Walden on Wheels

Walden on Wheels by Ken Ilgunas is a good fun read about one student’s realization of how expensive education is and colleges are (thank goodness he realizes the burden of debt and indebtedness way earlier). It is about how he overcomes the debt and finally when wanting to pursue a Masters degree, he avows to himself that he will do it without any more loans and as a homage to his idol, Henry David Thoreau, decides that he will live out of a van thereby saving on rent and such expenses.

The book starts off with a very nice bumper sticker slogan and a profound statement on van dwelling.


I’ve learned that the vandweller doesn’t become a vandweller simply by purchasing a van. Rather, some personal change or transformation must first occur.

Walden on Wheels

Bachelors Degree

Ken starts off at a Private College which ends up costing about $32,000+ a year. He realizes that this is too much. He is not even able to get good internships and works as a cart pusher in Home Depot.

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.

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.

He looks at the stats for those with an English / History major and it hits him hard. He immediately transfers to a public school near home and moves in back with his parents.

Here is the stunning statistic.

By 2009, 17.4 million college graduates had jobs that didn’t even require a degree. There are 365,000 cashiers and 318,000 waiters and waitresses in America who have bachelor’s degrees, as do one-fifth of those working in the retail industry. More than 100,000 college graduates are janitors and 18,000 push carts. (There are 5,057 janitors in the United States who have doctorates and professional degrees!)

He has lot of difficulty in finding any good summer jobs. All along he has always wanted to travel to Alaska (cue Chris McCandless Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer is a very good read). So he takes up a job at a remote city in Alaska as an inn-keeper.

A profound piece amidst this narration.

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.

He refers to himself as one of the cheechakos.

We were “cheechakos”—a term the Alaskan natives used during the gold rush that meant, more or less, “the idiots from down south who don’t know what they’re doing.”

Various Jobs

Over the many years, he has all types of jobs: tour guide, night cook, maintenance worker, voyageur, corpsmember, ranger, package handler. I loved the way how he switches between what he is actually doing (his job or school), his thought process justifying his ascetic life as well as contemplating what’s happening around him and about Alaska and the travels.

our complaints are often just thinly veiled boasts about how busy our lives are, some virtuous sacrifice we should all strive to make.

Life is simpler when we feel controlled. When we tell ourselves that we are controlled, we can shift the responsibility of freeing ourselves onto that which controls us. When we do that, we don’t have to bear the responsibility of our unhappiness or shoulder the burden of self-ownership. We don’t have to do anything. And nothing will ever change.

During one season, he becomes a Ranger at one of the big National Forest there and has a few close shaves.

Nature, I realized, is only beautiful when you’re at a safe distance from it.

He himself has been a gamer all along and now that he is a forest ranger that too in Alaska he realizes thus.

It seems these worlds in video games have become our new frontier. These are the places where we go for adventure. They are refuges of virtual wildernesses—protected plots of pixelated land that must exist in fake worlds because we’ve denuded and defanged so much of the wilderness in our real world.

There are times when he is having to take up a menial job.

I thought of a Saint Francis of Assisi quote. He said, “He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”

Contemplation on “normal” life.

If we take gravity away from a man, odds are he’ll fear the novelty of flight so much that the first thing he’ll want is his feet back on the ground. If freedom was our fear, debt was our gravity.

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.

Alaska and Aurora Borealis

Honestly, I didn’t realize there was going to be as much about Alaska in this book. Oh Alaska, Oh Aurora Borealis, I will come for you one of these days.

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?

We can only miss what we once possessed. We can only feel wronged when we realize something has been stolen from us.

It’s the greatest heist of mankind, our inheritance being stolen like this.

Stare—really stare—into the womb of creation, and it will be impossible to dedicate your life to mindless accumulation. When you see the aurora, the only logical choice you can make is to spend the rest of your life seeking the sublime.

Liberal Arts

Finally after finishing his Bcahelros degree with zero debt and a year as a ranger to save up some money for his future studies.

I wasn’t so interested in writing academic papers that only half a dozen fellow experts would sleepily read, using big, boring words like “empirical,” “paradigm,” and “ontological.” I wanted to focus on bigger-picture stuff. I wanted—with the help of professors and classmates and the great texts—to learn how to live the best life possible. I wanted to be an “artist of life”: someone who knows how to live, how to die, how to be happy and valued and necessary and good.

He gets accepted in to Duke’s Liberal Arts Masters Program.

the liberal arts have the capacity to turn on a certain part of the brain that would otherwise remain shut off—the part of our 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? What’s the point of it all? Perhaps many students would rather not be irritated with these questions, yet being compelled to grapple with them, it seems, can make us far less likely to be among those who’ll conform, remain complacent, or seek jobs with morally ambiguous employers.

And he goes on to bemoan the current education system as well as the capitalist (I think he means the consumerism part) model.

Desmond Bagley said: “If a man is a fool, you don’t train him out of being a fool by sending him to university. You merely turn him into a trained fool, ten times more dangerous.”

I learned that the consumer-capitalist model not only goes unchallenged in most university curricula but that it’s quite literally taught. The university today is not a place where we go to question the dominant institutions; it is a place where we learn to support them.

On Discomfort and Modest Living

Discomforts are only discomforting when they’re an unexpected inconvenience, an unusual annoyance, an unplanned-for irritant. Discomforts are only discomforting when we aren’t used to them. But when we deal with the same discomforts every day, they become expected and part of the routine, and we are no longer afflicted with them the way we were.

We need so little to be happy. Happiness does not come from things. Happiness comes from living a full and exciting life.

Envy is a bitter fruit, but one that only grows when we water it with the nourishment of society. Remove society, and it will wither on the vine.

These are society’s definitions of poverty and wealth: To be poor is to have less and to be rich is to have more. Under these definitions, we are always poor, always covetous, always dissatisfied, no matter the size of our salary, or how comfortable we are, or if our needs are in fact fulfilled.

How thoughtlessly do we surrender our autonomy! The fanciness of our dress, the make of our car, the brand of our gadgets, the name of our school. We spend our savings or go into debt for no other reason than to bask in the warm rays of peer approval. Yet fashions are slavishly followed one day and ridiculed the next. Be a devotee in the Church of the Consumer and you’ll forever live in fear of the capricious God of Style. Freedom, though, is an honest pair of eyes, a healthy physique, a cheerful laugh. Style goes out of style. Freedom is forever.

While he works as a Ranger, he mentions this Inuit word “Koviashuvik”.

Koviashuvik is an Inuit word that means “time and place of joy in the present moment.” I’d used to think that the word probably meant something like “nirvana,” attained only by the Eskimo version of the bald, saffron-robed man on a mountaintop who’s able to achieve a state of unity with everything.


Finally he graduates out of his program, once again debt free.

“Some call the liberal arts self-indulgent and impractical without realizing 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.

A fun read. His English degree and Liberal Arts major definitely came in handy while writing this book. The Van living part starts only at 60% of the way through.

Happy reading!