JUNE 8, 2013
IN THE EARLY 2000s, an otherwise unremarkable student named Ken Ilgunas was half-heartedly working as a Home Depot clerk and attending class in upstate New York. He floated through life, playing video games, racking up debt. Then, one day, his mom said they needed to talk. About money:
I was soon going to enter the real world with an unmarketable degree (a B.A. in history and English) and because I had absolutely no idea how I was going to pay it off, the debt, to me, was more than a mere dollar amount. It was a life sentence. And soon enough, I’d be behind the bars of the great American debtor’s prison, alongside the other 36 million Americans.
Awakened to what would grow to be a $32,000 yoke — and his rank among those other strapped millions — Ilgunas begins to have dark thoughts, including the stirring image of his lifeless body, tied by his neck to the Christmas train, circling the lumberyard, where he earned a minimum wage.
At six bucks an hour, taking a crack at all that debt, Ilgunas confronts the basic preposterousness of handing out such giant loans to:
an 18-year-old kid — one who didn’t know what ‘interest’ was (or how to work the stove for that matter) — [who could] take out a gigantic five-digit loan that might substantially alter the course of [his] life.
For his brightest friend Josh, whose load is actually more than $50,000, that burden makes previously held belief systems seem entirely beside the point. “Army? Josh in the army? Josh’s hero was Ralph Nader. Josh going into the military was like a vegan working in a slaughterhouse, or a feminist on a pole.”
Ilgunas does not join the army, nor does he work at a slaughterhouse, nor does he become unrecognizable. Instead, he takes charge, first with a job at a remote camp in Alaska called Coldfoot, above the Arctic Circle, a terrain so majestic it “ought to be introduced with the sounding of a Chinese gong.” Then he lives in a van. And then he writes a book.
How much can we bear? It’s a big question, one for philosophy or Henry James or an old Christian mystic. It’s Ilgunas’s subject in the searching and ambitious Walden on Wheels — one of the best books I’ve read this year.
You might detect a gimmick: Guy has debt, lives in van, saves money, writes book. But this does the book a disservice. Ilgunas’s debut has some serious heft, and the humor and intelligence, to perhaps make it endure as a kind of zeitgeisty classic of the form.
Student loans have been tackled for many years — by, among others, the great journalist Anya Kamenetz in Generation Debt — but the topic is often as dreary as brussel sprouts or broccoli. Walden is not. Its engaging narrator tells the story in sweeping and magnanimous detail, while doing the deft and illuminating work of telling us why it matters.
Working above the Arctic Circle doesn’t exactly represent a policy recommendation. But his extreme situation does suggest some general applicability, as in his reflections on hiking:
Perhaps there’s no better act of simplification than climbing a mountain. For an afternoon, a day, or a week, it’s a way of reducing a complicated life into a simple goal. All you have to do is take one step at a time, place one foot in front of the other, and refuse to turn back until you’ve given everything you have.
He might have learned such focus back in New York, step by step, but there’s something undeniably compelling and extraordinary about being driven so far to pay for your apparent mistakes:
I’d come from […] smart, ambitious, and well-meaning students and professors to this: a lawless bazaar of meth heads, alcoholics, and assholes who had me questioning the idea of universal suffrage and who were compelling me to embark on my first foray into misanthropy.
Almost all of us are obnoxious in our early 20s, and many of us probably deserved a summer with a bunch of meth heads. Among other things, we do such horrible things to our parents. Like not have jobs. And going to Alaska. (Hi, mom!) So what’s a real job supposed to look like? “I’d picture myself as Charlie Chaplin,” Ilgunas recalls, “helplessly transported from one end of a factory to the other over a series of conveyor belts and gears.”
Instead, he finds a role model in Jack Reakoff, a hunter, trapper, and fisherman:
Jacks’ work and leisure, his toil and enjoyment, were one and the same thing. His work was his life, and his life was his work. Every day was a workday; every day was a vacation. And he wasn’t working in abstractions or pulling levers for some morally ambiguous corporation; his hands were in the dirt, occupied as he was with the duties of feeding his family and warming his home…[He] represented the life I currently had to live and the life I wanted to live.
We can’t all be Jack, so where is the life we want to live? Ilgunas is accepted to a humanities graduate program at Duke, and to save money — and to make a point, and perhaps to write this book — he decides to live in his van, where there is a black privacy cloth, tubs of food, a one-burner stove, a pile of laundry in a passenger seat, the relative safety of a campus parking lot, and plenty of time to think.
The solitude lasts for longer than you might imagine, but in the end, he finds that while he can do without material comforts, there is ultimately something more important: other people.
And here’s where the book pivots from snotty lark to something enduring: “I knew what I was missing in my life,” he writes. “It wasn’t things. It wasn’t heat, plumbing, or air-conditioning. It wasn’t extra space, or an iPhone, or a plasma screen TV. It was people. It was a community. It was a meaningful role to play in my society.”
Walden on Wheels could have and probably did begin as a thin story, something perhaps for a magazine. Luckily for us, Ilgunas aims higher and bigger — trumpeting a call that, to my ears, rings true and original, bracingly bold and not at all insincere:
I am a member of the “career-less generation.” Or the “screwed generation.” Unlike previous generations, the members of my generation won’t get jobs and respectable wages straight out of high school, let alone college. We don’t have the means to buy homes and start families in our twenties. We’re the first generation in a while who will be less well off and less secure than their parents’. Strangely, I seemed more okay with this than my parents. Not being able to afford an above-ground swimming pool and a kid wasn’t some heartbreaking tragedy to me.
Maybe the economy will improve and all of Ilgunas’s ideas will become irrelevant. Perhaps we’ll all be back on our way to pensions in a few years. One thing I do know is that Ilgunas is currently walking the length of the Keystone XL pipeline, probably for another book.
Walden on Wheels could have the generational heft of a Monkeywrench Gang or a Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Because, unlike the dreary and more onerous Shopcraft as Soulcraft (Matthew B. Crawford’s equally ambitious 2009 paean to manual labor), this book is one I can actually imagine my mom reading, or my friends, and even graduating high school seniors — each of them, in their own way, open to the idea that they could live better.
So what can we do? Something quite modest, actually: “What if we got healthier, lived more sustainably, and became more self-reliant, albeit in tighter dwellings and in smaller families?” Ilgunas asks. “Isn’t that success too?”