Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedomby Ken Ilgunas
In this frank and witty memoir, Ken Ilgunas lays bare the existential terror of graduating from the University of Buffalo with $32,000 of student debt. Ilgunas set himself an ambitious mission: get out of debt as quickly as possible. Inspired by the frugality and philosophy of Henry David Thoreau, Ilgunas undertook a 3-year transcontinental jour ney, working in
In this frank and witty memoir, Ken Ilgunas lays bare the existential terror of graduating from the University of Buffalo with $32,000 of student debt. Ilgunas set himself an ambitious mission: get out of debt as quickly as possible. Inspired by the frugality and philosophy of Henry David Thoreau, Ilgunas undertook a 3-year transcontinental jour ney, working in Alaska as a tour guide, garbage picker, and night cook to pay off his student loans before hitchhiking home to New York.
Debt-free, Ilgunas then enrolled in a master’s program at Duke University, determined not to borrow against his future again. He used the last of his savings to buy himself a used Econoline van and outfitted it as his new dorm. The van, stationed in a campus parking lot, would be more than an adventure—it would be his very own “Walden on Wheels.”
Freezing winters, near-discovery by campus police, and the constant challenge of living in a confined space would test Ilgunas’s limits and resolve in the two years that fol lowed. What had begun as a simple mission would become an enlightening and life-changing social experiment. Walden on Wheels offers a spirited and pointed perspective on the dilemma faced by those who seek an education but who also want to, as Thoreau wrote, “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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- 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)
Read an Excerpt
April 2005 — University at Buffalo
DEBT: $27,000 AND GROWING
I dreamed of the grizzly bear. It was my only recurring dream. Ever since I’d turned sixteen, I would dream this dream over and over again. It was always the same: A half mile south of my parents’ home, in a neighboring suburban development, I’d happen upon a grizzly bear grazing on someone’s lawn. It would spring up onto its hindquarters, inspecting me from the top of his bulky blond tower of fat and fur. I’d look back at it, paralyzed, awestruck, exhilarated.
That was it. I had this dream repeatedly. And afterward — when I’d be lying in bed in that half-dreaming, half-awake state — the dream would feel so real that I’d often wonder if it was in fact a dream, or if it was a distant memory that I could only vaguely recollect. I’d always wanted to believe that I’d really seen the bear, but I knew that that was impossible because: 1.) There are no grizzlies in the suburbs of western New York, or anywhere near New York for that matter; and 2.) I’d somehow gone the first twenty-one years of my life without experiencing anything even remotely interesting.
It was my fourth year of college. Many weekday evening and weekend morning, I’d tie an orange apron around my waist and collect orange shopping carts strewn across a giant Home Depot parking lot in Niagara Falls, New York. I’d gather a dozen at a time, press them together, pivot them around curbs, and march them to the vestibule inside. When all the carts had been accounted for, I’d work inside the store, stacking lumber, folding cardboard, reorganizing shelves, emptying garbage bins, and lending a hand to any customers who needed help loading drywall or bags of Quikrete. I was a cart-pusher.
For your ordinary college student, pushing carts wasn’t the worst job local industry had to offer. I’d considered it maybe a step above jiggling a we buy gold sign for the local pawnshop and a few steps below the indentured servitude of an unpaid internship, where students, though unpaid, could at least hope that their career paths were leading them to a more prosperous destination than stacking four-by-fours in the lumber department.
I spent upward of thirty hours a week at the Home Depot, making $8.25 an hour. I was certainly more frugal with my paycheck than your average student, yet these were my profligate years, when I wasted a good chunk of my hard-earned money on a daily Dr Pepper, the occasional CD or DVD or video game, or — if I had the weekend off — long road trips to get drunk with friends at distant colleges. Mostly, though, my money was used for responsible purposes, like paying the various bills needed to keep my car running and the occasional $100 here, $100 there “offering” to my already-massive and still-growing $27,000 student debt.
I was able to keep the car running, but what little money I was able to put toward my debt always felt negligible — pointless even. It was like throwing a glass of water on a burning building. It was a sacrifice to appease the gods, but a pitiful, emaciated, bony goat of a sacrifice. Such paltry offerings, I worried, might seem less a declaration of submission — which it was — and more an affront to the debt’s greatness, which just might make it angrier, prodding it to swell with interest.
There was no controlling my debt. It grew and grew and grew. It was a mountain of coins that rose with interest every month to such staggering Himalayan heights that it made me feel — when I thought of its immensity — small and weak and insignificant. It was huge. My debt was a black hole, a swirling abyss that sucked from my clutches all my hopes and dollars and dreams.
My debt wasn’t as bad as other students’ debts, but because 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 debtors’ prison, alongside the other 36 million Americans or so who’d similarly sentenced themselves to decades of student debt.
I was worried about letting the debt get any bigger, so I pushed carts and pushed carts some more. I worked full time during winter and spring breaks, as well as on weekends. When I got home I would — inside a hoodie powdered with Quikrete and stained with paint — hurriedly leaf through textbooks and hastily type up research papers.
While I’d balanced school and work reasonably well in previous years, the lifestyle had begun to take its toll during my fourth year of college. I’d grown tired of spending twenty-five hours of my week at a place I hated. I tired of reciting the “Home Depot chant” at obligatory monthly store meetings. I tired of the bottom-of-the-food-chain position I had, which gave head cashiers liberty to assign to me some of the more unpleasant tasks required to keep a big chain store humming, like removing dead pigeons from the lumber section, mopping up overflowing toilet water, and sweeping the remains of torn bags of concrete whose particles would dry out my eyeballs and coat my nose hairs with a pale gray pollen. More than anything, I tired of the winter holiday season, which, if memory serves me right, begins a little after Labor Day at the Home Depot. Upon listening to Gloria Estefan sing “The Christmas Song” for the third time in an hour, my mind would be consumed with morbid fantasies. I’d imagine myself derailing the toy train that chugged above the cash registers by whipping a hammer at it, or, better yet, hanging myself with an electrical cord from the rafters out of protest, if just to shame the suits in corporate into changing store Christmas music policy, thereby granting me the solace of knowing, in my dying moments, that I’d performed at least one useful service for mankind.
Between commuting to school, the long hours at work, the papers, and the exams, I had little time for study and hardly any for sleep. Like many college students, I began to decompose into a paler, flabbier, oilier, much more caffeinated version of myself. My eyes turned bloodshot, new wrinkles webbed across my face like creases in a catcher’s mitt, and my hair began to fall out. When I lay in bed reading, I’d obsessively pluck out what few chest hairs I had like some mistreated parrot. At some point, I’d picked up a minor case of Tourette’s syndrome, and when I thought no one was listening, curse words would dribble from my lips. In class, I had to fight the inexplicable urge to jam the point of my pen into the back of my hand.
I’d always considered myself “well adjusted,” so this whole falling apart thing was new to me. And the extent of my deterioration was especially made apparent on a morning in late April during finals week, when something rather unexpected and unbelievable and potentially life altering occurred.
I heard a voice.
At the time, because I didn’t yet have the luxury of hindsight, I’d failed to realize that my physical and psychological deterioration was due in large part to a decision I’d made years before.
It all began in August 2001, when I decided to participate in one of the great annual migrations known to man: alongside millions of fellow eighteen-year-old Americans, I had graduated from high school and was going to college.
My high school class and I moved like a school of fish: we graduates were capable of going off on our own, in whatever direction we chose, but something demanded we all swim as one, curving, cutting, sashaying together, wiggling our way to college. Except for a few miscreants, we all ended up in college.
In high school, if someone asked me what my “plans” were, I’d click into brainwashed robot mode: my body would become rigid, my pupils would dilate, and in a monotone, I’d recite, “I-will-go-to-the-best-college-I-can-get-into. No-matter-the-cost.” At some point, I’d convinced myself that going to college was what I really wanted to do. So my best friend, Josh, and I migrated to Alfred University, a pricey private college in southern New York.
Josh had graduated from high school with high honors, which qualified him for a large financial aid package that reduced the cost of his tuition. My performance as a student, however, could euphemistically be described as “unremarkable.” I was ranked seventy-seventh of my two-hundred-student high school class and was probably regarded by my teachers to be just a notch above “slacker” — only slightly more capable than the students who were funneled into afternoon vocational programs so they could get a head start on their manual trade educations. I didn’t do clubs, didn’t do volunteering, didn’t do student government, didn’t do music. Apart from playing on the hockey and football teams, I didn’t do much of anything. I drifted through the weary waters of high school on a dinghy of disdain.
But after graduating from high school and learning how much I would have to pay for just my first year of college, I thought for the first time that maybe I should have spent the last four years of high school doing something more productive than spending my nights playing video games and masturbating till three in the morning.
My first year at Alfred would cost me $18,450.
It didn’t occur to me to think about how strange it was that the government, my college, and a large bank were letting me, an eighteen-year-old kid — one who didn’t know what “interest” was (or how to work the stove for that matter) — take out a gigantic five-digit loan that might substantially alter the course of my life.
Taking out student loans was a momentous event in my life, yet I don’t have the faintest recollection of the event. I know it happened because I definitely went into debt, but I don’t at all remember signing any forms, shaking any hands with financial aid officers, or noting the frown that was surely fixed on my mom’s face as she cosigned the loans with me — which was, by the way, probably a daunting prospect to her, as I’d given her no indication that I’d one day exhibit traits of industry, ambition, or responsibility.
I do, however, remember not hearing any warnings about the consequences of debt or the likelihood of a bleak postgraduation job market. And I do remember hearing, from a chorus of voices, that “student debt is good debt” and that “money shouldn’t stop you from going to the school you want to go to.” Like everybody else, I listened.
I never actually thought about why I was going to college, or why I was about to take out thousands of dollars in loans for it. Like most eighteen-year-olds, I cared little for books, or higher learning, or anything that had to do with school. I was told that school was for “developing yourself” and “preparing for a career.” Why would I want to do either of those?
I hated school. We all hated school. Why were we all so willing to go back? For Josh and me, it probably had something to do with our image of what college life was like. We reveled in ludicrous fantasies of enjoying passionate and fleeting escapades with the opposite sex. We tacked a few posters of scantily clad (though hardly scandalous) women on our dorm walls, hoping the presence of their glistening paper bods would somehow draw real (hopefully glistening) women into our beds. Alas, our dorm room never quite became the laboratory for sexual experimentation we’d dreamed of. We liked to blame our failure on our embarrassing dorm decor, which matched because our mothers, regrettably, did our school shopping for us with each other, but the truth was, while color-coordinated lamp shades, rugs, and sheets certainly did not communicate prowess to the fairer sex, we failed to lure any girls into our room because we were both painfully shy, awkward, and boring.
After that first year of college, in a rare moment of sagacity, I realized that Alfred was costing me way too much and that I wasn’t the type of person who’d be making the big bucks someday. So I decided to transfer to the University at Buffalo (UB), where I could get a part-time job and save money by commuting from my parents’ home.
I still had no better idea why I was in school or why I had just spent almost $20,000 on one year of college. I told myself that incurring student debt was like puberty or a midlife crisis: it was an unavoidable nuisance, a ticket required for admission to the next stage of adulthood, a burden I had to clumsily carry up the socioeconomic ladder. But as I continued to take out more loans to pay for tuition, books, and my car, I slowly began to grasp that dealing with this debt was going to be more than some paltry inconvenience.
For a moment — because I began to wonder why I’d enrolled in school — I considered dropping out. But only for a moment. I knew there was no way I’d be able to pay off my debt with the sort of money I made pushing carts. If I was going to flounder in a sea of red ink, I hoped my degree, at least, would be a plank of driftwood with which I could keep my head above the surface.
So I found myself, more or less, trapped in school.
The University at Buffalo was a relatively affordable state school that cost me about $7,000 a year in tuition — most of which could be paid off with the wages I earned pushing carts during the school year and landscaping full time during summers. At UB, my sophomore and junior years passed much the same way as my first. I fulfilled my general education requirements, sampled courses from different departments, and attended lectures in large auditoriums with hundreds of fellow students. Occasionally, I would enjoy a course or a lecture, but for the most part I coasted through college much the same way I coasted through high school. But then, at the tail end of my junior year, something strange happened, and it happened without warning.
I started to give a shit. I started to enjoy school.
In the English department, I read Shakespeare; in the history department, I studied the Constitution and the Founding Fathers. During my senior year, my classes got smaller. My classmates and I had thoughtful, often passionate discussions. I wrote for the university’s newspaper, befriended a couple of professors, and took up a unpaid summer internship in Virginia interviewing D-day veterans and another one, later on, writing stories for Buffalo’s alternative weekly newspaper. I put everything I had into every essay. I promised myself that I’d read every page of assigned reading. At night, after work, I’d go on the computer and type essays. My mother, who’d bring me up a plate of food for dinner, would take note of my puffy, sleepless eyes and say, “It’ll be over soon, Ken. You’ll graduate in just a year.”
“I know,” I’d say, “but I love school.”
It was a renaissance. Every day I could feel my “horizons expanding,” as they say. I was writing and speaking more clearly. I began having new ideas and asking new questions. College, for the first time, felt like a place where I belonged.
College was helping me shed my high school slacker skin, revealing someone who had passions and ideas, convictions and dreams. But while it was freeing some part of me, it was also chaining my ankles to the steel balls of debt, which I knew I’d have to drag through the halls of Career World for the foreseeable future.
And oh, what a bleak future it was going to be! How would I pay for it all? How could I afford a car, rent, a cell phone, health insurance, gas, electricity, Internet access, three magazine subscriptions, a gym membership, and a movie a month, not to mention my student loan payments???
But it wasn’t just the carts, or the exams, or the debt that left me feeling battered and frayed and a little crazy; it was that I began to see that I lived in a free country but couldn’t say I knew what if felt like to feel “free.” And while I owned plenty of stuff — a car, DVDs, CDs, clothes — I never felt like I owned my own life. College had helped me see how everything, for my whole life, had either been predetermined or planned out: I went to high school because I was forced to; I went to college because I was supposed to; and now I’d enter Career World because I was financially obligated to.
Yet who was I to complain about anything? My adolescence was an American idyll. Not once did I have to deal with an exploding volcano, an ethnic cleansing, or a potato famine. I was never molested, bullied, or forced to stick my tongue to a frozen pole. Nor was I ever obliged to hunt down my biological mother or to screech, pubescently, “You’re not my father!” My problems were, in comparison to the rest of the world’s, privileged, first-world problems — problems I was lucky to have. Yet, despite my good fortune, there was something missing, some desire unsatisfied, some glaring need that my normal suburban upbringing failed to fulfill.
I spent much of my boyhood playing video games and watching epic adventure movies for hours on end — movies like Braveheart, in which mud-spattered warriors got to do manly, gallant things. While delivering the Buffalo News as a paperboy, I’d imagine myself cleaving off the arm of an enemy; telling a woman, “You and no other”; and screaming, “Freedom!!!” before being disemboweled for some righteous cause. Like almost any boy, I wished to live in a world where there was real adventure, real glory, and real sacrifice — just as it was on-screen.
My mom was a nurse and my father was a factory worker who took the night shift. He put in, typically, ten hours of overtime a week. Every day, after work, they’d come home and watch TV. They did the same thing day after day, week after week, year after year. My mom would watch Oprah and Judge Judy and my father would watch Coronation Street — a British drama series that aired on the local Canadian station. My parents were comfortably domestic, bearing few desires to travel, try new things, or take adventurous detours off old, rutted paths.
I grew up thinking it was normal for a married couple to never sit on the same couch, hug each other, or demonstrate even the vaguest expression of intimacy. Because I wanted proof that things like romance and passion and desire existed in real life, I may have been the only child in history to have actually wanted to see his parents doing it.
Before every Christmas, I’d ask my mom to buy me a claymore sword — the sort that Mel Gibson carried in Braveheart. After years of patiently waiting, I came downstairs one December morning to see a long rectangular package. I unwrapped it excitedly with full knowledge of what was inside. The sword, though, lost some of its luster when I learned from the receipt my mom had left in the box that she hadn’t hunted down the fabled claymore that once crossed the Ilgunas family shield, but that she’d bought a cheap Pakistani version for $30 on eBay. Still, I had my sword, and when no one was home, I’d carry it into the backyard and swing it around behind our aboveground swimming pool. It’s always adorable to watch a little boy play make-believe, but it gets a touch desperate and disturbing when he’s eighteen.
Now, after four years of college and a good deal of personal growth, I was twenty-one but still living in my parents’ home, still bedding under the same revolving Super Mario fan that had whirred me to sleep as a six-year-old, and still pushing carts. I’d never done a drug, broken a law, or diverted from the path prescribed to me by social and parental expectation. I’d hardly left home, except for my internship in Virginia and a very rushed road trip to California the summer before. And while I yearned for new experiences, I recognized that every year I was getting more and more into debt and becoming less and less free.
I became afflicted with a burning restlessness that stirred up irrational, impractical dreams and coaxed out strange, subconscious voices. At home, I’d slap the globe on the computer desk and skim fingertips over spinning topographies. At the campus library, I’d wander over to the atlas shelves, always ending up on the page with the map of Alaska. I’d picture myself driving up the Alcan Highway across northern Canada and west to Alaska. I’d be driving on a gravel road that meandered around pristine mountain lakes, endless spruce forests, and snow-topped mountains. I wanted to stand on one of these peaks and take in the frozen white sea of undulating summits and know — if just for a fleeting second, maybe upon viewing a herd of caribou, or gazing, teary-eyed, at the northern lights — what it felt like to feel free.
I wanted to drive to Alaska more than anything in the goddamned world. And getting there, as far as I was concerned, was my life’s purpose, my dream of dreams, my ultimate adventure.
And every spring I told myself that this was the summer I was really going to do it. Yet it always seemed to make more sense to spend the summer pushing carts to pay tuition or to work at unpaid internships to fill out my résumé. It made sense to blaze a path toward a secure, stable, comfortable life. It made sense . . .
Alaska didn’t make any sense. I had no idea why I wanted to go so badly. I knew nothing about the state. Yet I was drawn to it as if by some unbending law of physics, lured with the same intensity of passion I felt for the fairer sex, beckoned as if it were a pair of moonlit thighs. Alaska pulled me by my shirt collar north toward a land far different from the suburbs I’d grown up in.
On my commute to college, I’d sometimes fantasize about driving past my school, hopping on the thruway, and heading north. I wouldn’t look back, and I wouldn’t stop until I’d escaped the sprawling suburbs, the car dealerships, the parking lots, and the starless, smoggy night skies. I’d leave behind my family and friends, the papers, the orange apron — my stale suburban life.
Meet the Author
KEN ILGUNAS was born in Ontario, and raised in Wheatfield—a small town in western New York where his family still lives. At the moment, he’s either tending a friend’s garden in Stokes County, North Carolina, or traveling cross-country in his van.
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