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  • Ken Ilgunas

Back at Duke

I came back to Duke to attend the second of two “final project seminars,” in which liberal studies students in their final semester share excerpts from their final projects.

This means that I’m back in the van—at least for a couple days. When I first got in, my first thought was the common refrain: “What the hell is that smell?” It was an awful garlicy, oniony sour smell. And it was everywhere. I figured another mouse had expired in my van’s ceiling, but after a thorough search, I gave up and laid in bed. That’s when I got a whiff of my armpit, and realized the smell wasn’t the van; it was me. (Explanation: So I don’t have to buy another bar, I’ve been rationing my usage of this one by applying deodorant only once every three days.)

After mysteries of mice and smells were solved, I realized: Oh—how I’ve missed my dear, darling Econoline! Last night, I slept in ideal vandwelling conditions—a brisk not-too-cold, not-too-warm 45 degrees, perfect for bedding beneath my unzipped sleeping bag. This morning I awoke to a squirrel running across my roof, warm breezes blowing through my windows, and songbirds frolicking in my neighboring blooming bamboo forest. (Why there’s a bamboo forest here is beyond me.) This past afternoon, I laid on my bed for three hours, doing absolutely nothing except contemplating the Milky Way and reading Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. (I’m trying to spruce up on the “memoir” genre.)

As lonely as Duke can be, it is a refreshing change of pace. Most of all, it’s just nice to be around members of the female gender. Having lived in seclusion with David, his cat, and three chickens for the past three months, I’d almost forgotten what a woman looks like. I find myself eyeing them all amorously, falling in love with strangers 50 times a day (especially now that they’ve packed away the rather unbecoming “leggings” and “Uggs” for the season).

Sadly, my vandwelling days are drawing to a close, and I will only be able to enjoy a few more nights in what has been my home for much of the last two years. Between car repairs and insurance costs, I’m running out of money. (I have only $450 left). I’ve had to cancel my cell phone, and I don’t even have enough to renew my ($34) gym membership. (Though—with the help of one of my professors—I’ve been getting in for free at the faculty gym.)

So—as much as it pains me to say it—in order to financially stay afloat I will sell the van at the end of the semester. I say that with sadness, but also with excitement. It’s time to plant myself in a bigger flowerpot—it’s time to move on.

Thoreau said he found it hard to say goodbye to his Walden cabin, but left because “it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.” I think I could live in the van quite contentedly for years to come, but I suppose that I have “more lives to live,” too. What those lives are—I’m not sure quite yet, but I look forward to a life full of new experiments and daring endeavors—each, a trail-marker, not leading me to a particular destination, but keeping me on a never-ending journey and my eyes always fixed toward the direction of my dreams.

Van or no van, I can say that I’ll always be—till the day I die—a vandweller in spirit, as I believe that a simple existence is conducive to a happy existence. And while I may come to reside in homes without wheels, I will not fritter away my days filling them with frivolous stuff.

My graduation date is May 14. That will be the conclusion of my loan-free college-degree experiment.


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