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  • Ken Ilgunas

Walden on Wheels

In my travel writing class, I read (and secretly recorded) an essay about my van. It seemed to go over pretty well. After the reading I got asked the standard questions: Where do the smells come from? Are you going to keep living in it after graduating? And the age-old: Where do you go to the bathroom at night? There are only twelve students in the class, so I’m not too worried about my secret spreading.

(I bleeped out my school’s name for obvious reasons.)

“The Walden on Wheels: One Student’s Attempt to Afford the Unaffordable—A College Education”

I was lying prone on my van’s floor where the middle pilot chairs used to be, trying to keep out of sight.

This is it, I thought. They know. I’m going to get kicked out of ____.

Moments before I had been cooking up a pot of spaghetti stew on top of a plastic, three-drawer storage container that I bought from Wal-Mart, which held all my food and my few meager possessions. I figured the campus security guard had parked next to me because he saw the blue flame from my propane stove through the van’s tinted windows and shades.

I held my breath as I listened to him shut off the engine and click open his door. I was in my boxer shorts. My arms and legs were splayed out like a scarecrow that’s toppled over in the wind. When I heard the clip-clop of his shoes, I couldn’t help but picture a pair of Gestapo jackboots tapping floorboards in search of some secret chamber in a 1940’s Warsaw ghetto.

I had made it so far, I thought to myself.

Up until this point, I had been living in my van at ____ for two months.

Vandwelling, for some, might conjure images of pop-culture losers who had to resort to desperate measures in troubled times. Losers like Uncle Rico from Napolean Dynamite or Chris Farley in Saturday Night Live skits who’d famously exclaim, “I live in a van down by the river!” before crashing through a coffee table. Or one might imagine an over-sized, multi-colored VW bus circa 1970 that welcomed strangers with complementary coke lines and invitations into writhing, hairy-bodied backseat orgies.

In my van there were no orgies, coke lines, or overweight motivational speakers. The van to me was what Walden Pond was to Thoreau; what Rocinante was to Don Quixote. The van was an adventure. It was my grand social experiment.

I wanted to see if I could—in an age of rampant consumerism and fiscal irresponsibility—afford the unaffordable: a college education. I pledged that I wouldn’t take out loans. Nor would I accept money from anybody, especially my mom who, appalled by my experiment, would offer to pay my apartment rent every time I called home. My heat would be a sleeping bag and my air conditioning would be an open window. I’d shower at the gym, eat the bare minimum and find a job to pay tuition. And—most importantly—I wouldn’t tell anybody.

More than just affording school, I had other reasons for living out of a van. I wanted to live adventurously. I wanted to test my limits. I wanted to find the line between what were my wants and what were my needs. I wanted, as Thoreau puts it, “to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life… to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

It wouldn’t be hard for me to remain frugal. After buying the van and making my first tuition payment I was only a few dollars away from having to rummage through dumpsters to find my next meal. I was—under most first-world definitions—poor. While I wasn’t plagued with the more serious travails of third-world poverty like malnutrition, death, and disease, I still didn’t own an iPod and I smelled sometimes.

My experiment began in the spring of this past year when I enrolled in the graduate Liberal Studies department. Before I moved to ___, I held an assortment of jobs to pay off $32,000 in undergraduate student loans—no easy feat for an English major.

After graduating, I moved to Coldfoot, Alaska—situated sixty miles north of the Arctic Circle and 250 from the nearest store—where I worked as a lodge cleaner, a tour guide, and a cook. Later, I worked on a trail crew in Mississippi in an AmeriCorps program. Between jobs I hitchhiked over 7,000 miles so I didn’t have to pay airfare. When I couldn’t find work, I moved in with friends. My clothes came from donation bins, I had friends cut my hair, and I’d pick up odd jobs when I could. Every dime I made went into my loans.

I finally got out of the red when I landed a well-paying job with the Park Service as a backcountry ranger. Finally, after two and a half years, my debt was gone. I had four grand in the bank that was mine. All mine. It was the first time I had actual money that wasn’t borrowed or given to me since I was a 13-year old paperboy.

I had learned a few things in those two and a half years. I learned the value of a dollar. I learned about the horrors of debt. I learned that the more money you borrow, the more freedom you give. I learned, as Ben Franklin said, “A ploughman on his legs is higher than a gentleman on his knees.” I also learned that I missed school. And—most dangerously—I learned that I could do anything.

Though I had never lived in a van before, I knew I had the personality for it. I had a penchant for adventure, a sixth sense for cheapness, and an unequaled tolerance for squalor.

My first order of business upon moving to ____ was to buy a van. After a two hour bus ride into central North Carolina, I caught sight of the ‘94 Ford Econoline that I had found advertised on Craigslist. When I first cast eyes upon it, I thought of Thoreau stumbling upon what would be his beloved Walden Pond for the first time. Googly-eyed, I sauntered up to it, lovingly trailing fingertips over dents and chipped paint along her burgundy hood. The classy cabernet sauvignon veneer from the top slowly, sensuously fades downward into a lustrous black complexion. I got behind the wheel and revved up the fuel-funneling beast. There was a grumble, then a cough, then a smooth and steady mechanical growl.

It was $1,500 and I bought it immediately. So began what I’d call “radical living.”

I removed the two middle pilot chairs to create a living space. I installed a coat hook, and spent $5 on a sheet of black cloth to hang behind my front and passenger seats so that—between the sheet, tinted windows, and shades—no one would be able to see me inside. I neatly folded my clothes into a suitcase and I hung up my dress shirts and pants on another hook I screwed into the wall.

I at first failed to notice the TV and VCR—that I’d never use—placed between the two front seats. Nor did I know about the 12-disc CD changer hiding under the passenger seat until weeks later. Just when I thought I had uncovered all the van’s secrets, I found a mysterious button towards the back. I hesitated, wary of what wonders might unfold if pushed, but I pushed anyway. The back seat grumbled and began to vibrate, and—much to my jubilation—it began transforming into a bed. I half-expected to see a disco ball descend from the ceiling and hear 70’s porn music blare from the dash.

Fortuitously, I was assigned a parking spot at a remote area on campus next to a cluster of apartments where campus security—I hoped—would presume I lived.

Over time, my van felt less like a novelty and more like a home. At night a crescendo of cicadas from nearby trees would whirr me to sleep, and in the morning I’d wake to a medley of birds so loud and cheery you’d think my little hermitage was tucked away in a copse of trees at Walden Pond. In rainstorms, I’d doze easily into long, healthy slumbers, listening to every raindrop drum against the roof and then flow down my windows like millions of sperm wiggling earthward.

I loved cooking in the van. As an adept backcountry camper, I could easily whip up an assortment of healthy, economical and delicious meals on my backpacking stove. For breakfast, cereal with powdered milk would become a staple as well as oatmeal with peanut butter. For dinner some of my favorites included spaghetti stew with peanut butter, vegetable stew with peanut butter, and even rice and bean tacos with peanut butter. Without proper refrigeration, I cut out meat, dairy and alcohol from my diet entirely. I became leaner, more muscular, healthier.

By buying food in bulk I got my food bill down to $4.34 cents a day. I was meticulous with my expenditures. I saved every receipt and wrote everything I bought down. Not including tuition, I lived (and lived comfortably) on $103 a week, which covered my necessities: food, a parking permit, gas, car insurance, a cell phone, and visits to the laundromat.

The typical student today is not so frugal. Money, for them, comes from some magical vat of gold coins that feeds into their Flex account. They’re detached from the source of their money. That’s because there is no source. They’re getting paid by their future selves. Having never been in debt, they see little reason not to resist materialist pleasures like iPhones, costly plane tickets home, and copious amounts of alcohol. Besides, what are a few extra coins on a mountain of debt?

It’s easy for them to imagine that they’ll make all this money back when they start getting paid the big bucks. It’s easy not to think about the tough job market or how many extra years of work their profligacy has sentenced them to.

I don’t blame my fellow students. I did the same things. What’s so tragic for them is that there is—barring the purchase of a large creepy van—no alternative to going into debt. The government lets legions of its degree-toting citizens—the very citizens who wish to better themselves and contribute to society—go into soul-crippling debt. Additionally, schools don’t make it easier with ridiculous tuition rates and baffling room and board costs.

The average undergraduate student at ___ leaves with over $23,000 in debt, which is within a couple hundred dollars of the national average. The cost of education here, like most schools across the country, is ludicrously high. At ____—without scholarship—tuition costs over $37,000 a year plus books, room and board. The cheapest available meal plan charges them 3.5 times more a day than it costs to feed me. Their dorm rooms cost 18 times more than my parking permit.

____ is no anomaly. It’s a microcosm of our educational system and our country as a whole. We’re a nation in debt; a country of debtors. Going into debt today is as American as beer at a baseball game or an overstuffed turkey at Thanksgiving. An army of loan drones we’ve become, marching from one investment to the next—be it a home, a degree, or a car—in quest of some sense of fulfillment that modern life does not impart. We’re no different than the Spanish explorers who’d dedicate their lives to find the fabled El Dorado, which was always just around the next bend in the river, yet never there at all.

I refused to play by their rules anymore. I was an eccentric. An outsider. I was an ascetic in the midst of wealth; a heretic in the midst of order. I was the antithesis of what the school and country represented. I had to hide.

Because I was so paranoid about campus security finding out about the van, I cut myself off from the student body. Whenever I did talk with a fellow classmate, I found myself souring the conversation with preposterous lies—lies I’d tell to protect myself.

I worried that if students caught wind of the van, a facebook group would be created for “People who’ve had a confirmed sighting of the campus vandweller,” as if I was the elusive Yeti of the Himalayas. Then campus security would find out, deem my lodgings illegal, and promptly kick me out of the van and into some conventional and unaffordable style of living, wherein I’d have to spend ludicrous amount of money to buy a rug—among other superfluous items—to tie the room together in my new apartment.

::Ken has coughing seizure::

In lieu of human companionship, I cloistered myself in my van and in libraries where I was alone with my thoughts and my books. Time for self-reflection, study, and solitude was what I thought I wanted all along.

But of all the things that I gave up for “radical living,” I found it fitting how the one thing that I wanted most was that which couldn’t be bought. When I’d hear a trio of laughing males drunkenly stumble past my van at night, probably hoisting one another up like injured comrades after battle, I’d think of my friends back home. When my ceiling would leak during a downpour, I’d wish to have a companion to share my laughs with. Or on winter nights, when the windows would be coated with a glaze of frost, I’d wish for a woman to share the warmth of my sleeping bag with.

Thoreau extolled the virtues of solitude in his timeless Walden. He called the “advantages of human neighborhood insignificant,” yet he neglected to mention just how often he had visitors over or how his friends and family were just two miles away in the town of Concord.

He extolled a lot of other things about simple living. And while I have plenty of good things to say about it too, living in a van wasn’t all adventure and high ideals. Washing dishes became so troublesome I stopped washing them altogether, letting specks of dried spaghetti sauce and globs of peanut butter season the next meal. There was no place to go to the bathroom at night. I’d never figure out exactly where to put my dirty laundry. Once when a swarm of ants overtook my storage containers I tossed and turned all night, worried about retinues of them spelunking into my orifices like cave-divers while I slept. New, strange, unidentifiable smells would greet me upon entering the van each evening. Sometimes upon opening the side door, a covey of odors would escape like spirits unleashed from a cursed ark.

But no adventure is without bouts of loneliness, discomfort, and the ubiquitous threat of food poisoning. I loved my van. And—after finding a well-paying part-time job—I could afford college.

So naturally I was nervous as I listened to the security guard’s weapons jingle as he ambled by my windshield.

But he just kept walking.

I was overcome with an odd sense of dissatisfaction. Deep down, I think I wanted him to discover me. I wanted a showdown. I wanted to wave my arms at the dean and cry “Impound my van? Over my dead body! I’ll take you straight to the Supreme Court!” Fellow students would rally behind me. We’d have car-dwelling protests and after winning back my right to remain voluntarily poor, people would begin to consider me the campus sage. I’d wear loose white clothing, grow out my beard, and begin to speak in aphorisms to the underclassmen who’d journey the mile on foot to my sacred parking space where I’d serve them tea and answer three questions.

These were just narcissistic fantasies, but I did feel compelled—like Thoreau did—to share my findings with other. If one such student did come by I’d tell him that we need so few things to live comfortably.

I’d tell him not to thoughtlessly acquiesce to parental and social expectations.

I’d tell him that you can live happily without a fridge, but not without friends.

I’d tell him that too often are dreams lost amidst closets of collected clutter; that freedom comes easier to those who don’t have to shoulder the burden of their belongings.

I’d tell him to take some clichés seriously. That money can’t buy happiness; that one should seize the day; and that if life is a journey, can’t everyday be an adventure?

Today I still live in the van. I haven’t taken out loans or borrowed money from anyone. Really, the only thing that’s different is that I’ve set up my laundry area by the passenger seat. Also, after another summer with the Park Service, I have more money than I possibly need. Now instead of being poor, I am radically frugal. Sometimes I think it would be nice to have an ironing board, plumbing, and a woodstove.

It would be nice… The middle class family might think it would be nice to have an in-ground swimming pool. The millionaire might think it would be nice to have a yacht. The billionaire, a private jet. Someone, somewhere might think it would be nice is to have food to feed to her family tonight. Someone, somewhere might think it would be nice to live in a van and go to a wonderful school. I could begin satisfying materialist desires and buying comforts, but it seems to make more sense to appreciate what little I have than to despair about what I don’t.

Admittedly, now that I have money I buy the fancy peanut butter from Whole Foods and I’ve even purchased an expensive pair of hiking boots. But most things are the same: I still cook spartan meals, I still don’t have an iPod, and I park in the very same parking spot. And I still have my secret. Well, that is until now.


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