Inspired by Thoreau, Ilgunas set out on a Spartan path to pay off $32,000 in undergraduate student loans by scrubbing toilets and making beds in Coldfoot, Alaska. Determined to graduate debt-free after enrolling in graduate school, he lived in an Econoline van in a campus parking lot, saving—and learning—much about the cost of education today.
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.”
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, whe...
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