When Ken Ilgunas went into one of Duke University’s busier parking lots to live deliberately, as that slightly better-known writer Henry David Thoreau did more than 100 years ago in Concord, Massachusetts, it’s entirely possible he was unaware of the potential for memoir in his unconventional living arrangements. It is our luck, then, that with a professor’s encouragement he put pen to paper, and provided us with the interesting narrative that is Walden on Wheels. Here, Ilgunas writes about his descent into debt (which, like many students, he accumulated easily and thoughtlessly), as well as his journey out of the red and into the black.
Ilgunas’ story is both conventional and unconventional; encumbered by $32,000 in student loans, he realized that in order to live the life he wanted, he would need to pay the money back, and quickly. But unlike so many of his Millennial counterparts (at least the ones that can find jobs), he knew he wasn’t cut out for an office-bound life which would leave him with a steady salary but little of what he calls “adventure.” Saddled with both debt and a desire to live a “wild” life, he began a series of unconventional jobs in Alaska and Mississippi, and eventually found himself in a graduate program at Duke, living out of a van in order to save on housing costs and to stay out of debt.
Though the first part of Walden on Wheels recounts Ilgunas’ less than enthralling college years and his almost indifferent accumulation of debt, his story gains momentum as he describes his own wilderness adventure that constituted his early jobs, and the sources of income that enabled him to pay off that debt in an impressively short period of time. As a wilderness guide, line cook and janitor, he committed himself to the idea of hard work as a means of economic—and in turn, personal—freedom. After years of the kind of labor most people wouldn’t consider, he emerged debt-free, and entered a graduate program to live a life of the mind.
While Ilgunas’ time in his red van on Duke’s Mill Lot consumes fewer pages than his title might suggest, it is in his “Walden on Wheels” that he manages to fully articulate his philosophy of living, and why he felt compelled to pay off his debt so quickly when others of his generation might be fine with decades of repayment. Though few among us would be willing to live in such cramped quarters for a year with little change in diet or recreational spending (by the end of the book I wondered if he wasn’t entirely put off of peanut butter), many would do well to take to heart Ilgunas’ message of living simply to avoid lives borne of necessity rather than passion. It may meander at times, but Walden on Wheels is a worthwhile manifesto for those debt-saddled Millennials who may see only one path forward.