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Author | Journalist | Speaker

  • Ken Ilgunas

Updated: Mar 6, 2022

I first learned of the Appalachian Trail from the book, A Walk in the Woods by travel writer Bill Bryson, who attempted to hike all 2,175-miles of it from Georgia to Maine. Bryson didn’t just fail—he failed miserably—only completing a fraction of the trail. While judgments may rightfully be made about his outdoorsmanship, anyone who can make shitting in your pants sound as poetic as he does is okay in my book:

“What on earth would I do if four bears came into my camp? Why, I would die, of course. Literally shit myself lifeless. I would blow my sphincter out my backside like one of those unrolling paper streamers you get at children’s parties–I daresay it would even give a merry toot–and bleed to a messy death in my sleeping bag.”

My friend Luke, hailing from South Carolina—who I used to work with in Coldfoot—asked me to join him and his dog, Rimsky, on a 78-mile trek along the trail for spring break. Feeling a bit insulated after months spent alone in the van, I enthusiastically agreed to join him.

I always did, however, find something off-putting about hiking on trails. If one goes into nature for adventure and self-discovery, how can one discover anything when every step you take and every sight you see is determined by those who blazed the trail? How can you test yourself in nature when a trail is made to circumvent the very challenges nature presents?

Putting these questions aside, Luke and I began our hike just west of Asheville, NC where we’d set off north along the North Carolina-Tennessee border. We decided to do about fifteen miles a day, which we thought would be challenging, yet feasible. While Luke and I plodded on with a good 40 pounds on our backs, Rimsky ran circles around us, never concerned about conserving energy.

As the days wore on, though, Luke’s body deteriorated. First there was a blister on his foot. Then his knee started acting up. When his ankle began bothering him, Luke looked less like the arctic dog-musher that I once knew, and more like a zombie, dragging his feet with each step, that you can’t wait to gun-down in a videogame. He soldiered on though, and because of his tenacity, we were able to make it to the trail shelter each night.

Every ten miles or so there are lean-tos, or three-sided cabins. Luke and I opted to spend our nights sleeping under the stars, but when it rained we were forced under the lean-to. After spending a night in one, Bryson’s friend, Katz, said “There’s nothing like a good night’s sleep and that was nothing like a good night’s sleep.” Katz was preoccupied with the mice that commonly terrorize hikers at AT-shelters and I, too—I’m afraid to admit—cowered in my sleeping bag late into the night, nervously eyeing the walls which—from the sounds of it—seemed like a bustling metropolis of the little bastards.

At the shelters we met several “thru-hikers”—a term used for those who intend to walk the entire trail--which typically takes up to six months to accomplish (though only 29 percent have the mettle to make it all the way).

One night we came across a hiker in his fifties named Hillbilly who was trying to hike up to Connecticut, but decided he was going to call it quits at the next road because his rattled body couldn’t take it anymore. His face reminded me of the drivers who’d pick me up on my hitchhikes. Beneath a mat of grizzled hair was a battered face aged prematurely by calamitous relationships, manual labor, and whiskey.

A relic of the 60’s, Hillbilly didn’t evolve with his contemporaries who got a job, a family and a 401K. No; Hillbilly, content in a set of perforated jeans, faded shirt and a lifestyle defined by drugs, free love, and contempt for authority, never shed his skin. What were once the ideals of a free-spirit were now no more than bad habits, bad decisions, and a chronic and self-inflicted case of “down-on-my-luck” syndrome. There was something sadly anachronistic about him; no longer the free-loving spirit of his glory days, he looked worn-out now—as if he would have been better off not to have dragged his past with him.

He didn’t belong on this trail, I thought. Go clean up, get a job and leave it for the younger generations who have something to prove. Escaping to nature will not solve your problems. These mountains, this lifestyle, has nothing to give you anymore.

Luke and I ended up falling short of our goal as well, stopping at mile 69 on account of Luke’s leg. And without any death-defying moments, run-ins with bears, (or shitting in our sleeping bags for that matter), I found myself thinking about Hillbilly after our trip more than anything else. Bryson’s tale, too, is in large part a tale of his interactions with fellow hikers. I suppose that’s because a trail doesn’t just connect people to nature; it connects people to people.

When you’re on the Appalachian Trail and see nothing but tall pines and rolling hills, it’s easy to delude yourself into believing that you’re hiking in something close to pure wilderness. But just over the next hill and through the wall of trees are the staples of civilization that are never more than a day’s walk away. It would be silly to write-off the AT simply because it’s not pure. No wilderness, of course, is completely pure. Man has been built for nature and nature, in some cases, I think, is okay when built for man. The value in nature—I realize—isn’t always in the challenge it presents, but in the remedial qualities that only nature—of any shape or size—can bestow.

  • Ken Ilgunas

Updated: Feb 28, 2022

She’s known about it for quite some time now. In fact, I told my mom about my idea to live out of a van months before I was even accepted to college. But because the very thought of living in a van—to her—was too preposterous to believe, she shrugged it off as pure “silly talk.”

I admit—I do often share some of my most outlandish ideas with her just to see how unfavorably she’ll respond, but by now (considering that most of those outlandish ideas come true) you’d think that incredulity would no longer be her dominant reaction.

I wasn’t looking forward to telling my mom about the van, as I knew it wouldn’t go over well with her. My mom—like any mom—wants to see her children succeed and there’s just something about her first-born son living in a ’94 Ford Econoline that doesn’t convey an image of success.

I didn’t want to outright lie to her as I have in the past. After hitchhiking from Alaska to New York several summers ago, I deliberately avoided calling home because I didn’t want my eardrums cudgeled with: “Are you crazy!?! You’re going to get yourself killed!!”

Before I left Alaska, I commissioned my friend Josh with the duty of calling my mom if I were to get lost somewhere between Alaska’s Arctic and New York. Anyone who knows my mom knows that she’s a nervous woman to begin with, so if presented with information that her baby boy was missing in the land of the sasquatch and grizzly bears, who knew how she might respond? Luckily Josh never had to do this, but if he did, the phone call could have gone something like this:

Josh: Mrs. I… uh, I have some news.

My mom: (Pause)

Josh: Ken… Well he kinda went hitchhiking and..

My mom: WHAT!!!!?

Josh: He’s missing in the Yukon.

::my mom causes a supernova, there’s a bright light, an explosion, and the world, as we know it, ends::

My mom is incredibly loving and supportive, but she has yet to see anything rational about my adventures. Each time I visit home she suggests I apply for a career with the Niagara Falls Border Patrol, probably envisioning me settled down with a stable job, a family, and a home stocked with symbols of the American Dream—all part of a common misrepresentation of a “dream” that’s always mysteriously devoid of domesticity’s many glaring drawbacks.

When speaking over the phone, I told her, with a deliberate lack of ceremony—in the most relaxed terms—about my current living quarters. This time she seemed far more reluctant to simply cast off my declarations as “silly talk.” After a brief pause she responded just as light-heartedly. But underneath her more pleasant tones, there was an undeniable hint of unease.

Nevertheless, I thought the conversation was a success: I manned-up, I remained honest, and my mother had at least put on an air of acceptance.

Then the emails started coming in. The first one was brief, and reflected her most prominent concerns:

“how do you clean yourself? Where do u park the van?”

In the second, her sincerity and anxiety shone through:

“You worry me & you know it. Please let me give you some money. If you’re so upset about it you can pay me back. Please get an apart. or roommate or something.”

And in the third, she bored a hole through my heart:

“Your life must be so stressful the way you are living. I feel so sorry for you. You go to this fantastic school & you are living like a homeless person. How do u explain your life to new acquaintances? Dont you have any self worth? Why cant u take help from your family. I am always here for you. Love, momxxxooo”

Ouch. Any sensible person can understand where she’s coming from. And believe me—it’s difficult explaining to someone that you want to live in a vehicle while maintaining a semblance of sanity. Nor is it easy expressing that the conventional American lifestyle, to me, is just as confounding and unappealing as living out of a van is to her.

While my parents have, in part, shaped me into the man I am today (which I am everlastingly thankful for), I’ve had to consciously distance myself from some of their generation’s more accepted precepts. What is common sense to them, I find, is oftentimes utter nonsense to me. Whether it’s a parent, a professor, or even the traditions of the age and society in which we live, we must be wary of who we choose as our teachers. As Thoreau says,

“Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may almost doubt if the wiser man has learned anything of absolute value by living.”

Clearly there isn’t just a generational gap between my mom and I, but a philosophical one as well. And while she and I don’t quite see eye to eye, I think we have reached a common understanding. Now she playfully mocks my “studio apartment” and sends me brownies. In return, I can’t give her an “image of success,” but I can confidently say that I’ve found happiness playing by my own rules—and that should be worth just as much. Shouldn’t it?

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