Tuesday, May 31, 2011


(Coldfoot is where the red thingy is)

As I mentioned in my concluding post, I am moving out of North Carolina and heading up to Alaska to be Coldfoot's first-ever "writer in residence." In two days, I will follow a rather complicated travel plan to get there:

1. David drives me from his home to Winston-Salem (free)
2. Take a bus to High Point, N.C. ($2)
3. Take a train to Durham, N.C. ($14)
4. Take a Megabus to Washington D.C. ($5)
5. Take a subway to the D.C. airport ($2?)
6. Fly to L.A, then Seattle, then Fairbanks ($150)
7. Walk to North Alaska Tour Company's offices in town.
8. Figure out how to get to Coldfoot, which is 250 miles to the north.

Frankly, I'll be surprised if I get there.

While my travel plans may be complex, I've taken strides to simplify other aspects of my life. Because the Megabus only allows one large piece of luggage, I've had to condense pretty much my whole life into a large backpack. So I gave away lots of stuff from the van to Goodwill--my linens, my storage container, my cutting board, etc.--and threw out some ratty clothes.

I'd like to take a moment to say farewell to a couple of fine products that have served me well these past few years.

My cutting board, frying pan, etc.

Storage container and linens.

This was my first backpack. It's traveled with me to Alaska, up Blue Cloud, on two cross-country hitchhikes, and on many other adventures. The bottom of the backpack was full of holes, it was missing half of its plastic snaps, and most of its tightening straps had vanished. I bought this thing for $30 off eBay in May 2005 and it's been a loyal piece of equipment since.

This Pierre Cardin suitcase has probably been with me for ten years. At Duke, it served as my dresser drawer, holding all my clothes. When I ate in the van, I'd rest my feet on it which gradually took a toll on the material. None of the zippers work on it anymore.

Last but not least are my dear sweatpants. I've had these for about a decade. They were a curious pair of pants. They seemed to get longer and longer, no matter how many times I ripped off the tattered edges around my ankles. I must have ripped away about a foot of cloth from each leg, yet the pants still brush against the ground. I didn't have any more room in my new pack, so I had to make one final cut unfortunately. Goodbye, dear sweatpants!

I guess you could say I have two types of possessions. I have a collection of "long-term possessions" and a set of "need-now possessions." I sent 60 pounds of long-term stuff home to my parents house--things I don't need now but may want in the future: important books, dress clothes, and sentimental items like a pair of moccasins.

Here are all my need-now possessions:

Stuff I mailed to Coldfoot, AK:

27 books
Pair of slippers
Pair of sneakers
Winter coat
3 pairs of wool socks
5 pairs of short socks
Expedition-rated thermals
5 crappy white tees
Bottle of aqueous wax

Stuff I'll be carrying

Phone with pre-paid minutes
Sleeping bag
1-person tent
Water bottle
Hunting knife
2 books
Backpacking stove
Water filter
Wrist watch
Small camping supplies: matches, lighters, etc
3 pairs of pants
2 pairs of shorts
2 pairs of wools socks
7 pairs of underwear
Flannel pants
Thermal underwear
Baseball cap
6 shirts
Rain coat and rain pants
Backpack rainproof cover
Small travel bag with basic toiletries
Hiking boots

Here's a picture of me carrying everything but the mailed package. (The backpack was a graduation gift from my family.)

I must also report (with some mixed feelings) that I have not sold the van. I had it up on Craigslist for nearly a month and had no bites. I lowered it from $2,150 to $1,800 and finally to $1,500. A family member of a friend showed interest but she lives in NY and didn't have the money just yet. I got my first phone inquiry two days ago from a young man in Stokes County who inquired if I'd accept his "guns" as part of a trade deal, which I, needless to say, turned down.

Today I turned my plate in and canceled my insurance. Since I'll be getting room and board in Coldfoot, I no longer have one bill of any sort in my life, which is a first for me. (I promised Coldfoot Camp that I'd work one day a week without pay for room and board.)

So I guess the van will stay here in North Carolina at David's for the summer. I wish I could have gotten rid of this rather large possession, but sometimes I think things don't work out for a reason. We'll see.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Why aren’t we revolutionaries?

David—a boomer who lived through the 60’s—recently posted an entry noting the curious absence of revolutionary discourse among today’s twenty-somethings. It's an interesting topic of discussion. While my generation has hardly dabbled with civil disobedience, his generation protested the Vietnam War, took part in civil, women’s, and environmental rights crusades, and caused havoc on college campuses and city streets everywhere.

In my 27 years, I don’t think I’ve once heard even a murmuring of revolution. Yet, things are hardly peachy keen. In addition to global warming, suburban sprawl, and a mind-boggling disparity of wealth between the mega-rich and everyone else, my generation must deal with record-breaking loads of student debt and an alarming scarcity of jobs. In July 2010, 51.1% of 16-to-24 year olds didn’t have jobs. (The official unemployment rate—which takes the desire to have a job into account—was still an unreasonably high 19.1 percent.) We are jobless, indebted, and disenchanted with politics.

The unemployment numbers are almost as bad as several of the Middle Eastern nations that recently experienced youth-led rebellions. Twenty-five percent of Egypt’s youth were unemployed, similar to Tunisia’s 30%. Young people coping with poor job markets have led protests in European countries like Spain, which has a 45% youth unemployment rate, and the UK, which has a 20%.

So the question begs to be asked: Why isn’t my generation rebellious? Why aren’t Americans protesting? Why aren’t we causing hell like the disenchanted 60’s generation?

1. Things may be bad, but I guess they aren’t bad enough. While we have a similar unemployment rate, Egyptian youth—at the time of the revolution—were much worse off. Not only did 40% of Egyptians live on $2 a day, but their rights were severely curbed by an authoritative regime. Things may be bad here, but even the most desperate college grad could get a job at McDonald’s for $6 an hour. And even though we have the Patriot Act, it’s not nearly as egregious as some of Mubarak’s measures.

2. There is no clear enemy. We have no Nixon, no Mubarak, not even a W. Bush to fight. So just what wall needs to be torn down and just who needs to be brought to justice? The problem is that our enemies are amorphous; they’re not even human, really. It’s not the CEO who lays off his employees and outsources jobs to third-world countries who’s to blame; it’s the economic system in which he’s immured that forces him to resort to such callous measures. It’s more than just some crusty elite; it’s the system, free-market capitalism, globalization; it’s things we can neither tar and feather nor burn in effigy.

Let’s say that we do take down the ruling elite, storm the Capitol, and lay down a list of demands. We get universal health care, universal education, and we end pointless wars. Then what? It’s not like we can just create jobs out of thin air. (Even the youth in socialist Scandinavian countries face tough job markets. Among 15-to-24 year olds, 29% of Swedes are unemployed, as are 27 % of Fins, 16% of Icelanders, 13% of Danes, and—to a much lesser degree—9% of Norwegians.) Currently in America—as I pointed out in a previous post—there are 365,000 cashiers and 317,000 waiters and waitresses who have bachelor’s degrees, as do one-fourth of those working in the retail industry. More than 100,000 college graduates are brushing toilets as janitors and 18,000 are pushing carts. Is it a good thing if we lower the unemployment rate by creating more shitty, soul-less, cubicled jobs flipping burgers, answering phones, or selling useless crap? Over 1.5 million college students graduate each year. Do we really think that there should exist 1.5 million well-paying, fulfilling jobs for every graduating class? If those jobs were necessary, wouldn't they already exist?

3. The truth has yet to set in. We young people are still hopeful. When we go to college, we imagine getting a good job right after we’re handed our diplomas. We imagine our debts vanishing into thin air. Yet this hasn’t been the case for a long-time, so it’s beyond me why these fantasies are still so prevalent. For a revolution to happen, reality must set in and hope must be crushed.

Concluding thoughts

Frankly, I’d love to see my generation become rebellious and get angry about student debt, college profiteers, and everything else that ails us. A lot of good would come of it, but I think we’d be merely treating side-effects than killing the disease that causes them.

The unemployment rate is a good indication of a country’s political, social, and economic stability. When we have jobs, we have purpose; we can move up, improve ourselves; we have the freedom to do what we wish with the money we earn. But I’m not comfortable saying things are satisfactory if the unemployment rate is 0% and 100% of us are employed at places like Wal-Mart, McDonalds, and offices raising our blood pressure and filing TPS reports. I think such a society is far from ideal, and in no way, shape or form attends to the needs of the human body, mind and soul.

Perhaps a violent or non-violent revolution would spur the powers that be to make substantial changes, but I can’t see a solution to my generation’s malaise without completely reimagining society, a society in which the idea of a “job”—which, as we know, is a manmade invention—doesn’t even exist.

Radical thought: Perhaps the solution is simplicity. What if we create our own economy, sort of like the Amish have? (There is, after all, no such thing as an unemployed Amishman.) With a local, agrarian-based economy, we’d have an endless supply of fulfilling labor—the sort of work that makes families tight and communities thrive; the sort that would wean us off the government and make corporations crumble.

I suppose this thought is nothing new. Hippie communes popped up in the 60’s and 70’s, and it’s evident that they didn’t last long. Why would ours be any less fleeting? And how feasible is this for a world that’s overpopulated—one where open space isn’t exactly abundant?

The question remains: What’s to be done with millions of jobless young people who seem to have no cause, no purpose whatsoever? Any thoughts? (Por favor: All I ask is that we keep the discussion sane and civil.)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

RIP: Charlotte and George

We named the chicks after our favorite 18th and 19th female British novelists, Charlotte Bronte and George Elliot. (I wasn't the one so cruel to name a chicken "George.") Unfortunately, we had a tragedy last week when some predatory mammal (very impressively) broke through the chicken coop and ate them. Naturally, we were upset, and felt responsible for not taking proper precautions. But whatever. Lesson learned.

The other night, I was walking up the hill to the coop to lock up the three big girls for the night when I saw a brown mammal--about the size of a squirrel--loping toward the coop, perhaps interested in another easy meal. We have reason to believe that it was a weasel--the very one who killed Charlotte and George.

So we bought this trap to catch it. (Because we're both softies when it comes to killing animals, if we catch it we plan on driving the weasel several miles away and releasing it.)

All the other birds on the property are doing well. This little one flew straight into the window when I was reading on the porch. I picked it up and it looked in my eyes with uncommon calmness. It was as if it was having a zen-like moment of transcendence when everything in the world makes sense. And then it flew off and almost flew right into the back of my head. And then it flew off for good.

Here I am with my dear Patience. (Ridiculous idea: How 'bout a blog written from the perspective of a chicken? Kind of like The Call of the Wild, but a chicken... "Ruth pecked my ass, I chased a bug, I laid a huge egg today"--that sorta thing. No? You think it's a stupid idea? What? You think it's the stupidest thing you've ever heard? Well too bad--I started one up.)

Here's the asparagus bed growing nicely. We also planted strawberries inside, too.

Here's the garden. We've eaten broccoli, cauliflower, snap peas, spinach and onion so far. Oh, and David made coleslaw from our first cabbage yesterday. We used rebar for stakes, which will hopefully hold up drooping tomato plants.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Conclusion to vandwelling experiment

In the early morning on the day of my graduation, I woke up in the corner of an Embassy Suites hotel room in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The night before, my mom, dad, and aunt had been sharing a king-sized bed while I slept alone on the pull-out couch in the other room. Minutes after the lights were turned off, from the bedroom I heard some terrifying ear-piercing snarls that sounded like a pair of dinosaurs were getting ready to engage in battle.

My aunt, we then learned, has a snoring problem. It was an ear drum-drubbing roar that—with each passing sound wave—made the walls rattle and my hair flutter.

My dad—justifiably—left the room to join me in my bed. He was—I was afraid to learn—just as bad, emitting enough sniffles and snorts to make me think I had bedded down amid a pride of slumbering lions.

And so we continued the somnambulist’s game of musical chairs. I grabbed my pillow, snagged a towel from the bathroom, and sandwiched my head between them in the farthest corner of the room so I could catch a couple hours of sleep before graduation.

It was the day of my liberal studies graduation ceremony—the conclusion to my two and a half year vandwelling experiment. I’d like to say I felt some sense of accomplishment or pride upon completing my goal of graduating debt-free, but I was mostly just sleepy and preoccupied. In a couple hours, I was to give a speech as my class’s “student speaker.”

I went downstairs and ate a plate of pancakes and sausage before looking over my speech one last time.


In January of 2009, I moved to Durham, bought a van, and made it my life’s ambition to graduate debt-free.

How does it feel to accomplish a goal that I’ve been working toward for two and a half years? Apart from mild relief, I guess I don’t feel much really. This comes as no surprise. I created this goal less for the ultimate destination than the journey of getting there. All the raw experiences have already been had, all the lessons already learned. Destinations, I know, are downers—reminders that you no longer have a path on which to bravely walk.

Despite the absence of strong feelings, I suppose this moment calls for some reflection and closure.

First, I should say that—in ways—my goal was a silly goal. Debt, after all, can be a good thing. By borrowing money today, we can invest it into a house, a farm, an education, or a business so we can live happier, hopefully debt-free lives in a more prosperous tomorrow. It was a silly goal because I—to a large degree—did away with the whole gift-giving, gift-getting ceremonial act—an act that has been forging and fortifying human relationships from the dawn of man.

To do away with gifts and good loans for the entirety of one’s life, I think, would be foolishly dogmatic. Living debt-free was a way to make a good point about debt, but I’m not sure it’s a good way to live in real life.

I guess that’s partly what this experiment was: an ascetical performance. It was like Diogenes in his tub or Thoreau in his cabin; it was an extreme example of minimalism that I hoped might provoke an idling reader to think that maybe we don’t need all that we think we need; that maybe the human body is capable of more than we tend to give it credit.

But it was also deeply personal and, in ways, had nothing to do with other people. I simply wanted a cheap, quiet place to live—and the van was that for me, too.

I guess it was a silly goal also because getting a degree debt-free is by no means an impossible or impressive feat. And compared to the average student, I had it easy. I had a well-paying summer job with the Park Service and I was enrolled in an affordable graduate program.

But I thought it was worth writing about because I thought it would give me a ring in which I could—in my own little insignificant way—fight student debt.

When I think of student debt, images of horrible historic events flash in my mind. I see marching Nazis, piles of dead bodies, and oil-slicked pelicans. Student debt, to me, is a tragedy of the highest order.

Debt, today, is so normal, yet so fantastically odd. We don’t purposefully contract diseases or purposefully get in car accidents, so why do we purposefully go in debt—why do we do something that is clearly terrible for us? And why is everybody doing it?

I think we all want a college education because we all want a college education. In other words, we want a college education like we want a rare jewel—not because it serves some useful purpose, but because an education is collectively coveted.

I love college and I believe in a college education—especially one with a strong liberal arts component—but I can’t help but feel that an education today is no longer worth it for those who must go into inescapable debt to get one.

Students spend outrageous sums of money for an education that—ideally—frees their mind, but handcuffs them to a debt that many will drag around with them for their entire lives. Students don’t just go into debt; they have whole life phases removed.

Today, there are 365,000 cashiers and 317,000 waiters and waitresses in America who have bachelor’s degrees, as do one-fourth of those working in the retail industry. More than 100,000 college graduates are brushing toilets as janitors, and 18,000 are pushing carts. Our country’s young people aren’t traveling, inventing, creating, protesting, or exploring—hardly any are doing what their instincts tell them to do. Instead, they’re bagging groceries, pushing shopping carts, and pouring someone else’s coffee so they can pay off their debts. Such is the life of a loan drone.

Why do we do it? When are students going to realize that they might be worse off going to school than not going? How many more debtors will it take?

A college education, of course, can be both spiritually fulfilling and economically practical, yet with so many people in debt and so many people in crappy jobs and so many people leading boring, robotic lives, I think our society must reevaluate its priorities.

I think we must stop telling young people that they must go straight into college. We must stop telling them that student debt is “good debt.” We must stop telling them that “you shouldn’t let money stop you from going to the school you want to go to.” These young people are making terrible, life-altering, five-figure decisions because they’re getting shitty advice. The average 18-year-old knows next to nothing about personal finance, and he shouldn’t have the ability to take out tens of thousands of dollars to go to school for the same reason we shouldn’t give a 12-year-old the keys to the car. The freedom to spend money that isn’t ours is, to me, not a freedom at all.

Sometime I think that it’s not debt that’s the real problem, but that our imaginations are so blunted by the time we leave high school.

We leave high school with no idea of how many different paths lead from our door, how many lives we can live, or the great infinitude of possibility within our grasp, but not within our sight, for we’ve been blindfolded, spun, and sent wobbling in the wrong direction by unreasonable social expectations.

In other times, in other cultures, it was ordinary to spend one’s youth adventuring. Yet today, everything is predetermined or planned out. We go to high school because we’re forced to; we go to college because it’s been pounded into our heads that we’re supposed to; and now we go into Career World because we’re financially obligated to.

Graduating debt-free was a silly goal, but it shall serve as a reminder to me that we can do almost anything with our lives; that the walls in between us and our dreams are mostly imaginary; that one is most alive when we push our boundaries and stick a finger in the eye of the status quo to boot.

If I could pass on a word to wisdom to those younger than me, I’d tell them that—if you can’t afford an education now—go get one for free standing on thruway ramps with your thumbs out, or walking down the Appalachian Trail, or WWOOFing on farms across the world. If you’re set on going to college, at least be a good consumer—don’t reward expensive schools with your money; find a place that’s affordable. You’ll still probably leave with debt, but it’s possible—even in this day and age—to leave school with a manageable load.

I’d also tell them not to eat pancakes and sausage before an important speech.

While reading my speech over, I heard a unsettlingly, yet familiar, gurgle in my stomach. I knew what this gurgle meant. I leapt to my feet, scurried down the hotel stairs, and hip-checked one of the stall doors in the bathroom.

This was the absolute worst time for me to have a digestive malfunction.

Two hours later, I was wearing a cap and gown, sitting in my chair with a pair of cold clammy, trembling hands gripping my speech as I feigned listening to the other speakers. And then my director got up to introduce me. When she announced my name, I told myself I was Barack Obama, and walked up onto the stage.

For someone so awkward and quiet, I thought the speech went reasonably well. The next day, my parents drove me back to David’s where we had a celebratory gatheration with his family. I accepted a couple gifts from my family for the first time in years—a backpacking GPS and a new hiking backpack—before they said their farewells and flew back to Buffalo.

Where do I go from here? I’m broke, jobless, and will soon be van-less. This might be a point in my life when I ought to do something practical and economically productive; to get a job and start putting away for my future. Such might be a responsible way to live.

Yet I think it would be irresponsible not to at least try to be what I want to be. It is and always has been a dream of mine to make a wage as a writer, and it’s obvious that one does not become get there by punching a clock five days a week and working 50 weeks a year.

When my friend Steve asked me if he knew anyone who wanted to buy frequent-flyer miles off of him, I saw a golden opportunity. I bought a $300 roundtrip ticket to Fairbanks, Alaska, and telephoned Coldfoot—my old home—to ask if I could be their first-ever “writer-in-residence” this summer. They agreed.

If my soul has topography, it’s in the shape of the Brooks Range. It is as much myself as a place can be—and I can’t think of a better home to chase my dreams.

I’ve decided that I will be putting all my energies toward publishing my book. So as I step off one path, I’m comforted that I have another to follow, even if I don’t what lies at the trail's end.

Will I get there? I don’t know. But I hope you’ll come along.


Perhaps the only time you'll see me wearing a tie. (Pants were bought for my ninth grade homecoming dance; shirt is from Salvation Army; origins of tie and underwear are unknown.)

Two wonderful professors and mentors, Christina and Bob.

And my dear darling kids, who I shall miss the most. I've hardly talked about them these past couple years, but they did more for me than the van or Duke ever could. Because of them, I can't wait to be a father.

Thursday, May 12, 2011


(A different version of this entry was posted a day or so ago and then mysteriously vanished in the internet abyss. I apologize to those readers who commented and sent their well wishes. Wish I could respond but the comments vanished, too.)

This is easily one of the most stressful moments of my life. As I’ve whined about before: I have no money, no job, and no health insurance. My magazine pitches are being rejected, no one wants to buy my van, and I’m no closer to signing a book deal today than I was a year ago.

Tomorrow, my parents are flying into Durham. They’ll rent a car, drive here to David’s, and drive me back to Durham for graduation.

They were eager to come because—to make things so much more stressful—I will be the “student speaker” at my department’s ceremony.

I rank public speaking up there with my most glaring weaknesses. My mind is slow and deliberative, not fast and witty—it’s good for essays and emails; not speeches and sermons.

I’m absolutely terrified of talking in front of large groups of people, so much that I wonder if I'm better off just jumping off a cliff to spare me the misery. I’d say public speaking ranks up there with encountering a grizzly bear and approaching a pretty girl--events that make my heart feel like it will explode.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been working on the speech, but I’m still nowhere near done. All day, every day, I’m beset with visions of worst-case scenarios and nightmares of theatrical performances in which I don’t know my role or lines.

I had to spend $57 on my graduation gown, hood, and cap. You can understand how hard it was to divvy up that money for someone as frugal as me for something as useless as a gown that I’ll never use again. For a moment, I thought about showing up at the ceremony in my regular clothes. As a self-proclaimed anti-conformist and cheap-son-of-a-bitch, I thought it would be a fitting statement—a bold way to end my van experiment: disobeying yet another silly and obscenely expensive ritual. Yet showing up draped in my denim amidst a flock of cap-and-gowned grads would be more trauma than I can handle at this point.

I tried the gown on last night was aghast when I realized it didn’t have any holes for my hands. How am I going to turn the pages of my speech?!?! I was about to frantically slice some holes in the sleeves with a razor blade, but I decided to frantically email someone who runs the liberal studies department instead:

Please forgive another potentially boneheaded question, but you're the first person I thought to ask. Today I tried on my graduation apparel, and was baffled to see that the sleeves have no holes for my hands. That can't be right, can it??? How am I supposed to turn the pages of my speech!? :) I showed the gown to my friend, and he's equally baffled. Any thoughts?

She responded:

Hey Ken,

LOL....don't worry - this question comes up every year. If you'll look closely at the seams along the side of the sleeves, you'll see a slit in each sleeve. A part of the sleeve (the pointed end) sort of dangles from your arm which makes for a strange look but, alas, is the customary "master's robe"! :-)

Well, at least I got that figured out.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Groundhog Day

There's a groundhog that lives in a hole near the orchard. We're don't know its sex, but we've been calling it "Mr. Groundhog." Mr. Groundhog, in one way or another, has produced at least two babies.

From the house, David spotted this baby in the front lawn. When it turned it's back, I snuck up a few steps and when it looked my way I stayed still. Every time it turned its back I moved closer, and it didn't seem to notice me as long as I was standing still. Finally, I got within five feet of it. It looked at me curiously, but clearly unperturbed, as I stood as still as I possibly could, quietly snapping photos.

Here's a video of it, when it finally chose to waddle away.

Spring growth

After spending two weeks at Duke, I came back to a very different Acorn Abbey. Not only had the plants grown and greened considerably, but the chicks had entered some horribly grotesque pubescent phase.

Here's a shot of Acorn Abbey. Garden on the left; orchard on the right.

David has a grass complex. For the past couple years, he's been walking down the driveway and up the road to get to the garden and chicken coop, which is about 3x the walk compared to leaving the side door and entering the orchard through the lower gate. To keep us from trampling the grass I build a stone walkway. We were both surprised with how well it turned out (pictured below), but David still can't bring himself to alter his walking routine.

Here's a shot of his path in the woods.

The plants got huge in those two weeks. We've already eaten spinach, snap peas, and broccoli from the garden.

Grapes in foreground; broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts in background.

Spinach and snap peas.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Getting ready to sell the van

It's time to sell the van. I'm not sure how much I'm going to ask for it. The Blue Book values for a '94 Ford Econoline with 126,000 miles are as follows:

Excellent Condition: $2,275
Good: $2,100
Fair: $1,625

It is in really good condition, and I've recently spent an absurd amount of money on repairs, BUT I have that nasty dent/scrape on the driver side, which might severely lower its value.

Anyway, I thought it best to give it a thorough cleaning. Here are some "before shots."

And some "after" shots. Here I am removing the hooks that held up my black partition.

And the hook that held all my dress pants and shirts.

For the past 2.5 years, I'd been paying a local to keep my middle pilot chairs in her garage. They're in decent shape but there was a puzzlingly large amount of shed hair on them.

Here I am putting the pilot chairs back in.

Ready to sell.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Last day at Duke. Last day in the van.

(Let’s not consider this the concluding post to my vandwelling experiment, even if it may sound like it. I have my graduation ceremony on May 14th—I suppose I'll wrap everything up then.)

Last night was an “under the sleeping bag night”—too cool for just a linen, but warm enough that I didn’t need to zip up my bag. As it always is, vandwelling at night was idyllic. Behind my headlamp, I read Andrew Ferguson’s Crazy U (an entertaining read about the inanity of college admissions), occasionally hearing the hoots of owls and the fluttering of bamboo leaves. Sometimes a soft wind would blow into the van, causing my beige blinds to swell like lungs gulping a gust of oxygen.

But in the morning (this morning) I woke at 8:50 a.m. to footsteps around my van. Footsteps are nothing unusual; it is a parking lot after all. But then there were more footsteps. And more and more and more. And chatter too. Within minutes, 12-20 people congregated just four parking spots away from my van.

Much to my horror, a couple of people with Duke “Fire Safety” were training Duke employers—perhaps security guards—on fire extinguisher usage. And they selected my parking lot to do it in. I gingerly pulled the blinds back and saw a large propane tank hooked up to what looked like a giant Bunsen burner. Every minute, they’d light a fire, there’d be a big WHOOSH, and then I’d hear the frothy purge of an extinguisher putting it out.

“You bring the marshmallows, Barry?” someone said.

“Let her rip!!!” yelled one of the trainers.

I was in bed and only wearing boxer shorts—my standard vandwelling garb. I worried that someone might recognize the van as the "campus vandweller’s van," and come over to have a looksy, thinking that I was an early riser and that I’d already walked to the library. (I most certainly am not an early riser, and 8:50 a.m. is an agonizingly early hour for me.)

I hid under my covers to make myself look like a lump of linens to any would-be investigator who might otherwise catch sight of me between the gaps where the blinds don't cover the tinted windows. Luckily I had Crazy U nearby, so I brought the book under my little fort and serenely resumed reading.

But the sun had just cast its rays onto the roof of my van, which quickly began baking me like a pig in a blanket. To make things worse I had a lunch/gym date with one of my professors at 11:30. I also needed to go to Kinko’s to bind my book/final project (which I titled Vandweller) and to the East Campus gym to get my clothes and shower supplies out of my locker so I could workout with my professor at the faculty gym.

It was a logistical nightmare, made worse by some malfunctions in my normally trusty digestive system, who was gurgling for a bathroom trip asap.

I laid there for an hour, trying to remain focused on the text, while my ass contractions steadily increased in tempo. I worried that if I didn’t get out of the van soon, not only would I miss my meeting with my professor, but I’d spend my last day in the van living out the plotline to my long-awaited and far more vile sequel to my April 2009 much-beloved blog entry, “Throwing up in the van.” While the crass side of me wishes I could conclude my experiment with “Shitting in the van,” I thought it would be just as good a story if I could somehow escape this situation without getting caught.

Of course there was nothing really at stake. It was my last day in the van—too late for them to pursue any “action” against me if they did happen to be disturbed with my presence. For all I know, they already do know about my. The van drivers who escort students across campus after-hours affectionately refer to my van as “Burgundy.” And this blog was distributed over email to the entire campus police force after I was kicked out of my old parking lot and placed in this new one.

I could have just walked out my side doors as I do every morning and nothing would have happened. Though, I would have felt awkward and uncomfortable and probably would have made the trainees feel awkward and uncomfortable. I had to find another way out of the van.

I was in a tricky situation. I couldn’t exit from the side doors, the front passenger door, or the rear doors without being seen. My only option was to sneak under the black cloth partition and exit the driver-side door. But where do I go from there?

Over the past couple years, I’ve come to know what causes every squeak in the inside of my van. I stealthily moved to the edge of the bed, placed my feet in just the right spots, and--as quietly as I could--put on my cargo shorts and thread the belt through the loops, keeping my hand gripped on the buckle so it wouldn’t jingle. Then I put on my shirt, and stuffed my books into my book bag and laptop bag. I knew I was going to have to make some noise to get under the partition and into the front seat, so I waited for them to turn the Bunsen burner on. When I heard the "WHOOSH," I ducked under the partition, hurried to the driver seat and quickly exited the van. Yes.

Now I wasn’t sure what to do. No one could see me behind the van, but I couldn’t simply walk right past them. I looked into the bamboo forest yards away. It looked too thick, too impenetrable--with stalks, in places, no more than an inch or two apart. I stood there for maybe three minutes wondering if I should just walk right by the trainees and give myself away. But I had to get to the gym and Kinkos and the bathroom, so this was no time for dallying, and I was still simply too timid to walk past them. I waited for the Bunsen burner to erupt again, and when it did, I sprinted into the thick of the woods, high stepping over fallen branches and snapping dead bamboo stalks like porcupine quills. I broke through the forest, happened upon a street, walked to the bus stop, and head to Kinkos.


Kinkos was on Ninth Street near my old parking lot. I figured I might as well say goodbye to my old neighborhood and my old parking lot—the Mill parking lot—while I was here. I walked past the coffee shops, nodded my head to the African American bum who everyone calls “Slick.” Modeling his glitzy tennis shoes and colored shorts overtop camo pants, he looked less like a bum than an out-of-commission superhero.

The sidewalks were speckled with cigarette butts, steamrolled chewing gum, and pockets of grass bursting through sidewalk cracks. Across the road were a couple prodigious oaks whose limbs are so long they almost reach far enough over the street to tickle store roofs. I walked into the old bookshop, and then to my old parking spot.

I felt a hint of sadness. But just a hint. I am sad to leave, but also glad to go. I guess I never really felt at home here at Duke, and sometimes I wonder if I would have been better off at some hippie, artistic, liberal arts college elsewhere—some campus where I might have had an easier time fitting in. Yet I remembered how, at Duke, I've met some amazing professors, took some mind-bending courses, will--if all goes to plan--graduate debt-free, and had more than my fair share of fun writing about it all on this blog.

When I started the blog nearly 2.5 years ago, I wanted to share the truth with readers—to give them as authentic a picture of vandwelling as one can possibly give over the internet. I think, for the most part, I’ve remained true to this goal, but I've had to fight the temptation to glorify living in a van into something it’s not.

I thought about my escape from the van just an hour before. It seemed like a fitting event for my last day in the van. My idyllic slumber, when juxtaposed with the many inconveniences I experienced this morning, presents a fairly accurate depiction of my life vandwelling. There is peace and quiet and nature and cheap housing, yet there’s no bathroom, skin-melting heat, and people who may be uncomfortable with my presence…

Tomorrow morning, I head back to David’s where I’ll spend the rest of the month of May sleeping on a large bed in my air-conditioned room with Wi-Fi, which I’ll use to put the van up for sale on Craigslist.

What can I say? Despite my ambivalence about Duke, saying goodbye to the van is, well, going to be a bitch.


East Campus Gym.

Ninth Street.

Old Neighborhood.

Hula-hoops in bamboo forest.

My escape.