Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom
By Ken Ilgunas
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
320 pp.

Reading at The Regulator Bookshop
Tuesday, July 9, 7 p.m.

If there is such a thing as the “American character,” Henry David Thoreau neatly exemplifies everything worth salvaging in the idea. Thoreau died in relative obscurity in 1862, but his writings on voluntarily simplicity, the individual’s place in society and the necessity of following one’s moral compass are timeless.

In our own bleak, terror-addled age of receding democracy, perpetual war and ecological disaster, we need people ready to follow Thoreau’s example and frankly reevaluate personal as well as collective priorities. Thirty-year-old Ken Ilgunas is a prime example. His memoir, Walden on Wheels, recounts his pursuit of an expensive liberal arts education in a recessionary, post-NAFTA, global race-to-the-bottom job market. Ultimately, to save money and maintain his idealism, Ilgunas would complete a master’s program at Duke University while residing in a van parked on academy lots. (His first parking assignment was adjacent to the shopping district on Durham’s Ninth Street, across the street from where he’ll appear at The Regulator Bookshop on July 9.)

Walden on Wheels isn’t a how-to manual in the vein of hippie-era publications. Ilgunas wisely devotes less than a third of his book to describing his living experiment. In reality, the day-to-day process of secret van-dwelling is straightforward and less interesting than one may imagine. (I can speak to this: In the late 1990s, I spend more than 1,000 nights sleeping in a van, including a few semesters taking undergraduate liberal arts classes.) At its core, Walden on Wheels is a contemporary coming-of-age storythe bulk of its drama hinges on Ilgunas’ transformation from a meek, video-game addicted teenager into a vehement anti-consumerist, passionate about literature and hungry for adventure.

Ilgunas’ account is a celebration of the liberal arts. Though critical of the reflexive manner in which students are shuffled into unaffordable college programs without pause to consider the consequences, Ilgunas lauds his undergraduate education at the University at Buffalo, where he transferred after spending a whopping $18,450 during his first year at a private institution. At the end of his junior year, he experienced a belated intellectual awakening studying in this public university’s English and history departments.

Following graduation, Ilgunas was despondent. Saddled with combined debts of $32,000, he was unable to find any prospect of a living wage, let alone dignified or meaningful work. Like the protagonist of Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund, Ilgunas craved experiencebut defaulting on his loans would have crushed his co-signing parents. To Ilgunas, the debt represented an existential crisis.

Despite his mild, suburban background, Ilgunas proved to be robust and steely. Using the only weapons at his disposalfrugality, asceticism and hard workhe set out to vanquish the debt on a series of continent-sprawling ventures. Working manual labor jobs in remote Alaskan outposts, he found he could save nearly all of his earnings because housing was provided. In Mississippi, he lived in a tent and joined an AmeriCorps program assisting hurricane-ravaged communities. Often, his primary mode of transportation was hitchhiking. Ilgunas discovered that “tramping” could be as edifying as scholastic endeavors.

Walden on Wheels‘ prose is uneven, which is perhaps in congruence with the author’s duality: “the bored and purposeless suburbanite” he’s trying to shed, and the enlightened individual he is striving to become. If Ilgunas is sometimes clunky and self-conscious when addressing the prosaic, it only heightens the exhilaration of reading him when he’s really rolling. For example, in passages describing the impenetrable majesty of the Alaskan wilderness, his words fluidly spring off the page with an effortlessness that suggests spontaneous real-time revelation: Upon making his first mountain ascent in the Brooks Range, Ilgunas reports a vista of “soft-edged flames, an armada of shark fins, grassy mounds, glacial moraines and ice-cored pingos,” all “so still and quiet and motionless, so unprofitable [and] oh-so wild.”

Similarly, the natural cadence of Ilgunas’ empathy gracefully shines when he’s describing the damaged souls he met on North American byways, the “ex-convicts and killers, alcoholics and addicts” who offered the young hitchhiker not only “devastating stories […] of pain, rape and child abuse,” but also genuine kindness.

More tenuous are Ilgunas’ attempts at plebian comedy. At times, it feels like he’s trying too hard to ingratiate himself to a skeptical audience. (Thoreau had a sly sense of humor. I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion,” he wrote early in Walden; or, Life in the Woods. Many paragraphs later, discussing the ease of acquiring a secondhand chair, he nonchalantly quips: “None is so poor that he need sit on a pumpkin. That is shiftlessness.” Such a line would be impossible to deliver straight-faced in the 21st century, but it is indeed high comedy, and completely in character.) Fortunately, Ilgunas, who is at his best in full-bloom earnestness, has a sense that he’s not really a humorist.

Walden on Wheels is a timely book. It is insistent that America address this question: How can a modern society (one with history’s greatest concentration of material wealth) call itself “civilized”or even “free”if a huge swath of our population cannot acquire an education without mortgaging its future to become what Ilgunas calls “loan drones”? Does his book’s publication signal that we’re finally on the verge of having the conversation?

This article appeared in print with the headline “Off campusand the grid.”