Walden on Wheels

Have you ever read a book expecting to read about one thing, only to read about something else entirely? That was the case for me with “Walden on Wheels” by Ken Ilgunas. By the time I had read half of the story, I was beginning to wonder if the printers had mistakenly put the pages of another book between the covers I was holding — it wasn’t until the last few chapters that the author finally started to write about living in a van. Bait and switch? It sure felt like it!

Which isn’t to say Ilgunas’ story is a terrible one — far from it. I can’t remember the last time I read a book in so little time. It’s just that I bought “Walden on Wheels” expecting a journal on the joys (and pains) of so called vandwelling — not a young adult’s life story with a van thrown in at the end. Let’s put it this way – there’s a whole lot of Walden in this book, but very little about the wheels. A more accurate title might have been “Walden and Some Wheels Tag On at the End”.

So what’s this book about? 

Well, if I had to describe it, I’d say it is one part coming of age story, one part social commentary, and one part nature adventure. The driving force that moves the book forward is the author’s considerable student debt — just slightly over thirty thousand. In fact, almost every chapter begins with a tally of just how much he still owes (or has saved) at whatever specific point in time he’s writing about.

The book begins by explaining how the author got into debt in the first place. Here Ilgunas‘ story is pretty typical. Like most teenagers entering post secondary education, he failed to realize (or care about) the implications of owing so much money — thinking he’d just pay off his loans in the future. It isn’t until he finds himself stuck working for Home Depot that he realizes that having such a large debt actually really sucks. In fact, it seems to end up traumatizing him. But rather than taking the more common route to pay it off, he devises a plan to quit his life-sucking job and goes looking for adventure. Eventually he settles on an opportunity in nowhere-Alaska to work as a room cleaner and guide. Once there he (unsurprisingly) discovers the transformative power of nature and its beauty.

I don’t want to give away too much about the book’s story, but the author eventually succeeds at paying off his student loans. The way he accomplishes this isn’t exactly revolutionary, so much that he takes a common debt paying formula to an extreme most would never consider. In essence he choses to spend almost none of his earnings. More interestingly, however, are the life lessons about consumerism that he learns along the way.

The really surprising part about this book, however, is that, despite the extreme limitations brought about by the author’s self imposed frugal way of life, Ilgunas still manages to go on a series of unconventional adventures. The most interesting of these is an organized canoe trip that attempts to recreate the arduous lives of French-Canadian voyageurs, whose job it was to carry animal pelts across the the untamed wilderness of 18th century Canada. Other adventures include a few hitchhiking trips across North America and a short stint as a park ranger in Alaska. By this point you’re almost two hundred pages into the book, and oddly there’s still no mention of the fabled van that graces the book’s cover.

After having paid off all of his loans, the author ironically decides that he actually wants to go back to school to get his graduate’s degree. And not just any school — Duke University! The only difference this time around is that he wants to graduate without getting himself into debt a second time. That’s where the van finally comes in. What follows is 100 pages or so about the trials and tribulations of vandwelling on campus — at last!

The good

If you can get past the whole bait and switch thing, there’s actually a lot to like here. If I were the parent of a teenager who was about to enter university, this would probably be a gift I’d give them to really convey the reality of student loans. Debt is a horrible thing; unfortunately too many of us at that age aren’t experienced enough to fully grasp what it means to be thirty thousand dollars in debt. This book, better than any book I can think of, captures the dread that takes over when it comes time to pay off those loans. For many, this insurmountable mountain becomes a burden that they carry around for years, if not decades.

The bad

I’m by no means a prude, but even for me, some of the passages came across as crass and unnecessary.  On the milder end of spectrum, the word “fuck” appears more often than necessary and there’s some frank discussion about masturbation and pubic hair trimming. None of these things offend me, but it might make other readers uncomfortable. This definitely isn’t “Anne of Green Gables”.

On the more extreme end, Ilgunas sometimes uses violent/graphic metaphors to describe his feelings, like using the image of discovering one’s wife and child killed and covered in semen to express the emotion of surprised anger. I’m not sure what the author thought this particular image would add to the story; if anything it came across as a weak attempt to appear edgy.

The ugly

One of the most off putting aspects of this book, however, was a subtle whinny tone, which although not always present, often left a bad aftertaste. For example, rather than accept his responsibility for accumulating so much debt, he seemingly prefers to lay the blame on society, and the capitalistic system that runs it. These anti-capitalist diatribes unfortunately become longer as the book progresses. The truth is, while he may have been ignorant at the time about the implications of accumulating so much debt, nobody forced him to take out his loans either.

Worse yet, however, are the many extremely judgemental passages, which make it really hard to like the author. When he isn’t insulting overweight women on one page, he’s denigrating  a guy for being a “lazy, drunken couch potato of no more consequence than a pile of dirty laundry.” Those are some really harsh words for someone who, despite clearly having a substance abuse problem, just helped him out. You’d think he’d show a little more gratitude, empathy and/or understanding — especially when the author often feels misunderstood by his own peers.

Conclusion

If it weren’t for the few ugly parts that creep in every so often, the book would pretty much be a perfect five out of five. Ilguna’s definitely knows how to write an engaging book, even if the aforementioned negatives bring it down a bit. As such, the positives definitely outweigh the negatives, and if you can hold your nose while those less endearing passages go by, you’ll discover that there’s a lot to like here. Just don’t expect to read a lot about van living until the last third of the book. To be honest, if van life is the only reason why you wanted to read “Walden on Wheels”, you’d probably be better off looking somewhere else; there really isn’t that much here about van life to recommend it on those grounds. But if you’re a young adult that’s freaked out by the prospect of accumulating tons of student debt, or you already have a million dollars in student loans, you should definitely consider reading this book.

Rating: 3.5/5

As always thanks for reading,

André