Ken Ilgunas,
Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013)

You see the photo of the red van on the front cover; then you turn the book over and read the blurb on the back. And you soon figure out that this young guy named Ken spent his time in graduate school as a "vandweller" in order to save money and simplify his life. Yes, he lived in his van, in a space not much different than the small house that Henry David Thoreau built at Walden Pond in the mid-1800s. How did Ken accomplish this in the 21st century, and on a big college campus? You'll have to read his story to find out.

But first, you need to know a bit more about Ken. You need to learn what he was doing and where he was going in his life. This memoir generally covers the years 2001-11. Academically, we follow Ken from high school graduation in the suburbs of Buffalo, N.Y., to Alfred University, then with a transfer to the University at Buffalo, and on to graduate school at Duke University. But he's always dreamt of Alaska. So most of his summers -- and even a few winters -- are spent working at various jobs in Alaska. Here he begins to figure out a few things.

In 2007, he does a lot of reading during his down time as a maintenance worker. One of the books he picks up is Walden, by American author and naturalist Thoreau. "I found myself nodding to each paragraph," he writes, "jotting notes in the margins, underlining whole pages. Thoreau gave me the words to describe what I'd felt for so long. ... Thoreau made me feel like I'd been a sane man wrongly assigned to live in a madhouse. He became my guide, whispering wisdom to me through the walls of my cell, confiding to me that he's 'convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one's self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely.'" Thoreau and Walden give Ken the push he needs: one that leads in a deliberate direction.

Ken vows to somehow make it all work: to get a graduate degree, to do it without getting into debt, to live simply, and to move toward doing what he loves to do -- whatever that may be. A running tally at the beginning of each chapter always lets us know how close he is to his goal of financial freedom. It's not until he's two-thirds of the way through Walden on Wheels that he reaches North Carolina and begins to live in his van instead of renting a costly dorm room or apartment. Can he succeed, on the sly? Or will he be found out? And if his secret is discovered, what will happen next?

Throughout these years, Ken witnesses the raw alternative in the experiences of his long-time friend Josh. Josh follows the more traditional route to education and to life. Now, he not only has a large college loan debt, but he's also having difficulties finding a job. Or at least, finding a job that he feels some commitment to. He's miserable. This book is almost as much the story of Josh as it is the story of Ken. Can the ripple effect come into play here? Can one friend influence the other?

At its core, Walden on Wheels serves as the memoir of someone who is searching for and finding himself. By the last page it's obvious that Ken has discovered his paths and passions. If you keep up with him online, you know that he's already moved on and has already led more adventures. Even as he wrote this first book and pointed it toward publication, he hiked 1,700 miles along the Keystone XL pipeline, from Alberta to Texas. Then he went on an ancestral tour of discovery to Scotland. There's no stopping Ken Ilgunas.

In the "Economy" chapter of Walden, Thoreau wrote: "I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account ... I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father's or his mother's or his neighbor's instead. The youth may build or plant or sail, only let him not be hindered from doing that which he tells me he would like to do."

Ken has put Thoreau's words into actions, in a way that is uniquely his own. He's an inspiration to writers and to travelers alike; and he seems bent on continuing to be so. I can't wait to read what comes next.

[ visit the author's website ]

book review by
Corinne H. Smith

7 December 2013

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new