Duke Grad Student’s Blog About Living in Van Leads to Book
For the entirety of his graduate school experience at Duke University, Ken Ilgunas lived in a 1994 Ford Econoline van he bought for $1,500.
According to Ilgunas, the unconventional living arrangement stemmed from his desire to stay debt-free and simultaneously engage in “a social experiment to see how little he could live on.” As he tells The Chronicle, Duke’s student newspaper, “The decision wasn’t entirely economical, it was the thrill of doing something novel and adventurous and bold.”
His related memoir — Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom — was published in May. Among many other positive reviews, Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine dubbed it a “funny and poignant take on debt in America, education and making the most out of life.”
The book sprung from a van-dwelling blog Ilgunas kept and several assignments he completed for classes in his liberal studies master’s program from 2009 to 2011.
A sampling of headlines from his early blog posts provides a flavor of his experiences and a hint as to why his book is a must-read: “I find my van on Craigslist and buy it”; “I renovate (or pimp out) my van”; “I read ‘Walden’ for the second time, reflecting on why I’ve decided to live in a van”; and “My mom finds out about van; thinks I’m crazy.”
In a recent Q&A, Ilgunas kindly fleshes out these headlines and others, sharing some of his most challenging and memorable van-dwelling experiences and the motivation behind his decision to blog about them.
What were the biggest day-to-day challenges of your van-dwelling?
The challenges, for the most part, were few and far between. I had a big campus next to me that provided me with a gym where I could take showers and a library where I could get Wi-Fi and charge my electronics. The months of September and May, however, were the toughest because, at that time of year, it can be very hot in North Carolina. And if it’s hot outside, it is deathly hot inside a van. So, basically, I couldn’t enter the van until late at night when it had cooled down. I also had a mouse problem for a few days, when a mouse made a home in my ceiling upholstery.
Describe the actual vehicle you lived in, and the extras you outfitted it with over time.
It was a 1994 Ford Econoline. It was big, it was burgundy, and, best of all, it was only $1,500. Naturally, the body was a little beat-up, but it ran well and would prove to be pretty trusty. It came with window blinds and tinted windows. I removed the two middle pilot chairs to create space and I slung up a black sheet of cloth behind the driver and passenger seats so that no one could see me through the windshield.
I brought in a $20, three-drawer plastic storage container to hold all belongings, and folded all my clothes into my suitcase, which I slid underneath my bed. I installed a coat hook and another hook so I could hang my nicer school clothes so that they didn’t get wrinkled. The back seat turned into a bed at the push of a button. I brought with me a set of “expedition-rated” thermal underwear, a -20 degree rated sleeping bag, a multi-tool, a headlamp so I cold see at night and an isobutane backpacking stove — not to mention a cooking pot and one set of silverware.
What was an especially surreal moment or two during your van-dwelling?
In the early hours of the morning on the weekend, all at once hundreds of drunk students would walk to their apartment from the bars that had just closed — and they’d all walk right past my van. Once, a guy leaned his arm against the side of my van and hurled. I heard countless conversations among students, and they were all oblivious that someone was living in this vehicle they were walking past.
Another time, two young women sat on the curb by my van, one of whom just got dumped by her boyfriend. The girl who got dumped was bawling her eyes out while her friend very tenderly listened to her. It was very touching. Another time, while I was walking to the van, a girl asked me if I had a gun so she could shoot herself, but that’s another story entirely.
What inspired you to blog about the experience while you were undertaking it?
I’d always wanted to be a writer, but I never had any success finding ways to get paid for it. So I decided I’d write for free and share what was bound to be an unusual experience. I guess I used the blog to work on my writing skills, and, looking back, I’m shocked that I was able to turn a lot of those stories and experiences into a real book. I also knew that it was important that we have writers who share their lives with the public in a brutally honest manner. When the writer bears his soul for all to see, we sometimes learn a bit about our own.