Ken Ilgunas lived in a van for two years in a parking lot at Duke University while he was a graduate student in the liberal studies program. After graduating from the University at Buffalo with $32,000 of student loan debt and an unmarketable, fairly useless liberal arts degree, he was at a crossroads. Ilgunas could continue working as a cart-pusher at Home Depot or start living what he calls a free life: “hopping trains, hitching rides, climbing mountains, traveling, wandering.” Choosing the latter, he went on to toil in low-wage jobs, spending a year between undergraduate and graduate school in Coldfoot, Alaska and the Park Service.
“My debt, I decided, would be the next mountain I’d try to climb,” Ilgunas writes in his newly released memoir Walden on Wheels. “It would be my Blue Cloud. It would be an adventure.” Finally, his debt was paid off and he had an additional $3,500 in the bank.
A mediocre student, he was blessed with an acceptance letter to a graduate program at Duke University. His goal was to graduate debt-free and living in a van without no major expenses was how he was going to achieve it. Two years living in the van and a semester living on a small farm went by. He graduated with just over $1,000 in the bank.
On a final note, the infamous Duke Vandweller remarks in his graduation speech:
“So began two different educations. The first was an education in vandwelling, in loneliness, in frugality, in figuring out how to wash my pots and pans without running water. The second was an education in liberal studies, in Diogenes, in Rousseau, in writing, speaking, and thinking. Yet it wasn’t long before these educations came together, like two rivers meeting at a confluence and flowing together as one.
“Today, I leave Duke much the same way I came. I have exactly $ 1,156, no job, and a degree that is— let’s face it— not going to have me, or most of us, rolling on a mattress covered in twenty-dollar bills. And to keep out of debt, I’ve recently put the van up for sale.