Ah, the coming of age adventure memoir - one of my favorite genres. Ken Illgunas's book Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom shares plot points with others in the genre: boy becomes disillusioned with modern American society and disdains the 9 to 5 cubicle grind. Boy makes the harrowing journey hitchhiking across the country, encountering the great grizzly bear in Alaska's wilderness, and falling in love on the trail. Throw in a little financial advice - in this case, how to get out of student loan debt, or any large debt, and fast - and you've got a winning piece of nonfiction for the millennial generation.
Illgunas writes for a generation that was promised a certain level of financial freedom after college. "You can do anything as long as you work hard and go to college," we've been told since childhood. Unfortunately for those of us born between roughly 1982 and 1988, we graduated from undergraduate and graduate school during the financial crisis. Jobs were scarce; good paying jobs with companies that wouldn't suck your soul away were even scarcer. The "lucky" ones graduating from elite universities got high-paying jobs with consulting firms and investment banks, albeit in much lower numbers than before the crisis. Unfortunately, most graduates left the comfortable confines of academia to face off with debt, underemployment, and, likely, their parents' basements.
Even though he worked at Home Depot through college, we meet Illgunas as he graduates from a state university with over $30,000 in student loan debt. He has no marketable skills from his degree and his resume is lined a smattering of low skill jobs. He lacks any experience at all, really, which is how he ends up with his only job offer: continuing at Home Depot with more responsibility for the same pay.
At least Illgunas can find a job. His best friend, Josh, isn't so lucky and is burdened with over $50,000 in student loan debt. After applying for countless positions, Josh ends up taking a job with the only soul-sucking institution that called him back: an unaccredited, for-profit college (i.e., a scam school). Here, he spends 40 hours a week convincing young prospects to wrack up their own debt loads by attending low quality degree programs. Profitable business to be in if you don't mind having your soul at stake. (For more information on these "universities" that put students into hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt by convincing them to enroll in low quality online degree programs with untransferable credit, check out this article and this one.)
Compounding his employment reality, Illgunas begins to feel the call that many of us are all-too-familiar with: "Get out. Travel. Adventure. Escape! Do it now, kid, or you'll be trapped here forever! Like your parents!" Growing up in New York suburbia, Illgunas has hardly seen a star-filled sky, let alone fended for himself in the wilderness or on a cross-country roadtrip. But Alaska beckons him amd he heeds the call.
Unlike Christopher McCandless in John Krakauer's Into the Wild, Illgunas journeys to Alaska a bit more prepared (but just a bit). While there, he works hard in exchange for minimum wage, room, and board. While living an increasingly Spartan lifestyle, Illgunas sends the majority of his earnings to pay down his student loan debt. But once he tastes a little adventure, the road calls more strongly. What better way to respond than by hitchiking across the country, scaring your mother to death? He hitchhikes, but unlike Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Illgunas's trek feels a bit less "glamorous beat poet slash hobo" and a bit more "thank god he didn't get raped in a parking lot." His mother, Illungas points out, would agree. A few hard labor jobs and rides with ex-convicts and alcoholics later, he has paid off his undergraduate student loans.
Hard labor has set him free from debt and both the travel and the labor have matured him mentally. He wants to tackle graduate school and is accepted to Duke. Wanting to remain debt free, Illgunas concocts a plan to become a humble "van dweller," which essentially amounts to buying an old van, removing the back seats, and installing a camp stove, storage for his minimal possessions, and a bed. After finding an optimal spot to park, voila! His transformation to van dweller is complete. Wrecked by anxiety that his scheme will be "found out," Illgunas has trouble making friends, but evenutally embraces the van dwelling lifestyle through creative writing and a detente with Duke's administration.
Although not written from an academic perspective, Illgunas begins to tackle the tough issues of growing economic inequality and environmental degredation that the modern American lifestyle worsens. If the only people who can afford to be well-educated are born wealthy, how can those born to other socioeconomic classes hope to improve their situation? Why are first-world national parks increasingly paved over? As he muses on these topics during his coursework at Duke, we begin to see the makings of his future books. For now, we join Illgunas as he waxes poetic about Walden, while chowing down on his special peanut butter spaghetti in his van.
The flip side of enjoying coming of age stories is at the heart of my only critique: the author is a young human trying to gain a foothold in the world, which, while honest, can come off as misogynistic and condescending at times. The inner workings of a suburban-born, white, 20-something, cis-gendered boy are predictably sexual and entitled. He calls himself on it and his awareness should be worth something. That said, others may find his perspective unenlightened and off-putting.
Slight criticisms aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and have recommended it several times since finishing it. The intensity with which the author carries the burden of his student loan debt and the jobless despair plaguing our generation of graduates keenly resonates with other millennials. Regardless of generational affiliation, the call of the open road is relatable to all. And who doesn't want to learn how a kid survived a North Carolina winter in a van?
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