Minimalist Living: A Conversation with Ken Ilgunas
“This is what I came for, after all: an adrenaline overload, a blow, a shock to my system – something that would charge every fiber of my body with screaming life; something that would scare the suburbs right out of me.”
– Ken Ilgunas, from Walden on Wheels
As a well-intentioned frugalist and ignorer of most things trendy, I was honored to interview Ken Ilgunas, author of Walden On Wheels: On the Open Road From Debt To Freedom. Ilgunas writes about taking his own path, one of frugal living, adventures, and education—and how that path diverted him from joining the ranks of the “cubicle monkeys and loan drones. Generation screwed.”
Stefanie Freele: You seem to be naturally gifted with a sassy, relaxed use of metaphor and description. For instance, you describe society as “boob jobs and sweaters on dogs and environmental devastation of incalculable proportions,” and the smoke of the camp’s trash problem “an apocalyptic haze that reeked of flaming tires smothered in melting pig fat—the sort of smell that we presumed was shortening our lifespans and giving our sperm second tails.” Where do these descriptions come from? Do you ponder them, do they take work, or do they arrive naturally?
Ken Ilgunas: I appreciate the warm words! I think a lot of these images come from being a sometimes-melancholic person who also has a morbid sense of humor. Humor not only makes the melancholy tolerable, but enjoyable. And, to me, there may be no greater joy than coming up with a funny line (bound to offend the stuffy and the uptight) that makes me laugh out loud.
SF: In Walden on Wheels, you write how paying off the debt was your next Blue Cloud, referring to your hellacious 28-hour hike to the top of Blue Cloud Mountain. Now that you have paid off that student loan, conquered van living, and completed Duke without debt, have you conquered any other Blue Clouds, or is there one in the works?
KI: I guess there have been a couple of Blue Clouds. My first was writing Walden on Wheels. Writing a book and then persuading a company to publish it was such a far-fetched and unrealistic undertaking, especially considering that I had almost no professional writing experience—just a collection of blog entries and a number of articles from my undergraduate student newspaper. Making matters worse, I was practically broke at the time (I had a little more than $1,000 to my name), so the prospect of going bankrupt on a book that no one would ever read was certainly a metaphorical mountain to climb. More recently, I went on a literal physical journey when I set out to hike the 1,700-mile proposed Keystone XL pipeline, from Alberta to Texas—half of which required that I trespass over private property. I suppose that was just a really flat “mountain.” Nowadays, my mountain is trying to be a financially-independent person as a writer. Let’s just say I have a long way to go before I reach the summit.
SF: Walden on Wheels has received some media attention: Jay Leno, CBS, and some lovely reviews. How does it feel to you, a self-described “video-game playing suburbanite who worked at Home Depot,” to be in the national eye?
KI: I’ve had a few “fifteen minutes of fame.” I have to admit that making a bit of a splash is always fun, and I do enjoy getting feedback from readers. But, ultimately, the joy is short-lived, and I quickly go back to normal life. Pretty much nothing will have changed from pre-fame to post-fame. Once the waters calm, I still have the same old friends, values, habits, and hobbies. And because I live out in the sticks in North Carolina, the only response I get from people is over the Internet: whether it’s in the form of fan or hate mail, it’s just a lot harder to feel anything substantial when the responses I receive are letters on a computer screen.
SF: In Walden on Wheels you said you found your calling: “Now I knew exactly what I wanted. I wanted the sensations I felt atop Blue Cloud and in the Brooks and on that drive to Alaska. I wanted to be a tramp.” Are you still a tramp? What else do you feel you’ve been called to do?
KI: I think I’ve moved on a bit from my tramp days. There was once a time when I wanted to do nothing but hitchhike, travel, explore, hop trains—that sort of thing. And I have nothing but fond memories of that stage of my life. I’m glad I scratched those itches in the way that I did; I think it’s important to go on journeys and let those journeys teach you and change you. But there comes a time when you’ve been suitably taught and changed, and you want to actually do something with that knowledge. I guess that’s where I’m at today. Now, I’m less attracted to aimlessly wandering and more attracted to actually producing stuff—namely in the form of books and articles. Currently, for example, I’m writing a book about my Keystone XL journey, which I hope will turn out to be one-half travel journey and one-half environmental memoir. All that said, I still—and always will—live fairly sparely. I could easily fit all my possessions within my old van, which I still own.
SF: In reviewing Walden on Wheels, The Washington Post stated, “In less skilled hands, this could easily become a journey into thinly veiled martyrdom, but Ilgunas has an acute sense of humor that keeps the tone earnest and self-deprecating.” Who has influenced your “skilled hands” as a writer the most?
KI: For a year or two, I went on a big travel-literature binge, and read all the major travel works written in the last fifty years of so: Arabian Sands, Snow Leopard, West with the Night, Wind, Sand and Stars, Kon-Tiki, Desert Solitaire, A Walk across America, Bill Bryson, J. Maarten Troost, Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin, Liz Gilbert, Jan Morris, Jon Krakauer, etc. I even took the time to gather all the “best of” travel reading lists I could find, and, using those lists, I made a definitive list to identify what are regarded as the best travel books ever—and I did my best to read all of them. I was doing this simply because I loved reading travel literature, and in so doing I suppose I was also learning about what makes a good travel book. And what it boiled down to was: eloquent prose, evocative natural imagery, self-deprecation, and brutally-honest self-disclosure. More than anything, I think a good travel book needs an existential journey as well as a physical one.
SF: In Walden On Wheels, you refer to”those who fall into the prey of society” as “swayed into accepting the latest fashion trends; deluded by advertisers, marketers, and profiteers; all corralled and branded and shorn of their money. This all revealed an unbecoming manipulability, a lack of real, hard character.” What is your current definition of real, hard character?
KI: I think who I was criticizing in that quote were not just zombie-consumers, but people in general who choose to live an “unexamined life” in which practically nothing is questioned, whether it be their culture’s consumptive habits (which they no doubt will have mindlessly adopted), or accepting what they hear on the TV or read on the Internet without an informed skepticism. More and more, it’s considered narcissistic to strive to “know thyself”—another manifestation of the Me Generation, some blowhard might say—but I don’t believe we can live virtuously without first thoroughly exploring our inner selves, which is a process that enables us to either accept or bring into question what passes as the moral norms of modern society. And to achieve this, I think one must have a skill set that is becoming ever more rare: a thirst for introspection, a comfort with solitude, an aptitude for empathy, an unflagging commitment to self-honesty, and an abstention (if just a periodic one) from the beeping, buzzing, plugged-in iWorld we are all so distracted by.
I think our heroes today are the whistleblowers—someone like an Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning. Like all heretics, they are vilified in the present, but, in a hundred years, the country that once half-hated them will embrace them as figures who risked everything for what’s right. In the end, we never admire those who were blindly loyal and stupidly patriotic. History, though, is always kind to those dedicated to truth and justice.
SF: While in the Brooks Range, you describe an encounter with a grizzly bear: “The eye of a grizzly bear. I’d seen this eye before. I’d seen it in the animals, the waters, the mountains. The wild green eye of nature is always spying, always staring, always watching, ready to lock on to yours when you’re ready for it. Look into it closely and in the eye’s reflection you might catch a glimpse of the objective you: that cultured creature of softness and sophistication or, if you’ve done well to fall far enough from civilization’s grace, the very brute, beastly nature of the wild eye.” Ten, twenty years from now, how do you hope to describe your own “objective you”?
KI: I’m reluctant to picture myself more than 3-5 years into the future. I know myself well enough to know that my goals and passions will shift as I get older and enter different stages of life. What I want now, at 30, will be very different than what I’ll want at 50. So I dare not busy myself with making plans for 50-year-old-Ken, who may desire something far different than what I think he’ll desire. So I suppose I’m focused on what I know I want now: and that’s to write for a living. If I have any hopes for my future self, it’s that I never become someone who hesitates to seize grand opportunities when they’re offered.
A graduate of Duke University, Ken Ilgunas is a native New Yorker who spends much of his time adventuring and writing in Alaska. His work has been featured in The New York Times, Salon, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Walden on Wheels, a travel memoir that depicts his post-college journey into rural and wilderness landscapes and out of student debt, is scheduled for publication on May 14, 2013.
Stefanie Freele is the author of two short story collections: Surrounded by Water (Press 53) and Feeding Strays (Lost Horse Press). Stefanie’s published and forthcoming works can be found in magazines such as Witness, Sou’wester, Mid-American Review, Western Humanities Review, Quarterly West, The Florida Review, American Literary Review, Night Train, Edge, and Pank. She is the former Fiction Editor of the Los Angeles Review.