Interview: Ken Ilgunas, author of Walden on Wheels

Interview by Donna Talarico

Ken Ilgunas with his book and Walden

Ken Ilgunas with his book and Walden. Image courtesy of Ilgunas.

My aunt Joan and uncle Pat, for much of their early 20s and 30s, lived a pretty nomadic lifestyle. They spent time on The Farm, an iconic “hippie commune” and the birthplace of my cousin, Shawn, the third son of six. The pair also lived in an old school bus when their oldest two boys, Aaron and Zack, were small. For the past 20 years or so, though, they’ve settled into a simple home, without the luxury of running water, on a mountain in central Oklahoma. I’ve always admired this lifestyle and lived for spending time with my cousins and Joan and Pat  — I do to this day. In fact, my March 2013 road trip. which included a stint in Oklahoma, is what inspired this theme issue! And my family is part of the reason why I didn’t think Ken Ilgunas’ van-dwelling as too odd.

Cover of Walden on Wheels by Ken Ilgunas On the open road from debt to freedom - picture of red van in front of trees

Walden on Wheels by Ken Ilgunas

I caught an NPR interview with Ilgunas, although the name of the show is escaping me; it was Fresh Air or The Story. Ilgunas talked about the two years he spent living in a van on and around Duke University’s campus. The goal? To finish grad school debt-free. This adventurous guy had already paid off his undergraduate loans by taking outdoorsy and park ranger jobs that, although didn’t pay handsomely, afforded him to live for free.

His memoir Walden on Wheels, released in May, is about these journeys. His unique story is newsworthy in its own right, but he’s also gaining widespread attention because of current events: the iffy economy and fear of the value of college vs. student loan debt.

After the interview, it hit me. I HAD to talk to him for the Road Trip issue. Perfect timing! And he was kind enough to agree. We talked about frugality, sacrifice, dating, liberal arts and, of course, his book. After the interview, he informed me he hadn’t heard most of these questions before and, in turn, had a lot of fun answering; I was quite thrilled! I hope you, Hippocampus reader, enjoy this interview as much as we did!

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DONNA: Were you always a frugal person, or growing up, was your family? I’m asking because I was wondering how much of a shock to the system this change in lifestyle was. Because you like to hike and enjoy the great outdoors–and before this particular adventure you survived terrain only with what you could carry—did you find living full-time in a van an easy transition?

KEN: No, I wasn’t much of a frugal person, nor was my family. I was part of the typical suburban American “use and lose” lifestyle in which broken things are thrown out and replaced rather than fixed. It certainly wasn’t a life of luxury, as I came from a firmly middleclass family, but there was little that was frugal about my early life. In any case, I don’t think I ever really felt a “shock to the system” upon becoming this ultra-frugal person—probably because it was a gradual transition that probably started when I moved up to Alaska, where I had to live with a lot less. And I learned that I was okay living 250 miles away from the closest shopping center or movie theatre—in fact, in ways, I was much better off. Also, I think I began to associate frugality, not just with financial responsibility, but with adventure. For example, instead of buying a $700 plane ticket from Alaska to New York, I chose to hitchhike the whole way, saving myself a lot of money while having the adventure of a lifetime. It’s the same thing with the van: it was practical, but I also thought there would be something challenging, fulfilling, and adventurous about living in one.

And there was actually very little shock or transition to life in the van. The summer before, I’d been a backcountry ranger at the Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska. My job was to go on 8-day patrols, walking over these awful things called tussocks, carrying a fifty-pound pack, swarmed by thousands of mosquitoes, always with the threat of being charged by a grizzly bear or moose in the back of my mind. It was tough, but I liked the lifestyle. Living in a van, I knew, would be a cinch compared to that.

 

What came easy to you, and what were some challenges?

The physical challenges were pretty tolerable. I had a good sleeping bag and a big campus nearby if I needed a warm room. Also, I was a decent camping cook, so I ate pretty well. Obviously, it was lonely. And the impossibility of interacting with members of the fairer sex was a bit disillusioning. Though, I justified that my lack of a social life would help my studies, which it sure enough did.

 

Did you splurge on anything during this time? (Because you sure did deserve it!)

It’s tough to determine what constitutes “splurging.” There were times when I bought a cheap brand of granola cereal when I could have just gotten really cheap oats. Is that splurging? I’m not sure. At one point, I spent $50 on a membership fee to join the campus outdoors club—this was when I began to feel desperate for some sort of community. Toward the end, I bought two Fosters for a new friend who came by to visit me at the van. It wasn’t much of a splurge but I felt pretty guilty. After that first semester, I went back to Alaska to work again, and I came back with some money. I improved my diet, bought a headlamp, a new pair of hiking boots, and a nice camera. Splurging, indeed.

 

Picture this. ‘Pimp my Ride’ comes to Duke. What one or two things would you have done to your van?

1. Install a periscope.

2. Solar panels.

 

I don’t camp often as I’d like, but I’d like to call myself outdoorsy. It makes me think that living in a van for two years is really like an extended camping trip, only more protection than a tent! With that said, camp cooking seemed to be a resource and inspiration, of course usually without a campfire. What is your favorite trail meal? What camping-style-prepared food did you get sick of after a while? And what was the most creative thing you cooked with your minimal supplies?

I loved rice and bean burrito night. I’d let the beans soak while I was in class, and I’d later cook them with rice, mix in a few vegetables, soak it with some Frank’s Hot Sauce, and then wrap it in a burrito. Always a good meal. None of my food was “prepared” typically. On my walk from campus to the van I would pass a grocery store, so I was always able to buy fresh fruits and veggies, and eat them literally minutes after purchase. Most nights, I had a stew: veggies, noodles, a little salt, plus a big dollop of peanut butter for taste, consistency, and calories. I’d always have bread to clean out my pot, which I’d of course eat, too.

rice in a pan with burrito next to it

Ken Ilgunas’ burrito night – photo courtesy of Ilgunas

 

Peanut butter makes everything better. OK. Do tell. Did you date while you were a van dweller? I mean, I would have dug the van. Seriously.

For the most part, my romantic life was terribly underwhelming. I did go on a few dates though, and my dates, after I very thoughtfully explained to them what my housing situation was, were usually pretty intrigued with the idea, once they began to appreciate that I wasn’t just some homeless bum, and that my van wasn’t entirely squalid. Generally, we’d watch a movie on my laptop (using the laptop battery), and it was always just like camping, except that we’d have to be real quiet and keep the volume low so no one outside would notice. I did have a very brief relationship while there, but that ended for reasons unrelated to my style of dwelling.

 

I’m supposed to be talking to you about your book, but you’re so fascinating that I’ve got to go off the page here. Tell me about this 18th century trek in Canada. Was time travel hard? Er, I mean how did you get involved and why did you do it? You and your travel-mates even dressed the part – it seemed so authentic.

Indeed! I went on an 18th Century voyage across Ontario, Canada for 1,000 miles and 60 days in the summer of 2007. There’s this voyageur fanatic from Canada who loves the history of the “voyageurs,” who were Canada’s fur traders, who would travel thousands of miles in canoes each year. He likes to recreate such journeys using authentic 18th Century gear, clothes, and birch bark canoes. I met him when I was working up in Alaska, and learned that he was seeking fellow voyageurs for his summer trip.

Apart from paying for my clothes, it was an expense-paid voyage, so I took a two-month break from paying off my undergraduate debt to go on an adventure. I guess I wanted to do it because I craved a physical adventure more than anything, and because I thought a rigorous experience like this would help me became a better person and fast-forward my development, which, at the time, was extremely important to me. Time travel, like anything, was tough at first, but you get used to it. The toughest part of the trip was the mosquitoes at night. We didn’t have tents or bug spray, so I had to wrap myself in a wool blanket which was just ungodly hot, and I could still hear hundreds of them buzzing around my face. (Let us take a moment to be thankful for tents.)

ken and three others in 18th century canoes

Ken Ilgunas on his 18th Century Trek. Photo courtesy of Ilgunas and photo by Bob Abrames.

Yes. Sleeping under the stars is a blast, but I’m grateful for tents in buggy situations. OK. Fact is stranger than fiction and that is one of the reasons I started this magazine. I love nonfiction. I love oral histories. I love talking to people about their life. I’m also in marketing and PR so if I was in your shoes, I don’t know how I would have kept quiet! After living in a van for a while, you had to know you had a story there—whether it was interesting dinner conversation or bigger, like a book! But, you couldn’t share it with anyone yet because doing so would ruin that livelihood. At what point did you decide that you wanted to write about it?

I think I always knew, deep down, that what I was doing would make for a good story. And maybe that was a small part of my original motivation, though my number one goal was to get a graduate education, debt-free. That said, I knew there was a story to be written. Student debt, nationally, was spiraling out of control. People had been buying homes they couldn’t afford. There was a big financial collapse. I knew someone had to write a story about asceticism in a time of rampant consumerism. I recognized the niche, thought that someone ought to write an essay conjuring the spirit of Thoreau, and I thought, “Why not me?”

I’d lived in my van for about a year (summer not included) when I wrote an article for my “travel writing” class. My professor urged me to submit it to a real magazine, and when she said she had a contact at Salon.com, I took her up on her offer. As much as I valued my privacy, I also craved a sense of purpose, and I thought that sharing my story might provide me with that, not to mention a good starting point for a career in writing, which I’d always wanted to pursue. The day the article published, a literary agent asked me if I wanted to turn the story into a book, and the rest is history.

As much as I valued my privacy, I also craved a sense of purpose, and I thought that sharing my story might provide me with that, not to mention a good starting point for a career in writing… – Ilgunas

Can you tell me a little more about that 2009 Salon essay and also your blog because you began telling this story via your blog. How did blogging and submitting the essay aid you in the writing process, and ultimately, in publishing your book?

The essay created a whole bunch of media opportunities, and it also caught the eye of a literary agent who put the idea into my head that I could write a book. The media opportunities were critical for pitching the book to publishing companies later on. I could say, “Look at this. The media’s interested. The story strikes a chord with the public and the book will be well advertised. It’ll sell.”

The blog was incredibly important too, and I’d draw from many entries while writing my book. Since I now had hindsight, I could turn those original entries into so much more. I could fix up metaphors, tighten up poorly written sentences, and mix in some good research.

Between my blog entries and intimate emails sent to friends during my experiment, I had a vast store of my inner thoughts and insights over a several year period. This, I knew, would enable me to give the book an unusual degree of authenticity and intimacy. Plus, upon writing the book, I was able to look back and remind myself about conversations I had, the smells of the van, the sort of tree I parked under. Just small details that bring a book to life.

 

That’s pretty cool to have all of those records of your feelings at the time to refer back to. I need to journal more! On your website’s About page, you write “If I’ve learned anything, it’s that a life not lived half-wild is a life only half-lived.” Love it! Can you elaborate on this philosophy?

I don’t necessarily mean that we must live in wilderness to live a life that’s half-wild. I just mean that we ought to live boldly, fully, and adventurously—and this lifestyle can come in many forms. We all have crazy dreams. But we almost always stifle them because, well, they’re crazy. But I’ve learned not to think of crazy dreams as crazy dreams, but as messages from fate calling upon us to do something grand.

 

Love it. Now for a change of topic. My day job is in higher ed, at a small liberal arts college. In your April 14 NY Times guest column, you spend some time talking about the importance liberal arts played in your journey. Could you talk a little bit about what the liberal arts means to you? From what I read, we seem to be on the same wavelength – being exposed to the liberal arts is good for life and the soul – and it or any college experience isn’t just about a literal payoff. 

I have little patience for those who mock the liberal arts because they’re “impractical.” Kids are impractical (and a lot more expensive). Going for a walk in the woods is impractical. Playing the guitar is, too. Yet these things aren’t mocked the way the liberal arts are. So many people just lack imagination and cannot see that the liberal arts, like those other things, can bring us joy, fulfillment, and help us grow as people. Plus, folks, I’ve found, are so easily deceived and victims of corporate and political propaganda. These are usually people who lack critical thinking, imagination, and just plain old common sense. We could use more of the liberal arts in this country, I think. And while I think the person who goes $60,000 in debt for such an education might deserve a little criticism, the liberal arts, alone, do not deserve the derision they get.

I think we can only delve into the deepest depths of our psyche, and find those literary insights, when we have plenty of quiet, solitude, and freedom. In other words, many sacrifices will probably have to be made.

I like the way you think. Because we’re a magazine for writers of creative nonfiction, let me go back to the writing and publishing process. What was your biggest takeaway from the process that you’d like to pass on to aspiring writers?

Well, I think writing is a full-time job. From my experiences in fields of work unrelated to writing, I’m pretty much mentally useless after a full day, or even half a day’s work. If you seriously want to pursue the author’s life, I think you need to create a situation for yourself in which you’re not distracted by work, family, friends, or anything really. I think we can only delve into the deepest depths of our psyche, and find those literary insights, when we have plenty of quiet, solitude, and freedom. In other words, many sacrifices will probably have to be made.

 

A Wall Street Journal review of Walden discusses your honesty in acknowledging that some things have been changed, such as names or sequence of events. This is where the “creative” in creative nonfiction often comes in. I was taught that there are liberties that we, as writers of true stories, are allowed to take while still remaining credible. What are your thoughts on this?

Frankly, I love David Sedaris’s “non-fiction” even if much of it is fiction. If it was labeled as “fiction,” I probably wouldn’t enjoy it as much. So I don’t mind being a little deceived. As for my book, I wanted to write it as true to life as I could, so as to present a rare view into a 21st Century American male’s mind—which I think is mostly uncharted territory. This led me to make some pretty frank and embarrassing admissions about strong sexual desires, for instance.

I think brutal, uncensored work is the most readable, and the most valuable for a readership. When we see a bit of the author’s soul, we learn a bit about our own. That said, I did take some liberties with my history for the sake of the narrative. The changes were pretty minor. For instance, I discuss an episode in which a mouse moves into my van’s ceiling upholstery during my first semester at Duke. This actually happened in the second semester, but it just wouldn’t have made it into the story if I took a strict chronological approach, and it would have had no dramatic effect if I kept it out of the story till later. Because of the nature of this and a few other superficial changes, and because the personal changes I went through were very genuine (which, ultimately, is the most important part of a memoir), I’m okay with calling my book “non-fiction,” even if it’s not 100 percent accurate.

I think brutal, uncensored work is the most readable, and the most valuable for a readership. -Ilgunas

And we’d be remiss if we didn’t ask about the name Walden on Wheels and Thoreau’s influence. How did he and any other literary figures shape you as a person? As a writer?

I went through a period in my early twenties when I read almost nothing but travel literature. Stuff like “The Endurance,” “The Worst Journey in the World,” “A Walk across America,” “West with the Night.” When you read nothing except stories about journeys for a while, you can’t help but change a little bit as a person—and I think these books fostered a love for adventure and travel and big, strange feats. And that’s the great service of travel books: When we juxtapose the author’s or the subject’s extreme dream with our comparatively modest but still outlandish dream, we’re empowered because the reading experience has broadened what we believe to be humanly possible.

Donna Talarico, Founder & Publisher

Donna Talarico is the founder/publisher and managing editor of Hippocampus Magazine and its annual conference, HippoCamp. She has nearly two decades of experience in marketing, communications, writing and media, and about half of that time has been in higher education, most recently as director of integrated communications at Elizabethtown College (2010-2015) in Pennsylvania. Now a full-time independent writer and consultant, she speaks at higher education and publishing conferences, writes an adult learner recruiting column for Wiley, and has contributed to Currents (a higher education trade publication), Guardian Higher Education Network, mental_floss, The Los Angeles Times, Games World of Puzzles, The Writer and others. She authored a chapter in mStoner's Social Works: How #HigherEd Uses #Social Media to Raise Money, Build Awareness, Recruit Students, and Get Results. Prior to higher education, Donna had careers in eCommerce and radio. Also, for 11 years, until she relocated, she was a correspondent for a daily paper and alternative weekly in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pa. area.

Donna earned an MFA in creative writing from Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and, because learning never ends, in 2015 she returned to Wilkes to pursue a master's degree in literary publishing (anticipated completion June 2016). She also has an MBA from Elizabethtown College and a bachelor's degree in communication studies from Wilkes. Donna lives in downtown Lancaster, Pa. with her husband, Kevin Beerman and their cat. She loves road trips, national parks, board games, greasy-spoon diner breakfasts and museums.

WIN A COPY OF THIS BOOK! We have two copies of Walden on Wheels to give away. Just comment on one of this month’s stories or share one of them on Twitter (must include our handle, @hippocampus mag so we can find it!). We’ll put everyone in a drawing and announce the winners on July 31.
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  • Thanks for the interview! As someone about to graduate with an MFA in fiction and a boatload of student debt, I’m very interested in simple and sustainable living.

  • Hayley LeMay

    Excellent interview – a lively and insightful exchange of ideas. I always like when interviewers add a personal approach to open an article, and Joan and Pat did not disappoint. Ilgunas appears clever and likeable and I enjoyed his ideations on sacrifice, responsibility and frugality in this day of massive overspending. (And I would have seriously dug the van, too!) I look forward to reading his book – it makes me think a bit about Wild by Cheryl Strayed – I have been craving another outdoorsy, sacrifice, personal gain/change book since I read it. Great job!

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