Friday, 12 July 2013

Freedom Road: Ken Ilgunas' Walden on Wheels..... review

Photo Ken Ilgunas Collection

Children are born with an innate sense of justice; it usually takes twelve years of public schooling and four more years of college to beat it out of them

Edward Abbey.

Ostensibly, Ken Ilgunas’ Walden on Wheels documents how a twenty something college slacker from New York State, came to grips with a mounting college debt through a programme of increasingly radical lifestyle choices. However, ‘Walden’ is about so much more than a mundane account of how a poor student gets out of crippling debt. Like Thoreau’s original work, Ilgunas’ Walden offers an alternative vision of what life could be like if only the dreamers and schemers eternally  trapped on the free market  hamster wheel, had the courage and vision to break free of the endless , soul destroying cycle of production and consumption.

 For Ilgunas, redemption begins-not surprisingly-in the mountains.  As a gauche young graduate he looks to the north and finds work in a rundown travel lodge deep in the wild interior of Alaska.  Working alongside a variety of likeable and not so likeable eccentrics, he slowly begins to explore the hinterlands. One of his first major explorations of this strange new environment involves an expedition with an equally inexperienced work mate, to reach the summit of a distant mountain-Blue Cloud in the Brooks Range- which had captured his imagination.

I looked at Blue Cloud. The hills around it were green and bulbous, as staid and solemn as a shrine of crossed legged Buddhas. Behind them rose Blue Cloud. It thrust itself over the hills, puncturing the cloudless blue sky. A warped coal coloured arrowhead with veins of snow bleeding down its rocky grooves...It was miles away.

With his friend turning back, the young urban slacker spends the next 28 hours alone in his quest. Dressed in jeans and work boots and hopelessly ill-equipped, he nevertheless reaches the summit and somehow-without even a map or compass-finds his way home.From here, the author builds on his mountain experiences and finds himself combining his role as a chief cook and bottle washer at the lodge, with work as a rafting guide. 

A job which brings with it financial as well as spiritual rewards. The $38.000 debt he incurred at college is being whittled away at a satisfactory rate and he finds himself engaged with the great outdoors. Interestingly, the location in Alaska where the author was based offers a striking example of two contrasting communities which are socially and culturally polar opposites. On one hand, the village of Coldfoot -where Ilgunas is based- exists to service the tourist and oil industry. 15 miles away is another tiny community-Wiseman- where the inhabitants live a life of self sufficiency. Supplying their own food, fuel and electricity. A model eco village which is off grid. Unlike Coldfoot which in common with 99% of US communities, relies on externally provided food and energy.

 Apart from describing the socio-cultural aspects of life in the Alaskan wilderness, Ilgunas outlines the horrific state of affairs with regard to student debt back in ‘the real world’. Something which is just as applicable in the UK as the US. Tens of millions of graduates-in the US- leaving college with crippling debts and with no prospect of work. The figures the author quotes are frightening in their scale. One of these victims is the author’s best friend Josh whose student debt is almost double that of the writer.

As a side story, Josh’s experiences- his depressing fall into wage slavery with an unscrupulous higher education establishment offering useless degrees at great expense to equally innocent poor students-highlights the rottenness at the heart of  many western higher education establishments. At least Josh’s story offers a dramatic redemptive conclusion where he breaks out of the cycle. Unlike millions of other students who are trapped into a lifetime of debt and dead end careers.

Meanwhile, for Ken Ilgunas, life is following a remarkable trajectory. In the next few years he finds himself working as a park ranger in Alaska, a conservation corps team leader in the impoverished badlands of Mississippi, and becomes a ‘Voyageur’. A member of an expedition in Canada which recreated the voyages of the 18th trappers and traders who plied the waters in birch bark canoes. It’s a physically and emotionally brutal two month voyage which further shapes his burgeoning environmentalist vision.

Despite working away on his debt while taking on some hugely stimulating-if poorly paid- work roles, Ken eventually pines for the Elysian fields of academia and begins applying to colleges offering liberal study courses.

To his great surprise he is accepted at one of the top US colleges. Determined not to fall back into crippling student debt, Ken buys himself  a $1700 Ford Ecoline van which he plans to surreptitiously park up  in one of the colleges parking lots. Without the crippling costs of student accommodation and through a frugal living strategy, his goal is to go through the academic cycle without incurring any debt. The final quarter of the book details the cat and mouse game Ken plays with the authorities before his strategy comes to light in the most public manner possible. We are talking national news and television here. To Ken’s credit he tells Murdoch’s Fox News to Fox off when they offer him an exclusive interview to run alongside the breaking Tiger Woods screws around story. He also turns down a lucrative writing job with a prestigious magazine where if he had succumbed, he would have been financially set up for life, but more importantly, he would have sold out his liberal principles and sacrificed his Thoreau-ian philosophy on the altar of commerce.

 Photo:York Times news/Eric Eckhert

In his farewell  graduation address to the gathered throng at the prestigious college where the ‘Vandweller’ had spent his last two years, Ken Ilgunas ends his speech with the following....

“Yet when I think of higher education today, I think of a James Joyce quote. Joyce said, ‘When the soul of a man is born...there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language and religion. I shall try to fly by those nets’. Today it seems there are more nets than ever. Today, students struggle to fly past a poor jobs market, around unpaid internships and through the sticky web of student debt that is nearly as wide as the sky itself. And when the curriculum lack the liberal arts, college itself becomes another net. This education has taught me that one does not become free simply by staying out of debt, or living in a large creepy vehicle; rather; we must first undergo a period of self examination to see, for the first time, what nets have been holding us back all along. Unfortunately, economic realities and political priorities require that most students pay an unreasonable amount of money for their educations even though the great majority only want to better themselves and society.......... 

'Today, I leave Duke the same way I came in. I have exactly $1156, no job and a degree that is-let’s face it- not going to have me, or most of us rolling around on a mattress covered with $20 bills. And to keep out of debt, I’ve recently put the van up for sale. While I am more or less broke, in exchange for the education I have bought, I have received a wealth in return. I speak of the wealth of ideas, of truth-such is a currency without rates, a coinage that will not rust, capital I cannot spend. I may leave this place with empty pockets but I shall carry this wealth with me whether I am young or old, at home or abroad, housed or homeless, rich or poor till the end of my days’

‘The crowd cheered and my parents cried. I stepped off the podium and walked back to my seat. My experiment was over’.

The book ends with Ken boarding a small plane which will take him back to Alaska. Away from a life spent balancing on the career ladder. A life of mortgages, pensions, of being over-looked for promotion at work; the vapid dinner parties and family vacations. The plasma screen TV’s and latest iPhones. A soul destroying, stultifying life as a cog within a rotten socio/economic system. A system which only values an individual by his/her economic contribution. 

Photo: KI Collection

Maybe there is no longer a frontier, but for me the frontier is a horizon as wide and as endless as it was for the first pioneers. We have real villains who need vanquishing, corrupt institutions that need toppling and the great American debtors prison to break out of. We have trains to hop, voyages to embark on, and rides to hitch. And then there’s the great American wild-vanishing but still there-ready to impart its wisdom, from an Alaskan peak to a patch of grass growing in a crack on a city sidewalk. And no matter how much sprawl and civilisation overtake our wilds, we’ll always have the boundless wildlands in ourselves to explore.

Ken’s next big adventure was an epic 1700 mile hike along the planned route of the controversial Keystone XL route. A pipeline to take oil sands bitumen from Canada to the Gulf of Texas. Full details of the trip can be found on Ken’s Pipe Dreams website  Details on the controversial project can be found on the Wikipedia page. Walden on Wheels is published in the UK by New Harvest Publishing.

John Appleby: 2013