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  • Ken Ilgunas

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.

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.


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