Walden on Wheels

Ken Ilgunas “Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom” [New Harvest, 2013]
“The story of a student who went to extraordinary lengths – including living in a van on a campus parking lot – to complete his education without sacrificing his financial future. In a frank and self-deprecating voice, memoirist Ken Ilgunas writes about the existential terror of graduating from college with $32,000 in student debt. Inspired by Thoreau, Ilgunas set himself a mission: get out of debt as soon as humanly possible. To that end, he undertook an extraordinary 3-year transcontinental journey, driving to Alaska and taking a series of low-paying jobs. Debt-free, Ilgunas then enrolled himself in a master’s program at Duke University, using the last of his savings to buy himself a used Econoline, his new “dorm.” The van, stationed in a campus parking lot, would be an adventure, a challenge, a test of his limits. It would be, in short, his “Walden on Wheels.” Ilgunas went public in a widely read Salon article that spoke to the urgent student debt situation in America today. He offers a funny and pointed perspective on the dilemma faced by those who seek an education but who also want to, as Thoreau wrote, “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.””
““Walden on Wheels” is a self-deprecating travel memoir about a five-year period of my life when I dealt with student debt.

To pay off my $32,000 student debt with a useless liberal arts degree from the University at Buffalo, I move to a remote work camp in Coldfoot, Alaska, where I work as a maid, cook, and tour guide. Later, I hitchhike 5,500 miles across the continent, canoe across Ontario, Canada with “voyageurs” (people who live and dress like the 18th Century fur traders), work on a trail crew in Gulfport, Mississippi, and finally I head back up to Alaska, where I finish paying my debt off as a backcountry ranger in the Gates of the Arctic National Park.

When I get out of debt, and when I enroll in a graduate program at Duke University, inspired by Thoreau, I move into a 1994 Econoline Van — my “Walden on Wheels” — where I secretly live in a campus parking lot to stay out of debt, and where I put to use the many lessons about frugality and simplicity and adventure that I’d learned on my journey before.”

“Not long ago young Americans collectively reached a dubious milestone: $1 trillion in student debt, which represents a fivefold increase since the turn of the 21st century. But don’t blame Ken Ilgunas. It’s true that he graduated in 2006 owing $32,000, but he found the situation so terrifying that he worked frantically to pay it off. Then he earned a master’s degree without additional borrowing by living in a Ford Econoline van in a parking lot at Duke University.
In “Walden on Wheels,” his thoroughly endearing account of the whole business, Mr. Ilgunas exemplifies a hard-pressed generation of graduates who find themselves burdened with unprecedented levels of debt at a time when good jobs are scarce. He is sarcastic yet not cynical, jaundiced yet far from bitter, and ultimately filled with the idealism we expect—and need—from young people embarking on their adult lives.
The author portrays himself at first as something of a slacker dude, his prose leaning heavily on self-deprecation for humor. “How strange it was,” he marvels, “that the government, my college, and a large bank were letting me, an eighteen-year-old kid—one who didn’t know what ‘interest’ was (or how to work the stove . . .)—take out a gigantic five-digit loan.”
In fact, though, he is far more inquisitive and interesting than the stereotypical young laggard, and what makes his real-life bildungsroman so compelling is watching his transformation. This is a guy who starts out sounding like a refugee from “Wayne’s World” and ends up a reasonably credible latter-day Transcendentalist—if you can imagine Seth Rogen channeling Thoreau.
Endowed with an admirable work ethic, Mr. Ilgunas gets through the University at Buffalo by laboring more than 30 hours a week pushing carts and stacking lumber at a Home Depot. HD -0.82 % Unable to find a job upon graduation, he unwittingly follows Horace Greeley’s advice and goes west—all the way to Alaska, where he encounters the sublime in the unspoiled Arctic landscape and throws himself into backbreaking toil at a far-flung truck stop. He is not alone in undertaking menial work upon graduation. As he notes, in 2009 there were 17.4 million college graduates in jobs that didn’t require a degree, including 365,000 cashiers and more than 100,000 janitors (5,057 of whom with doctorate or professional degrees).
Like any self-respecting heir to the great Romantic tradition, Mr. Ilgunas yearns for freedom and experience, love and meaning, and thus his student loans oppress him as a form of bondage. The debt is like some remorseless god: monstrous and impossible to propitiate. “What little money I was able to put toward my debt always felt negligible, pointless even. It was like throwing a glass of water on a burning building.”
He recognizes that student loans, acquired thoughtlessly, can have ethical implications. His best friend is driven by an even larger student debt to take a hateful job as a telemarketer for a profit-making college—enticing students to borrow in order to get an education even less remunerative than his own.
Some graduates carry their student loans to the grave, but Mr. Ilgunas is determined to avoid this fate. With room and board provided by his Alaskan employer and little to buy in a town so remote that, in tourist season, the population “triples to thirty-five,” he manages to pay off most of his debt in just two years while earning just $9 an hour.
The beast vanquished, Mr. Ilgunas soon realizes that merely eradicating his debt can’t by itself produce a meaningful life, so he pursues a relatively impractical degree in liberal studies at Duke, where he moves into a vehicle on campus—rather than a cabin at Walden—to avoid the fetters of indebtedness. He vows to “polish my intellect at school but sand down my body to a fine grain with a tough life in the van. I’d embrace a bare bones, uncluttered simplicity—a voluntary poverty.”
Such claims run the risk of sounding earnest and pretentious, but the author’s hardships make them seem heartfelt and even uplifting—which is not to say that “Walden on Wheels” is without problems. The most serious one is that the author acknowledges, at the outset, that he has tinkered with his tale to suit the telling, altering names, details and the sequence of events. He deserves credit for coming clean; memoirists often take such liberties, and some make up their stories from whole cloth. But by playing with the facts enough to warrant such a warning, he undermines the credibility of his whole enterprise, and we end up wondering just how much of this colorful material has been Photoshopped for better presentation.
Mr. Ilgunas also seems blind to his generation’s biggest error, which is paying huge sums for mediocre schooling. His own mistake was borrowing to attend a costly second-rate private university for a year—the same place his friend spent four years only to find himself paying his own debts by inflicting a similar burden on others. Fortunately Mr. Ilgunas had the sense to transfer to a state school, where he piled up debt more gradually.
Yet ultimately Mr. Ilgunas’s borrowing turns out to have been a blessing, for it raised his consciousness and propelled him into a series of adventures far more instructive than his time in any classroom. Unlike so many students burdened by loans, at least this one got his money’s worth.”
From: Daniel Akst “College and Its Discontents” “Wall Street Journal” June 3 2013
Full text available on-line at: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887323855804578511571145523096


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