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  • Ken Ilgunas

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.


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