Never before has a college education cost so much, yet delivered so little return on investment. The woes of 20-somethings facing a lifetime of staggering debt is a hot topic these days, as the federal government debates relieving the pressures faced by young people trying to enter an overcrowded work force.
American culture insists on a life trajectory based on career, salary and “things” acquired. Consumerism is presumed to be the modern key to happiness, and to buy more, one must earn more, often at a job that brings little gratification or inherent return, other than financial.
Author Ken Ilgunas began his own post-high school life by following the expected path, completing an undergraduate degree at the University of Buffalo and stacking up a debt of $32,000. But, as he documents in his thoughtful and well-crafted book “Walden on Wheels,” young people are naively saddled with monetary obligations of which they have little understanding and have limited means to manage. This enthralling account of his attempt to rid himself of the crushing financial burden and to live a lifestyle outside of the conformist box of society’s expectations is richly layered with both humor and deep circumspection.
After recovering from the “high” of graduation and crossing off another milestone in the game of Life, Ilgunas suffers a panic attack, as the true significance of his earned degree — a Bachelor of Arts — truly sinks in. High-paying job prospects don’t come soon enough to forestall that first loan payment, and he finds himself a “cart drone” at a Home Depot, alerting him to the painful reality of life — the possibility of living a life not lived. “Time is running out. Tomorrow, I’d have a real job. Tomorrow, I’d be 40. Tomorrow, I’d be dead.”
Determined to buck the system and “follow his bliss,” he, like Chris McClandess (“Into the Wild”) and other idealists before him, sets his sights on Alaska, where expectations are variable and possibilities seem as endless as the open sky.
With great humor and with youthful and uninhibited wisdom, Ilgunas embarks on the adventure of a lifetime, aware of its significance as an experience but, lacking the hindsight, unaware of how it will change the trajectory of his life. After hitchhiking to his destination, and discovering life stories and unforgettable characters along the way, he climbs his first mountain, wades his first river and finds the first source for income that will free him of his debt. Living a life far removed from the college world, he squirrels away every penny, entering into a monastic lifestyle, but an active one, with Alaska’s intense backdrop playing heavily in his daily affairs.
With eyes wide open to life, Ilgunas works away at his debt, all while storing away memories he would have missed had he chosen the path that society demands ... college, career, retirement.
The “wheels” in “Walden on Wheels” come later, as Ilgunas succeeds in ridding himself of the college loans, all $32,000 worth, when he yearns to return to school, wanting to complete his education in the much ignored liberal arts, not for the goal of a job, but because “the liberal arts have the capacity to turn on a certain part of the brain that would otherwise remain shut off — the part of the brain that makes us ask ourselves questions like: Who am I? What’s worth fighting for? Who’s lying to us? What’s my purpose?”
Ilgunas finds himself living a solitary life on the fringes of the bustling community of Duke University, but unlike Thoreau and his cabin in the woods, Ilgunas makes a cheap Econoline van his home. Secrecy becomes paramount, as he is forced to hide his “vandwelling” from the college authorities, for fear that he will be kicked out of school.
In spite of the difficulties, he discovers the joy of the freedom his unconventional lifestyle reveals. The looming burden of debt is gone, and the open road and the classroom (often the same thing) beckon. Inspiring to read, “Walden on Wheels,” reminds one that life is made up of the little things, the experiences gained, the adventures survived, rather than the consumables acquired.