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Book Review: Walden On Wheels: On The Open Road From Debt To Freedom, by Ken Ilgunas
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Book Review: Walden On Wheels: On The Open Road From Debt To Freedom, by Ken Ilgunas - Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: Walden On Wheels: On The Open Road From Debt To Freedom, by Ken Ilgunas

Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: Walden On Wheels: On The Open Road From Debt To Freedom, by Ken Ilgunas

Like a great number of us, Ken Ilgunas graduated from college with a Bachelor's degree, very few marketable skills, no real job prospects, and a staggering amount of debt. Having spent his whole life comfortably mediocre in his parents' suburban New York home, he found the irresistible tugs from somewhere in his heart: he wanted to go to Alaska for some reason, and he was obsessed with paying off his student loan.

The loan was a boulder chained to his ankle, keeping him from enjoying life on his own terms. Alaska was some kind of step into an unplanned adventure, one that hadn't been scripted for him by society or his own inherited expectations. In Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom (Amazon Publishing, 2013), Ilgunas recounts adventures working a job at a northern Alaska hotel, a stop for touring cruise ships whose occupants were satisfied with exploring the wilderness from a seat in an eleven-passenger van. His room and board were covered by his employer, and with nowhere to spend money within two hundred miles, he found it easy to send his entire weekly paycheck toward his debt.

Walden on Wheels is part travel-adventure story, part treatise on quality of life and the meaning of formal education, and part exploration on money and wealth. Ilgunas cites Walden very deliberately: at one point, he seems to draw a clear line between himself and Henry David Thoreau, rejecting Thoreau's transcendentalism while admitting a definite kinship with the Nineteenth-Century American writer. Later, however, he discovers a transcendental connection of his own, less spiritual than Thoreau's but certainly laden with what's-the-meaning-of-it-all rumination.

As Ilgunas's debt shrinks, his adventures grow. We see him returning for a much longer stint to the Alaskan hotel, a short trip to South America, a cross-Canada kayaking expedition, and temporary work in post-Katrina Mississippi. Along the way, the writer provides colorful detail, humorous narrative, and always introspective reflection on the contrasts between the life he always imagined and the life he was finding himself being drawn toward. When he finally decides to live in a van, rather than in an apartment or dormitory, while earning his Master's degree at Duke University, the reader is hardly surprised, and the details of his extremely frugal existence (not only eschewing luxury, but also, for reasons of preserving his secret, staying mostly away from friendships and other social opportunities) are fascinating and, to kindred spirit readers, strangely jealousy-inspiring. Anyone who's felt the weight of a mortgage or the confinement of office walls will find in Ilgunas's story an alluring note of freedom that's difficult to skim past.

Anyone looking for ammo in demonizing the student loan industry might have a tough go of it here, as will those who think college educations have made themselves, by virtue of expense or expectation, largely irrelevant in this new American culture. "I realized the journey that I was on wasn’t about getting out of debt or finding my perfect job, or girlfriend, or life. It was about becoming the best man I could be," Ilgunas writes, framing nearly his entire story as a series of choices and resolutions. In today's strengthening backlash against both higher education and the massive debt required of most of us in its pursuit, some may find this recent graduate's story refreshing and encouraging. Degrees in history, English, and political science may not have led to a big house and a promising career, but Ilgunas asserts that those would have been as constraining as the debt he worked so hard to pay off.

A fascinating, endlessly entertaining and enlightening read, especially for readers who took out loans to earn liberal arts degrees.

 

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Book Review: Walden On Wheels: On The Open Road From Debt To Freedom, by Ken Ilgunas - Executive Leadership Articles

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