and experiences will color your view of people differently. You soften. Outrage turns to an understanding and if you're lucky, compassion. If you're fortunate, you'll find happiness in an imperfect world you won't effectively change, but you'll spend your life doing your part. Maybe you'll recycle, bike rather than drive when you can, drive a tiny car, be part of the tiny houses group, farm your food, watch less TV, and never give a moment of your time worrying about what the Joneses have.
Ken was us at nineteen. Ken is many people in their youth. This book is an engaging read. Some of us will be reminded whom we were at his age. You'll laugh. You'll cringe. You'll smirk. You'll be touched. As I write this from our 710 square foot home, I'm smiling because the world keeps producing people like us - Kens - people like many of you. I hope his book touches those who are nothing like us, as that'd be the best result of his book.
Thank you, Ken.
on June 5, 2013
The title WALDEN ON WHEELS implies that this is a book about a college student intent on minimizing college debt by living in a van. Fortunately, that's only about 5% of the book. The other 95% is about how author Ken Ilgunas finished college then educated himself. In short order he paid off his college debt while LIVING his life full of adventures that most young people only dream about.
The stereotypical story these days is of young people graduating college with mountains of debt and no job prospects. Ken is actually the OPPOSITE of that stereotype. For one thing, most of the story takes place in the early 2000's when jobs were plentiful. Ken went to college and graduated in 2004, so finding work wasn't as hard then as now.
Although he portrays himself as having been a dull high school student who had no real purpose in college other than to goof off, he did get life's "wake up call" in his junior year. He went to work 30 hours a week at Home Depot and thus paid for much of his college as he went. Although it's easy to talk about how worthless a Liberal Arts education is, Ken says that by his senior year his mind was opened by the education to think more deeply about himself and all aspects of life.
When Ken finished undergrad he jumped in his car in Buffalo, New York and drove 4,000 miles to Coldfoot, Alaska. When he left Buffalo he describes himself as a naïve kid. By the time he finished working his first year in Alaska he had experienced more of life's drama than most of us do in a life time. AND he had paid off most of his student debt, that being accomplished by living in a dormitory at the camp where his food and board were free. He says he earned the equivalent of $50,000 working manual labor odd jobs his first year out of college, working as many as 70 hours a week during the tourist season in Alaska.
When he had most of his debt paid off he travelled on adventures around the country, working here and there, growing and maturing, while having the time of his life. Some of his work was in the Americorps where he helped young deadbeats realize that they had bright futures if they would improve themselves.
It was only after working all around the country, including returning to Alaska for a year's work as a Park Ranger, that he felt the call to return to graduate school. He was accepted by Duke University. There he became a "Vandweller," one suspects more for the sense of adventure than because he really needed to save money by foregoing rent. That part of the story is boring, but fortunately only takes up a few pages near the end. It is what he did before that matters. Ilgunas managed to obtain a bachelor's degree, pay it all off in two and a half years while doing exactly what he wanted where he wanted. Then he felt the call to open his mind further with a master's at Duke.
You've got to read the book to undestand the wonderful drama of Ilguna's experiences. This mainly involves the PEOPLE that Ilgunas interacted with on the Alaska frontier and in the Americorps camps in the shambles of post-Katrina Mississippi.
He lived among the "downtrodden" --- the crude, half-educated people who work as truck drivers, odd-jobbers, waitresses, etc. --- the people who live "free" day to day without worrying about how they're going to pay their mortgages (most live in shacks out in the sticks) or where their kids are going to college. They're the "low class" folks who stay drunk most of the time, own rattletrap vans and expensive firearms, "inseminate everything that moves," and have daily scrapes with the law. But they have a strong pride in their independence and a deep-seated empathy for folks like them. They're the kind of people who picked Ken up when he was hithiking across the continent and invited him into their shacks for dinner, beer, and conversation at the end of the ride.
He contrasts that way of life, which he learned to enjoy, with the "wage slaves" of suburbia (where he grew up) who go into work miserable jobs that they hate and whose lives have become boring and mundane.
Ken came out of college an educated, thinking man who learned to LOVE that life of adventure among the Free White Trash on Alaska's frontier. Had he stayed in Alaska he would have become well-off in ten years by accumulating the savings from hours worked at manual labor. He has a strong work ethic and learned how to work many jobs. For a while he rejected (to his loving parents' alarm) the middle class life that college is supposed to bring. But ultimately it called him back to get his masters at Duke.
This story is more than just a travelogue or a tale about living in a van. It's the story of how a young naïve college grad learns how to MASTER LIFE --- how to make life serve HIS destiny --- by having the courage to follow his dreams. He didn't become wealthy from that experience but he did learn totality of life's meaning before he was turned thirty. Lucky indeed if most of us learn those lessons by the time it comes for us to pass away. And by then it's too late.
I think he's saying: "You must first educate yourself to enjoy and master LIFE by EXPERIENCING it. Only then will you appreciate mastering EDUCATION in college."
on May 11, 2013
I hesitated to get this book, as a feared that I would not like the author, and thus not relate to the story. I was thinking he was just another of those people who want attention for being rebellious or "weird". Instead, I found a young man who does rebel against blindly following society's "norms", but does so in large part because of what he believes, not just to rebel for the sake of rebelling I found much of what he wrote to be well thought out. He does indeed remind me of Thoreau, and is a worthy successor.
The book in broken into 4 parts: Debtor, or My Attempt to Pay Off $32,000 in Student Debt with a Useless Liberal Arts Degree; Tramp, or My Attempt to Live a Free Life in Spite of Debt; Grad Student, or My Attempt to Afford Grad School by Moving into a Creepy Red Van, and Vandweller, or How I Learned to Live Simply.
The following are brief quotes from the book that give insight into the outlook of Mr. Ilgunas, and showcase what you can expect from the book: "Yet after each rest, I was able to get up and take a few more steps, and a few more after that. At some point, I'd wandered into that strange territory between my perceived limits and my actual limits -- that stretch of land called the "unknown" a territory as wild and unfamiliar at the Alaskan country before me." (pp. 25); "Perhaps there's no better act of simplification than climbing a mountain. For an afternoon, a day, or a week, it's a way of reducing a complicated life into a simple goal." (pp. 29); "I became obsessed with destroying what I thought was most constraining me. The debt wasn't a mere dollar amount; it was a villain that needed to be vanquished, a dragon that needed to be slain, a windmill that needed to be toppled." (pp. 47); I was bearing witness to an ancient ritual (the northern lights) that I felt I'd seen in a previous lifetime. I was being reacquainted with the images processed by a million eyes before me, reveling in the privileges of the great human experience. Money, prestige, possessions, a home with two and a half bathrooms -- these aren't the guiding lights of our universe that show us our path." (pp. 73); "When we tell ourselves that we are controlled, we can shift the responsibility of freeing ourselves onto that which controls us. When we do that, we don't have to bear the responsibility of our unhappiness or shoulder the burden of self-ownership. We don't have to do anything. And nothing will ever change." (pp. 74); "(Thoreau) described how his fellow citizens ("serfs of the soil") would toil away at desks or on huge farms, hating every minute of it, just so they could live in large homes and wear fashionable clothes in order to impress their neighbors, who were also unhappily employed." (pp. 78); "By having had to do without, I discovered that I was, in many ways, better off." (pp.78); ""while I only made $22,000 in a year, I saved 82 percent of it and could have saved nearly 100 percent if I hadn't spent it on my trip to Ecuador and other tiny luxury costs." (pp.81); "Alaska taught me that anything was possible; that there are other ways to live, to work, to shelter oneself; that the cold wasn't so cold; and that -- even in an age of inky oceans and suburban sprawl -- there was still wildness." (pp.88); "Frankly, I didn't know what the hell I was doing. This was all just so weird. Yet I knew the experience would be memorable. And I hoped that the strain of the voyage might somehow fast-forward my development." (pp.109); "But when we go on a journey -- especially a journey that follows no one else's footsteps -- it has the capacity to help a person become something unique, an individual. While Western society never had anything quite like the vision quest, we do have a heritage of journeying laced into our cultural DNA." (pp. 116): "The voyage was teaching me how unexceptional I was and how exceptional the human mind and body is." (pp. 117); "I learned that when work is meaningful and when the worker produces some useful service or produces some useful product, work is no longer "work" but an enriching component of one's day." (pp. 145); "I was so terrified of guilt I never did anything that I thought someone else would disapprove of. For my whole life, I'd been feeling guilt for doing -- or wanting to do -- what my instincts begged that I do." (pp. 148).
In short, life is about experiences and personal growth, not stuff.
Some might consider the title "Walden on Wheels" to be a tad presumptuous and myself began the book wondering if Ilgunas could pull off a work that could at least respect a classic. But when one considers the author to be a roaming adventurer of the liberal persuasion and of my generation the attitude makes sense. And yes, I felt the book earned the reference. But only those who can tolerate this book will feel the same way. Will you find Ilgunas a venerable free thinker and spirit or a full-of-himself kid spouting ideologies? Your view of Ken will largely affect your view of the book.
So I will avoid opinions for now and simply state the nature of the book: Ken Ilgunas is a former slacker who attended college and eventually liked the whole education vibe. He graduated with over 30,000$ in debt. He then takes to the road, largely Alaska, working odd jobs until the debt is gone. He then purchases a van and spends his grad student life living in it.
That basic concept is what drew me to the book. Ilgunas is a fine writer with a great sense of humor that keeps the book entertaining and readable from beginning to end. In fact, I had to laugh out loud multiple times. He is downright funny and knows how to get that humor into writing. He speaks of his experiences with a casual air that at once captures what he learned and his rather snarky nature. But even with that he often waxes thoughtful as he shares his thoughts on the state of the country and the nature of consumerism.
That latter portion is where opinions may waver. While I largely liked the book, Ilgunas often became preachy. If you're liberal, you might be able to take it. If you're conservative, you might not. For me, it was more of the holier-than-thou aura to his words. And for those who prefer cleaner books, you might want to sway away from this--crude language is about.
I did not expect a totally sweet telling here, but it was more obnoxious and crude than I preferred. Of course, I can see many people liking his view of the world and his mannerisms. Either way, his hilarious writing and his experiences make this book worth a consideration.