Walden on Wheels – by Ken Ilgunas

The basic outline of the book is that Ken Ilgunas has racked up $32,000 in debt thanks to a student loan. It’s really all he has to show for four years at the University of Buffalo where he graduated with his degree only to find that it wouldn’t get him more than a minimum wage job.

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Inspired by the frugal lifestyle in the book Walden by his hero Henry David Thoreau – who takes a year or two off from the real world to live in a cabin in the woods and commune with nature – Ken sets out to eliminate his debt as quickly as possible, even if it means taking on some of the worst jobs on offer in the most inhospitable conditions. Oddly enough, he thrives in desperate circumstances in Alaska and after three years is debt free.

Although it had been the “cost of education” that got him into debt in the first place, he then enrolled in a Masters programme at Duke University, determined not to incur any more debt. He buys an old Econoline van in dubious condition which is to become not only his transport, but also his home. Hence the title of the book. The van is his “Walden on Wheels”.

I picked this book up at the local library thinking it may be interesting enough to read. It was more than that. I was completely hooked by Ken’s story and by his life changing social experiment. It all started with a whisper – seemingly from nowhere and from no-one – a whisper that simply said “Go for it”. And he certainly does go for it. He suffers hardship and solitude, but comes out of it all a better man – and works out what is most important in life. Read the book to find out. There is a spoiler at the end of this post – be warned.

The book takes a look at the way we live and why we live the way we live and examines our apparent obsession with attracting debt. Our lives are more about wants than about needs and therefore we (gladly??) enslave ourselves to the system. Most people these days start their true adult lives with the weight of a student loan around their necks – so need to get a job. Then they want a car to get to the job and a nice house, so go into further debt….furnishings for the house, taxes, costs for power, internet, water, running costs for the car….more debt. If we have things to pay for we have debt and so need a job. Debt gives you a reason to get out of bed in the morning, but it also limits your options. Ken Ilgunas came to realise this very early on and went all out to give himself a good life without debt. It didn’t have to mean austerity. There was no need to go to the extremes that Thoreau did – refusing a gift of a mat for the door of his cabin to wipe his feet on – “It is best to avoid the beginnings of evil” – who equated even the most basic “comforts” as the evils of the modern world. Ilgunas looked upon this as “unflinching unreasonableness, a rigid ideology, a foolish dogma“.  He thought that it was OK to want things and to accept a true gift (as in one that is given and accepted with no strings attached). But, as far as the wants went,  to not get caught in the “it would be nice” trap….as in “it would be nice to have a new car….an inground pool etc”. Therefore getting sucked back into the world of debt. Buy only what you can afford to pay cash for – became his main rule in life.

He came to the conclusion that being out of debt gave him freedom. “Freedom didn’t have to be about tramping around or having adventures; freedom was simply being able to entertain the prospect of changing your circumstances”.

He also came to the conclusion that he wanted to be a better person, not just for himself, but to be a benefit to society and to the earth – not a burden – and to live a life worth living, which is why he decided to go back to full time education to get his Masters in the Liberal Arts. About which he said “…the nature of a liberal education – the lectures, the discussions, the writings – tends to bring far away subjects closer to home. Some call the liberal arts self-indulgent and impractical without realising that the classics, the social sciences, the humanities are fertilizers for democracy, and when the arts are scattered onto college campuses, they create a healthy soil into which students can plant themselves and grow into empathetic, introspective and conscientious citizens”. 

The main part of the book – the Walden on Wheels part – covers how he managed to get his education without falling into debt – and the trials and tribulations involved. So as not to be a complete spoiler – I’ll leave that for you to read.

Once he had his financial freedom, he didn’t want to get trapped into doing a job that had no soul and was of no real benefit to himself or to others – other than for the amassing of dollars. And he didn’t want to get turned into just another drone – someone who thinks that doing their job well is equal to living their life well. He uses the example of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi leader who organized the murders of millions of Jewish people – not because he was at his core an evil person who subscribed to the Nazi ideology – but because he was a man of little character, a bureaucrat who followed orders. He did his job well but not to the benefit of his inner self nor society as a whole.

After Ilgunas gained his Masters degree he was puzzling over what to do next. On the one hand the Walden experiment was over and had helped him to achieve the outcome that he wanted – further education without debt – but was he absolutely ready to give up that way of life? Even as he began to puzzle over the thought that despite his masters degree he may struggle to find employment that pays more than minumum wage, he is offered a job at a magazine publisher, on the strenght of his published article about van-dwelling, which has a very good wage and would allow him all the creature comforts – the apartment, the furnishings, health insurance…..the whole “cappuccino lifestyle”. BUT a condition of the job offer was that it tied him to the company for three years minimum.

BIG SPOILER ALLERT!!!!

He turns down the job, packs his backpack and heads back to Alaska where he lives frugally and writes his book.

So….the messages of the book are….if we fall into debt, we become a slave to the system…freedom is both a state of mind and being in a position to have options to make changes…..and finally…. if you are not passionate about your job – it’s the wrong job. Do something else. Life is short….life is for living and enjoying….not slavery / servitude.

I found it interesting that although he was educated by Duke University in the Liberal Arts – which encourages an open minded state, and that he was both encouraged by his professor to get an article published about his van dwelling lifestyle AND asked to make a speech to the masses on graduation day – the university faculty couldn’t get their heads around his “alternative lifestyle” and so offered him “guidance and counseling”. Giving the impression that if you don’t conform, you’re a freak and need help.

So who is mad and who is sane – the ones who conform and live humdrum lives amassing possessions that they don’t really need, attracting debt, doing unfulfilling jobs to pay for the things they don’t need and isolating themselves in ivory towers with all their gadgets – or the van dwelling freedom seekers who live life with a passion, are beholding to no one, yet understand the value of community?

I’d encourage anyone to read the book and I would love to know your opinions……

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