Walden on Wheels

By: Ken Ilgunas

Walden on Wheels is the memoir of author Ken Ilgunas and his quest to find himself while vanquishing $32,000 of student debt. It's the quintessential story of the millennial generation—taking out tens of thousands of dollars in loans for college and graduating to find one's degree quiet useless. Yet, Ken manages to pay off his debt in three years while discovering himself and adventure through working a series of odd jobs in Alaska and throughout the United States.

He becomes a sort of modern day Thoreau—living with the bare essentials, questioning norms, and heading into the deeper waters underlying the actions and desires of the modern American. It's a story of personal growth, a societal critique, and perhaps the most inspirational story of unconventional living in print. I couldn't put the book down.

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This is what I came for, after all: an adrenaline overload, a blow, a shock to my system—some-thing that would charge every fiber of my body with screaming life; something that would scare the suburbs right out of me; something that would wake me right out of my slumber and make me bellow, once and for all, ‘Holy shit. This is real!’
As a country, we take out loans and go to school. We take out loans and buy a car. We take out loans and buy a home. It’s not always that we simply “want” these things. Rather, it’s often the case that we use our obligations as confirmations that “We’re doing something.” If we have things to pay for, we need a job. If we have a job, we need a car. If we have such things, we have a life, albeit an ordinary and monotonous life, but a life no less. If we have debt, we have a goal— we have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Debt narrows our options. It gives us a good reason to stick it out at a job, sink into sofas, and savor the comforts of the status quo. Debt is sought so we have a game to play, a battle to fight, a mythology to live out. It gives us a script to read, rules to abide by, instructions to follow. And when we see someone who doesn’t play by our rules— someone who’s spurned the comforts of hearth and home— we shift in our chairs and call him or her crazy. We feel a fury for the hobo and the hitchhiker, the hippie and gypsy, the vagrant and nomad— not because we have any reason to believe these people will do us any harm, but because they make us feel uncomfortable. They remind us of the inner longings we’ve squelched, the hero or heroine we’ve buried beneath a houseful of junk, the spirit we’ve exorcised out of ourselves so we could remain with our feet on the ground, stable and secure.
Some were stuck because they had debts of their own, because they needed health insurance, or because they needed the money to feed their kids. But it seemed they weren’t all bound by these external constraints. Most were just too scared to leave. They tolerated the daily drudgery of work because dealing with daily drudgery was easier than quitting and doing something truly scary; sailing into unknown waters in pursuit of a dream.
I’d once heard that we are nothing but our stories. Forget the blood and bones and genes and cells. They’re not what we are. We are, rather, our stories. We are an accumulation of experiences that we have fashioned into our own grand, sweeping narrative. We are the events and people and places to which we’ve assigned symbolic meaning. And it’s when we step outside our stories that we feel lost.
I knew from my Brooks Range mountain climbs that to get to the top of a mountain, you have to be half-insane. The climber must approach his goal with a zealotry that may be inappropriate for normal, mundane things but is essential for the grandiose.
If I’d learned anything these past couple of years, it was that a postponed dream was just a dream. If I didn’t do it now, I might never.
I felt a strange twinge of anger looking at the stars. It was as if I’d just learned of an inheritance that had been stolen from me. If it wasn’t for Alaska, I might have gone my whole life without knowing what a real sky was supposed to look like, which made me wonder: If I’d gone the first quarter of my life without seeing a real sky, what other sensations, what other glories, what other sights had the foul cloud of civilization hid from my view?
When I thought about my hitchhikes, the voyager trip, Duke—I was happy to have suffered; I was happy to have been miserable; I was happy to have been alone. And I knew I’d soon be happy to have been scared half to death by that bear. That’s because it was in these moments, when I was pushed to my limits, that I was afforded a glimpse of my true nature.
I learned such a glimpse cannot be gotten with half-hearted journeys and soft endeavors. Nor could I hope for such a glimpse merely by setting out to conquer some random geographic feature, like getting to the top of a mountain. Rather, I knew one must confront the very beasts and chasms that haunt our dreams, block our paths, and muffle the voice of the wild man howling in all of us, who calls for you to become you—the you who culture cannot shape, the you who is unalterable, uncivilizable, pure. You.
One does not become free simply by staying out of debt or living cheaply in a large, creepy vehicle; rather, we must first undergo a period of self-examination to see, for the first time, what nets have been holding us back all along.
Maybe there is no longer a frontier, but for me the frontier is a horizon as wide and endless as it was for the first pioneers. We have real villains who need vanquishing, corrupt institutions that need toppling, and the great American debtors prison to break out of. We have trains to hop, voyages to embark on, and rides to hitch. And then there’s the great American wild— vanishing but still there—ready to impart it’s wisdom from an Alaskan peak or patch of grass growing in a crack of a city sidewalk. And no matter how much sprawl and civilization overtake our wilds, we’ll always have the boundless wildlands in ourselves to explore.

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