Thursday 25 July 2013

Doctor Johnson's 'Journey to the Western Islands'.

 The  Editor's command has made me get down from a top shelf a little squat duodecimo which I have not opened for many a year.   I presume my copy is the first edition; at any rate it was issued in the year of the first edition, and though it is wrongly paged and bears an Irish imprint, the bookplate of the first Lord Sheffield would seem a guarantee of authenticity.    I can scarcely think that a noted bibliophile like Gibbon's friend and editor would content himself with a pirated version.    I read the book years ago in a fishing inn in Argyll, and it is, perhaps, scarcely a work which calls for frequent re-reading. 

The truth is that Johnson's “Journey to the Western Islands compares ill with Boswell's " Tour to the Hebrides."  Johnson was no picaresque chronicler of wayside humours, and he had not the art of that delightful form of literature which the French call  camets de voyage.  He is no Borrow or Stevenson to reproduce for the fireside reader the glamour of travel, and, unlike Boswell, he is too modest, too dignified, to give us gossip.  He tells of his adventures as the leader of an advance party might report to his commanding officer—an accurate but colourless itinerary'.   Indeed, it was as a leader of an advance party that he thought of himself, a scout sent forth from the coffee-houses of Town to report on the outer darkness of the North.   If you want a parallel you will find it in that desiccated narrative, the" Anabasis " of Xenophon. 
Johnson was inspirited to risk the journey, Boswell tells us, by reading Martin's “Description of the Western Islands of Scotland." Martin was a Skye man, and his exceedingly dull work was first issued in 1703. The world about 1770 was banning to talk about the "life of nature," and speculate on sociology. Johnson's purpose was more than half-scientific. The Highlands were the nearest approach to the free and barbaric natural existence about which eighteenth-century literati talked wisely and knew nothing. The honest old Doctor had a conscience beyond his contemporaries; he determined to go and see. So at the age of sixty-four he packed his bag, hoisted his huge body on a horse, and set off like a boy on his first expedition, sacrificing all the comforts of Fleet Street, agreeable and admiring ladies, and innumerable cups of tea. Who can withhold admiration from a spirit so candid and indomitable?

But even if the purpose of the journey had been less courageous, the record of it might merit our attention for its own sake. It is a masterpiece of pure and stately English, I do not know any work in which the style is a finer example of Augustan prose at its best. Then, again, Johnson's was an intelligence of the first order, and his comments are never negligible. He might be lacking sometimes in knowledge, but, like Alan Breck, he never failed in “penetration." So we may welcome the inspiration in the Lochaber glen which prompted the work. Here is his own account:—

        I sat down on a bank, such as a writer of romance might have delighted to feign. I had indeed no trees to whisper over my head, but a clear rivulet streamed at my feet. The day was calm, the air soft, and all was rudeness, silence, and solitude. Before me, and on either side, were high hills, which by hindering the eye from ranging forced the mind to find entertainment for itself. Whether I spent the hour well, I know not; for here I first conceived the thought of this narration.

Boswell has described for us the traveller. " He wore a full suit of plain brown clothes, with twisted hair buttons of the same colour, a large bushy greyish wig, a plain shirt, black worsted stockings, and silver buckles. Upon this tour, when journeying, he wore boots, and a very wide brown cloth greatcoat, with pockets which might have almost held the two volumes of his folio 'Dictionary' and he carried in his hand a large English oak stick." We can imagine that after a debauch of Edinburgh intellectual society he was not sorry to get on the road again. He travelled light, and had no reason to regret it in a land where " that which is not mountain is commonly bog." 

 John Buchan
"It is not to be imagined without experience," he tells us, '' how in climbing crags, and treading bogs, and winding through narrow and obstructed passages, a little bulk will hinder and a little weight will burthen; or how often a man that has pleased himself at home with his own resolution, will, in the hour of darkness and fatigue, be content to leave behind him everything but himself."

What the doctor's baggage consisted of we are not told ; Boswell, we know, was accompanied by a volume of sermons, a map of Scotland, and a Bible.
We may pass rapidly over the earlier stages of the journey among the sour corn lands of Fife and the Mearns. At St Andrews they had a spate of professors and much meditation among ruins. At Montrose, to Johnson's surprise, they found an English chapel with an organ ! In Aberdeen the Doctor was given an honorary degree, and observed that the women of the lower classes were " visibly employed " knitting stockings. He visited the Bullers of Buchan, and considered that Slains Castle might be a good place to realise the Lucretian situation, " Suave mari magno," & The treelessness of Scotland oppressed him. “I had now travelled two hundred miles in Scotland and seen only one tree not younger than myself." Another saddening fact was that the windows in the houses seemed to be designed not to open. " He that would have his window open must hold it with his hand, unless what may be sometimes found among good contrivers, there be a nail which he may stick into a hole, to keep it from falling." He still complained of crumpled rose leaves, for he had not sampled Highland shielings and the Outer Isles.

At Nairn, according to his own view, he entered the Highlands, for there he first saw peat fires and heard Gaelic. Thence by way of Inverness he traversed the Great Glen, amazed at the multitude of waters, and, like a true Southron, apprehensive of the barrenness of streams that did not flow deep.    " Such capricious and temporary waters cannot be expected to produce many fish," he writes, with perhaps the Loch in his mind!    His night's lodging was now a matter of adventure; in an inn he might have to enter a couch new vacated by “a man black as Cyclops from the forge," or in a gentleman's house find a bed of fine linen standing in a puddle on the bare earth.  On the whole he was a philosophical traveller, and he seems to have been lucky in the way of food.    He tasted the delicacies of a Scots breakfast.    “If an epicure could remove by a wish, in quest of sensual gratification, wherever he had supped he would breakfast in Scotland."  In the islands, however he was disgusted by the spectacle of cheese at the morning meal!  Whisky he did not like, and only once tasted it —at   Inveraray.  He  records with admiration’ that the inhabitants of the Hebrides begin the day with a dram. Let it be added that Boswell and he attempted, and succeeded in, the pious task of making some English soldiers very drunk on the road to Glenelg.
The mountains made a strong impression on this traveller to whom Primrose Hill had hitherto done duty for a height. They saddened and solemnised, but they did not terrify him. He notes that they deserved, like the Homeric Ida, the epithet "abundant in springs," but by no means the phrase used of Pelion, “waving their leaves." His orderly and cultivated tastes were depressed by the " wide extent of hopeless sterility," and like every English traveller of his day he disliked the heather- "one sullen power of useless vegetation." He loved the classic line, and the evidences of civilisation and art. Here is his comment on Loch Lomond: “The islets, which court the gazer at a distance, disgust him at his approach, when he finds, instead of soft lawns and shady thickets, nothing more than uncultivated ruggedness." But at any rate he perceived the quality of the wilds, even if he did not welcome it. He was oppressed with a sense of the littleness of man. Unlike his modish contemporaries, Johnson could realise the sublimity of the deserts, of wild lochs and lonely seas. He fled from it to an inn or a tea-table, but he took off his hat to it all the while. He is immeasurably beyond the townsman, who, having ascended a few hundred feet of Helvellyn, was horrified by the sight, had blood let, and was carried home ; or even Burt, to whom the mountains were only " a dirty purple, but most disagreeable when the heath is in bloom."

The real adventures began in Skye. There he was taken to the hearts of the lairds, and saw island life from the inside. He was full of fine notions of chieftainship and their duties, and fell foul of Sir Alexander Macdonald at Armidale for being more of an Etonian than a Highlander. Sir Alexander rackrented his tenants and aped urban gentility. Raasay was more to the Doctor's liking, and a very pleasant ant picture he draws of his entertainment there —" nothing but civility, elegance, and plenty "—good food, books, and dances of an evening. Thence he journeyed to Dunvegan, visiting Flora Macdonald on the way. Though the mighty ridge of the Coolin must have been continually before his eyes, there is no sentence to hint that he saw anything in it more remarkable than in the more commonplace hills of Lochaber.

At one spot only was he struck with awe. Talisker had not then its convivial associations. "Talisker," he wrote,  "is  the place beyond all that I have seen from which the gay and the jovial seem utterly excluded; and where the hermit might expect to grow old in meditation without possibility of disturbance or interruption." " What must be the solicitude of him," he asks, " who should be wandering among the crags and hollows, benighted, ignorant, and alone ? " Let it be a comfort to the members of the Club when they are next travelling on a starless night the long road between Glenbrittle and Sligachan that Dr Johnson foresaw and pitied their fate.

From Skye the travellers went south by Coll, where to their joy they found a shop at which Boswell purchased writing-paper. They next landed at Tobermory and pushed southward through Mull to visit lona. On this stage the lexicographer's mind envisaged the subject of afforestation. The objection, he thought, was the poverty of the people.

       Plantation is naturally the employment of a mind unburdened with care, and vacant to futurity, saturated with present good, and at leisure to derive gratification from the prospect of posterity. He that pines with hunger, is in little care how others shall be fed. The poor man is seldom studious to make his grandson rich.

  They visited Ulva, and at Inchkenneth found Sir Allan Maclean, the chief of the clan, who accompanied them to lona. Every schoolboy knows, and has turned into Latin prose, the famous passage which ends in the typically Augustan declamation: " That man is little to be envied whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of lona." Less often quoted is the delightful account of the Doctor's arrival at Lochbuie—"where we found a true Highland laird, rough and haughty, and tenacious of his dignity; who, hearing my name, inquired whether I was of the  Johnstones  of Glencoe or of Ardnamurchan." This is in teresting, for it tells us that the Maclans—that sorrowfully fated clan—were accustomed to translate their name into  'Johnson' and thence, and most incorrectly, to the Lowland Scottish  Johnstone,

The purpose of the journey was sociological—how Doctor Johnson would have condemned Comte's bastard word!—and the "Journal" is full of reflections upon the transition of the Highlands from patriarchalism to a modern society. Emigration was the Doctor's pet aversion, for he did not believe in any law of supply and demand for human souls. He set out with a prejudice, for, as he told Sir William Forbes in Edinburgh, “it  spreads mankind, which weakens the defence of a nation and lessens the comfort of living. Men thinly scattered make a shift, but a bad shift, without many things. A smith is ten miles off; they'll do without a nail or a staple. A tailor is far from them; they'll botch their own clothes. It is being concentrated which produces high convenience." Again and again he returns to the subject, how to find some means

 " to  stop this epidemic desire of wandering." Some of his reasoning will not appeal to us. He conceived of no future before the colonies ; a " nation scattered in the boundless regions of America" seemed to him destined to remain a scattered nation—like rays diverging from a focus, the rays remaining but the heat gone. Nevertheless there is much in his argument, which the world, having forgotten the truth for a hundred years, is now preparing to recognise. Take such a passage as this :—

       In more fruitful countries the removal of one only makes room for the succession of another; but in the Hebrides the loss of an inhabitant leaves a lasting vacuity; for nobody born in any other part of the world will choose this country for his residence; and an island once depopulated will remain a desert. . . . Let it be inquired whether the first intention of those who are fluttering on the wing and collecting a flock, that they may take their flight, be to attain good or to avoid evil. If they are dissatisfied with that part of the globe which their birth has allotted to them, and resolve not to live without the pleasure of happier climates; if they long for bright suns, and calm skies, and flowery fields, and fragrant gardens, I know not by what eloquence they can be persuaded, or by what offers they can be hired to stay. But if they are driven from this country by positive evils, and disgusted by ill-treatment, real or imaginary, it were fit to remove their grievances and quiet their resentment.

The observations on Scotland and the Scots are gentler than one might imagine from a reading of Boswell. Doctor Johnson had a sense of decency; he was not prepared to repay hospitality by acrimonious comment, and he had a proper traveller's modesty. " I cannot but be conscious," so runs the last sentence of the book," that my thoughts on national manners are the thoughts of one who has seen but little." Yet there are some delightful notes. "The conversation of the Scots," he says, " grows every day less un-pleasing to the English ; their peculiarities wear fast away ; their dialect is likely to become in half a century provincial and rustic, even to themselves." It is only too true. In good company, he records, Scots is seldom heard, “except now and then from an old lady." To-day we should have to go far to find that old lady. Here is perhaps the least amiable comment, though who shall say it is wholly undeserved ? "A Scotchman must be a very sturdy moralist, who does not love Scotland better than truth. He will always love it better than inquiry, and if falsehood flatters, his vanity will not be very diligent to detect it." Lastly, let me quote a passage which is an excellent example of the Doctor at his best:—
        Men bred in the universities of Scotland cannot be expected to be often decorated with the splendour of ornamental erudition, but they obtain a mediocrity of knowledge, between learning and ignorance, not inadequate to the purpose of common life, which is, I believe, very widely diffused among them, and which, countenanced in general by a national combination so invidious that their friends cannot defend it, and actuated in particular by a spirit of enterprise so vigorous that their enemies are constrained to praise it, enables them to find or to make their way to employment, riches, and distinction.

Augustan prose has its limitations. It can be unintentionally comic, with its sonorous epithets, as when, describing the " tail" of a chief, he laments that this " animating rabble" is now no more. When it is playful it suggests the mountains leaping like rams, as in a note about a girls' school at Inverness. "Hither the young nymphs of the mountains and valleys are sent for education, and as far as my observation has reached, are not sent in vain." But it has its own dignity and beauty, and it suited well with the character of one who, though not among our greatest writers, is assuredly among the greatest figures in our literature. My last quotation shall be a sketch of the minister of Coll, which seems to me the most self-revealing passage in all Doctor Jonson's works :—

His conversation was not unsuitable to his appearance. I lost some of his good-will by treating a heretical writer with more regard than, in his opinion, a heretic could deserve. I honoured his orthodoxy, and did not much censure his asperity. A man who has settled his opinions does not love to have the tranquillity of his convictions disturbed, and at seventy-seven it is time to be in earnest.

John Buchan: Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal: 1913

Friday 19 July 2013

Sad Git on Sadgill Wall

Image:Old Cumbria Gazetteer

You know how quickly a route can assert itself upon your tied-on, racked-up and ready-to-climb enthusiasm: it grabs you when you think you're grabbing it. '6m right of a rowan', and the starting jugs of the spiky buttress satisfy your eagerness to get going in the lead for the first pitch. Then, suddenly, you're balancing on a toe-point on top of a spike facing a steep wall that has closed up its compact face and you're feeling around for the smallest of finger holds just to give you time to work out the next move. But time is what you've not got on your rack. Time is what you were supposed to have bought by regular visits to the synthetic indoors through the winter (which in my case, I had not got).

So it was back to that familiar dialogue between the 'Do something quick!' voice and the 'Stay cool!' voice. At a second stretch of a foot to the sloping ledge out on the right, I decided that the friction had to be good enough. And, at the same moment, my fingers found a little square edge that had been above my head all the time. Committed now, the most tempting holds were at full stretch, but I risked my foot skidding off before my fingers could close for a breath-held pull.

At this point the Artist arrived and started chatting to the Welsh Editor who was holding my ropes, seemingly on a bit of a 'Hiraeth'. They were joking about something. The sling around the spike seemed a long way below. There was no question of my greeting the Artist (I was too gripped), although at the back of my mind I knew it would seem churlish — especially since he was responsible for my acquaintance with the hid­den gems of Longsleddale.
Indirectly, he was responsible for my winter-long obsession with Sadgill Wall — which is only Mild Severe, south-facing, now with two stars and perfect for a first Lakes route after the snow and rain have stopped. Little did I realise that I would be dragging the Welsh Editor out of his Sunday morning bed, to do it in a day's flash from Sheffield on what was to be the hottest day of the year. 'When we were young', I remember Pat Ament telling a Buxton conference audi­ence, 'we had some scary adventures and we came back barely alive.' At the end of this long June day that's how we would feel, but without the benefit or excuse of youth.

My acquaintance with Longsleddale had begun 10 years earlier when David Craig and I had met the Artist to climb his father's route on the opposite side of the Valley. Exactly 60 years after the first ascent, we climbed Black Cleft HVD on a dry afternoon at the end of summer. Hav­ing a thrillingly bold swing right at the top, it was so much better than the name implied. Then, last year, we truanted from the newly-revived Kendal Film Festival and the Artist belayed Gill's lead on Dandle Buttress HD, whilst I took snaps. The top of the first pitch was surprisingly strenuous, so Gill belayed early for me to lead through. This brought us out onto the airy buttress up which Gill led from exposed ridge, to frictionous slabs, to a steep little corner and 'Spike Minor' (as the nomenclature of 1929 has it). The narrow neck containing 'Spike Major', that joined the buttress to the mountain, had us exclaiming in amazement and dancing along Alpine-style. Walking out that day, I looked over my shoulder and noticed someone leading across a slab below an overhang on the right of the crag: Sadgill. Wall made its mark on my mind. Next spring, I thought:

So here I was at last (actually not in the first flush of spring, but certainly flushed), and about to spring for those jugs in silent terror whilst the Artist joked with the Welsh Editor out of sight below. A little leap; a firm fist-grip: a scrabble of feet and the jagged ridge led up to a steep pull to the most solid of spike belays. 'Now, what did you have in mind for this drawing?' shouted the Artist, who had loped up the scree with the long stride of a local.
'A crag sketch like your dad's guide book drawings,' I called down. `You mean from back down there'....'Errr, yes.'

'Right,' came the nonplussed reply, and the Artist promptly slid down the steep grass on his bum, like a kid having a great time in his back garden — which of course he was.
Fortunately, the Welsh Editor declined an offer of the next lead, so I got to discover why this route has gained a star since the previous guide. The second pitch is simply stunning: steep, well-protected and needing a thoughtful approach. It begins by a swing along the edge of a slanting crack to a thread behind jammed spikes; then launches across, the slab below the overhang in a brilliant puzzle of footholds and always sharp spikes for grateful fingers. The belay ledge is one of those places where it simply feels good to balance the close reading of rock beside you and the open reading of river, and meadow, and mountain beyond.

Now a conundrum presents itself: where to begin a traverse, of the steep slab on the right? I went up to place a sling on a small spike and up again to traverse at a break. This may have been too high and too safe, but the heat of the day was taking its toll; getting up vertical heather to the rowan belay took a sapping effort. The Welsh Editor yanked on the bilberry roots into the grassy bay above and tied on to the broken wall of the bay. Here, I started up a crack, found myself stepping round to the right and up onto another eagle-eerie of a ledge below the '3 metre crack'. It's actually the corner on its left, which is climbed by foot-jams and long pulls.

As rock gave way to heather, I slumped beside the last rock on which to belay. I felt weak and whacked; taking in the rope took a dry-mouthed effort. The Welsh Editor arrived in better shape than me. The Artist was still at his post, leaning back against a boulder still sketching far below. Now came the narrow neck of pinnacles that is the top of Dandle Buttress. It should have been fun, but the last heave up the last pinnacle drained the last of my strength and I flopped down on the turf that curves over into the short descent gully. I was glad I had a helmet on to keep the sun off and equally glad I had the new boots clipped to my harness for the grueling steep descent. But I advised the Welsh Editor to keep his rock-shoes on for the first part of the under-cut descent gully, which is both tricky and loose. In the shade below it, we changed into our boots and frankly, lay back a bit in the cool breeze that always funnels through here.

Then, over another grassy col, and we were sliding down scree and steep grass seeking a seepage in the stream bed to suck at and slap on our burning necks. Below the crag, we descended slowly towards a boul­der, big enough to offer shade to two sad gits panting like sheep: the Artist popped up, not at all pooped by the heat. Re-hydrating at the pub, Julian Cooper showed us his sketchbook and Ian Smith thought he might have a photo or three. I thought I might be able to write a piece without exaggerating the heat, perhaps, and resisting the title 'Sadgit Wall'.

Julian's drawing of the route is so intensely full of information and impressions that it's the very opposite of William Heaton Cooper's economical sketches of crags for the FRRC Lake District climbing guides. "Your father really understood crag structure." said Harry Griffin to Julian when I took him to see Julian's recent paintings from his trip to Kanchenjunga Base camp. Harry first climbed Sadgill Wall in 1949 and now, just a month before his 90th birthday, he remembered that first pitch as "Feeling VS: it was steep, smooth and holdless. We were wearing clinkers on our boots, not tricounis. Eric Arnison and Tom Philipson and I each had a go at that first pitch and failed. Then I remembered that I had some black rubbers in my rucksack and succeeded. But credit must go to the other two, you know, who did the whole climb in clinkers."

I remember the interesting challenge of working out the route and feeling lonely and exposed in the upper reaches of the climb. We had no slings, just the rope that was tied round our waists. I never climbed it again, but lots of people come and tell me how much they have enjoyed it.' Well, me too, Harry. I for one am looking forward to climbing it again and perhaps feeling less of a sad git on Sadgill Wall!

Terry Gifford: First published in The Joy of Climbing

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