I’m going to leave New York, go to remote Alaska, live in a dorm, and work a job that pays about $9 an hour. Then I’ll hitchhike home and live in a van while attending grad school…in order to pay off and avoid more student loans. Imagine the people I will meet along the way. You’ll hear this powerful story … on this edition of Frank Relationships.
FRANK RELATIONSHIPS: KEN ILGUNAS’ WALDON ON WHEELS: ON THE OPEN ROAD FROM DEBT TO FREEDOM
Guests: Ken Ilgunas
Date: July 29, 2013
Frank: Ken Ilgunas is the author of Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom. A travel memoir about his two and a half year journey which included hitching from Alaska to New York and living out of a van to pay off his student debt, on this edition of Frank Relationships.
Welcome to Frank Relationships where we provide a candid, fresh and frank look into relationships with goals of acceptance, respect and flexibility. I’m Frank Love and you can find me, my blog and my various social media incarnations at franklove.com.
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You can also tweet us @mrfranklove or, you can, of course call the studio between 8:30 A.M. and 9:30 A.M. every Thursday morning at 202-629-3746. We record at that time every week.
Well, this week’s guest has quite a resume and it doesn’t read like that of most college graduates. He has, like many of us, accumulated over $30,000 in student loans. But unlike most of us, he’s paid his off in record time.
He moved to super remote North Alaska, not South Alaska, North. Lived in a dorm and had minimal, if any expenditures as well as actual places to spend money.
He’s hitchhiked across country to avoid paying for a plane fare, worked on the Golf Coast, lived in his van on a college campus and along the way, saved dollars, dimes and pennies that most of us see as inconceivable, with the singular goal of eliminating his debt.
So, if you want to know about the types of people that one meets, while hitchhiking across country, what his mother thought of him doing so and how he managed to live out of a van on a college campus and pay off his debt, then listen in and listen up as I hang out with the author of Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom, Ken Ilgunas for the next hour. Welcome to the show.
Ken: I’m thrilled to be out Frank.
Frank: What does it feel like to be a college graduate, voluntarily living in remote Alaska where the sunlight lasts for only about an hour doing certain parts of the year, while being paid to closely minimum wage with tens of thousands of dollars in debt? That’s a mouthful.
Ken: Yeah, it was a mixed bag. For one, I was not happy with the sort of jobs I was working. It was really repetitive, menial jobs, like being a tour guide, being a line cook, picking up garbage, just doing some minor maintenance work, that sort of thing. But there was also some pride with living up in Northern Alaska.
I mean, at least I wasn’t involved in some cubical working for some company I hated somewhere like some of my peers were. So, it was a mixed bag for sure and I guess I felt like I was making progress on my debt at the time, but I really wasn’t moving forward as a person. I felt very static at that period and I knew I needed to make some changes.
Frank: You were also able to enjoy some personal advances as it pertains to your fears, the nature. Tell us about those?
Ken: It was just like this was the first time I was removed from that materialistic consumer-driven lifestyle that I previously been entrenched. I was 250 miles from the nearest anything-from the nearest store, the nearest stop light. I was way up there. I was in this little town called, Coldfoot, Alaska, which is a truck stop. Population 35 in the summer. It gets down to about 12 in the winter.
So, this is the first time I was really away from that lifestyle I’d grown up in. And I was doing okay without having a shopping mall nearby. I was doing okay without having a theater nearby. I was doing okay with just living in this tiny dorm.
Again, I wasn’t exactly happy with the sort of jobs I was working, but I learned that I was better off in many ways without some of the creature comforts.
Frank: Tell me about the mountain and your first excursion up the mountain with your friend.
Ken: Yeah, this is actually before I start dealing with the debt. This is between my fourth and fifth year of college. This was an unusual summer in that it’s the first time I’m not doing something for money, its first time I’m not doing something for career. It’s not the first time I’m not doing something to fill out my resume. I’m doing something just for my soul and I drove up to Alaska and filled my boyhood dream of visiting Alaska.
The first week I’m there, me and my buddy Paul, we decide to go out into the wild and climb this mountain called Blue Cloud, which sits within the gates of the Arctic National Park and there’s no roads, no trails. It’s just wild brooks range country, 4,000-5,000 foot mountains; grizzly bears, moose, wolves, dall sheep. These are the sorts of animals that live in there.
So, he and I decide to climb this mountain and he got some blister problems within the first couple miles. So, he turns back and I’m left with the decision, “Fo I stay out here or do I go back with him,” and I look at this moment as a turning point–not just for the trip, but for my life. And I say, “You know what? I’m going to climb this mountain.” And for any seasoned outdoorsman, it probably wouldn’t have been a big deal. But for a suburbanite whose never been out on a hike before, it took on a mythological portions. And I decided I’m going to get to the top of this mountain unless I think death is imminent.
I eventually get to the top and I walk for 28 hours straight, no stopping at all. You can’t stop because there’s thousands of mosquitoes around you and I thought “This is a moment where I’ve decided I’m going to be a different person.”
Frank: Coldfoot wasn’t your ideal Alaskan trip. You actually looked for some other places in Alaska and Coldfoot was the last basic straw. Right?
Ken: Yeah, I wouldn’t say it wasn’t ideal. I was just happy I found it. I sent resumes and applications out to a number of jobs and Coldfoot just happened to be one of the last ones I found and the only one that took me in. And I just found love with that arctic landscape. Again, there was very few people there and when you’re standing on the highway that stretches from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay–this south to north highway–when you’re standing on it to your left, it feels as if there’s just a thousand miles of uninhabited wilderness. And to your right is the exact same thing. It’s just wild, wild country, beautiful country.
Frank: We’re going to get into the debt situation and I’m going to read a piece of your book, an excerpt.
“In high school if someone asked me what my plans were, I’d click into brainwash robot mode. My body would become rigid, my pupils would dilate and in a monotone I’d recite, ‘I’ll go to the best college I could get into, no matter the cost.'”
Do you know who many of us do that? That’s not just the profound writings of a guy with a book called, Walden on Wheels. That’s something that thousands, and I mean thousands is an understatement, hundreds of thousands of millions of students do and say–it’s ridiculous, so where did that take you?
Ken: It took me to this pricey private college. It was the best one I could get into called Alfred University and it’s in Southern Western, New York. And just that one year alone, it cost me $18,000. And in a rare moment of sagacity–and I should give myself more credit for this–I decide to transfer schools my second year and I go to the University of Buffalo, which is far more affordable. And I can commute to it from my parent’s home. So, in the end I believe it was about thirty two grand in student debt.
Frank: “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 18 year old, one who didn’t know what the 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”
Again, I had student loans and I’m with you. I’m amazed that it’s so easy to take out such a large sum of money that’s going to have such an impact on our lives in the future. Please, weigh in on where that took you.
Ken: First of all, I just want to say it’s appalling that tuition is so high and it doesn’t make it any better when you’re 17 years old and you’re making these decisions. When I went to Alfred, I had in the back of my mind, “Yeah, I need to get away from home. Yeah I’m going to meet a whole bunch of girls there.”
Those are the primary things in my mind. It wasn’t even about the education or the learning. That’s just the sort of decisions a 17 year old is going to make who really has no exposure to personal finance, personal finance education. I had a minimum wage job. I’d never really had to deal with debt and surely not in debt of five digit proportions.
It’s just sad that 17 year olds are making these life-altering decisions for their future at that time period in their life. But yeah, I would graduate with $32,000 in debt. And over those five years of undergraduate school, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I wasn’t really interested in a career at this point, but I just thought writing would be a good direction to head in.
I applied to 25 ten dollar an hour paid news internships. And a couple months go by, I’m rejected from every single one of them. And this wasn’t even that ambitious of a job and I was actually pretty well experienced. I was an editor for my school paper for two years. I had an unpaid internship with a local Buffalo paper, so I was disappointed and daunted and just terrified about what about to happen to me.
I was about to graduate with no job and $32,000 and I had an English and History degree, so it’s not like I was incredibly marketable. So, out of desperation I go back up to Coldfoot, this time as a tour guide. The first summer I worked there, I was a maid. This wasn’t a romantic trip going up there this time.
Frank: Nor was the hotel, a romantic hotel.
Ken: No, it was at the Slate Creek Inn, about 52 rooms. I probably do make a few embellishments about the rustic nature of it in the book. It’s not as bad as I made it sound. If anyone is listening, you should definitely visit Coldfoot. It’s a wonderful place to visit.
But yeah, this is not a romantic trip. This is just a trip to make money and to work and to pay off my debt.
Frank: What did mom and dad say as you were going to Alaska to where it’s not even near an airport to work?
Ken: I should say that there is a gravel air strip there. I don’t think they would classify as an airport, but there’s something there. Again, there was like a sort of weird sort of pride I had in going to this really weird and remote place.
I said, “Hey, mom and dad, I’m going to be a tour guide up in Alaska.” And they said, “Tour guide. Oh, no you’re not. You’re going to get yourself a real job.”
Frank: At McDonald’s.
Ken: But there were no real jobs. And again, I was just a little bit enthusiastic to go up there.
Frank: Briefly, tell us about the book, Walden on Wheels, and who influenced your goals and the writings?
Ken: Yeah, it’s about five years of my life–a rather strange five years in which I deal with student debt. And it’s a travel memoirs; I’m moving around to a lot of different places. I deal with student debt a lot, but its not a student debt policy book. And in a way its not even about that at all.
It’s just really about becoming a free person, who’s becoming a person. And it’s about this personal journey I’m going with and grappling with external issues, like debt and internal issues, like fear and timidity and I’m just trying to live the best life possible in a confusing 21st century world.
Frank: Did you write the book during or after your experiences? Did you take any notes along the way or anything like that?
Ken: After, for sure. I never had, in my mind I was going to write a book about these things while I was doing them. And I think it makes it an even better travel memoir in that way. It’s not like, “I’m going to write this book and if I’m going to do these weird things.” “It’s rather I did these weird things,” and I wrote a book about it, but I was writing.
I was writing. I’m always writing. I’ve always been writing. I have this email correspondence with my best friend, Josh, and he graduated with $66,000 in debt and we went to the same pricey private school for the first year.
Frank: Was he the one that got scholarships?
Ken: Yeah. Obviously, not sufficient scholarships. But yeah, through the email process, we’re dealing with our problems, we’re trying to figure out ourselves, our world.
Almost everyday we’d send emails. And after doing all of these things and trying to write this book, I was able to draw from so many of those emails–because I had my thoughts for pretty much every single day of my life for the past several years–so I was able to use those and give the book an unusual degree of authenticity.
Frank: What are your parents like? Describe them please.
Ken: They’re wonderful parents. My dad, he’s a Scottish immigrant. And my mom, she’s American. And they live in Western New York. My mom’s a nurse and my dad’s a factory worker. We live in the suburbs. It’s a pretty ordinary sort of situation and I would argue a pretty unexciting life and I think that’s probably why I went on to do these weird adventurous things, because there was a gaping hole that needed to be filled.
My mom, she’s like any mom, just very nervous and paranoid about the well being of her children. And my dad, he has a darker sense of humor. And I think he’s able to tolerate some of my more outlandish plans.
Frank: And what do they think of the book? Have they read it?
Ken: Yeah, they read it. They really liked it. My dad–he worked at a factory and he sold about 140 copies to his fellow co-workers. And yeah, they’re happy with it. Even if I tease the hell out of them sometimes in the book.
Frank: Yes you do. Were they able to laugh at themselves?
Ken: Yes they are. And that’s probably where I get my self-deprecating sense of humor. I can definitely laugh at myself too.
Frank: What did mom say as you recapped her asking you, “Are you trying to commit suicide? Do you want to live,” from after hitchhiking?
Ken: I think that’s something we kind of gotten over, because she’d very much disapproved of what I was doing at the time. I don’t think she really realized at that point who I was and just how overwhelming these desires for adventure are. And I think, over the years, she’s kind of come to accept that, even if it’s not that she’s approved it.
Frank: Were your parents fugal?
Ken: I wouldn’t say they were profligate, but I think fugal would be a stretch. We just lived in an ordinary home, had ordinary priors, nothing flashy. We never went on expensive vacations. But at the same time, we lived in a big suburban home and there was a big TV in there. It wasn’t an austere childhood at all.
Frank: And how’d you get the infatuation with Alaska?
Ken: To be honest, I don’t even really know where that came from. When I was 13, 14, 15, I just began to have this overwhelming desire to go up to Alaska.
Driving up to Alaska would become the purpose of my life. That’s what I wanted more than anything. And anyone who knew me would know about my dream to go up there. And honest, I don’t know where that stems from. Sometimes I say it’s because of reading Jack London or “Into the Wild.” But to be honest, I hadn’t even become acquainted with those literary works before I had this strange desire to go up there.
I don’t know. Maybe I just saw a clip of it on the TV; some mountains and some forests and it turned into a myth for me and just something to live out.
Frank: Since, we are a relationship show, I want to switch gears for a second. Tell me about your mom and your dad’s relationship with one another.
Ken: They met when up in Ontario Canada and that’s where they had me and my brother. And we would eventually move to Western New York, when I was a very young boy, five or six at the time.I would describe it as a happily domestic partnership.
There’s not much traveling going on. There’s not much moving away from home. That’s just how some people are. It’s not how I am. But they’re quite content at home.
Frank: You and mom, how was your relationship at an earlier age and tell us about how its evolved to where it is right now.
Ken: It was always a good relationship. I don’t even know if there’s anything extraordinary about it. She was a great mom. She made my lunch everyday for school and she was very hard working.
She worked as a nurse, be on her feet all day and she’d come home and make me and my brother dinner. I probably, like most kids, didn’t appreciate it as much as I should’ve. She was just always there.
And my dad was always there to. He worked long shifts. He worked overtime, five nights a week at the factory. But he’d come to every single hockey and football game I played. They were great parents, truly.
Frank: And you and relationships, tell us about any relationship that you had or didn’t have in Alaska. And then, I’d love to hear your recap about the Gulf Coast relationship.
Ken: I had a high school sweetheart and it was a good first relationship. Nothing too notable there; we were together for a couple of years. And I had this long drought where I really wasn’t anybody for the next four or five years or so while I was in college. And that was probably because commuting from my parent’s home. And when you’re living with your parents it’s just not easy to have a relationship with privacy and things like that.
Frank: Was that sexually or just completely no relationship?
Ken: It was a drought pretty much every sense of the word. Yeah, there was nothing going on at that point relationship-wise. I was okay with it. I had a fling here and there and they turned out to be more stressful then what I bargained for. It was kind of a–I don’t want to say it–a code of celibacy, but I definitely thrived with the celibate lifestyle. It was just like no drama, no pain and I was just able to focus on being a student.
I was just so busy anyways. I had a 20, 30 hour part-time job, pushing carts at the Home Depot. And when I started writing for the school paper that was another 30 hours a week.
So I was able to focus on being a student. I still had longings and desires. I realized I was still a standing, living, breathing person at the end of the day and wasn’t falling apart because of their absence.
Frank: What did you learn about relationships along your journey to paying off your debt?
Ken: It was mixed. I had a relationship with a gal in Mississippi when I was working there and I described that in the book. I think what I learned most from that is that relationships can still be really good and meaningful even if they’re short. You can still really grow as people and get a lot of fulfillment from someone. You shouldn’t always gauge the success of a relationship on whether it lasts or not.
That relationship with her was really special even though it lasted only a year. And I likened it to this hitchhike that we went on. You go from point A to point B and hitchhike and you go from point A to point B as a person when you’re in a relationship. You’ll grow from it. You’ll think on it. You’ll think warm memories about it. But at the end of the day, you’re at a different place and a different person.
Frank: And that’s okay?
Ken: And that’s okay. Yeah.
Frank: Sounds like you might have been reading some Frank Love.
Ken: I’m afraid to say, I wasn’t acquainted, but I’m glad we agree on this.
Frank: Yeah, absolutely. I wrote a book called, How to Gracefully Exit a Relationship. And one of the things I discussed and instinctively is, how relationships ending are not a bad thing and that doesn’t mean they were failures. It just means that the time came and the time went and we had our experience. We can grow from it, we can enjoy it, we can look back on it with a smile no matter how it ended or no matter that it ended. And it sounds like we agree.
Ken: Yeah, I think relationships can hold you back sometimes. I think you can get something out of them, but you might need something else in your life. At that point, I needed to go back to grad school and she needed to off to California to do her thing and if we’d kept the relationship together just for the sake of keeping it together, we wouldn’t be the people who we are today. I think we needed those periods of aloneness.
Frank: That’s powerful.
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Now, you met quite a few characters in Alaska and you described them. One of them was a woman who was, “abused,” another was the abuser, you had a guy who was similar to you and then you had a company that you worked for that you thought respectively of. Tell us about the different folks that you’ve come across.
Ken: You come across a lot of different people working in a place like Coldfoot. It was in the middle of nowhere, but yet it was kind of a nexus of activity at the same time. Like everyday in the summer, there’d be truckers coming through, there’d be tourist coming through, there’d be hunters and hikers and the people working there, they varied considerably too.
I’d say like one half are your college population people. People taking the summer to work to pay tuition or maybe they’ve graduated and they’re working to pay off their debts like I was. And then you have a carnie drifting crew. These are people who make their wage just drifting from seasonal camp to seasonal camp. So they’re just very used to that sort of working camp lifestyle.
And these were oftentimes the more colorful of the characters. And more than not, they were really great people. They like to party and drink. They were just fun loving. But you get the odd sort of person every once in awhile. And I’m living in this dorm there and the walls are just paper thin. And on one side of me I have this guy–I’m just going to make up a name–his name’s Troy and he’s I think half [Laotian] 29:05 and half Caucasian and he’s a hardcore alcoholic and he’s a schizophrenic as well. So I can hear him talking to himself, like all day long.
He would get drunk after work–he was a dish washer and then he’d walk down the halls carrying these two invisible machine guns and he would just unload on anyone walking by past you. You couldn’t help but, laugh, but be kind of frightened at the same time.
And then on the other side of me was this other guy, Avery, he was from the suburbs of Utah and he was high the whole summer. I don’t think I ever so when he wasn’t high. And there was just other guys, like I forgot how I named him in the book, but he would end up beating up his Native American girlfriend at camp who was an alcoholic. Just really strange people.
I guess this was a demographic that I wasn’t rubbing elbows with before I went up there. When you live in suburbia, when you go to university, you’re surrounded by the same sort of people. So it was an eye-opening journey to be able to live with a different segment of the population.
Frank: And then, there was Jack–and I don’t know if you remember who he was by way of Jack, the name in the book that you gave him. But he was the outdoorsman that you had a great deal of respect for. You said, “His work was his life and his life was his work. Everyday was a work day and everyday was a vacation.” Tell us about Jack.
Ken: Jack, he would be someone who I’d really look up to. Coldfoot again, to the middle of the Brooks range, there’s nothing around there except a small subsistence village about 12 miles North called Wiseman. And Wiseman has been around since the early 1900’s when it was a mining village. And at one point there was 300 miners living there, but now there’s just about 15 people living semi-subsistence lifestyles. And what that means is that they’re generating their own electricity with wind and solar. They’re growing their own gardens. They’re hunting their own food. They’re hunting moose and dall sheep and caribou. And Jack, he’s been living in Wiseman pretty much his whole life and he didn’t even have a job. His job was just to sustain himself and grow and hunt and fix things and fix his cabin. And he would do some tours for the touring company I was working for.
I would meet Jack almost every afternoon and tell these tourists about his life. And again, this is just me being exposed to a lifestyle that I previously hadn’t been. And I just respected him and his lifestyle so much. He wasn’t a specialist. He wasn’t a plumber. He wasn’t a nurse He wasn’t a teacher; just an expert at one thing, a specialist at one thing. He was good at everything. He could hunt. He could fish and he was just this natural born scientist. He understood the Aurora borealis. He understood why wind blows in the direction it does.
Frank: Whoa, whoa, aurora borealis?
Ken: Yeah, the northern lights
Frank: Okay. I’ve got to tell you as I read some of the book, there are times I had to go to the dictionary. I was saying to myself, this guy is really a writer.
Ken: Thank you.
Frank: You’re listening to Frank Relationships. We’re talking to Ken Ilgunas, the author of Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom, a travel memoir about his two and a half year journey which included hitchhiking from Alaska to New York and living out of a van to pay off his student debt. Please tell our listeners how they can find you and more about your work.
Ken: You bet. Walden on Wheels, it’s available on Amazon.com. It may not be at your local book store, but it will definitely be on Amazon. Just search for Walden on Wheels. And you can visit me on my website which is, kenIlgunas.com and I have a Facebook page you can follow me on.
Frank: In the book you discussed the interesting male-female ratio. “In the winter, not only is Coldfoot quite literally one of the darkest and coldest places on Earth–“and I’m going to get to the funniest quote in the whole book. I might take this with me. I’m going to say this again in my years to come. “Not only as cold quite literally one of the darkest and coldest places on Earth, but to make matters worse there’s also an almost prison-like male to female ratio. When the Eskimo women stopped to fill up their gas tanks, the males in camp would eye their robust flanks as if they were a pack of starving wolves. But it wasn’t any better for Coldfoot’s few female inhabitants. A common Alaskan adage, “The odds are good, but the goods are odd, holds true in Coldfoot.”
I love it. You already told us about your drought and clearly that didn’t help. Let’s talk about the hitchhike from Alaska to New York. You go outside and you stick your thumb up and what happens?
Ken: I definitely had this romantic notion of hitchhiking. You stick your thumb out, someone’s going to pick you up, you going to have a great time and that was more or less true, but it didn’t work out for me my first day.
I said goodbye to all my co-workers. I put a big backpack on and I had the intention of going 5500 miles across the continent back to my parent’s home in New York. And I get on the highway, I stick out my thumb and 12 hours goes by.
Again, I’m way up in remote Alaska, so there’s not that much activity. And I count only 17 trucks that go by. They didn’t even slow down. They were kicking up dust in my face. Then I walk back to camp and I just feel so pathetic, because I said goodbye to everyone that morning. And one of the cooks actually hooks me up with a trucker who was headed out.
He just talked to the trucker at the café. That’s my first hitchhike. I wasn’t even able to do it with my thumb, but it’s a pretty incredible experience and I’m just as excited. I met this guy named Dirk–and what I realized is on a hitchhike and this holds true–but not only did I do this hitchhike from Coldfoot to New York, but I’ve gone about 10,000 miles over the years across North American–and this holds true for pretty much all of them. The driver begins to think of this ride with the hitchhiker almost a therapy session, because when they’re with a hitchhiker, you’re with someone who you’re going to see for a couple hours of your life and more than likely, you’re never going to see them again.
I would hear things from my driver is that they’re probably not telling their wives, they’re probably not telling their buddies in the bar, but this is just a rare opportunity to them to unload on someone–
Frank: And this included a desire to kill his wife, one of your driver’s?
Ken: Yeah, at least he didn’t want to kill me. Yeah, I would hear these extremely strange stories. And with Dirk, he told me all about his kids, he told me all about his wife, he told me about this period of his life where he was a so-called man whore. And he told me he was wanted in three states, two of which were for murder. But when you’re with someone a whole bunch of hours, you get comfortable with them even if they do have a stormy past. And there was also some solemn moments, when he told me his stepfather had molested his sister and things like that. And every time there was a lull in the conversation, he would make this noise. He would be miming shooting a gun.
He just had ordered this 1930’s Tommy gun, the sort of gun you see in gangster movies from the 1930’s. And he says, “When we get back to my place, we’re going to go to the gravel yard and shoot it.”
So, sure enough I go back to his trailer and there’s a box there and there’s a Tommy gun inside it. He assembles it and minutes later, we’re at the gravel yard and I’m firing a Tommy gun into a gravel pit and it’s just awesome. It’s just like the greatest day of my life. I’m shooting a gun. This is my first hitchhike ever. And there’d be stories like that all the time.
Frank: And unlike what many people would think in terms of hitchhiking, you met good people and had good experiences. And really it sounded as though, had nothing but good things to say about the relationships that you developed, even if temporary along the way.
Ken: Yeah. And what I discovered–and again, it wasn’t just this one hitchhike. I’ve done a ton of hitchhiking all across the continent. And it’s oftentimes the poor folks who are picking me up.
When I’m on the highway and I see this jalopy coming down–This rust-colored piece of garbage, I think I have a good chance of getting picked up by them. If I see this brand new Hummer or whatever, I don’t even need to put my thumb out, because I know they’re not going to pull over. And it’s because the poor, they just have a–I think a finer sense for empathy. They know what it’s like to be cold and hungry and away from home and to be struggling.
They just have this fine sense for helping folks. And I would hear almost every time just some tragic story, like “I was molested when I was younger or I was beaten up or I just went through this terrible divorce.” And I began to wonder maybe this country is as bad as people are making it out to be, but yet I’ve never had any problems with these folks. I saw nothing but compassion and kindness.
Frank: And along the way, did you plan to actually stay at some of the homes of the drivers?
Ken: No, but that would end up being the case sometimes. Again, when you’re talking with someone for four hours straight, you just can’t help but bond with them and I consider myself a really good listener.
There would definitely be that bond forming dynamic going on. This is all validated by a more recent trip I went on. I recently hiked the Keystone National Pipeline from Alberta, Canada to Texas. That was a 1700 mile walk and that was 146 days and I only had trouble with one person out the many thousands I encountered on that trip. People are good and it makes you proud to be a member of this country.
Frank: Tell me about that one person.
Ken: I don’t think he was that bad, actually. It was in Nebraska and I was walking and I took a break at this convenience store in a town called Petersburg. I think I was eating some yogurt and watching a movie on my iPad and I see this deputy standing next to me and he says he has his orders to take me out of the county. And I’m like, “Orders? What are you talking about? I’m walking across the country.” I explained I had an education from Duke. I explained I have a book coming out. Playing every card I could play to show them I’m not some wondering bum–not that there’s anything wrong with that either. But he says he got two calls in that day.
One was from a family who said they had locked the dog in, but when they came home the dog was out and another family who said the doors were unlocked and they remembered locking them. So me being the bearded stranger in town, he just automatically assumes that I’d been breaking into homes and liberating dogs.
Frank: Unlocking doors.
Ken: Yeah. He puts me in the back of the police car and I’m surrounded by cage and he escorts me out of the county. I was upset that I was not able to walk the whole trip. This was like a 20 mile car ride. But at the same time, I’m just amused with what’s going on, because it’s almost something out of a movie. In fact, this is the plot to–
Ken: Rambo: First Blood, except I didn’t go back into town and gun everyone down.
Frank: Was there a desire at any point in that interaction to just tell them that, “Look, I’m going to walk. If you’re going to arrest me, arrest me, but this is what I’m going to do, because I can do that.”
Ken: Sort of. Before I got in the car I said, “If you want me to walk out of town, I’ll walk out of town. But if you’re ordering me to in this vehicle, okay I’ll get in.” I didn’t really understand what my legal rights were. I wasn’t sure if I was being harassed or not/ But I got in. In hindsight, I probably could of exercised my rights better.
Frank: I was reading a book about–particularly the portions on hitch hiking. The question that came to me constantly was, could a black guy or can a black guy pull this off. Do you have any insight into that?
Ken: I don’t think it would be as easy. I think as a white male, it was easier for me. And on this hike that I was on, going through provinces like Alberta and Saskatchewan and states like Montana and South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, I didn’t see a black guy for like months. It was just completely white population up there.
I don’t think I saw one until I got to Kansas. I was suspected all the time. I was looked leerily and I’m just this white guy. So I thought, “What happens if I’m Muslim? Or what happens if I’m gay? What happens if I’m a woman? What happens if I’m a black guy? How would I be received then?” Because again, I was always able to break through the suspicion; there was suspicion wherever I went, but I was able to break through that with conversation and finding some common ground. But that suspicion would have been so much stronger if I didn’t look the part in those areas?
Frank: Interesting and honest. I appreciate it. What supplies did you travel with in your pack?
Ken: Typical camping supplies. I would have a lightweight tent, a lightweight one-person tent. I have a good sleeping bag. I carry a negative 20-rated sleeping bag so I can remain warm whenever. I have a couple water bottles, probably a few days worth of food. Probably an extra change of clothes and just your typical sort of stuff, like a compass, matches that sort of stuff. I probably was carrying about 30-40 pounds worth of gear.
Frank: You’re listening to Frank Relationships. We’re talking with Ken Ilgunas, the author of Walden on Wheels: on the Open Road from Debt to Freedom. A travel memoir about his two and a half year journey, which included hitchhiking from Alaska to New York and living out of a van and to pay off his student debt. Please tell us how we can find you and your work.
Ken: You bet. Walden on Wheels is available on Amazon.com. And I have a blog titled kenilgunas.com as well as a Facebook page.
Frank: Let’s fast forward to grad school. Where did you go?
Ken: I went to Duke University.
Frank: And there was some interesting things that you accomplished at Duke University.
Ken: Yeah. Unusual things. I finished paying off my debt, $32,000 and that was after two and a half years. I had a little bit left over from my parks service job and a UPS job as a seasonal packaging handler. I had about $4,000. And at this point, having just paid off my debt, I was just like, “I don’t want to go back in debt again, but I really do want to go to grad school. How do I make that possible?”
And previously, I had applied to grad schools that would pay, that would be no tuition and I got rejected from all of those. So, I knew I would have to pay some money for grad school. And I thought, “Why not live in a van? Buy some piece of crap and park it in the campus parking lot and make a home out of it and not have to pay rent?”
Frank: Let’s hear it. What happened? How did it go? And how did you manage to live on campus? So, basically you could say you lived on campus.
Frank: It was a little unorthodox, so please fill in the blanks and have lots of them.
Ken: You bet. I bought this $1500 1994 Econoline van. It was big. It was beautiful. It was burgundy. It had this burgundy to black fade on it. It looked a little creepy, but I liked it. And I buy a campus parking permit and they just give me my own little parking lot and I’m going to keep this a secret. I don’t want campus security knowing. I don’t want students knowing, because I didn’t know what they would do if they found out. I didn’t know if they would kick me out and if I’d have to adopt some unaffordable style of living, like renting an apartment.
At this point, I’m a good camper. I’d been living up in Alaska. I’d previously just been a back country ranger. So, I knew I was going to be pretty comfortable sleeping in a van and cooking my meals. I had this backpack and stove and I would cook my meals every night in there and I would sleep in a sleeping bag. And I knew that having access to a college campus would permit me to live with some degree of comfort.
For instance, I’d have a gym membership. It would just cost me $35 for the semester and that was where I would shower, that’s where I would brush my teeth, where I would shave.
The campus library–that would provide me with electricity and warmth and air conditioning in really hot months. And that’s where I’d charge up my electronics and get Wifi. And on my walk from campus to my van I went by the grocery store. So I’d buy a couple of vegetables and when I get to the van, I’d cook them up and I made it work.
Frank: And how did you end up financing your education?
Ken: A lot of it was just through radical frugality. Again, just spending very little. This was a period of my life where I wasn’t going out to bars or restaurants.
That first semester, I think I bought two beers and I went out to a restaurant once. And that was both at the end of the semester when I knew I was financially clear and not to go into debt again.
And the other part was working. At first, it wasn’t a job, but I would be a study participant. I would have my brain scanned and MRI machines. Duke has a big Neuroscience department. I saw a flyer and it said $20 an hour for study participants and my eyeballs almost literally sprung out of their sockets, when I saw that $20 dollars an hour. I was so excited about that.
Yeah, I’d be performing cognitive tests and in an MRI and they’d pay me pretty well. But that was only for a few hours a week. I eventually got a job as a part-time elementary school tutor, which saved me in the end. I was able to work a lot and make some money. And then I had summer jobs as a back country ranger.
The van at first–that first semester I just thought, “Live in the van for one semester. It’ll be a wacky experience that they could laugh about to my friends and family and whatever. I’ll go that summer and make a good deal of money and I’ll make like $12,000 – $13,000 dollars as a ranger. And I’ll come back and I’ll be able to afford an apartment and pay tuition.” But the thing was when I got back to Duke that fall after making that money that summer, the van no longer felt like an experiment or a novelty. It felt like home.
Ken: I couldn’t rent an apartment.
Frank: And you had no desire to?
Ken: No desire at all really. I’d come to really embrace this simplistic lifestyle. And once you get used to discomfort– once it becomes part of the routine, they’re really no longer discomforts.
Frank: Discomforts. Yeah.
Ken: There were discomforts for sure. When it’s 10 degrees outside, it’s 10 degrees inside of a van. I’m warm at night. I’m in my thermal underwear. I’m in my sleeping bag. I’m sleeping wonderfully. When I close my eyes I go into a coma and I don’t wake up until the morning. But getting out of that sleeping bag and taking off those thermals and putting on your school clothes when it’s 10 degrees, that takes some will power. And the hotter months, May and September that was discomforting as well. It’s like a greenhouse in the van during the day. But you could sleep in it at night. You can sleep in your underwear on top of the covers.
The discomforts, for sure, but in the end I didn’t even think it was that austere of a lifestyle. It was like I had a whole campus right next to me. I was eating really well. I was healthy. I was healthier than I’d ever been actually and it just wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t really think that getting an apartment would really improve my life any way.
Frank: Did you have any romantic relationships while living in the van?
Ken: I knew you were going to go there, Frank. Sort of. My romantic life was incredibly underwhelming when I was there. The first semester, no. Again, I had to keep this van a secret. I didn’t know who I could trust. If I tell one person, they might go tell another. And as soon as I know it, this is just going to go viral on Facebook and Twitter and the whole campus is going to know about this free van dweller. Campus security might kick me out. So, I was very careful with my secret,
But as the semesters went on, I began to tell some more folks. And I went out on a couple of dates. And when I say couple, I really do mean couple. There were very few. I had this terrible anxiety about telling them, I live in a van. You have to do it strategically. You can’t say, “Hey I live in a van. You want to come back to my place?” That’s ground for a restraining order.
So I would do it in the most awkward sort of way. I’d bring up Henry David Thoreau, who’s this 19th century philosopher that I’m into and he was into simple living. And then, I’d be like, ‘Yeah I graduated with a whole bunch of this debt and I’m living in this kind of strange situation.” And finally, I’d get around to it after a lot of meandering. And what I found was that the gals weren’t entirely repulsed by it. There was some draw. And it wasn’t because I was living in a van, that wasn’t the draw.
Frank: It’s who you were.
Ken: Yeah, I think they recognized my passion and my ideals and just living my own life. And on a college campus where there’s lots of bros living the same sort of frat lifestyle, it helps to stick out sometimes.
Frank: What are your thoughts on the American dream?
Ken: There are lots of sorts. There are lots of different American dreams. And oftentimes, it manifests in a big home with a picket fence and a couple cars in the garage. If that’s something that’s truly going to make you happy, then go for it. It’s not something I’m going to denigrate. But I know it’s not for me. That’s not my American dream.
When you just think about how many people are in debt in this country, it’s baffling. There’s 38 million student debtors alone. Think about all the mortgages and car payments and just everyone’s debt. We live in a free country, but no one’s free. And I realize that you need a mortgage sometimes and you need to pay down a car. I’m not so pragmatic to not appreciate these things.
But what I like to see is just more young folks just embracing a period of absolute freedom. And I think you’d see a lot fewer mid-life crises later on if we embrace those passions that scratch those adventurous itches. And just become unique individuals, someone who isn’t raised by institution after institution, but someone who goes on this unique journey and is transformed into a unique person on this journey.
Frank: What’s your advice for saving money and living frugal?
Ken: It very dependent on the person. I can’t just say like, “Oh, buy a van and save a whole bunch of money,” because that’s just not going to work and be practical advice for anybody. But for someone in my situation who wants to get out of debt quickly, it’s really reframing. I think most of the change has to be philosophical and you need to stop thinking about your debt as this inevitable payment that you’re going to be making for the next 20-25 years of your life, which is a standard way to go. Even the government recommends you put 15 percent of your income–that’s one, five percent of your income towards your debt. I just think that’s insane advice.
I just think you should be doing everything you can to get that number closer to 100 percent. And while that’s realistic just try to get there would be a worthy endeavor. And it really wasn’t until I made my debt a life and death situation, I reframed the way I thought about it.
Debt became a sworn enemy. Debt became something I hated and despised and got obsessed with and anthromorphized. It’s something you want to murder and it’s not until you think of it as this extreme way that you’re going to get your debt and your life under control.
Having hiked a lot of mountains up in the Brooks Range, you’re going to get miserable pretty early on and you can’t go into a mountain climb thinking if it gets too tough or too painful, I’m just going to turn back.
You need to think, “I’m going to get to the top of this mountain, unless death is imminent. I’m going to get to the top of this mountain no matter what.” It’s kind of just being extreme and embracing being insane a little bit. Because it’s insane to hike up a mountain and you can use that to your benefit sometimes.
Frank: We have an ongoing conversation about trust on the show and there’s a piece of the book I want to read that speaks to that.
You say, “A week before when I stuck my thumb out on that blue skies, May afternoon, I had for the first time surrendered control. I’d drop the clock, abandoned the plan and severed the puppet strings. It was no longer I nor my family, nor my local school board deciding my destiny. My life was now in the hands of someone else. And now that no one, not even I, was at the wheel. I felt the odd sense of empowerment, sometimes to see control to fate, I realized is to assume more control than ever before. I wasn’t just traveling anymore.”
You have quite a few profound nuggets in the book. Is there anything you want to round out the interview with?
Ken: I just remember seeing the Northern Lights for the first time, the aurora borealis. That’s where the arctic skies become colored with color: blues and greens and pinks.
Frank: Yeah, we see that all the time in D.C.
Ken: And I remember just thinking, “TV, career, parental and social expectations, these aren’t the guiding life. These aren’t the paths we’re meant to follow.” And I remember looking at the aurora and just thinking, “I should be dedicating my life not to those things, but just to catch a glimpse of the sublime.” And I think that’s worked pretty well for me.
Frank: You’re listening to Frank Relationships. We’ve been talking with Ken Ilgunas, the author of Walden on Wheels: on the Open Road from Debt to Freedom. A travel memoir about his two and a half year journey, which included hitchhiking from Alaska to New York and living out of a van and to pay off his student debt. Last time, please tell our listeners how they can find out more about your work.
Ken: You can go to kenilgunas.com and that’s my blog. That’s where I tell everyone about my adventures. You can join my Facebook page and my book can be found on Amazon.com.
Frank: Along today’s journey, we’ve discussed living in Coldfoot, Alaska, being a research study and hitchhiking across country.
I hope you’ve had as much fun as I’ve had learning about the Ken Ilgunas book, Walden on Wheels: on the Open Road from Debt to Freedom and his two and a half year journey, which included hitchhiking from Alaska to New York and living out of a van to pay for his student debt.
As always, it’s my wish for you to walk away from this conversation with a heaping helping of useful information that’ll help you create a relationship that’s as loving and accepting as possible. Let us know what you thought of today’s show at facebook/relationshipflove, on Twitter @mrfranklove or at franklove.com. On behalf of my producer, Phileta Legette and my assistant producer, Anayza Stewart, keep rising. This is Frank Love.
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