Ilgunas solves the dilemma--more college equals more choices but also debt--in a go-getter way. With that $32,000 ball and chain on his ankle, he takes off for Alaska. For the next three plus years, he works at what are often near-minimum wage jobs, but where his room and board are free. Virtually all his income pays off student debt. The debt melts at a spectacular rate. He takes prides in unstinting frugality and absolutely resists the dissipative tendencies of other co-workers.
But Alaska also has its share of self-reliant, unusual characters. Old James, all of seventy-two, plans to keep working until he is one hundred and lives in his Chevy Suburban, a propane heater keeping him from freezing. James's example is not lost on Ilgunas.
At the end of his odyssey, debt-free Ilgunas is amazed to find he's been accepted for grad school at one of the best: Duke.
Duke is not an inexpensive school. But Ilgunas is up to the challenge. At Duke, he lives in a $1,500 Ford Econoline van, parked in a campus parking lot, and keeps his residence a secret. He cooks meals in the darkened van and showers at the campus gym. In many ways, he outdoes his hero Thoreau at living on the cheap. Living costs pared to the bone, he pays his tuition by working every student part-time job he can hustle.
When he graduates, when he addresses his fellow grads as a commencement speaker, this memoir takes on shades of the movie Rocky. I kid you not.
As a bonus, Ilgunas writes paeans to the Alaska wilderness of lyrical intensity. And this is what he says about hitchhiking: "A week before, when I stuck my thumb out on that blue-skies May afternoon, I had, for the first time, surrendered control.... I was travelling outside the formula. I might as well have been floating through space, trailing my hand in stardust." Yes, quite often the writing exceeds what a reader expects of an author's first book.
Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road From Debt to Freedom by Ken Ilgunas, New Harvest, 2013, 298 pp., ISBN: 978-0-544-02883-8
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