June 26, 2013

A Story of Student Debt, in Debt to Thoreau

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Ken Ilgunas’ nonfictional Walden on Wheels may proclaim ideological solidarity with Henry David Thoreau’s Walden but, beyond the titles, these two works couldn’t be more different. In Walden on Wheels, Ilgunas, having just paid off his $38,000 undergraduate student debt, aims to live within his means so he can avoid another “swirling abyss that sucked from my clutches all my hopes and dollars and dreams.” This is decidedly less glamorous than Thoreau’s idyllic reassertion of masculinity on Walden Pond. Nonetheless, with the promise of self-sufficiency in nature, Ilgunas spends summers cleaning motel bathrooms and picking up garbage in Alaska, delivering packages around Denver during the holiday season and, most famously, living secretly in a van at Duke.

Ilgunas’ experience with his student loans seems like a nightmare, especially to  our own Cornell graduates, and to a certain extent, our fears aren’t misplaced.  With rising tuition, a stagnating job market and another housing bubble, getting out of Sallie Mae’s grasp seems further out of reach. Ilgunas graduated with thousands in debt, not because he was partying all night as a student, but in spite of it. Pushing carts at Home Depot for $8.25 an hour, transferring to cheaper University of Buffalo and moving back with his parents, none it was enough to escape from his crippling college debt. Ilgunas’ student debt story is a teachable moment about economic inequality that is both humbling and disorienting.

Walden On Wheels’ biggest  strength is Ilgunas’  humble, honest and self-deprecating qualities, which make his personal story a pointed social commentary, even if that wasn’t his main purpose. Pushing carts at Home Depot might seem beneath some college students but, as he says, “who was I to complain about anything? … My problems were, in comparison to the rest of the world’s, privileged, first-world problems.” Unfortunately, the writing becomes weak when Ilgunas purposefully writes social commentary in vague “we as a society” terms, dragging the book’s pace. The writing is strongest where he doesn’t bother to mask the story’s personal qualities. The story by itself speaks volumes; it doesn’t need further garnishment.

Even if Walden on Wheels is unavoidably cynical, Ilgunas ultimately wants his story to be one of optimism and idealism. Ilgunas cleans bathrooms in Alaska not because the job market was that bad — he could have  gotten a job closer to home, but wouldn’t adventure the Alaskan wilderness, with mountains “whose bony fingers and vampire nails reached upward, clawing the sky” and “rivers and lakes pronounced with a click of the tongue and hushed respect.” In some ways, his inspirations are more aligned with the naturalist Richard Proenneke than with Thoreau. Unlike Thoreau, for which Walden was a temporary experiment in spiritual insight, Proenneke retired to a remote part of Alaska permanently. In the excellent PBS documentary Alone in the Wilderness, Proenneke is shown living in a cabin he built by himself until the sprightly age of 82. Both him and Ilgunas strived to follow the dream of Walden Pond more literally than Thoreau did. Not only did Ilgunas  graduate from Duke debt-free, but he lives freely without ideological compromise: protesting the Keystone XL pipeline, he just completed a hike along the entire route (which you can follow on his blog). In the end, the charm of Walden on Wheels is not just that it reveals that one can still live simply, but that everybody — even debt-strapped students — can live this lifestyle. In that sense, cleaning bathrooms is a good thing. What stands in the way between ourselves and the allure of, in the most cliched way possible, “following our dreams” are our weaknesses and civilized indulgences.

Original Author: Kai Sam Ng