The Spartan Student

I’ve been following Ken Ilgunas for a while now ever since he started blogging about his life living in a van on the Duke campus in an effort to keep his costs down and afford school without taking on debt. I just finished reading Ken’s recently released book, “Walden on Wheels: On The Open Road From Debt to Freedom” in which he details the first few years of his adult life trying to find some adventure, purpose, education and freedom.

Ken reaches back and writes well on that feeling, post high school, I remember when I was offered up a path to an easy middle-class life; college, careerism, managing credit wisely, providing me with the comforts of a reliable car and a cable subscription while I vest into a pension or build up a 401k over the course of a 40 year career. Some people navigate that path well, and with enthusiasm. But for others it evoked a sense of dread and depression. Could that be all there is? Am I forever limited to exploring the world in 2 week chunks of guided tours, ever in a hurry to get back to my job? Will my greatest “adventures” be limited to preplanned rafting trips that have glossy brochures promising to satiate my need for an adrenaline rush, but only with noon-time breaks for catered lunches? Will mortgages and debts mean I have to forever sell the better part of my day in exchange for a paycheck?

The safety and comforts of modern life are nice, but at what cost do they come?

Ken manages to find some danger, discomfort, adventure and untouched natural beauty in the Alaskan wilderness. His accounts of being nearly lost on a mountain by himself while battling exhaustion and hordes of mosquitoes, of encountering a grizzly and realizing he’d left his shotgun behind, and of befriending some locals who live near subsistence lifestyles, goes to show that there is still adventure to be found in the modern world, even for a middle-class suburban kid, so long as he has the courage to go out and find it.

A large aspect of Ken’s story is his financial journey. He started out with massive loans from his undergrad degree and chose to take them on with extreme frugality and persistent hard work. And then he found a way to finance a graduate education without having to worry about any more loans.

Ken’s writing taps into a youthful, urgent sense for life and an intense appreciation of the natural world, but without ever becoming merely sentimental, not an easy feat. And something that can only be done when it comes from a sincere and passionate place. You can follow him as he grows through his journey, vacillating between rejecting the safe, tepid middle-class trajectory society offers him in favor of the rugged wilderness, but then later embracing the liberal arts and higher learning that only civilization can offer. I don’t think Ken sees the world as a dichotomy of either rejecting the modern world on the one hand, or embracing all out consumerism and careerism on the other. It’s more that his sense of balance between safety and comfort, and between natural and manmade beauty, and between freedom and responsibility, is maybe a little more examined and a little more extreme than it is for most of us.

Ken’s book was a bit of a realization for myself about how far I am from that guy I was when I lived in tents, carried all my possessions in saddle-bags, and would call two or three different places “home” within the course of a year. Now I’m settled into a 3 bedroom bungalow, have my investments to care for, and a beloved partner to keep me company. I don’t long for those previous days, I like where I am, building my garden, regularly visiting with friends and family I love, and having a comfortable space to call home. But it was nice to revisit that mindset for just the short while I spent reading Ken’s account of his own journey.

Ken’s book is worth a read if you want to rekindle, or just remember, that youthful spirit that often gets slowly snuffed out by complacency and mounting obligations, or just gets set aside completely at too young an age by so many others simply out of a fear of having to navigate the task of blazing a new trail. – A fear that Ken conquers with a refreshing, and all too rare, admirable bravery.


Check out Ken’s Blog here, and the book here.

Walden on Wheels

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  1. Jacobyte
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 4:17 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the book recommendation.
    I’ve read half-way through so far and am really enjoying it

  2. Posted May 30, 2013 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    I really enjoyed Ken’s book. I liked his easy going writing style and of course some of the crazy things that happened when he was working in Alaska and living in the van. It’s fun to read about the somewhat dangerous things he did, from the safety of my couch. In my line of work, being prepared is not practiced so I was impressed with Ilgunas’ skill at preparing for grad school. He practiced for his interview with Duke University, thought of what questions he’d be asked, and then when accepted, researched the best way to live without debt. It’s refreshing to read about someone who understands attention to detail and planning.

  3. Posted June 1, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    I’ve also been a KI reader since his van-living days at Duke. I was even a contributor to his “Dare Mighty Things” scholarship project, which I still think is a very cool idea.

    Interesting guy doing interesting things. Worth following.

  4. Posted June 5, 2013 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    Just listened to the podcast and loved it. With the Mad Fientist.
    Very inspiring!

  5. Posted June 29, 2013 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been on the fence about getting this book. I think its now time for me to read it. Thank for the recommendation.

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