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.


Anonymous said...

It has been interesting to watch you go from relative obscurity to fame :-) So many things I consider normal must not be "normal" in the wider world. My bro lived in his 60's Mustang for a couple of years while in the Coast Guard so he could save his money. I started living in my van for half of every year, with my then, young daughter. My daughter lived in her van while working at a Vermont ski area. The van thing is soooooooo sensible that I guess it is radical :-P Congrats on your fame. I hope Duke does not give you a hard time!

Spork said...

Squalor, what the hell is wrong with squalor? Ghads! I mean really, it is all relative, one man's squalor is another's living high on some hog.

Thanks for the update Ken, sounds like Duke appreciates your efforts, I suspect and hope your parking spot is safe...

Anonymous said...

So how do you define getting laid? As a fellow writer I want to caution you against all those girls that swarm your way BECAUSE you are famous. I was "famous" once (that didn't last very long but it was fun at the time) and I can tell you that the only girl worthwhile was the girl that liked me despite my fame. She was happy for me--loved that people all over read my work and that I was able to spread my message—but at the end of the day our talks always went back to us. How much she wanted to see/be with me rather than who had called me for an interview or asked me to write another article. She loved me even though she knew I could lose my home because my landlord adamantly disagreed with the views expressed in my writing, even though I was an outcast and lived on the fringe; she loved me even though she knew that if the fame grew we would lose our privacy. She loved me despite all the side-effects of my fame. I had a lot of girls throw themselves on me (and I’m not going to lie, it was awesome dude) but at the end of the girl that was only one woman who I knew would be there for me with or without the fame. My point is that it doesn’t matter if you are getting “laid” by a different woman every weekend, what matters is that fame should play no role in your personal life. Embrace it but don’t let it take over. I hope you are lucky enough to have that special woman in your life. (this is cheesy, I know, but that’s what women do to you)
-Another famous dude

Mike Troy said...

Enjoy this whole experience as you continue to live your life. Can't wait to read the book, with your writing style I just knew there would be one. Best wishes, Mike

Fannie said...

a narcissist? Not the Ken I know, and I am pretty sure I know the same Ken that is getting all this fame. Humans are funny little insignificant creatures, especially when they become so concerned with other people's choices.

Though I think I did catch you once looking into the muddy waters of a puddle in the Coldfoot parking lot. I thought you were searching for a sign of life in that old silt and permafrost camp, but come to think of it, you might have been admiring a murky soon-to-be-famous reflection.

Accept the interviews. I want to see you on SNL!!! It's so obvious...

Josh said...

It's awesome you got such a positive response to your article on Salon Ken. I think it's proof that people feel there is something inherently wrong with 'The System©' and they're searching for someone who's willing to question and go against it, which in alot of ways is what you are doing.

We're all searching for meaning I guess, and we're just not finding it at the local shopping malls or through thoughtless consumerism. Not to say that you've found the meaning, but you're living a life that's in line with your beliefs.

You didn't set out to be a role model, but now is a pretty great opportunity to get your thoughts out there. We're bombarded by the media all the time by how we should be living our lives, and who we should aspire to become, but I can't think of any real role models for frugality and simple living. Maybe that can be you bro?

Josh P. said...

Quite amusing... especially the fake pictures of the dude in the van and the other sketchy econoline.

Anonymous said...

"Luke--I'm nowhere near Durham--I'm currently taking a wilderness first responder course in the NC mountains--the course came at a convenient time, allowing me to avoid the aftermath. I doubt I'll increase the frequency of blog entries--one a week is enough to keep me busy. In fact, I doubt this'll get too popular, given that few news sources even know about it."

I told you Ken, WAY TO GO! You are living it man. I have been trying to teach my sons frugality, your blog gives me proof and inspiration. Thanks, I look forward to more.

Seth Miller said...

Just wanted to tell you this was a great post. I'm so glad I bookmarked this site months ago.


Well, the media explosion is quite fascinating to say the least! It will be interesting to see it manifest over the next month or two.

Congratulations on getting your message out there; more a message of living by example than actually preaching to the masses.

Thoreau too, blasted my mind open, and it's great to see someone taking a BALLS OUT! approach to life and documenting it.

Your writing style is definitely good for it. It keeps me reading and flows very nicely, which inspires me to try and come up some more original shit. Good form.

You're an inspiration, and reading your shit makes me sigh in relief that 'there is someone else out there' who's on the same level.


Jay Bailey said...

Remember how it went: If the wind and the waves get too high, you turn broadside, let the canoe bob and tilt the way it must, and paddle for shore. I knew you had it in you. Enjoy the ride, mon ami!

Anonymous said...

Some of this is really exciting. Be careful out there.

mitchelle said...

i am so happy for your success. it seems youve struck a chord with more than just your blog followers. know that all of us g-trips are behind you with support and love, and i cant wait to read your first book! VIVA EL KEN!


Jake said...

Bah it hardly matters -- haters are going to hate.

BTW Ken, I tried sleeping in the car by putting a cot sized mattress into the trunk with the back seats folded down but it's so small, and the bump is uncomfortable.

I'm going to live in a van next year, because it kicks ass. It's like being a modern Zen monk. And I'll take pics too.

Anyways -- continue updating your blog, it's inspiring, eye opening and intriguing.

It's like a middle finger to Consumerism. Heh heh.

Ken said...

Wendy--you're right. It's amazing how few people do a really practical thing. I think sometimes we just need an example to show that it works.

Spork--seriously. Why do people care so much about the squalor that, to me, isn't squalor at all. And compared to 1st world squalor, my van is immaculately clean.

Famous dude--thanks for the words of wisdom. You're preaching to the choir, though. Promiscuity is not on my "to-do" list.

Troy--thanks man!

Fannie--ha. don't remember looking in the puddle. I do go off to la-la land every now and then. THere's no way I'll do SNL. My acting is awful. However, it would be funny to put on one of those suma outfits and play Farley's infamous vandweller.

Josh--ha, I never thought myself to ever become the spokeman for anything, frugality and simple living included. Perhaps if a book works out, though, who knows?

Josh P--yea what's up with that. Lazy journalism.

Luke--good luck with those sons. Teaching frugality in this day in age may seem as archaic as crafting stone tools and hand-raising barns.

Seth-thanks man. Too bad you guessed WF!

Hazardous--thanks! Over the past year I've learned of a large and growing subculture of vandwellers/minimalists--it's good to know there's more of us out there.

Jay--nice metaphor. You going on the next voyage?

Surgeon--thanks for the word of caution. Don't worry about me.

Mitch--always great to hear from you. I'm working on another hitchhiking story with mentionings of G-trip.

Jake--good for you, brother! Send some of those pics my way. If you haven't already, check out the vandwellers message board group on yahoo or Great sources of info.

Fannie said...


My post was fictional! I never saw you do that. A satire on the narcissist in you, which as far as I can tell, does not exist. Hey good luck with the Wilderness First Responder course. I'm going to try to get into the class up here this spring. Seems like a good fit for this failed poet turned nurse.

Anonymous said...

I would just like to point out that we knew you before the article...someone forwarded it to me and I was like oh yeah spartan student. we've chatted on our blogs... ;) it's been awhile but still... remember the early fans when you write your book. Kidding aside - I love your non-chalance and sense of humor about this. Most of the rest of us would be like OMG! I'm famous! I would. Heck I'm like that when anyone comments on my blog!
it's late I better quit now. getting punchy.

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Ken said...

Fannie--aren't we all a bit narcissistic? Who can go an hour without--in some way--thinking of ourselves? WFR was a lot of fun!

Nomad--"popularity" loses its luster when you realize there's no reward. My life hasn't changed in the slightest.

Sarah--glad to meet ya. Thanks for the warm words.

Anonymous said...

Hey Ken,

Did you submit your piece to any other online magazines other than Salon?

Thanks man. Your writing is an inspiration.