Wise Read: Walden on Wheels: On The Open Road from Debt to Freedom

Walden on Wheels: On The Open Road from Debt to Freedom

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 journey, 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 followed. 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.”

Ken Ilgunas (1983-) was born in Hamilton, Ontario and raised in Niagara Falls, NY. He’s worked as an elementary school tutor, an Alaskan tour guide, and a backcountry ranger at the Gates of the Arctic National Park. He’s hitchhiked 10,000 miles across North America, canoed across Ontario, Canada in a birch bark canoe, and hiked the length of the controversial 1,700-mile Keystone XL Pipeline. For two years, he lived in his van at Duke University so he could receive his graduate degree in liberal studies debt-free. Ilgunas currently lives on a farm in Stokes County, North Carolina.

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