Living in a van at Duke University

Ken Ilgunas found himself graduating from college with $32,000 in debt, despite working 30 hours a week during school.

With a bachelor's degree in history and English, he had little hope of landing a well-paying job that would help him pay off the crushing debt.

In his new memoir "Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom," Ilgunas chronicles his Herculean efforts to pay off his student loans — an effort that culminated in his decision to live in a van.

Ilgunas was not alone in amassing student loan debt, although he was unusual in how he chose to deal with it.

For years, the cost of college has been rising faster than inflation. The College Board reported this year that 60 percent of students graduated in debt in 2012, and their average debt was $26,500.

(I've always felt smug about graduating from a private college in the 1990s with only $8,000 in loans. I got a better understanding of what today's students face when I checked out a community college Spanish class this fall and found the textbook alone cost $187.)

Despite working almost full time at Home Depot, earning $8.25 an hour to push carts and clean up dead pigeons, Ilgunas still had to take out significant loans.

"My debt was a black hole, a swirling abyss that sucked from my clutches all my hopes and dollars and dreams," he wrote.

After graduating from college in 2006, Ilgunas went to isolated Coldfoot, Alaska, where he worked up to 70 hours a week taking tourists on rafting trips and mountain driving tours, cooking, setting up tents and cleaning for a resort.

There he met Alaskans who lived subsistence lifestyles, raising their own food and hunting, as well as a man who lived in a vehicle.

Because his room and board were paid for and the nearest shopping center was 250 miles away, Ilgunas lived a Spartan lifestyle and was able to pay off $8,000 of his debt in one summer — despite making only $9 per hour. For entertainment, he read books, including Henry David Thoreau's "Walden," which details the author's 1800s experiment with living in a tiny cabin by Walden Pond.

Ilgunas instantly identified with Thoreau's observation that most men lead lives of quite desperation. Thoreau criticized his fellow citizens for constantly toiling so they could buy fashionable clothes and large homes.

"Thoreau made me feel like a sane man wrongly assigned to live in a madhouse," Ilgunas wrote.

After stints hitchhiking, working as a crew member on a canoeing expedition, leading an AmeriCorps trail crew and serving as a Gates of the Arctic National Park backcountry ranger, Ilgunas was out of debt and ready for his ultimate challenge — attending graduate school at Duke University while living in a Ford Econoline van.

Living in the van allowed him to go to Duke without taking on new student loans.

He showered, shaved and brushed his teeth at a gym, charged his laptop and cellphone at the library, did homework in empty classrooms and worked as a professor's research assistant and a tutor at a school.

The downsides of van living included overwhelming odors, food poisoning and the extreme social isolation he imposed on himself so that others wouldn't learn he lived in a van.

To avoid spoiling the book, I won't reveal what happened when the media and Duke University discovered his secret.

Since finishing "Walden on Wheels," Ilgunas has continued to live a nomadic lifestyle, hiking the proposed Keystone Pipeline route from Canada to Texas, visiting Scotland and publishing travel articles and essays.

"Walden on Wheels" is available through local bookstores or Ilgunas' website at

Reach reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-479-8199 or

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