Saturday, December 26, 2009

Walden Pond

Anything becomes possible when you claim your life as your own. The author of his life not only wields a pen, he wields a power—a power to fill his years like pages of a favorite work; power to decide where chapters begin and end; power to plot glorious triumphs and noble failings; power to draw the arc of his narrative with his own hand.

This is what was going through my head as I entered Thoreau’s replica cabin at Walden Pond, just outside of Concord, Massachusetts this past week.

The holy pilgrimage to my idol’s storied pond hardly felt holy. It was a mere mile-long walk from the town of Concord, which, since Thoreau called it his stomping grounds a century and a half before, has become a bustling warren of cafes, stores, and restaurants where shoppers, turbaned under layers of wool and polyester, exit and enter with exigency as if on holy missions of their own. Not only have some of the businesses borrowed Thoreau’s name, but his iconic mug was plastered on posters, tee shirts, and buttons. Oh, how ironic was my urge to buy!

I was with my old buddy Chuck, a fellow classmate who, a half-year before, had been my first guest in the van. We donned hats, gloves, and winter coats for our amble to the site of Thoreau’s home that is now on state park land.

Cars curled around the curves of “Walden Street” along which—ages ago—horse and buggies clip-clopped and creaked. An intersection, not but a football-field’s distance from the pond, buzzed noisily: tires plowed through slush, SUV’s groaned to a halt, and engines purred while drivers waited for green.

The trails around the pond—during pleasanter climes—are clogged with fellow pilgrims, but freezing temperatures, today, inhibited others from visiting, giving Chuck and I some semblance of a solitary sojourn, ideal for a ramble around the famed hermit’s pond.

Green needles of long, slender pine trees blotched an otherwise bleached sky whose clouds were about to explode and unleash torrents of snow like overcooked bags of popcorn. If I was in a dreary mood, I would have called the scene dreary. But as we edged the perimeter of the pond, I was excited with the anticipation of something; excited about what I'm not sure exactly. Perhaps I imagined the ghost of Thoreau rounding the next bend of the trail on his mid-afternoon traipse, silently nodding to us without slackening his gait.

The pond is actually more like a small lake. Brittle, translucent ice formed along its edges. The wind pushed ripples of water atop and underneath the ice: the pressure causing a musical tinkling. A covey of ducks—agitated by our footsteps plowing through rust-colored leaves—flurried to the center of the pond.

Despite the sylvan surroundings, my strongest impression of his home was how close it was to town. Not only that, but the trappings of our frenetic culture were ubiquitous. An Amtrak train rumbled by. We could hear the hum of traffic from all corners of the park. Planes screamed overhead. While Thoreau certainly wasn’t bothered by these mechanized mumblings of modernity, it was obvious that he was in no way separated from the society that he deemed “insignificant.”

Critics lambaste Thoreau for extolling the virtues of solitude in Walden while maintaining close connections, walking to Concord often, and having his mother do his laundry on weekends. I see the hypocrisy too, but won’t let a fib spoil an otherwise timeless piece of work.

Thoreau—I’ve decided—was not a madman, a recluse, nor the symbol of frugality that we like to attach to him. He was a man. And a storyteller. His greatest story was his life. Thoreau realized—as few do—that his life was his own. And that he could do anything with it.

In his story he played the role of the philosopher-hermit. But Thoreau, undoubtedly, had itches for the other sex, cravings for consumerism. I don’t mean to suggest that Thoreau was a liar. I just mean to suggest that his identity was of his making. He became what he wanted to become.

Once, while pushing carts for The Home Depot—a miserable job I held during my undergrad years—I saw a bumper sticker on one of the many cars in the lot. It read: “Remember who you wanted to be”—a jarring reminder, to say the least. As a film and novel connoisseur, I had a keen understanding of narrative. It was self-evident that I wasn’t living in one of my beloved stories. Far from it, actually.

The van, like Thoreau’s cabin, is merely a chapter in a self-written story. He and I weren’t forced to live in such circumstances; rather, we chose it, just as Henry and I “remembered who we wanted to be”—heroes in our own self-directed stories, not background extras in someone else’s.

But the truth is that few can write their own stories. People are born into inescapable poverty. Children are abused. Disease and war and famine and a million other causes inhibit us from wielding the pen. Choice is a luxury. And choice—though most in our culture have this luxury—is rarely exercised; content are they to live in soulless dramas written by the bland hand of society and parents. Should it not be our duty, our great privilege to live the lives we’ve imagined? To be who we wanted to be?

I quit my job at The Home Depot one May to drive to Alaska. That drive, at the time, was my dream of all dreams. My journey was supposed to last a mere summer, but, five years later, I still have yet to truly come back. Little did I realize that it would become the introduction to a life, a story, and a much larger journey that I've determined to stay on.

Today, when I go into The Home Depot to buy something or other, I still see some of the same sad souls who I worked with five years earlier, slogging through life miserably, each seemingly incapable of wielding the pen either because they suffer from the self-invented “I’m-stuck-syndrome” or because there are legitimate exterior constraints.

In Thoreau’s replica cabin, I thought, while viewing the comically-austere furnishings—the twin sized bed, the wood stove, a rickety chair and desk—just how many things we could do in this life; how we can turn the wildest fragments of our imagination into reality if we so choose.

As Chuck and I walked back to his car parked in Concord, I thought about how the possibilities seemed endless.

Funny—I thought—how Thoreau’s story—despite its author six feet under a tombstone no bigger than his book, and his cabin—first a home, then a roof of a pigsty, then burned as firewood—is still ongoing. We of course never saw the ghost of Thoreau on his mid-afternoon traipse, but it was more than evident just how alive and well his message is today. Perhaps that's what Thoreau knew all along: that some stories are better off without a conclusion.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Article Aftermath

You know you’ve become popular when CBS News photoshops your van flying over Duke Chapel.

It’s been an interesting week. “I live in a Van down by Duke University” was the #1 most read story on Salon this past Monday and Tuesday, tallying well over 200,000 hits—more hits in one day than this blog has received since I started it a year ago.

Some more random numbers:

-200,000 new people have seen my pale, patchy-haired chest

-86 Facebook messages—compared to the usual zero—were found in my inbox immediately after the article

-100 people “friended” me

-2 literary agents offered their services to expand the article into a book (which I most likely will accept)

-1 publishing company did the same

Radio shows On Point of NPR, The Story with Dick Gordon and The Ron Reagan Show requested interviews. So did the TV show Fox and Friends. Inside Edition wants to follow me around at Duke for a couple days. Allegedly, host Deborah Norville was “amused/impressed” with it. The Buffalo News is calling my parents’ home and the Raleigh News and Observer had me on their cover. Rumor has it I was mentioned in USA Today and—most oddly—the AOL Auto Section mentioned me and posted this photo.

At least they didn’t give me a Chris Farley look-a-like. I’ll take that guy’s chest hair any day of the week.
also accompanied their article with a photo of an “I’m-going-to-rape-you-if-you-come-in” van with a caption stating that “Ken Ilgunas lived in a Ford Econoline van a little like this one.” This is of course amusing, but does dishonor to my beloved (and comparatively beautiful) Econoline.

I emailed my mom to tell her that—among my many media requests—Oprah called, but I turned her interview down because I don’t degrade myself to “second-rate” programs now that I’ve gone “big-time”: news so shocking to my mother that I might as well had told her—a devout member in the Church of Oprah—that I was joining the military to be part of the surge in Afghanistan for “shits and giggles.” Her response:


Oprah, for the record, never contacted me.

To be honest, this whole fame thing has me feeling a bit queasy. I’m overwhelmingly ambivalent about it all. If I did go on these shows—would I be doing it to share the boons and drawbacks of my radical lifestyle or would I merely be indulgently reveling in my fifteen minutes of fame? I’m not sure. Really, I have little desire to indulge, but feel some vague sense of duty to give into their requests.

I haven’t been able to give nearly anyone an interview since the article published because I’m in the North Carolinian mountains taking a 9-day Wilderness First Responder course where I have limited internet and no cell phone coverage. This also means that I haven’t been on campus to receive praise or heckles from the student body (or admonishment from campus administration).

In the News and Observer article, though, the writer contacted Duke administration to get a statement about their position regarding my van. Ferreri, the journalist, reported that “a Duke official said that while the university doesn’t encourage Ilgunas’ method of housing, he doesn’t appear to be violating any campus rules.”

Duke spokesman Michael Schoenfeld added this:

“Our first concern is for his health and safety, and we offer guidance and counsel to help him transition to a new home. That said, it is certainly a creative part of his education, though I don't think Thoreau had to worry about parking tickets at Walden.”

A respectable response, given that I just advertised Duke’s “egregiously” high costs to the country at large. I got a giggle out of the “guidance and counsel” line, which is a subtle way—I think—of taking a jab at me. I can just see the counselor and I sitting together; she asking me—in the politest terms—why I’ve decided to live in a van while thinking to herself—as I drone on about Thoreau and dreams and adventure—“This guy’s fucking insane!”

My sanity has been questioned across internet message boards among other criticisms about my article/lifestyle. The most prevalent seem to be:

1. The van is a hoax and I am a liar.

This is a somewhat reasonable response. Living out of a van, especially in this day and age—needless to say—is a bit unbelievable. Naturally I can’t be upset with the accusations. Aside from a personal tour, this blog is my best offering of “evidence.” On another note—wouldn’t you think that Salon would double-check these things? (which they of course did)

2. I live in squalor. Vandwelling is unhygienic and unhealthy.

I am healthier than 99.99% of the population. I never get sick (excusing my one throw-up episode), never take medicine, and I eat healthier than most anybody. I exercise, rigorously, five days a week. My rugged lifestyle fosters a hearty constitution, enabling me to sleep comfortably in temperatures as low as 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Sure, my quarters may be a bit messy at times, but that’s just my style; the state of my van shouldn’t reflect the homes of all vandwellers.

3. I am anti-social and a narcissist.

This is to some extent true. I’m certainly more solitary than the average individual and I am—like any writer/dreamer/adventurer—“narcissistic,” but I wouldn’t go as far to call them dominating characteristics.

4. “We need more janitors, not thinkers” or I that should have declared as a math major

This is easily the most ridiculous criticism. The modern American lifestyle—any style of life, really—is by no means the epitome of existence. Shall we all just complacently settle into lives, careers, and homes just because they're normal and expected of us? I have legitimate reasons to “think.” And I have legitimate reasons to complain about things like student debt, rampant consumerism, and the stanching of dreams. We can do better.

And why should I be a math major? (Note: I have nothing against math majors.) Why—so I can help with the building and the innovating and the “progressing”? Why must our human pursuits lead to this idea of “progress”? What about the pursuit of happiness? The pursuit of adventure? The pursuit of knowledge? No, no, no—the idle of mind thinks—we must pursue the almighty dollar! Fools’ pursuits and fools’ progress, I say!

Even if one wanted to criticize my area of study because it supposedly lacks a “utilitarian purpose,” I only need to point to the article to prove that I’ve “produced” something with my liberal education. While I don’t wish to reduce everything to economical/utilitarian terms, I must point out that it’s a common role for graduates of the humanities to “call bullshit” when it needs to be called. As George Patton said, “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking.”

5. Why did you reveal your secret? And why didn't you wait till you graduated? (less a complaint, more a question)

What if Thoreau went to Walden and kept his thoughts to himself? The ascetical act, though often done in solitude, is a public "performance." Without a large-scale revelation, my year in the van would be meaningless to everyone except me (and the fine readers of this blog).

The ascetic performs his act not only to gain insights and wisdom for himself and to discover the "fundamentals of life," but he also does it to protest or highlight something "off" about his respective culture. The ascetical act is a rejection and an effort to overthrow the "perceived dominant perspective," as ascetic scholar Richard Valantasis eruditely explains.

But why not wait till you graduate? That strikes me as somewhat cowardly. Besides, maybe I thought it would be fun to stir the pot a bit. Also, I have plenty of housing ideas if I'm kicked out of the parking lot. I'm resourceful enough to afford school with or without a van.

Despite the aforementioned criticisms, the responses, overall, have been resoundingly positive.

Some random Facebook messages:

“Your article about living in a van at duke inspired me. I hope to one day have the courage and the willpower to do something as extraordinary as you have”

“Very amazing, you mission is honorable and good luck to you on the rest of your adventure. I'm just starting my journey to break the consumerism side of myself down so this was inspirational to read.”

“It was your picture that caught my eye. I wanted to drop you a note to tell you what a handsome, masculine and sexy guy you are. My heart flutters each time I look at your picture.” (From a dude, actually, but compliment taken nonetheless.)

“You are sooooo the man right now!!”

“I wanted to thank you for inspiring me to maintain my van home. My dad might not appreciate it, but I know now that it doesn't matter; I have to stick to my convictions.”

“I could see it being made into an oscar worthy movie.” (I want a 26-year old Daniel Day-Lewis to play me.)

“you're fucking insane for what you have done, but the fact that you are living and succeeding at your ideals, purely amazes me. Have an amazing, DEBT FREE life. You have already changed mine.”

“Fucking awsome, your like the shining light in the afterlife” (Not really sure what this one means)

(And my personal favorite, though not in the slightest true):

“You’re so getting laid now”

I have 70 more just like these.

The question begs to be asked: Why did so many people read it? Why did it affect so many people?

Thoreau is still alive and well in the 21st Century. Well, maybe not Thoreau—but the idea of thrift and frugality and simple living: these—long-forgotten American ideals—are still American ideals. They’ve merely fallen out of practice.

It isn’t difficult to observe the faults of our consumerist lifestyle. Just as Thoreau wrote that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” 150 years ago, the same is true today. We talk about being a “free” country—a country that loves its liberty and independence so much that we’ll invade other countries to liberate them so they, too, can live freely. But how many people in America actually have freedom? We can’t be free if we’re beholden to pay off student loans, mortgages, or bills from our shopping sprees for what is often the duration of our entire adult lives.

When you think about it, few of us are really free. And if it’s not debt that muzzles our wilder, freedom-loving sides, it’s the common formula we’ve been born into; that being: school/ work/ family/ winnebago/ death—a formula that few have resolve enough to separate themselves from.

People—I think—realize all of this. We all have crazy dreams that do not fit into the prescribed formula. Yet most dreams are put off day after day until they’ve finally transformed into regrets. We recognize the burning desire, a restlessness for freedom within ourselves. But without a frontier or a war, our wildness atrophies without a place to express it.

The American Frontier—once the symbol of our freedom—seems to have disappeared like the buffalo that stampeded over it. Our rugged individualism—hidden under the makeup that the comforts of modern life has applied—appears to be a characteristic lost in the midst of an over-civilized, over-pampered, and overly-effeminate culture.

The Frontier for me, though, is a horizon as endless as it was for the first pioneers. It just takes a little imagination to see it. That which gave us vitality and character and humility can still be seized. It’s merely a matter of seeing opportunity and adventure in everything; of marching with little on our backs but much in our minds into perilous mountains, raging rivers and the blazing glory of a sun that’s yet to set: west—toward the direction of our dreams.

Monday, December 7, 2009

No he din't!

I got printed in Salon today.

What this means:

1. My identity is revealed.
2. Duke knows about the van.
3. I... am... fucked.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Guess my college, win a prize

My secret is out. Well, it will be out soon.

I'm revealing the name of my college in an essay I've sent to which will publish sometime early next week. (And I'm trying to avoid thinking about the consequences of this.)

I figured I'd give my readership a chance to guess the name first. Attentive readers would know that I've accidentally revealed it on 3-4 occasions and that there are plenty of clues to at least make an educated guess.

Here are the rules.

1. You can't guess if you know me personally.
2. You can only guess once.
3. Put your guess in the comment section of this entry by Monday 8am ET.

Winner gets an 8x10 photo, an artifact from the van, or my secret Spartan Student cookbook. Haven't decided yet.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Unidentifiable smell: identified. Or is it?

I’ve had the van for nearly a year. Last week, I gave it my first deep-cleaning.

I have several justifiable reasons for putting off the task for so long. Firstly, I’m lazy. Secondly, I never had access to a vacuum or the luxury of publicly removing all my items—necessary, of course, for any thorough cleaning. And lastly, I was worried about what I might find.

I visited my friend Chris at his home in Charlotte, N.C., where I decided to give the van a good scrub down.

In the back corner above the driver-side tire beneath a stack of old homework assignments I found a pile of…… something. What that “something” was…. Well… Let’s just say it’s still a mystery.

The van has a number of smells, almost all of which are unidentifiable. As mentioned before, this was never a real issue considering my anosmia—a fancy word for my laughably pitiful sense of smell.

Regardless of whether the odors bothered me or not, I thought it would still be nice to know the cause behind the olfactory overload potent enough to send men with more sensitive nasal cavities swooning the same way flashy Japanese anime causes seizures in the optically-vulnerable.

Never did I think I’d actually discover one of the sources.

And there it was. A pile of round pellets—miniature moose poop; each pebble coated with fuzzy lime-green mold. My first thought was: What small mammal took a dump in my van? My second thought: Is it still here?

After scouring the van for other mini mountain ranges (and finding none), I decided that I was still the only vandweller on campus.

It wasn’t more than a handful, but it was enough to make me look away in disgust in order to give me time to reason with my gag reflex. Soon, I imagined that the little shells would start vibrating before little abominable Mesozoic creatures began poking their heads through. Perhaps I’ve found in the squalidity of vandwelling—in the unique blending of dirty laundry, unwashed pans, and a bachelor in such tight quarters—just the right ingredients to originate life like the microbial soup that our single-celled ancestors slithered out of.

After a not-so-thorough inspection, I decided they were M&Ms. To be honest, I can’t remember the last time I had M&Ms. Nor do I remember having M&Ms in the van. In fact, I don’t even really like M&Ms. But—given the list of alternative explanations, to which I refuse to give a second thought for the sake of sanity—they were M&Ms. Case closed.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Best Travel/ Adventure/ Nature Books of All Time

[While it might seem like I’ve crammed three genres into this list, I believe that each transcends the others, (or at least they’re too similar to break apart).]

Like any experience—and I use the word “experience” broadly—the books we read shape our characters no less than our parents, community, and culture. Some books settle like dust into the corners of our subconscious: memories, sometimes, as inconsequential and soon-to-be-forgotten as the blur of faces seen on a city street. Other books haunt us forever, staying with us like the eyes of our first lover. The books that stay with us are no longer just books; they, having saturated our identities with ideas and images and insights, are now as much our own as they were the author’s. They've become a part of us.

There are many influences behind my decision to live adventurously. I’m not sure to what extent, but the unhealthy amount of travel books I’ve read probably has something to do with it.

I’ve read a lot of travel books. A couple years ago, I went on a travel book reading binge that was borderline pathological. It was my goal to find the greatest travel book of all time. Once I realized I couldn’t read them all, I thought I could assemble several trustworthy “best of” lists compiled by popular travel magazines (National Geographic Adventure, Outside, Condé Nast, etc.) and create an equation to figure out what book was best based on those. The Snow Leopard topped it off. While I wasn’t blown away by that one, the list that I created led to many fine literary discoveries.

There are thousands of travel books and no one—especially someone of a mere 26 years—can taste them all. But, of those that I’ve read, here are my favorite ten.

One last word of warning: Be careful what books you read. They may change who you are.

10. A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins (1979)

A guilty pleasure, for sure. This book, by far, is the least “literary” on my list, but it was my first travel book. And it inspired me not just to read more, but to dream big. Also, Jenkins, the author, who walked the breadth of our country, graduated from my freshman year Alma mater, Alfred University.

“For the hundredth time I am going to answer someone’s questions about why I’m walking across America. It wasn’t that I minded talking about it or answering questions, it was just that I really didn’t know why myself.”

9. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard (1974)

I remember a passage where she looks at some tiny microbes that make her ponder the infinitesimal, never-noticed kingdoms beneath us and the larger ones in the celestial heavens above us. Like the microbes that broadened her perspective, Dillard’s book did the same for me.

“The gaps are the thing. The gaps are the spirit’s one home, the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean that the spirit can discover itself for the first time like a once-blind man unbound. The gaps are the clefts in the rock where you cower to see the back parts of God; they are the fissures between mountains and cells the wind lances through, the icy narrowing fjords splitting the cliffs of mystery. Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock -- more than a maple -- a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can't take it with you.”

8. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin (1979)

I wasn’t sure whether to choose this or Chatwin’s The Songlines. Both are exceptional, but In Patagonia is far weirder and creepier—adjectives not normally used to describe travel books. It starts with a description of the skin of a giant sloth—an animal that was thought to have been extinct for centuries. It doesn’t get any more normal after that.

“I climbed a path and from the top looked up-stream towards Chile. I could see the river, glinting and sliding through the bone-white cliffs with strips of emerald cultivation either side. Away from the cliffs was the desert. There was no sound but the wind, whirring through thorns and whistling through dead grass, and no other sign of life but a hawk, and a black beetle easing over white stones.”

7. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby (1958)

Newby, a professional dressmaker, set off to climb a 20,000 foot peak in Afghanistan. Less notable is the attempted feat than is his relentlessly entertaining writing style. Perhaps the father of all modern-day comic travel writers?

“It was a nightmare room [in Istanbul], the room of a drug fiend or a miscreant or perhaps both... The bed was a fearful thing, almost perfectly concave. Underneath it was a pair of cloth-topped boots. The sheets were almost clean but on them was the unmistakable impress of a human form and they were still warm. In the corner there was a wash basin with one long red hair in it and a tap which leaked.”

6. Arctic Dreams
by Barry Lopez (1986)

Lopez is one of those writers that make you feel like you know nothing. I can’t even begin to describe what his book’s about. Let’s just say it’s about the arctic. And a lot more.

“How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one's culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.”

5. The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost (2004)

Troost is the funniest writer out there. He makes world-renowned comic travel writer Bill Bryson sound as dry as an evangelical preacher on the verge of the retirement home. (And I like Bryson.) This book was the first one I’ve ever laughed out loud to and I did so almost every other page.

“‘A story is like a car trip,’ tutored my editor. ‘You, the writer, are the car that takes readers from point A to B to C without leaving the road.’ As careful readers may have already surmised, I favor the ditches of digression.”

4. Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey (1968)

Like a fundamentalist reading the Bible, I took in almost every word as dogma. Abbey has lots of opinions about our precious wild and he’s not afraid to share them. PS: Why has The Monkey Wrench Gang—his other major work—yet to be adapted into a film?

“No, wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.”

3. West with the Night by Beryl Markham (1942)

Oh, Beryl. How I would’ve loved to have been your lover in your later years, bringing you toast with jam and tea while you plugged away at your writings with a scattering of papers and an inkwell on your desk. However, Marham—an aviator, horsewoman, all-around badass, not-to-mention one of the finest writers of her age—probably would have been too free-spirited for me to tie down.

“You can live a lifetime and, at the end of it, know more about other people than you know about yourself. You learn to watch other people, but you never watch yourself because you strive against loneliness. If you read a book, or shuffle a deck of cards, or care for a dog, you are avoiding yourself. The abhorrence of loneliness is as natural as wanting to live at all. If it were otherwise, men would never have bothered to make an alphabet, nor to have fashioned words out of what were only animal sounds, nor to have crossed continents—each man to see what the other looked like.”

2. Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint Exupery (1939)

Some of the most eloquent writing I’ve ever read. A French aviator and WWII surveillance pilot, Exupery flew over the Andes, the Sahara, and in storms that would have sent lesser men to careers in cubicles. He, rather, chose to live and die in his beloved planes. If there’s any book that can do it, this will be the one to awake the “sleeping prince” inside you.

“But you, by the grace of an ordeal in the night which stripped you of all that was not intrinsic, you discovered a mysterious creature born of yourself. Great was this creature, and never shall you forget him. And he is yourself. You have had the sudden sense of fulfilling yourself in the instant of discovery, and you have learned suddenly that the future is now less necessary for the accumulation of treasures. That creature within you who opened his wings is not bound by ties to perishable things; he agrees to die for all men, to be swallowed up in something universal. A great wind swept through you and delivered from the matrix the sleeping prince you sheltered--Man within you. You are the equal of the musician composing his music, of the physicist extending the frontier of knowledge, of all those who build the highways over which we march to deliverance. Now you are free to gamble with death. What have you now to lose?”

1. Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl (1950)

It’s every boy’s dream to find five gentlemanly comrades and shove off on a nonsensical voyage fraught with peril, hardship, and a slim chance of glory. Well, it’s mine at least. Heyerdahl did the undoable: he took a rickety wooden raft across the Pacific and lived to tell his story.

“The world was simple—stars in the darkness. Whether it was 1947 B.C or A.D suddenly became of no significance. We lived, and that we felt with alert intensity. We realized that life had been full for men before the technical age also—in fact, fuller and richer in many ways than the life of modern man. Time and evolution somehow ceased to exist; all that was real and that mattered were the same today as they had always been and would always be. We were swallowed up in the absolute common measure of history—endless broken darkness under a swarm of stars.”

Honorable Mentions

I’d probably have Walden in the Top-10 but I think I’ve given it enough advertisement. Here are some other favorites:

Old Glory by Jonathan Raban (1981)
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold (1949)
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (1996)

Please feel free to share your favorite travel/ adventure/ nature books in the comments section.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Sounds of Vandwelling

My latest idea is to compile a set of tracks and market them to the relaxation music industry. I'll call the CD "Sounds of Vandwelling."

Here are some clips from my impending compilation:

1. Autumn showers
2. Serenading crickets
3. Birdsong medley
4. Econoline hymns
5. Monsoon minstrel

Turn your volume up all the way and let yourself become entranced with the soothing sounds of vandwelling!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Held captive in the van

I was held captive in the van yesterday afternoon.

It was a nice day so I was in no hurry to walk to campus. I spent the afternoon—all alone in my parking lot—reading, eating, and napping.

At about the time I was ready to walk to the library, a family of three parked two spots over and had a picnic next to my van. FOR FOUR HOURS. All my windows were open so I could hear everything outside, which meant that they could potentially hear everything inside. For hours, I had to stifle all biological emissions—coughs, sneezes, farts, in all—while remaining fixed in the same sprawled-“I’m about to get disemboweled”- position on my bed for fear of making it creak.

After an hour, I thought about sneaking under my curtain into the front seat where I could start the engine and escape unnoticed like someone furtively inching to freedom beneath a cardboard box.

Alas, I determined that it be more prudent just to wait the family out.

Luckily, they were good company. Though I didn’t get a look at them, I figured they were in their early thirties. The child babbled incomprehensibly and giggled like a fool when the father dropped the toy truck on the ground. He must have been less than a year old. During an impromptu game of tag, the starboard side of my van became the “safe zone.”

They seemed like a throwback to an era when families were perceived to be happy and nuclear. I pictured the father in a white tee shirt, sporting a fedora next to his wife whose hay-colored hair matched her yellow sundress. Their child, of course, was dressed in a sailor outfit.

After a while I grew familiar enough with them to the point where I fantasized about walking out of the van (after donning a pair of pants, of course) as if I was a close, avuncular neighbor. I’d shake hands with the man, asking him if he saw the “game” last night before complimenting his wife’s Dahlias this year and lofting a mini football into the stomach of their progeny.

They devoted a considerable portion of their picnic to teaching their son how to talk. The father, as if lost in spiritual rapture, repeated the word “grape” with a persistence of a Buddhist seeking enlightenment through incantation.




“Sweetie, say ‘grape,’” added the mom.

“Grape,” continued the father.

“Sweetie, no crying.”

Much to our displeasure, the little guy never got around to saying it.

Eventually they took off at dusk. Upset to lose the company, yet relieved to have them gone, I quickly scampered out of the van, weaving around trees and fire hydrants like a kick returner evading tacklers en route to the nearest public urinal.

Monday, November 9, 2009

My First Peeping Tom

I was sitting cross-legged on my van floor reading a book in a pair of sky blue boxer briefs that had rolled up to my upper thighs.

I had just finished cooking a pot of spaghetti stew that was cooling atop my storage container.

That’s when I saw his silhouette trying to peer through my tinted windows and shades. He looked like an alien. I could see spaces between his gangly fingers before he cupped them together and pressed them against the glass. His head was long and oval. He moved from window to window, peering in each one.

Did he wish to be—like some dragon-slaying knight—the first to confront the infamous vandweller in his lair? Or did he just appreciate a good set of tinted windows?

Whether he spotted me or not, things, for my peeper, must have looked awfully strange. My laundry area by the front passenger seat was open to view, my windshield (on this balmy afternoon) had fogged up from the steam of my meal, and I don’t doubt that odors of broccoli and onion were leaking out of the windows I left ajar in great profusion.

Or maybe his interest was piqued by my thighs that—not having seen sunshine in years—might have had a phosphorescent glow that lit up the van like a candle in a jack-o-lantern.

If he could have seen me—sitting as still as a stone—he probably would have thought I was a Buddhist monk deep in meditation. But I was far from a state of Zen. My heart raced and sweat beaded on my forehead.

I felt vulnerable. For fear of being heard, I couldn’t move or cover myself up. I realized I left my doors unlocked. What would I do if he opened them? Should I slam my cooking knife into him or invite him in for a bowl of stew?

In all my days in the van—in a town renowned for bums and high crime rates—not once has anyone tried to break in.

I really would be a car-burglar’s worst nightmare. I doubt—upon breaking into a van—that the typical burglar has ever had a half-naked male with a chest as white as death thrash out from under covers with the fury of a mongoose defending his hole.

But this was no burglar. I'd be curious, too, if I saw what he saw.

I’m not sure whether he spotted me or not. Between my tinted windows, shades, and the black cloth I hang behind my two front seats, I have adequate privacy. But, if someone really wanted to see inside, they probably could.

As you can see, the shades leave a slight gap, and my sheet doesn’t entirely span from wall to wall. I’m usually in the van only at night, so this has never bothered me.

He walked away and got in his car. I lifted up my shade ever so slightly and while I didn’t catch a glimpse of him, I was relieved to see that he wasn’t campus security.

I had no say in the parking lot that was assigned to me. I worried that they might place me somewhere in the middle of campus where lots of people would be coming and going, which would make my secret a lot harder to keep. Instead, they put me on the outermost fringe of campus, where no person—as far as I know—has ever seen me enter or leave the van.

My parking lot is almost always empty but if someone is around I simply keep walking past the van or I’ll read under a nearby tree. In the mornings, when I get out and walk to class, I look out all the windows to make sure no one’s out there.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


I thought about writing "Kids, I have candy" on the side of my van, but I figured that would get me in a lot more trouble than just illegally sleeping in campus parking lots.

Instead of handing out candy, I went to two Halloween parties this past weekend.

The first was at my travel writing professor’s house with a guest list dominated largely by people older than me. Predictably, I dressed as Henry David Thoreau.

No need to point out the pitiful state of my neckbeard—I only had a week to grow it out.

I presumed that I had the best “literary costume” award locked up but I got shown up by someone dressed as Edgar Allen Poe. I carried a leatherbound notebook and had my mom ship up my clothes from when I wore only 1700’s period outfits for a summer. I was probably 100 years behind the fashion of Thoreau’s day, but I didn’t think anyone would know any better.

Ordinarily, I avoid parties altogether. Because I have the dance moves of a cinderblock and the social awkwardness of someone who’s spent his childhood locked in a damp basement, interacting with large groups of people can sometimes be daunting.

This time, though, I made a point to be gregarious. And opening up about the van has helped foster engaging discussions, considerably. More than I ever would have thought, people love hearing about the van, bear encounters, and tales of hitchhikes. I think that’s largely because discussions in academia can oftentimes become esoteric to the point of incomprehension. I’ve found that there’s nothing better than a story of a face-to-face grizzly encounter or throwing up in a van to bring the conversation back down to earth.

I went to another party with the graduate chemistry department. (I joined their intramural dodgeball team this past semester because my department didn’t have one.) I gave four of them a tour of my van before we went to a bar.


I don’t know the people in this picture too well. The guy on the right, Mr. T, was particularly enamored with my van, given his evident fondness for The A-Team. In a couple hours, alcohol would reduce his IQ to that of a babbling lobotomy patient. The guy toward the left complained about paying $1,900 a month for living expenses. He said he has no idea where his money goes, despite having spent nearly $100 on his costume and $20 on a belt buckle alone.

To go on an aside:

Let me just say that I’m happy I’m not in a chemistry PhD program, a physics, or even in a PhD program studying a subject I’d actually enjoy studying. My mere 2.5 year master’s program seems like a long commitment, yet these people have to go to school for five straight years, summers included, with noses stuffed in books for practically every waking hour. Almost all dreams and desires must be postponed. And they’re miserable. Well, maybe not miserable, but they’re certainly not happy.

I too believe in striving for something bigger than yourself that doesn’t result in immediate gratification, (such as stretching the bounds of knowledge in a doctoral program), but their uncertainty and ambivalence about what they were doing was palpable. And it was saddening. It was as if they were living inside one of their chemistry formulas: that five years of struggle and sacrifice will somehow make happiness the same way two H’s and an O make water.

They look upon life without skepticism and creativity, enrolling in grad school because it seemed like the right thing to do or because it was the best option at the time. Many of our (often long-term) decisions are made with these same thoughts in mind. I did the same thing. Years ago, I applied for ten PhD history programs, not because that’s what I thought I was meant to do, but because it was my best idea at the time. Thank god I was embarrassingly underqualified and got rejected from every single one. My life, before I reentered college last semester, wouldn’t have nearly been as fun, interesting, and educational as it has been in a far larger classroom: the world at large.

Wasn’t this entry supposed to be about Halloween?

Anyway, they loved the van. The girl in the middle called me her “hero” and I caught the one on the left looking at me with googly eyes, which I doubt had anything to do with the neckbeard. The van, to them, wasn’t just a van; it was the embodiment of all their wildest dreams that they’ve “put on hold.” It was a momentary glimpse at the freedom they surrendered long ago. It was, I hope, a reminder that a dream on hold will always be just a dream.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Chris McCandless from Another Alaska Park Ranger's Perspective

[Years after this was entry was published, I adapted and developed it into a tiny book, The McCandless Mecca, which is available on Amazon for $3.]

Several years ago, Pete Christian—a park ranger and my former boss at the Gates of the Arctic National Park—wrote the popular essay, “Chris McCandless from an Alaska Park Ranger’s Perspective,” about the wandering youth whose death in the Alaskan wild was chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s book, Into the Wild, and Sean Penn's film adaptation of the same name.

Pete enjoyed the book, but had little respect for McCandless, calling him suicidal, mentally ill, and his journey, “stupid, tragic, and inconsiderate.”

Because Pete's position as an Alaskan park ranger required him to routinely deal with headlong McCandless types, and because he, too, as a young man, wanted to "live a free life in the Alaska wild," he's been regarded as a credible authority on, what he calls, the "McCandless Phenomenon"—when "[p]eople, nearly always young men, come to Alaska to challenge themselves against an unforgiving wilderness landscape where convenience of access and possibility of rescue are practically nonexistent.”

Whether Pete wanted it to be or not, his denunciation has become the quintessential anti-McCandless essay. It's been cited hundreds of times by those who are offended with McCandless' motivations and who consider McCandless' apologists to be wrongheaded hero-worshippers. In an interview in which Pete’s views are mentioned, Sean Penn had this to say:

No, I don’t object to a person who wears a brown shirt and a patch on their shoulder and follows instructions all day either. I'm not all that interested in what the park rangers have to say. I accept that there's an automatic instinct to judge those you envy and who have more courage than you do, and I think that while he (the ranger) rides around in his four-wheeler on a CB radio getting fat, Chris McCandless has spent 113 days fucking alone in the most unforgiving wilderness that God ever created.


Penn’s a bit harsh. Because I know Pete, I can attest that Pete is neither fat nor does he ride around on a four-wheeler with a CB all day. Pete was a backcountry ranger for years, going on the sort of patrols I've been embarking on for the past two summers. Now, he’s a ranger-pilot.

Before I go any further, I should say that Pete is a really good guy. He and his family were my only neighbors at the ranger station in Coldfoot, and—if it wasn’t for him—I never would have gotten such an amazing job that allowed me to explore the Gates or pay off my student debt.

But with that said, I think Pete is very, very wrong.

It should come as no surprise that I am a fan of the book and movie. I think it’s even fair to say that McCandless and I are, in some sense, kindred spirits. So naturally I can’t help but take Pete’s views personally because, when he calls McCandless stupid, insane, and suicidal, he's inadvertently calling me these things, too.

But it’s not just Pete’s views. It’s all the people—and there are a lot of them—who agree with Pete. And whenever I speak to one of them, I think to myself, "they just don’t get it.”

Because I am in the unique position as both an Alaskan park ranger and a person who is, in many ways, like Chris McCandless, I feel I can speak with some authority on the subject.

Pete diagnoses McCandless as a suicidal lunatic

When asserting that McCandless was suicidal and “suffering from mental illness,” Pete seems to have disregarded some essential facts.

McCandless, of course, did not commit suicide. He starved to death, accidentally poisoned himself, or a combination of the two. It’s obvious, though, that Pete is not suggesting that McCandless literally killed himself. Rather, Pete implies that McCandless’ decision to come to Alaska “unprepared” and “unskilled” was a suicidal act in itself.

I am not arguing that McCandless was prepared and skilled. McCandless's inability to preserve the moose meat or properly scout the river makes it very clear that he was unprepared. But unpreparedness does not make someone suicidal. The fact that McCandless tried to cross the Teklanika River and leave the wild in July after three months in the bush should dispel any such notion that he wanted to die in the bus.

Moreover, Pete seems to wrongly associate reckless behavior with suicidal behavior. And this is, I believe, the central defect of his argument. McCandless was, without question, reckless. But shall we presume that all reckless people are suicidal? McCandless, like his adventuring forbears, beheld characteristics unique to explorers, not suicides. Was Heyerdahl suicidal for wanting to cross the Pacific in a wooden raft? Were Hilary and Norgay suicidal for climbing Everest when every capillary and muscle pleaded that they descend? Was Robert Falcon Scott, who died en route to the South Pole, and the millions of adventurers before and after him—who died in pursuit of a dream—just crazy and suicidal?

“Alaska wild”

Pete begins his essay by juxtaposing his Alaskan experiences with McCandless’, insisting that they both wished to “live a free life in the Alaska wild,” but differed because “I wanted to live and Chris McCandless wanted to die.”

It's true that they both wished to live in Alaska, but this is where the similarities end. McCandless and Pete wanted very different things. McCandless wanted a brief, raw, primeval experience in the Alaska wild. He wanted a challenge that would push his limits. I can’t say exactly what Pete wanted, but by no means, did he—at least in comparison to McCandless—“live a free life in the Alaska wild.”

What does it mean to “live a free life in the Alaska wild”? A “free life” can mean a lot of things. Most people—with Alaska in mind—think of a free life as one spent in a remote cabin off the grid, where a man can hunt, fish, and grow his own food—a place where there’s no clock to punch, no forms to fill out, and no one to answer to.

Let me explain a few things about a park ranger’s life in the “Alaska wild.” We live in small Alaskan villages where we’re required to wear a uniform and work 40 hours a week. We live in newly-built, low-cost government housing that includes washers, dryers, fully-functional kitchens, heat, solar panels, and even flat-screened televisions. Backcountry rangers go on eight-day wilderness patrols, but our routes are determined largely by supervisors. We have to call the ranger station every morning on a satellite phone to tell them where we are and where we’re headed. We’re even forced to shave in the field. Before the season begins, we have 3-4 weeks of training. Permanent employees get pensions, health insurance plans, and early retirements.

One doesn't need to go all the way up to Alaska to live this sort of "free life." You can live this sort of life anywhere in the lower-48.

As for wilderness excursions in the Alaskan wild, I've learned that most anyone can survive in the wild. You can experience the Alaskan wild on a sightseeing flight. You can hire a professional guide. You can bring maps, a GPS, locator devices, and every precautionary device imaginable. You can even become an Alaskan park ranger to get a watered-down version of “a free life in the Alaska wild.” While these people may very well be in the “Alaskan wild,” their experiences are anything but “wild.”

Critics call McCandless stupid for not bringing a map, extra food, and proper gear, as if he—bewilderingly—didn’t have the foresight to think that he’d need these things. Depriving himself of these conveniences was deliberate. McCandless knew that to travel with excessive technology is—sometimes—to not travel at all. Wilderness sage, Aldo Leopold, says:

The American sportsman is puzzled... Bigger and better gadgets are good for industry, so why not for outdoor recreation? It has not dawned on him that outdoor recreations are essentially primitive, atavistic...; that excessive mechanization destroys contrasts by moving the factory to the woods or to the marsh.

McCandless hoped to peel off the soft layers of civilization, and harden himself in more austere and taxing conditions. He wanted to see the world through the eyes of the first Alaskan explorer who didn’t carry a map, GPS, or satellite phone. He didn't want have to squeeze his adventure into two weeks of paid vacation. He didn’t want to have to come back to jobs and bosses and taxes. McCandless wanted a test, a challenge, and—most of all—to immerse himself in nature, that one last refuge of the real in a paved-over, smoggy-skyed century.

The "McCandless Phenomenon"

Pete says the “McCandless Phenomenon” occurs when “[p]eople, nearly always young men, come to Alaska to challenge themselves against an unforgiving wilderness landscape where convenience of access and possibility of rescue are practically nonexistent.”

When Pete first heard about me (years before I got the job as a ranger), he was probably reminded of the "McCandless Phenomenon." That's because I was one of these young men.

In the Summer of '05, I drove up to a truck stop (near Pete's ranger station) in Coldfoot, Alaska with my friend Paul to clean motel rooms. A week after I arrived, we hiked into the Gates of the Arctic National Park to climb Blue Cloud—a 6,000-foot mountain, ten miles from the road, surrounded by nothing but untrammeled, howling wilderness.

Paul joined me for the first few miles, but turned back when his feet began to blister, leaving me in treeless rolling green hills with a cluster of stone-gray mountaintops in the distance. I was alone in the Alaskan wild. And this was the first real hike of my life. Hours later, I'd remember that Paul had left with the compass, matches, and water-filter in his backpack.

I hauled a giant sleeping bag, a three-person tent, and a cumbersome camcorder mile after miserable mile. I’d scream at large rocks, thinking they were grizzlies. On the mountain, a band of Dall Sheep walked in front of my passageway. I threw rocks and yelled at them, worried where they’d put those horns if I came any closer. They stared back at me, bewildered, as I traversed to the other side of the mountain.

After miles of swamps, tussocks, scree slopes, rain, and forest fire haze, I made it to the top. I ate the snow atop Blue Cloud and rationed my sandwiches and granola bars as best I could.

The descent was so steep I had to keep my butt and back against the mountain as I carefully lowered each foot into piles of scree that jingled down the mountain like silver dollars. I ripped a hole in the seat of my pants and the bottom of my backpack split open. I lost the map that was in my back pocket.

Once I got off the mountain, I collapsed and slept for half an hour on a pile of rocks. Upon waking up, I wasn't sure where I was. Looking across the country, I came close to tears, thinking that this might be it for me. I was only ten miles from the road, but I had no idea where the road was.

Paul felt guilty for leaving me, so he got down on his knees and—for the first time in years—prayed. He had driven back to the spot we started from eight hours after we parted ways. I wasn’t there, so he came back eight hours later, and another eight hours after that. I had been walking for over 28 hours straight.

Ranger Pete heard about me when fellow coworkers began conjecturing what carnivorous animal I was inside of. He interviewed Paul to find out what gear I had, whether I had any suicidal tendencies, and what route I may have taken. Pete planned to search for me in his plane, but forest fires prevented him from taking off.

After figuring out where I was, I finally made it back to the road, haggard, tired, and dragging feet that would be covered with blisters for the next few days.

I came back from that mountain slightly different. I didn’t know it then, but that climb would help me define who I was. It would become a precedent—a reminder that I can do anything I set my heart to. Because of that climb, I could go on two cross-country hitchhikes. I could embark on a two-month long canoe voyage. I could live in a van to afford grad school. I could resist melting into mediocrity. And while I could have wound up dead and missing on that mountain, that was no one’s business but my own.

Supposedly, having such experiences is irresponsible. Supposedly, people like McCandless and I are suicidal for taking a risk or pursuing emotional experiences—as old as mankind—that our suburban upbringings could not give us. Supposedly, it’s insane to go into the wild without the latest, greatest technology and every possible electronical gadget imaginable.

I have a different definition of the “McCandless Phenomenon.” I can’t speak directly of Pete, but I can speak of many Alaskans. Many Alaskans—as Pete points out—come to Alaska to reinvent themselves in a rugged landscape, yet few make it past Fairbanks and Anchorage. Despite compromised goals and sorry attempts to live the lives they imagined, these Alaskans—with an electric car starter in one hand and bag of Taco Bell takeout in the other—still proudly proclaim they’re “Alaskan,” lavishing themselves with connotations they don’t deserve—connotations like self-reliance, independence, and a fierce relationship with nature. Even the fattest and laziest among them think they’re expert outdoorsmen.

These people are your standard McCandless-haters. They call him a moron or a stupid kid or a suicide, and they may not realize it, but they hate McCandless—not because he was a foolhardy youth, but because he, unlike them, followed through with his dreams. He didn’t end his journey like they did. He lived alone, killed his moose, and almost made it out alive. The “McCandless Phenomenon” is envy.

Final Thoughts

Pete’s argument is not without value. It’s no mystery why it’s so popular. It’s well-written, most of it is well-reasoned, and Pete makes many legitimate points. For one, McCandless illegally killed a moose and was unable to preserve the meat. While McCandless may have imagined himself in a different century when there were no restrictions on taking the lives of abounding wildlife, clearly, if everyone disregarded hunting regulations—even for high-minded reasons—we’d have no moose, grizzlies, caribou, or wolves.

Plus, as Pete points out, McCandless lived in a bus, which hardly conjures the image of a wild experience in Alaska. This is a valid point, and one I reluctantly forgive McCandless for because the surrounding terrain, the raging Teklanika, and his struggle to survive makes up for the fact that he settled for a shelter that wasn’t in accord with his original idea of life in the wild.

One could also point to the incredible pain McCandless put his family through by cutting off ties with them so he could pursue his dream.

We can use many words to describe McCandless, but “stupid,” “insane” or “suicidal” shouldn’t be among them. To ridicule McCandless for pursuing his dream—however illogical you may think his was—is to ridicule all dreams. It’s to ridicule the ancient voyages, expeditions across continents, the quest for civil rights, a colony’s fight for independence, and dreams of leaping across distant planets.

There are a thousand excuses not to pursue our dreams. We may have jobs, families, bills and obligations. We have fears and insecurities. We might think: What if it doesn't turn out the way I expected? What if I find out I can’t do it? What if I die?

McCandless, I’m sure, asked these same questions. And that which distinguishes him from those who hate him is the fact that he had the courage to live a full life before a long one.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that it’s never too late to pursue our dreams. Tomorrow, the twenty-something barista who always wanted to own her own café is going to turn 40. Tomorrow, the runner who wished he’d run a marathon will become paralyzed in a car accident. Tomorrow, you’ll die. Let us not live in fear of death, but in fear of not having ever lived.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

An evening meal with the spartan student

Now that autumn has finally arrived in North Carolina it's become cool enough for me to begin cooking meals in my van again.

I don’t know precisely why, but I’m always struck by the deliciousness of my dinners, which is all the more confounding when you consider how terrible a cook I am and how simple my concoctions are.

Last semester I’d sate my enormous appetite on a mere $4.34 a day. I suspect that my food costs have risen slightly because I’ve been shopping at Whole Foods, but I’m sure I’m still well below the national average.

Here I am cooking with my MSR extra-light backpacking stove with silverware and pots that I bought from the Salvation Army.

Wary of soiling clothes with an errant splattering, I go shirtless (and oftentimes pantless, but before posing for this photo I decided not to shock readers with my blindingly pale thighs).

My concoction consisted of spaghetti, mushrooms, tomato, half an onion, one-third of a head of cabbage, a few slices of rye bread, a dollop of peanut butter and some mozzarella cheese mixed in for good measure. This was one of my more elaborate creations, though I should note that I tossed in the aforementioned items with little forethought. Any combination of boiled veggies with a little salt can go a long way.

And Voila!

In lieu of a dinner table I sit on my bed. In lieu of china I use the pot. In lieu of washing my dishes, I don’t. In lieu of decorum I eat messily and noisily and enjoyably.

For a moment—after wiping my hands on my chest and letting my runny nose (caused by the steam of my stew) drip into the meal I was eating—I thought I was in a bachelor’s paradise. Then I looked around and noted the dearth of women, alcohol, the absence of an Xbox and all that’s stereotypically male, thus deciding that this was a paradise only fitting for hermits, ascetics, and long-bearded fanatics who are looking for a place to base their mail-bombing operations out of.

I’m not sure how much the meal cost me, but it couldn’t have been more than $5. And it, to me, tasted better than anything I could spend an hour’s wage on at the finest restaurant.

Thoreau spent 27 cents a day on food and he too found something oddly satisfying about his spartan meals. Maybe it’s because we feel like we’re getting away with something. Maybe it’s because a spartan meal, generally, is a healthy meal. Or maybe it’s just a matter of perspective. Thoreau says,

In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one's self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely. It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do.

I do quite well without meat, dairy and other “staples” listed on food pyramids. And I can think of few professionally crafted meals have ever satisfied me as much as the meals I hastily throw together.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Observations from the Appalachian Trail

Two things I love more than I used to:

1. My van
2. The Appalachian Trail.

My van performed like a champ. I drove it 3.5 hours from campus in North Carolina, along roaring interstates and over rolling country hills, to southern Virginia. And there wasn’t a sputter to speak of.

I’ve wanted to name the van for some time now but I thought it ought to assert its identity to me rather than me, perhaps, applying a false appellation to it. I think “Fordy” has a nice ring to it. Gender-ambiguous, I know. But why can’t I have a van that’s potentially hermaphroditical?

For my four-day Fall Break, I hiked 60 miles from Mount Rogers to Damascus, Virginia and back up to Mount Rogers.
The AT is one of mankind’s finest creations. When has man created a 2,000 mile trail purely to simulate the exploratory experience? Never, as far as I know.

I have few possessions, but I do have a full set of backpacking gear for occasions such as these. Let me take this opportunity to introduce you to one of the loves of my life: my girl, Eureka.

Faithful, dependable, low-maintenance, and weighing in at a slim 3 lbs, she’s provided me shelter on two cross-country hitchhikes, I lived in her for a full month in Mississippi, and she’s kept me warm during many a cold, arctic night.

Some random observations from the trail:

-There’s nothing more liberating than blowing a dollop of snot into your palm, wiping it on your pants, and not worrying or caring one bit about someone seeing you.

-Few things are as tasty for the ears as the crunch of dried leaves underfoot.

-Golden leaves occasionally spiral across the trail, twirling to the ground like helicopters gone awry.

-Caterpillars with white whiskers that reminded me of Japanese senseis crept across the trail like little bottles of toothpaste, squeezing their girth from one side of their bodies to the other.

-I can’t sing worth a damn. I can’t dance, draw, or speak a foreign language. I can’t milk a cow, install a window, or play an instrument. But fuck, can I walk. On Day-3 I walked over 20 miles uphill and could have gone more if it didn’t get dark. I heaved arms to and fro, grunted out each breath, and roared at whim while my shirt became so blotched with sweat it resembled a giant rorschach test.

-“When I rest my feet my mind also ceases to function.” - JG Hamann (Quoted in Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines)

-Serious hiking wakes my mind as if from a winter torpor. I stop less to catch my breath and more to write down the hundreds of thoughts hurling through my head. It’s not just the many thoughts that make hiking so invigorating, it’s the type of thoughts. The hiker begins to feel like he can do anything; that the world—not just this trail—can be conquered. I imagined myself as a transcontinental explorer, a revered author, a gallant lover. Oh the delightful strain.

-Atop Mount Rogers, about 5,000 feet, an armada of Hindenburg-sized clouds soar across the sky so fast that they look like giant wraiths frantically scanning the ground for missing ghost-children.

-One night, in the distance, some animal unleashed a loud, bubbly yodel. It was a sound I never heard before. I couldn’t even begin to guess what it was. I can best describe it as a “warbled howl”: part turkey gobble, part wolf howl. It sort of sounded like a trio of karate masters screaming “Waaaa!” in hand-to-hand combat.

- You’d think that four summers of wilderness experience in the arctic would have quelled my fear of bears. After my third day of hiking, I was cooking dinner under a roofed information sign where the trail crosses paths with a highway rest stop. There were torrential downpours and what seemed like 30 mph winds. A local passing by in his car pulled over and asked if I wanted a ride somewhere. I politely declined and he told me that there was “a big bear” just a 100 yards down the road. I disregarded his warning as I set up my tent in a nearby copse of trees. I had just walked 10 hours straight, almost entirely uphill. I zonked out immediately. An hour later, however, I woke with my nerves racing and my eyes wide. The ground crunched nearby and I suddenly realized how foolish it was to camp in such close proximity to a foraging bear. I determined to move my camp across the road where there was a fence that would protect me. When I opened my tent I turned my headlamp on and in the black of night I saw three sets of glowing eyes staring at me. It was horrifying. After a moment, though, I decided that I was looking at deer, not a trio of hungry bears. Still, I hurriedly packed my things and got the hell out of there.

-I want to posit that 20 miles of good trail is as physically taxing as 1 mile of difficult walking. I also think that I would have done much better on my 24 hour hike if I had been on a trail that inclined and declined like the AT because I would have been alternating the use of certain leg muscles.

-In the town of Damascus—which sees more than its fair share of AT hikers—I still was amused with all the gawkers in town. It feels good to be gawked at when traveling. It makes you feel important. And it makes you remember that you don’t have to wake up to go to work in the morning like the rest of them. Beforehand I picked up a tree limb and used it as a pole, imagining myself as Muir ambling across his beloved Sierra Nevada.

-A cow lowing pre-battle bellows approached me as I traversed over part of the trail that intersected with a farm. I wasn’t sure whether I should be afraid or amused. I bent over to get a look at its genitals. I felt slightly more at ease when I saw udders. Though, it also made me uncomfortable to realize how little I know about an animal I eat so much.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Eating trash for the first time

George: It wasn't down in, it was sort of on top.
Jerry: But it was in the cylinder.
George: Above the rim.
Jerry: Adjacent to refuse, is refuse.
George: It was on a magazine and it still had the doily on it.
Jerry: Was it eaten?
George: One little bite.
Jerry: Well, that's garbage.
George: I know who took the bite. It was her aunt.
Jerry: You my friend have crossed the line that divides MAN and BUM. You are now a BUM.

I guess that officially makes me a bum. But it was hardly trash...

I was 2 am and I was in my secret room where--after the library closes--I go to do homework, to listen to internet radio, and--if the mood strikes me--to dance my ass off. This room has a projector and surround sound, too. After a little tinkering I got it to work. Here I am watching Dark Days in my personal theater.

I had forgotten to bring snacks from the van so after five straight hours of schoolwork I got pretty hungry. Too lazy to walk the half-mile to my van, I began eyeing a stack of Panera meal boxes on top of the garbage bin. Oh, I could just have a little looksy, I thought.

In the top box (that was above the rim) was a half eaten sandwich, an unopened plastic container of salad with raspberry vinigrette dressing, a pancake-sized chocolate chip cookie, and a bag of organic potato chips. It couldn't have been older than a day. Besides, it was from Panera... I ate everything (except the sandwich) with a hearty gusto. A bum I may be.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Walden on Wheels

In my travel writing class, I read (and secretly recorded) an essay about my van. It seemed to go over pretty well. After the reading I got asked the standard questions: Where do the smells come from? Are you going to keep living in it after graduating? And the age-old: Where do you go to the bathroom at night? There are only twelve students in the class, so I'm not too worried about my secret spreading.

Feel free to listen, read, or listen and read. (I bleeped out my school's name for obvious reasons.)

“The Walden on Wheels:
One Student’s Attempt to Afford the Unaffordable—A College Education”

I was lying prone on my van’s floor where the middle pilot chairs used to be, trying to keep out of sight.

This is it, I thought. They know. I’m going to get kicked out of ____.

Moments before I had been cooking up a pot of spaghetti stew on top of a plastic, three-drawer storage container that I bought from Wal-Mart, which held all my food and my few meager possessions. I figured the campus security guard had parked next to me because he saw the blue flame from my propane stove through the van’s tinted windows and shades.

I held my breath as I listened to him shut off the engine and click open his door. I was in my boxer shorts. My arms and legs were splayed out like a scarecrow that’s toppled over in the wind. When I heard the clip-clop of his shoes, I couldn’t help but picture a pair of Gestapo jackboots tapping floorboards in search of some secret chamber in a 1940’s Warsaw ghetto.

I had made it so far, I thought to myself.

Up until this point, I had been living in my van at ____ for two months.

Vandwelling, for some, might conjure images of pop-culture losers who had to resort to desperate measures in troubled times. Losers like Uncle Rico from Napolean Dynamite or Chris Farley in Saturday Night Live skits who’d famously exclaim, “I live in a van down by the river!” before crashing through a coffee table. Or one might imagine an over-sized, multi-colored VW bus circa 1970 that welcomed strangers with complementary coke lines and invitations into writhing, hairy-bodied backseat orgies.

In my van there were no orgies, coke lines, or overweight motivational speakers. The van to me was what Walden Pond was to Thoreau; what Rocinante was to Don Quixote. The van was an adventure. It was my grand social experiment.

I wanted to see if I could—in an age of rampant consumerism and fiscal irresponsibility—afford the unaffordable: a college education. I pledged that I wouldn’t take out loans. Nor would I accept money from anybody, especially my mom who, appalled by my experiment, would offer to pay my apartment rent every time I called home. My heat would be a sleeping bag and my air conditioning would be an open window. I’d shower at the gym, eat the bare minimum and find a job to pay tuition. And—most importantly—I wouldn’t tell anybody.

More than just affording school, I had other reasons for living out of a van. I wanted to live adventurously. I wanted to test my limits. I wanted to find the line between what were my wants and what were my needs. I wanted, as Thoreau puts it, “to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life… to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

It wouldn’t be hard for me to remain frugal. After buying the van and making my first tuition payment I was only a few dollars away from having to rummage through dumpsters to find my next meal. I was—under most first-world definitions—poor. While I wasn’t plagued with the more serious travails of third-world poverty like malnutrition, death, and disease, I still didn’t own an iPod and I smelled sometimes.

My experiment began in the spring of this past year when I enrolled in the graduate Liberal Studies department. Before I moved to ___, I held an assortment of jobs to pay off $32,000 in undergraduate student loans—no easy feat for an English major.

After graduating, I moved to Coldfoot, Alaska—situated sixty miles north of the Arctic Circle and 250 from the nearest store—where I worked as a lodge cleaner, a tour guide, and a cook. Later, I worked on a trail crew in Mississippi in an AmeriCorps program. Between jobs I hitchhiked over 7,000 miles so I didn’t have to pay airfare. When I couldn’t find work, I moved in with friends. My clothes came from donation bins, I had friends cut my hair, and I’d pick up odd jobs when I could. Every dime I made went into my loans.

I finally got out of the red when I landed a well-paying job with the Park Service as a backcountry ranger. Finally, after two and a half years, my debt was gone. I had four grand in the bank that was mine. All mine. It was the first time I had actual money that wasn’t borrowed or given to me since I was a 13-year old paperboy.

I had learned a few things in those two and a half years. I learned the value of a dollar. I learned about the horrors of debt. I learned that the more money you borrow, the more freedom you give. I learned, as Ben Franklin said, “A ploughman on his legs is higher than a gentleman on his knees.” I also learned that I missed school. And—most dangerously—I learned that I could do anything.

Though I had never lived in a van before, I knew I had the personality for it. I had a penchant for adventure, a sixth sense for cheapness, and an unequaled tolerance for squalor.

My first order of business upon moving to ____ was to buy a van. After a two hour bus ride into central North Carolina, I caught sight of the ‘94 Ford Econoline that I had found advertised on Craigslist. When I first cast eyes upon it, I thought of Thoreau stumbling upon what would be his beloved Walden Pond for the first time. Googly-eyed, I sauntered up to it, lovingly trailing fingertips over dents and chipped paint along her burgundy hood. The classy cabernet sauvignon veneer from the top slowly, sensuously fades downward into a lustrous black complexion. I got behind the wheel and revved up the fuel-funneling beast. There was a grumble, then a cough, then a smooth and steady mechanical growl.

It was $1,500 and I bought it immediately. So began what I’d call “radical living.”

I removed the two middle pilot chairs to create a living space. I installed a coat hook, and spent $5 on a sheet of black cloth to hang behind my front and passenger seats so that—between the sheet, tinted windows, and shades—no one would be able to see me inside. I neatly folded my clothes into a suitcase and I hung up my dress shirts and pants on another hook I screwed into the wall.

I at first failed to notice the TV and VCR—that I’d never use—placed between the two front seats. Nor did I know about the 12-disc CD changer hiding under the passenger seat until weeks later. Just when I thought I had uncovered all the van’s secrets, I found a mysterious button towards the back. I hesitated, wary of what wonders might unfold if pushed, but I pushed anyway. The back seat grumbled and began to vibrate, and—much to my jubilation—it began transforming into a bed. I half-expected to see a disco ball descend from the ceiling and hear 70’s porn music blare from the dash.

Fortuitously, I was assigned a parking spot at a remote area on campus next to a cluster of apartments where campus security—I hoped—would presume I lived.

Over time, my van felt less like a novelty and more like a home. At night a crescendo of cicadas from nearby trees would whirr me to sleep, and in the morning I’d wake to a medley of birds so loud and cheery you’d think my little hermitage was tucked away in a copse of trees at Walden Pond. In rainstorms, I’d doze easily into long, healthy slumbers, listening to every raindrop drum against the roof and then flow down my windows like millions of sperm wiggling earthward.

I loved cooking in the van. As an adept backcountry camper, I could easily whip up an assortment of healthy, economical and delicious meals on my backpacking stove. For breakfast, cereal with powdered milk would become a staple as well as oatmeal with peanut butter. For dinner some of my favorites included spaghetti stew with peanut butter, vegetable stew with peanut butter, and even rice and bean tacos with peanut butter. Without proper refrigeration, I cut out meat, dairy and alcohol from my diet entirely. I became leaner, more muscular, healthier.

By buying food in bulk I got my food bill down to $4.34 cents a day. I was meticulous with my expenditures. I saved every receipt and wrote everything I bought down. Not including tuition, I lived (and lived comfortably) on $103 a week, which covered my necessities: food, a parking permit, gas, car insurance, a cell phone, and visits to the laundromat.

The typical student today is not so frugal. Money, for them, comes from some magical vat of gold coins that feeds into their Flex account. They’re detached from the source of their money. That’s because there is no source. They’re getting paid by their future selves. Having never been in debt, they see little reason not to resist materialist pleasures like iPhones, costly plane tickets home, and copious amounts of alcohol. Besides, what are a few extra coins on a mountain of debt?

It’s easy for them to imagine that they’ll make all this money back when they start getting paid the big bucks. It’s easy not to think about the tough job market or how many extra years of work their profligacy has sentenced them to.

I don’t blame my fellow students. I did the same things. What’s so tragic for them is that there is—barring the purchase of a large creepy van—no alternative to going into debt. The government lets legions of its degree-toting citizens—the very citizens who wish to better themselves and contribute to society—go into soul-crippling debt. Additionally, schools don’t make it easier with ridiculous tuition rates and baffling room and board costs.

The average undergraduate student at ___ leaves with over $23,000 in debt, which is within a couple hundred dollars of the national average. The cost of education here, like most schools across the country, is ludicrously high. At ____—without scholarship—tuition costs over $37,000 a year plus books, room and board. The cheapest available meal plan charges them 3.5 times more a day than it costs to feed me. Their dorm rooms cost 18 times more than my parking permit.

____ is no anomaly. It’s a microcosm of our educational system and our country as a whole. We’re a nation in debt; a country of debtors. Going into debt today is as American as beer at a baseball game or an overstuffed turkey at Thanksgiving. An army of loan drones we’ve become, marching from one investment to the next—be it a home, a degree, or a car—in quest of some sense of fulfillment that modern life does not impart. We’re no different than the Spanish explorers who’d dedicate their lives to find the fabled El Dorado, which was always just around the next bend in the river, yet never there at all.

I refused to play by their rules anymore. I was an eccentric. An outsider. I was an ascetic in the midst of wealth; a heretic in the midst of order. I was the antithesis of what the school and country represented. I had to hide.

Because I was so paranoid about campus security finding out about the van, I cut myself off from the student body. Whenever I did talk with a fellow classmate, I found myself souring the conversation with preposterous lies—lies I’d tell to protect myself.

I worried that if students caught wind of the van, a facebook group would be created for “People who’ve had a confirmed sighting of the campus vandweller,” as if I was the elusive Yeti of the Himalayas. Then campus security would find out, deem my lodgings illegal, and promptly kick me out of the van and into some conventional and unaffordable style of living, wherein I’d have to spend ludicrous amount of money to buy a rug—among other superfluous items—to tie the room together in my new apartment.

::Ken has coughing seizure::

In lieu of human companionship, I cloistered myself in my van and in libraries where I was alone with my thoughts and my books. Time for self-reflection, study, and solitude was what I thought I wanted all along.

But of all the things that I gave up for “radical living,” I found it fitting how the one thing that I wanted most was that which couldn’t be bought. When I’d hear a trio of laughing males drunkenly stumble past my van at night, probably hoisting one another up like injured comrades after battle, I’d think of my friends back home. When my ceiling would leak during a downpour, I’d wish to have a companion to share my laughs with. Or on winter nights, when the windows would be coated with a glaze of frost, I’d wish for a woman to share the warmth of my sleeping bag with.

Thoreau extolled the virtues of solitude in his timeless Walden. He called the “advantages of human neighborhood insignificant,” yet he neglected to mention just how often he had visitors over or how his friends and family were just two miles away in the town of Concord.

He extolled a lot of other things about simple living. And while I have plenty of good things to say about it too, living in a van wasn’t all adventure and high ideals. Washing dishes became so troublesome I stopped washing them altogether, letting specks of dried spaghetti sauce and globs of peanut butter season the next meal. There was no place to go to the bathroom at night. I’d never figure out exactly where to put my dirty laundry. Once when a swarm of ants overtook my storage containers I tossed and turned all night, worried about retinues of them spelunking into my orifices like cave-divers while I slept. New, strange, unidentifiable smells would greet me upon entering the van each evening. Sometimes upon opening the side door, a covey of odors would escape like spirits unleashed from a cursed ark.

But no adventure is without bouts of loneliness, discomfort, and the ubiquitous threat of food poisoning. I loved my van. And—after finding a well-paying part-time job—I could afford college.

So naturally I was nervous as I listened to the security guard’s weapons jingle as he ambled by my windshield.

But he just kept walking.

I was overcome with an odd sense of dissatisfaction. Deep down, I think I wanted him to discover me. I wanted a showdown. I wanted to wave my arms at the dean and cry “Impound my van? Over my dead body! I’ll take you straight to the Supreme Court!” Fellow students would rally behind me. We’d have car-dwelling protests and after winning back my right to remain voluntarily poor, people would begin to consider me the campus sage. I’d wear loose white clothing, grow out my beard, and begin to speak in aphorisms to the underclassmen who’d journey the mile on foot to my sacred parking space where I’d serve them tea and answer three questions.

These were just narcissistic fantasies, but I did feel compelled—like Thoreau did—to share my findings with other. If one such student did come by I’d tell him that we need so few things to live comfortably.

I’d tell him not to thoughtlessly acquiesce to parental and social expectations.

I’d tell him that you can live happily without a fridge, but not without friends.

I’d tell him that too often are dreams lost amidst closets of collected clutter; that freedom comes easier to those who don’t have to shoulder the burden of their belongings.

I’d tell him to take some clichés seriously. That money can’t buy happiness; that one should seize the day; and that if life is a journey, can’t everyday be an adventure?

Today I still live in the van. I haven’t taken out loans or borrowed money from anyone. Really, the only thing that’s different is that I’ve set up my laundry area by the passenger seat. Also, after another summer with the Park Service, I have more money than I possibly need. Now instead of being poor, I am radically frugal. Sometimes I think it would be nice to have an ironing board, plumbing, and a woodstove.

It would be nice… The middle class family might think it would be nice to have an in-ground swimming pool. The millionaire might think it would be nice to have a yacht. The billionaire, a private jet. Someone, somewhere might think it would be nice is to have food to feed to her family tonight. Someone, somewhere might think it would be nice to live in a van and go to a wonderful school. I could begin satisfying materialist desires and buying comforts, but it seems to make more sense to appreciate what little I have than to despair about what I don’t.

Admittedly, now that I have money I buy the fancy peanut butter from Whole Foods and I’ve even purchased an expensive pair of hiking boots. But most things are the same: I still cook spartan meals, I still don’t have an iPod, and I park in the very same parking spot. And I still have my secret. Well, that is until now.