Several Lives to Live

In his determination to live debt-free, 30-year-old ‘Walden on Wheels’ author Ken Ilgunas has racked up an impressive array of life experiences

Illustration by Scott Bakal

Story by Ann Whitcher Gentzke

“I think it’s hard to justify a liberal arts education on monetary terms. But it’s something you carry with you for the rest of your life. ... You’re going to be smarter and wiser. ”
Ken Ilgunas

For three years, Ken Ilgunas (BA ’06) trekked across North America, taking on various odd jobs in an effort to cancel $32,000 of student debt, mostly acquired during his freshman year at a private university. Determined to pay it all back without embarking on a conventional (read: soul-deadening) career path, Ilgunas worked as a tour guide and night cook in Alaska, a modern-day voyageur in Canada and an AmeriCorps trail crew member in Mississippi, among other occupations.

After finally wiping the slate clean, Ilgunas was accepted into a master’s program at Duke University. Intent on not racking up a second round of debt, he decided, instead, to drastically reduce his expenses. He purchased a 1994 Econoline van for $1,500, outfitted it for survival and drove his new home onto a Duke parking lot, where he lived for the next two years.

Ilgunas graduated from Duke in 2011. Two years later he published “Walden on Wheels,” a critically acclaimed memoir that casts his offbeat travel adventures and social experiment with van-living as a tribute to Thoreau’s evocation of simplicity and frugality at Walden Pond. (See excerpt.)

Now 30, Ilgunas lives and works on a farm in Stokes County, N.C., where he’s writing a second book, an account of his 1,700-mile hike along the pathway of the planned Keystone XL Pipeline. We caught up with the inveterate adventurer while he was in Western New York to visit his parents and give two lectures at UB.

Ken Ilgunas standing next to his van.

Photo: David Dalton

Indebtedness is a big theme in “Walden on Wheels.” What would you say to a young person who’s thinking of going to college but has doubts about the costs?

There’s this unusual pressure among U.S. high school graduates to go to college. In places like the U.K. there’s this thing called the gap year. I think American kids could really benefit from embracing this idea—go on a journey, travel, join AmeriCorps. Just work. Whatever. I really don’t think you should go to college unless you want to go to college.

Do you think some high school seniors go the college route without giving it enough thought?

Yes. I think if you take some time off and have different experiences, you’re going to be passionate about something. You might learn about a field of study that interests you. You’ll know about debt and the value of a dollar. When you go straight from high school to college, you miss a lot of essential ingredients—not only to be a good student but also to be a financially responsible one.

You have a BA in English and history from UB, plus an MA in liberal studies from Duke. What are the drawbacks and benefits of a liberal arts education in your view?

I think it’s hard to justify a liberal arts education on monetary terms. But I think it’s something you carry with you for the rest of your life, even if it doesn’t impact you on a financial level. You’re going to be smarter and wiser. You’re going to be thinking more critically. You’re going to be less likely to be propagandized. I think it’s worth it.

It sounds like you’re happy with your choices.

Oh, very much so. It’s tough to even place a finger on what exactly my liberal arts education did for me at UB. But I came in a slacker and came out someone with dreams and values and ideas and goals.

What is your financial situation now? Are you making money?

I don’t really have any incoming revenues right now. I do work on the farm. I trade, I barter labor for room and board, so I have very few expenses.

What kind of labor?

I take care of chickens, garden, bake bread. I live with another guy there—we’re both working on literary projects. We’re out in the woods, pretty far from any town or village. The place is called “Acorn Abbey” and we call ourselves monks.

In the book, it seems that the further you are from a conventional lifestyle, the happier you are. Is it your goal to eventually live off the grid?

I’ve lived that off-the-grid lifestyle in remote parts of Alaska. And while I’m still on the grid in rural North Carolina where I live now, I’m beginning to have cravings for a greater sense of community—for strong social networks. I do think those off-the-grid experiences are valuable because they allow you to see what’s missing in your life.

Speaking of what’s missing, do you ever think about settling down, getting married, having a family?

Eventually, yeah. I’m done living out of homes with wheels. I would like to have some property and a house someday; it can’t all be travel and adventure. Like Thoreau said, “I had several more lives to live.” And that’s why he left the Walden Pond cabin [after two years]. I just believe in phases of life. I’m open to the next one when I feel the longing for it.

What are you reading these days?

Lately, it’s been pretty boring stuff. I’ve been reading a lot on the heartland, the pipelines, oil, just to prepare for the book I’m writing now. But I recently went on a biography binge. I read “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I read a biography of Ulysses S. Grant, and “Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life” by Jon Anderson. I went on a biography binge when I was at UB as well.

So it’s a bit of a thread?

Yes. I was really into early American history and read biographies of all the Founding Fathers. What you had to notice after a while is that any successful person has had failure in his life. I’m not putting myself on a level with any of those men, but I’ve had a lot of failure in my life as well. When I was paying off my debt, I applied to ten graduate schools—this was before I applied to Duke—and I got rejected by all ten.

But you kept at it.

Yes. And I think I mention in the book that right when I was graduating from UB, I applied to 25 newspaper jobs and got rejected by all of them. I’m not good at many things, but getting rejected is something I’m good at. I mean that seriously. I’m good at getting rejected.

You mean, at handling it well.

Yes. I think part of it is not taking it personally. Like when someone is assessing if you’re not good for the job, they don’t see you. They see a piece of paper. They might see you for 10 minutes but they don’t see that reservoir of tenacity in you. So when someone rejects you, they’re rejecting a piece of paper. They’re not rejecting you.

How did you end up becoming a writer?

I started writing when I was 16 and my parents bought a computer. That was when I started trading emails with Josh [Ilgunas’ friend and a main character, largely through emails, in the book], and as I describe it in the book it became this online diary except that I was telling my story to someone else. I remember picking up The Spectrum one day at UB and reading a movie review and thinking, “You know, I think I can write better than this.” So that’s when I decided to join The Spectrum and just fell in love with writing for an audience.

Obviously, your parents have read the book. How do they feel about it?

I think for the most part, they liked it. I was very, what’s the word, uninhibited. [laughs] And that may have made them momentarily uncomfortable, but they’ve been nothing but supportive.

At the end of the book, you’re about to sell the van. Did you succeed?

No. I did intend to sell it and I put it up on Craigslist for $1,700. No offers. $1,500. No offers. $1,200. Some guy in rural North Carolina offered to trade me his automatic weapons for it. [laughs] That was the most I could get, so I declined and put it in my friend’s driveway.

So it lives on as a souvenir…

It’s the largest sentimental object you can think of. I still drive it every now and then when I need to get around. I feel like I’m destroying the environment when I turn the ignition—the gas mileage is terrible. But I can’t get rid of it.


Walden on Wheels

I’d been living in my van for four weeks, and the experiment, so far, had been a complete success. I was debt-free, the van was still a secret, and my brain felt like it’d been properly exercised for the first time in years. In my Biodiversity course, I was reading wilderness philosophers: Aldo Leopold, Roderick Nash, William Cronon, and Jack Turner. In Self in the World, I was having stirring debates over Blackboard and doing everything I could to prepare for class discussions. To give myself a creative outlet, I started a blog called The Spartan Student, which no one read except for friends from back home (if just out of kind-hearted support), but in case some stranger happened upon it, I kept my school and identity a secret. All compartments of my brain were on fire.

Yet my experiment was no peaceful sojourn on Walden Pond. I spent nearly every moment in a state of anxiety about my financial situation. I only had about $800 left from my savings, yet I still had to pay tuition.

I knew I’d have to cut back on all costs until I found work. The only bill that I had any control over at this point was food, so I decided that I’d eat as little as possible—just cereal or oatmeal for breakfast, a banana and peanut butter sandwich for lunch, and a light pasta dish for dinner.

But after the first week on my new diet, my hunger was constant. And my light, meager meals did nothing to calm the gurgling, clawing, “I’m going to put you through a world of pain if you don’t feed me” feeling in my gut. After just a week at Duke, upon weighing myself at the gym, I noted how I was already five pounds lighter. While I shaved in front of the mirror in the locker room, I saw how my ribs rubbed against my skin for the first time in years. And while I thought it might be nice to one day admire a set of chiseled, baby-smooth abs, I knew I had to start eating more when I saw a bunny on campus and was tempted to hurl a rock at it so I could devour it raw....

I got a part-time job as a research assistant for a professor in the business school. For six hours a week at $11 dollars an hour, I made copies, fetched library books, and performed other menial office tasks. I also had to scroll through and assemble data from about five thousand businesses on a Microsoft Excel worksheet, which caused red lines to web across my sclera and my vision to blur. But the money wasn’t enough. Once, upon walking to the van in the middle of the night, I saw an old pizza box on the lawn—how long it had been there, I wasn’t sure. I opened it and saw a few mangled slices. Has it come to this already?

My mother, still in denial about my van plan, began to grow suspicious when, in our e-mail correspondence, I repeatedly failed to address her question regarding the whereabouts of my new home. I thought it would be silly to have to sustain a lie like this for the whole semester, so I resolved to mention the van casually, sandwiching my admission between mundane, everyday details, hoping she might think living in a vehicle was a mundane, everyday thing, too. “Hello mom,” I wrote. “I’ve been playing basketball every day. It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve been eating quite well, and I’ve been sleeping in my van—which is quite spacious. All is well, Ken.”

Her response—evidently restrained—communicated to me her most prominent concerns.

To: Ken Ilgunas
From: Sistine Ilgunas

Subject: Re: check
how do you clean yourself? Where do you park the van?

To: Sistine Ilgunas
From: Ken Ilgunas
Subject: Re: check

Hey mom,
I park the van in the parking lot, silly. I’ve been taking showers at the gym. Classes are going well—the professors brought cheese and wine. Everyone has been really nice. Too-te-loo.

To: Ken Ilgunas
From: Sistine Ilgunas
Subject: Re: check

how many people are in your class. What will u say when someone asks, hey ken, where do you live? how many other students live in their van? just interested.

To: Sistine Ilgunas
From: Ken Ilgunas
Subject: Re: check

There are about 16 in my class. When people ask where I live, I say I’m still looking. I doubt few if any other students sleep in their van. Later.

To: Ken Ilgunas
From: Sistine Ilgunas
Subject: Re: check

Hi Ken,
You worry me & you know it. Please let me give you some money. If you are so upset about it you can pay me back. Please get an apart. or roommate or something. Your life must be so stressful the way you are living. How do u form friendships when u live the way you do? I feel so sorry for you. You go to this fantastic school & you are living like a homeless person. How do u explain your life to new acquaintances? Dont you have any self worth? You are always welcome to borrow money or have money from me. Why cant u take help from your family? I am always here for you.
Love, momxxxooo
PS: Do you want me to pay your cell phone bill it came in today? I will.

My poor mother. None of this made any sense to her. And of course I understood why. My mom, as a girl, shared a small apartment with her parents and two siblings in blue-collar North Tonawanda, New York. My dad grew up in a house crowded with seven brothers and a sister in Motherwell, Scotland, an industrial town. My mom was embarrassed that her mom had a chicken coop in the backyard. My dad got fruit for Christmas. They grew up in industrious middle-class families who knew that you could make it by working hard. She and my father had spent their lives working so they could provide better lives for my brother and me. They upgraded from apartment to home, from city to suburb, from middle class to a few echelons higher in the middle class. All that hard work. All that climbing. All that moving up. And all that time and money invested in me, so that I could move up, too. And this is what their son lives in…

Excerpt from WALDEN ON WHEELS by Ken Ilgunas, published in the United States by Amazon Publishing, 2013. Text copyright © 2013 by Ken Ilgunas. Used with permission of Amazon Publishing, www.apub.com, all rights reserved.