Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Desperate times call for desperate measures

I knew when I arrived in North Carolina I had to find a job right away because of pressing financial needs. After paying for the van and tuition, I’d have next-to-nothing pretty quickly.

During my first week here I got a job as a “research assistant” for a professor; “research” meaning looking up and down a list of 5,000 businesses on a Microsoft Excel worksheet for hours on end. By the end of the day my eyes looked like a child scratched red lines on my sclera with an Etch a Sketch. I’m still working for the professor but I only get six hours of work a week.

And while the $11/hour is probably enough to cover costs of food and even monthly bills like my cell phone and car insurance, it isn’t enough to make my future tuition payments, which will amount to, in total, about $2,500 for the semester.

I saw a few ads on campus seeking "study participants." Generally, the researchers pay $10 an hour, but MRI study participants get $20. Wary of not having enough money for food, I signed up for a few of these MRI studies.

As of now, for just four hours and forty-five minutes of “work,” I’ve made $105. Plus, I have two more studies this week and a few lined up for the weeks ahead. The picture below is me giving blood for a memory study.

They gave me a test run through an inoperable MRI to see if I’d “freak out,”as they so delicately put it. Apparently, two-thirds of the people who sign up end up panicking in the MRI because of claustrophobia. I scoffed when she told me this because I am well-acquainted with tight quarters.

If you’ve slept in a one-person Bibler tent before, having an MRI is like frolicking on an empty football field. I slept in a Bibler for a few weeks while I was backpacking up in AK. Doing something as ordinary as turning onto your stomach has to be done with precision and skill--like a thief artfully dodging moving laser sensors. One false move, and you and your green sarcophagus go end over end.
I was in the MRI for an hour and a half. While laying on your ass for an hour and a half may not sound like “work,” it becomes quite challenging when you have to sit perfectly still. At one point my ass was falling asleep so I yelled, above the drone of the machine, “Is it alright if I shift my legs around a bit!?” One of the researchers answered, most disconcertingly, “No. Not unless you must.”

Beforehand, they hooked my wrist up to some electrodes and told me to tell him when the shock felt “highly annoying.” He zapped me a few times on their “low” setting and I shot them back an alarmed look, wondering what their “high” was going to feel like.

Once I got plugged into the machine, they showed me a series of rather disturbing pictures and monitored my brain’s response. The pictures were a series of expressions of a male’s face, ranging from calm to scared to what your face would look like if a hundred ravenous 10-year-olds were chasing you.

They shocked me at strategic points so that I would, in turn, fear a certain picture. Needless to say, the experiment worked.

In between “ picture sessions” they played a video of a train—chugging along at a snail’s pace—on the Canadian Pacific Railroad in hopes of calming my nerves.

Despite all my complaints, I would have let them hook up those electrodes wherever they wanted for $20 an hour. The saying goes: no pain, no gain. For me, at the moment, it's no pain, no food. For a little zap, a little claustrophia, and a couple trauma-induced nightmares, $20 bucks sounds just fine.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Dealing with the cold

Last night it got down to 10˚ F, which is freakishly cold for North Carolina, even in winter. After a late night in the library, I ran to my van, stripped off my clothes and put on a set of expedition-rated thermals, a pair of sweatpants, a long tee shirt, two pairs of socks, a hat, gloves, and a coat. After thawing in my sleeping bag for fifteen minutes, I fell into a deep, coma-like slumber and didn’t wake up for another eight hours.

Dealing with the cold was something that crossed my mind before I decided to live in a van. I was accepted to another school in Connecticut and for one among several reasons I chose North Carolina because I thought their mild winters would make vandwelling possible.

I've always had a tolerance, even a predilection for the cold. When I was an adolescent my neighborhood nicknamed me "mountain man." During our winter street hockey games, I'd wear nothing more than a tee-shirt and obscenely low biking shorts, which, unbeknownst to them, interchangeably served as a pair of boxers. Years later, I joined the prestigious ranks of the Polar Bear Club, when I jumped into an icy Lake Ontario in February.

January, which is North Carolina’s coldest month, has an average low of a balmy 28˚ F. Having lived in Coldfoot, Alaska--located 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle--I had experience enough to know that I could bear anything the mild North Carolinian winter could throw at me.

At Coldfoot, I was a tour guide in the summer and a cook/cleaner during the winter. There were also a few occasions when the Japanese tourists visited when I had the good fortune to be an "Aurora Guide."

Sometimes--even at temperatures as low as 40˚ below--I was out there for hours at a time, lying in the snow, staring into the starry heavens, waiting for a visual display that most people would--in any other circumstance--have to dish out good money on hard narcotics to experience.

And then it would slowly creep over the mountains, forming a pale green band that stretched from one end of the sky to the other. And then several parallel bands stretched across the sky, as if the firmament—suffering from a momentary inferiority complex—decided to give itself a celestial comb-over.

Some nights that was the most the sky would offer; other nights there was much more. Those pale green bands would erupt in an polychromatic explosion unleashing torrents of red, pink, purple and blue that swooped, twisted and curled like a writhing apparition. Sometimes it blew like sand over the ridge of a dune or thick round pulses squeezed along the bands like a python digesting a rabbit.

Having conducted these aurora tours, there was no question about whether I could handle a cold night in the van. When I woke up the other day, I noticed that the water in my nalgene was frozen solid and that my bananas went from tropical yellow to frost-bitten black. I, however, was fine.

According to a few sources, a gas bill in this area can get up to about $200/month. For me, unless you want to include my $40 sleeping bag, it costs nothing. Today, for most, it's unfathomable to live without some sort of technological heat source. But what's the norm today--like most things--is exceedingly bizarre in relation to the rest of human history.

Because of modern conveniences, weather is something we talk about more than we experience; and I am by no means an exception. I remember before I guided aurora trips, I saw the aurora for no more than a minute at a time, always electing to stay in my warm bed and cozy room, probably reading an uninspiring book while a mind-blowing natural spectacle unraveled outside. Oftentimes our predilection for comfort supersedes all else. In foregoing struggle, pain, or, in this case, the cold, we’ve probably missed more “auroras” than we want to know about.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Thoreau's Disciple

I just finished reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. When I read it for the first time years ago, it was one of those rare occasions when a book seemed to speak directly to my soul. Thoreau gave shape to some of my core beliefs that I, at that point, couldn’t put into words.

If you’re not familiar with Walden, to sum up: Thoreau, a nineteenth-century philosopher from Concord, Massachusetts, left town and built a shack next to Walden Pond where he lived for several years. Walden is a practical and philosophical guide to frugal living.

Thoreau extolled the virtues of voluntary poverty and the simple life. I, too, find something clean and healthy about spartan-living. Some of my finest moments have been spent alone in nature or traveling on hitchhikes.

The ascetic who immerses himself in nature or embarks on a holy pilgrimage wishes to thrust himself into the very throes of life
. In so doing, he leaves the tidy, formulaic and unwavering character of conventional life to plunge into the very breeding grounds of the authentic experience.

By relying on our instincts and wits rather than on our wallets and families, we test ourselves, learn, grow; we can, in this way, reinvent our identities.

Not liking the man I thought I was becoming, I decided to steer my life in a different direction. I chose to live out of van for two purposes: 1. To eliminate the cost of rent so I can afford college and 2. To experiment with life.

Under most first-world definitions, I am poor. In two weeks, after my first tuition payment, I will be precariously close to penniless—and I use the term “penniless” quite literally. Stubbornly, and some may say foolishly, I’ve refused to take out loans.

I’ve already had my fair share of loans, and now that I’ve rid of them, I want nothing to do with them anymore. Anyone who's been in debt knows that the money you get is in proportion to the freedom you give or, as Benjamin Franklin puts it: “A ploughman on his legs is higher than a gentleman on his knees.”

Even if I was wealthy and had the means to afford college and live comfortably, to be perfectly honest, there's a good chance I'd still elect to live in a van. I've always been fascinated with how far the human body can be pushed and I can't help but wonder where the fringes of my faculties lie. I suppose living in a van is a way to determine which things I really need, but also to test the resiliency of my body and mind.


Thoreau, who wrote Walden in 1854, saw the same rampant and unforgiving consumerism that we see today.

I oftentimes feel a sense of culture shock in my own culture. All the things--the iPhones, Hummers, chain stores--make me feel queasy; it's as if I've wandered into some parallel, Disney-like universe that might be amusing for a weekend, but anything more would be like being stuck in a disturbing dream that you can't wake up out of.

I can't help but feel that there is something inherently wrong with a culture that embraces hedonistic shopping sprees with total disregard to the moral and environmental implications of such a lifestyle.

And how unnatural it is to think (and to accept!) that we were meant to live by the time-clock. In punching in and punching out, we divide our lives into neat little segments: school, work, family, retirement, and death, leaving little room for anything more. Forty hours a week are squandered on what is, for most, if not back-breaking, then soul-crushing labor.

We “Thank God It’s Friday” and look at the rest of our week with dread, not thinking that we ought to be equally thankful for Mondays and Thursdays.We work to obtain what we commonly regard as “necessities,” which are, more often than not, trifling expenditures, bought both to justify the drudgery of our hard labor and to instill a false sense of freedom.

There comes a point when all the crap we buy weighs us down to the point when, to paraphrase Tyler Durdan of Fight Club, the things you own end up owing you. Call me poor but call me free. Too often are our dreams lost amidst closets of collected clutter; freedom comes easier to those who don’t have to shoulder the burden of their belongings.

Our money and things do ensure security. And while I acknowledge the many benefits of a safe neighborhood, a warm home, and three meals a day, security also functions as a muzzle, restraining our wilder sides from manifesting.

In ensuring safety and security, Suburbia--in all its immaculate orderliness--circumvents the chaos of nature that once, not long ago, was an integral component of our lives.

When there is no more chaos, you have to create some. And that’s exactly what I’ve done. It’s obvious that my little enterprise is not a scheme to “get back to nature” as Thoreau’s was. Yet, despite my concrete surroundings, I feel that if I discard all the clutter and extraneous “things,” then I might be able to, as Thoreau puts it, “live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.”

While I acknowledge how my little experiment is, in part, fake, and my poverty isn’t exactly “real,” I find my simulation far more genuine than what is commonly regarded as the reality of the age.

I could have taken out loans, lived in a reasonably-priced apartment, and easily paid for everything in less than a year after graduation. Or I could have landed some decent-paying job, worked 40 hours a week, and carved out a neat little existence for myself somewhere in Anytown, America.

But where’s the fun in that? Where’s the opportunity for growth, where’s the risk, the adventure? For those things,
I can manage a little discomfort.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Pimpin' (my van out) ain't easy

Actually it sort of was.

After purchasing my burgundy beauty I had to put in a habitable condition. The following renovations were made over this past weekend.

My first order of business was to remove the middle “pilot chairs” to create more space. I found a local on craigslist with some extra storage space in her garage for my seats (I figured if I ever wanted to sell the van, I ought to have all the seats in there or the value would plummet). I paid her $30.

I was going to take the rear seat out as well but I found a strange button in the back which--much to my jubilation--turns the seat into a bed. Why the car manufacturers didn't install 70's porn music to play as the seat unfolded is beyond me.. Consequently, I left seat-turned-bed as it was.

I had a whole bunch of junk and lots of food and no where to put it all so I bought a small 3-drawered plastic storage container from Wal-Mart for $15. After making a cautious left-hand turn out of the parking lot, I realized that, after all the crap I just put in the container spilled out, I needed to make it more secure. I bought a few bungee cords at K-Mart for $3, which work wonderfully.

I had my own sleeping bag, which is rated to -20˚ F, which I bought from a friend several years ago for $40. That sleeping bag has kept me warm many a night, but I thought I’d get some linens just in case I ever needed extra warmth; plus it makes the back look neater. I bought a blanket and bedspread as well as a small waste basket and a pot and pan from The Salvation Army for $10.

One of the problems that I identified early was that I had no place to hang my clothes. I'm not one to spurn a shirt because of a few wrinkles, but I knew I’d have to find a job immediately and surely I needed to appear professional. To do so, I bought a $1 hook from Walmart. I tried to manually screw it into a thin wooden panel on the ceiling but I ended up cracking the panel. Instead, I screwed it into the plastic on the side window frame and it supports 6-7 shirts and pants quite easily. All my other clothes stay folded in my suitcase which I store underneath the bed.

I also bought a $2 coat hook from K-Mart. Every time I use it I can't help but laugh.

Lastly, I screwed some hooks into the ceiling so I could hang a piece of cloth behind my front seats so that nobody could see me and to ensure “stealth”—as the vandwellers call it. The van also has blinds and the windows are tinted, so even when I’m in the middle of a parking lot I feel as if I have as much privacy as I need.

I bought a black piece of cloth from Wal-Mart for $4.50. I probably could have devised something more ingenious (like movable curtains on a shower rod) but I had no more time, since I had to be on campus the next day.

I’ve slept in my van for four nights now and haven’t had anything more than minor problems (where should I put my smelly socks, how can I cook at night without attracting the attention of campus security). But all in all, things have gone smoothly, and I think radical living will be a success.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A man and a van

So begins what I will heretofore call “radical living.” Before flying into North Carolina (and yes, I'm purposely remaining ambiguous about my school’s name), I had been visiting friends and family in my hometown of Niagara Falls, NY for the holidays. Flying is by no means radical or frugal, especially now with those irksome baggage fees; I much prefer thumbing my way around the country. However, when I depart from my parents’ house, I’ve yet to find a way to tell my mother, “I’m going to see if I can hitchhike a thousand miles with strangers while risking life and limb. Take care!” I’ve found that “I’m taking flight 1304” is much more palatable.

Thinking ahead, I felt I could save money by finding alternative means of temporary housing. Instead of dropping $50+ a night at some hotel, why not see if I could get a stranger to let me stay on their couch? Because there are no hostels or couches listed on in my college’s town, I resorted to craigslist. I put an ad up, seeking some kind soul who would let me stay with them while I looked for a van and got situated.

My first response, from “Kenneth,” was rather unsettling:

“hello iam 10 min from your school you sleep on my couch i only have a couch sleep on or sleep in my water bed with me and my wife lol .”

I didn’t know whether to be more perturbed at the grammatical sacrilege of the English language or the invitation to what could have been an Appalachian-style ménage à trois. I now realize that this may have been a far more interesting first blog entry if I had taken Kenneth up on his offer, but taking a mustache ride on his Big Sur waterbed was, for me, unfortunately, too much of a sacrifice for the sake of entertaining my humble readership.

I ended up getting three more responses; one from Phillipa—a large Jamaican woman who is in the home healthcare field. Not only did I end up staying in her spare bedroom for three nights, but she was kind enough to pick me up at the airport. She had a hearty laugh; when I told her of Kenneth’s response, you could see the laugh start in her belly and explode out her mouth. She said I could stay as long as I needed to to find “proper housing.”

For whatever reason, I couldn’t bring myself to tell her my actual plans, so I let her believe that I was in the market for an apartment near campus. I guess I skirted the subject half out of embarrassment and half because I thought she might think that I was insane. Nor did I want Phillipa--as I expected her to--channeling the spirit of my mother and saying (except with a Jamaican accent), “No, Mr. You’re going to get yourself an apartment.”

While at Phillipa’s, I arranged to meet Dennis—another contact I made on craigslist who was selling his ‘94 Ford Econoline Van. I had been looking up and down the auto ads on craigslist for nearly a month.

It was my first thought--when I entertained the idea of radical living many months ago--to build some rudimentary shack in the woods near the college. This wouldn't have worked for a thousand reasons, starting with my carpentry skills, which are--how shall I put this--unrefined.

The above picture was taken in Mississippi when I was working for the Gulf Coast Conservation Corps. We didn't have anything to do one day, so each crewmember made a birdhouse. Don't let the wheelchair delude you: I am by no means handicapped (aside from my carpentry skills). Much to my disappointment, and much to all of birddom's great fortune, because of a minor architectural flaw (I tried to burn a hole in the wood--you can guess what happened from there), the birdhouse was never erected.

As for me building my own shelter, I thought--because I didn't want another architectural flaw putting me in a wheelchair for real--there has got to be better options.

My next idea was to live in a large tent. I've probably slept close to a year of my life in tents. I love tents--I find them quite homey; in fact, in Mississippi, while the rest of the crew slept in gender-designated barracks, I stayed in my most prized possession--a Eureka, ultralight, 1-person tent, weighing in at 3 lbs. Living out of my tent at college, I thought, would prove far more difficult, considering that the tent could not safely store my belongings.

Then I thought, what better affordable housing could I find than a van?! I could find some cheap piece of junk, buy a parking permit, and use it as a mini-apartment. I could take showers at the gym, read in the library, and cook with my backpacking stove... Perfect. Now, I just need to find that piece of junk.

After a two hour bus ride, I finally arrived at Dennis's. And there it was. When I first cast my 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 the van, erotically trailing the backside of my fingers on the shiny-smooth burgundy hood.

The burgundy, from top to bottom, slowly and sensuously fades into a rich black complexion. I noticed, when I opened the side door, the carpet was bespeckled with stains--proof of the van's great maturity. I got behind the wheel and revved up the engine. There was a grumble, then a cough, then a smooth and steady mechanical growl that said this baby's ready for action.

It was $1500 and I bought it immediately.

Just as Thoreau had his Walden Pond and Don Quixote, his Rocinante, I now have my burgundy beauty. With that said, radical living officially begins.

Next step: Renovating the van.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Other Travels

These are tales of my other travels, along with a few miscellaneous entries.

3/25/09- I hike the Appalachian Trail with my friend Luke for 6 days.

5/21/09- I hike 24 hours straight. Well, almost. Worst hike of my life.

7/16/09- I recollect the time I drank a shot with a toe in it.

10/22/09- Another 4 days on the Appalachian Trail.

11/25/09- I list my favorite travel books.

12/26/09- I visit Thoreau's Walden Pond.

3/21/10- Another expedition with pals Josh and Luke on the Appalachian Trail.



7/6/10- I go on a three-day fast. Day 1. Day 2. Day 3. Epilogue.



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Privacy Policy: The winning essay of the Dare Mighty Things Scholarship will be posted on this blog with the applicant's permission. The winner is welcome to request that certain personal information not be disclosed. No other information is gathered from site users or scholarship applicants. Applicants will not be automatically enrolled to receive extraneous emails and/or solicitations of any sort.


I have been on two cross-country hitchhikes. The first was in the summer of '07 when I hitchhiked 5,500 miles from Alaska to New York. The second took place in the spring of 2008 when I hitched with my then-girlfriend, Sammy. We went from Mississippi to New York in 25-days. Below, are the tales of each journey.

"Rules of Thumb" is the day-by-day story of my Alaska-to-NY journey from May-June 2007.

Rule of Thumb #1: Prepare for anything. Failure especially.
Coldfoot, AK to Coldfoot, AK (0 miles)

Rule of Thumb #2: Even drivers who say, "If you're gettin' in my truck, you're gonna fuck" may not be so bad.
Coldfoot, AK to Delta Junction, AK (349 miles)

Rule of Thumb #3: Avoid drivers who "just got out" [of prison]
Delta Junction, AK to Tok, AK (111 miles)

Rule of Thumb #4: Avoid situations like being commissioned getaway driver in the mission to traffic "Joey" out of town
Tok, Alaska to Teslin, Yukon Territories (498 miles)

Rule of Thumb #5: Bring lots of stuff
Teslin, Yukon Territories to northern border of British Columbia (158 miles)

Rule of Thumb #6: Shatter your fears. Know the unknown
Northern British Columbia to Prince George, BC (776 miles)

Rule of Thumb #7: To be poor in things is to be free of them
Prince George, BC to Hope, BC (388 miles)

Rule of Thumb #8: Listening is an art form
Hope, British Columbia to Rock Island, Washington (303 miles)

Rule of Thumb #9: When there's no other alternative, walk
Rock Island, Washington to La Grande Oregon (296 miles)

Rule of Thumb #10: When there's nowhere to sleep, start turning knobs
La Grande, Oregon to Park City, Utah (538 miles)


"Lovin' and bummin' on the open road: An exploration of America's east coast" is my hitchhiking adventure, when I traveled with my girlfriend Sammy in the Spring of 2008 from Mississippi to New York.

Part 1- Mississippi to North Carolina

Part 2- North Carolina to Connecticut

Part 3- Connecticut to New York


I've been living in my van at Duke University since January of 2009. I've pledged to not take out loans or borrow money from anybody. I've done this in order to: 1. Afford grad school and 2. Have an adventure. The following entries detail my experiences vandwelling.

9/2/11 Some tips on how to afford college


1/6/09- I find my the van on craigslist and buy it.

1/8/09- I renovate (or pimp out) my van.

1/14/09- I read "Walden" for the second time, reflecting on why I've decided to live in a van.

1/16/09- It gets down to about 10 degrees F.

1/26/09- I spend five hours trying to figure out how to combine the Flight of the Conchord's "Business Time" with 20 seconds of footage of my backseat turning into a bed.

1/28/09- With funds rapidly dwindling, I resort to doing MRI studies for money.

2/5/09- My van leaks and I deal with smells. Not the first, nor the last time I deal with this chronic issue.

2/11/09- I'm lonely as hell, so I tell a bum my secret.

2/16/09- I describe how I cook in the van.

2/18/09- I unveil my cookbook.

3/1/09- My mom finds out about van; thinks I'm crazy.

4/5/09- I get food-poisoning and throw-up in the van.

4/19/09- I take pictures of myself doing resourceful things.

4/22/09- I get my tax return and reflect on wealth

5/5/09- Some passersby compare my van to the A-Team's while I try to nap.

5/6/09- I entertain my first guest and discuss what it's like to tell other people that I live in a van.

5/8/09- I clean out the van and reflect on my first successful semester of vandwelling.

5/9/09- I break down my finances and compare them to the average American's.

[I go to Alaska to work as a backcountry ranger for the summer. Click here to view my "Alaska" series.]


8/26/09- I shave off my summer beard and reflect on celibacy during the process.

8/27/09- North Carolina is F-in hot in August.

9/3/09- Ants take over my van.

9/30/09- I'm lonely in my library.

10/3/09- I almost witness an orgy unfurl.

10/9/09- Mom finds out about the blog.

10/16/09- I read aloud an article about living in my van to my travel writing class. The article would later be edited and submitted to Salon where it printed.

10/19/09- I eat trash for the first time and enjoy it.

10/25/09- I cook up another pot of spaghetti stew.

11/4/09- I go to halloween dressed as Thoreau. Also reflect on the miseries of grad school.

11/9/09- Some guy inspects the van while I'm in it.

11/16/09- A family has a picnic next to my van for 4 hours. I must remain still.

11/20/09- I record the sounds of vandwelling.

12/2/09- I find a pile of something mysterious in the back of the van.

12/7/09- I print an article in Salon. Chaos ensues.

12/13/09- I reflect on my newfound fame.

1/6/10- The Buffalo News does a story on me.


1/11/10- I talk about going to the gym. Videotape myself shooting the hook.

1/25/10- I get in an accident and sprain my knee, cleverly blaming my blunders on a girl

2/2/10- I'm interview by radio host, Dick Gordon.

2/22/10- I stroll through Duke's infamous K-ville.

3/1/10- A picture tour of the van.

3/5/10- I have some mice problems.
3/20/10- A sleeping bag company sends me a free bag. I review it.

[I spend my summer with a hermit in Stokes County, North Carolina in a cottage called Acorn Abbey. Click here to view stories from that summer in my "Other Travels" series.]


FIFTH SEMESTER - Spring '11 (Final Semester)

Post Graduation

6/10/11- I do an experiment wrap-up radio interview with NPR Buffalo.

Go to my Alaska section to read about my travels after my vandwelling experiment.


(That's a dead mosquito near the side of my mouth.)

I started this blog in January 2009 to share my experiences as a grad student in Duke University's Liberal Studies Department. Before I enrolled in the program, I had just finished paying off $32,000 in undergraduate debt. To prevent myself from going into debt again, I pledged not to take out loans or borrow money. I made it my goal to graduate debt-free. So, I bought a van. 

During my first year of vandwelling, I kept the van a secret on campus because I worried that campus administration would rescind my parking permit if they found out that some dude was living in one of their lots. Tired of living in secret, in December 2009the day after my second semester endedI published an article in Salon that I'd written in my Travel Writing class. In so doing, I revealed my secret to the country at large, resulting in a brief "fifteen minutes of fame."

In May 2011, after more than two years of living in the van, I graduated debt-free, with a little over $1,000 to my name. Currently, I'm writing a book about my experiences.

This blog is also a forum for me to share stories about my past. To pay off my undergraduate debt, I embarked on a continent-wide working tour for two-and-a-half years on which I saved almost every dime I made. I conducted my vandwelling experiment, not just because I wanted to avoid accruing another debt, but because I thought I'd make something of the many lessons I learned on the road.

On that journey, I lived in Coldfoot, Alaska for a year as a tour guide; I hitchhiked 7,500 miles back and forth across the continent; I went on an 18th century voyage across Ontario, Canada; I lived in a ghetto in Gulfport, Mississippi; and I got a job as a backcountry ranger in the Gates of the Arctic National Park. I learned a lot on that journey, and I suppose those lessons are a part of these essays. It was a transformative journey, changing my values and beliefs about wealth, poverty, and everything in between in wildly unexpected ways. If I've learned anything, it's that it takes a lot more than buying a van to become a vandweller.

Happy trails,
Ken Ilgunas

You can contact me at: spartanstudent (at)

The "Dare Mighty Things" Scholarship

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.” --Theodore Roosevelt

"Let the world change you, and you can change the world." -Tagline for The Motorcycle Diaries

Thanks to all those who've chosen to support this scholarship.

The "Dare Mighty Things" Scholarship
Amount: $1,000
Deadline: Jan 31, 2011 [Deadline has passed.]
Number of awards: 1
Who can apply? Undergraduate students of all majors in their junior and senior years are encouraged to apply. Must be an American citizen enrolled in an American institution. (We will make exceptions on a case by case basis.)
What is the award for? To support students who wish to embark on adventures UNRELATED to their schoolwork and careers.

Mission-- The Dare Mighty Things Scholarship Foundation believes the world is one big classroom. We want to encourage graduates to create their own “curriculum” by pursing dreams unrelated to college and careers. We envision a world comprised of principled, deliberative, physically vigorous and creative individuals uniquely shaped by their scholarly and worldly educations.

Scholarship Description-- The Dare Mighty Things Scholarship is for students with dreams. The bigger, the badder, the bolder the dream—the better. The dream can be of a personal nature (train-hopping across the country) or of a social nature (teaching school children about organic farming). Whatever the dream, it must be of your own making. If your dream—to others—seems impractical, unfeasible, eccentric, or crazy, you are in the right place.

Because of sobering financial realities, many students are forced to compromise their ideals and postpone dreams. We don’t want you to sell out; we want you to live the life you’ve imagined. We want students who wish to spend their post-graduate years growing, developing, and enjoying their lives outside of classroom walls. We hope that you’ll come back from your journey enriched from your experiences and eager to share it with others. You and the world will be the better for it.

Requirements-- Undergraduate students of all majors in their junior and senior years are encouraged to apply. Must be an American citizen student enrolled at an American institution. (We will make exceptions on a case by case basis.)

Please email a personal photo, essay, and questionnaire (details of which can all be found below) to DareMightyThingsScholarship (at) by 8 a.m., January 31st 2011. The winner will be decided soon after.

Disclaimer: The scholarship was created on the blog, “The Spartan Student” ( The winner will have his/her essay and picture posted on the blog. (Applicants may request not to have certain personal information revealed.)

Disclaimer 2: The author of the blog and creator of the scholarship holds the right to haunt you for the rest of your life if you let your dream go unrealized.

Disclaimer 3: The winner is strongly encouraged to write a follow-up essay/travel narrative, or to provide some other artistic media (photos, video, poetry, etc) to be viewed on the blog.

Application-- (Please paste the questions and your answers to the following questions onto a Word document.)


Date of birth:

Are you a junior, senior, or other (ex: second-year senior)?

What is your current school?

What other higher learning institutions have you attended?

What month and year do you intend to graduate?

What is your major? Why did you choose it? How will you “use” it? (Please limit response to no more than two paragraphs.)

How much student debt will you graduate with?

When do you intend to pursue the dream that you’ve described in your essay? How will the money awarded help you carry it out? (Please limit response to no more than two paragraphs.)

Please provide two references, your relation with them (professors, employers, and relatives are acceptable), as well as their email addresses and phone numbers. (We do not desire actual letters of recommendation; contact information will suffice.)

Essay question-- Please describe the dream you intend to pursue after graduation (or during your studies). Write the essay in whatever way you wish, but it would be helpful to explain why you have this dream, what you expect to gain from it, etc. Six words of advice: Don’t be afraid to be passionate. The essay should be 2-3 pages long. (12-point font, Times New Roman, double-spaced.)

You have a good chance if...

1. your dream is bold and of your own creation. Working on Wall Street for a hedge fund is certainly a "worldly experience," but it's not the type that we wish to support. We encourage dreams that fall outside the parameters of "the system." These are the types of journeys we wish to help fund: a cycling tour through South America, a backpacking trip through Africa, a road trip to Alaska, the creation of your own planet-saving non-profit organization, etc. If it's your dream to "hunt and kill elephant poachers, extract their teeth postmortem and display them as a warning to ivory dealers," then you're the person we're looking for. While we don't expect something so extreme, the bolder your dream is, the better the chance you have.

2. you plan on embarking on your journey SOON. We want to reward those who donated and made this scholarship possible with evidence that their money has been put to good use. In other words, we want you to embark on your journey and tell us about it in a reasonable amount of time. This summer would be great. If you plan on doing it ten years from now, then please--if this scholarship is still around--wait nine years to apply.

Send all inquiries and materials to:

For more information on the creation of this scholarship, click here.


Summer 2005-- It was my dream of all dreams, my adventure of all adventures to drive to Alaska. In the summer of '05 I finally did this when I drove up to Coldfoot, AK to work as a lodge cleaner with my friend Paul.

May '06 - May '07-- I moved back up to Coldfoot to work as a cook and tour guide to begin to pay off my 32K student debt.

Summer '08-- First season as a backcountry ranger in the Gates of the Arctic National Park

Summer '09-- Second season as a backcountry ranger in the Gates of the Arctic National Park

The following stories were written in 2009 about my second season as a ranger.

8/30/09- I packraft down the Charley River and visit the site of a famous plane crash. [This story was added in January of 2011.]

I moved back to Coldfoot, Alaska in June 2011 to write my book.

6/25/11- Pictures of my 2-day hike up Slate Creek Trail

7/5/11- Pictures from the Continental Divide in the Brooks Range

7/19/11- Thoughts on being the "Writer in Resident"

7/25/11- My best friend Josh is involved in a National Scandal

8/4/11- My friend Josh Spice and me take an exploratory trip up Nuterwik Creek 

8/6/11- Some more reflections on Josh's national scandal

8/7/11- I get paid well for writing for the first time. Plus some reflections on campus farms and sustainability education.

8/8/11- I take some odd jobs in the arctic to save a little money. 

8/13/11- The owner of the camp asks me if I can fill in and work at Deadhorse for a couple weeks

8/15/11- First impressions of my new home, Deadhorse

8/21/11- I'm washing spoons now. Existential crisis, here I come. 

8/30/11- I packraft the Sag River for three days

9/12/11- I try to packraft to the Arctic Ocean, but run out of time. Must, then, sneak through the hyper secure Prudhoe Bay oilfields. 

10/5/11- A pina colada almost kills me. I leave Deadhorse.