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  • Ken Ilgunas

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.

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.


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