• Walden on Wheels

  • On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom
  • By: Ken Ilgunas
  • Narrated by: Nick Podehl
  • Length: 9 hrs and 44 mins
  • 4.3 out of 5 stars (1,520 ratings)

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Walden on Wheels  By  cover art

Walden on Wheels

By: Ken Ilgunas
Narrated by: Nick Podehl
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Publisher's summary

The story of a student who went to extraordinary lengths - including living in a van on a campus parking lot - to complete his education without sacrificing his financial future. In a frank and self-deprecating voice, memoirist Ken Ilgunas writes about the existential terror of graduating from college with $32,000 in student debt. Inspired by Thoreau, Ilgunas set himself a mission: get out of debt as soon as humanly possible. To that end, he undertook an extraordinary 3-year transcontinental journey, driving to Alaska and taking a series of low-paying jobs. Debt-free, Ilgunas then enrolled himself in a master's program at Duke University, using the last of his savings to buy himself a used Econoline, his new "dorm." The van, stationed in a campus parking lot, would be an adventure, a challenge, a test of his limits. It would be, in short, his "Walden on Wheels."Ilgunas went public in a widely read Salon article that spoke to the urgent student debt situation in America today. He offers a funny and pointed perspective on the dilemma faced by those who seek an education but who also want to, as Thoreau wrote, "live deep and suck out all the marrow of life."

©2013 Ken Ilgunas (P)2013 Brilliance Audio, Inc.

What listeners say about Walden on Wheels

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Delightful and infuriating, both.

The first half of the book is great -- I loved it, hung on his every word. He's making great points -- kids are burdening themselves with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, spent on earning college degrees which have no economic value. For most, they will be stuck with these loans and huge interest repayments well into middle age -- and with little real benefit. That's an excellent point, and because Ilgunas' writing style is both addictive and fascinating, it's a great listen. It's like he's talking directly to you, telling you how he got himself into that mess, and how he plans to get out.

Special kudos to narrator Nick Podehl -- the perfect voice for this book. I had to check to see if the author himself was narrating, but no. It's just very well done indeed!

But then you come to the second half....... like all converts to a new lifestyle, Ilgunas decides that what he was forced to do to repay his loans -- extreme off-the-chart thrift and Alaskan wilderness-wandering to save money -- is something that everyone should do. Must do. In fact, in everyone did it, it would cure society's ills.

His notion that everyone should take time to live alone in the Alaskan wilderness -- a much, much colder Walden Pond experience -- is that it would help people refine their life priorities and make them less vulnerable to the world of consumerism. (Ilgunas doesn't delve into the mechanics of how having "everyone" retreat to the Alaskan wilderness alone would actually work out, land-and-space wise, but he's in favor of it, anyway.) Then, without taking a breath, he goes on to pontificate about the need for maintaining -- presumably at taxpayer expense -- world-wide wilderness, so that all this would be possible. And what about the people who are too "infirm" to do such a thing? He implies there would be only a few, but for those, just the idea that the wilderness exists would be enough for them to want to pay for it.

Hypocrisy reigns. In the process of ranting against organized society in general, Ilgunas decries how society "spoiled" the pristine beauty of northern New York, building communities like the one he himself grew up in -- where he still lives, in fact, as a 23-year old moocher off his parents, eating their food, tapping regularly (if reluctantly) into his mothers bank account. All the while, he ridicules the mundane life of those who work at regular jobs to pay for mortgages, who maintain restricting ties to family and friends -- when they could be out exploring the wilderness, finding their "wild" selves. In short, Ilgunas comes off as a quasi-nutcase in his fervor for his new lifestyle.

If there is an upside to that -- I came within a hair of quitting the book, in the midst of all that self-serving arrogant nonsense -- it's that at the end of the book he admits his own hypocrisy. At least he has the capacity for honesty. In that sense, it's a better book than Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America", which has a somewhat similar theme. Both books are fascinating reading, the tales of bleak poverty and extreme making-do, but Ehrenreich is much more strident in advocating her solutions. At least Ilgunas maintains a smidgen of humility.

But here's the bottom line about Ilgunas: in his unbridled passion for extreme penury -- living in a toilet-free van, peeing into a bottle, discarding waste "behind a tree", fretting over a mouse eating his food -- a life in which he literally obsesses over every cent he earns and spends, he's really no different than the people he despises so much, those who are consumed with acquiring. Whether one's obsession is doing without, or with acquiring more, one is still spending one's life consumed with THINGS.

Somehow I don't think that's what he intended.

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232 people found this helpful

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This book is COMPLETE TRASH.

This book is one of THE worst I've ever attempted (I only say attempted b/c it was too terrible to finish). The story is about a self absorbed, entitled and privileged guy whose superiority complex takes you through hours of condescending remarks, terrible stereotyping and horrible comparisons (e.g. he said finding your wife/child dead on the kitchen floor with the their throats sliced and the killers cum in your dead kids baseball glove was just as bad as finding out you owed $8K more on a student loan than originally thought). If you want an adventure/traval book steer clear of this one.

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79 people found this helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars

the author had little wisdom to share

Not a guide to living frugally (as I had hoped), this is the memoir of a college student that awakens to his plight of being heavily indebted for student loans but with little tolerance for office jobs. Ken is engaging and interesting but definitely a bit unusual. The length he goes to to get solitary jobs in the great outdoors and in Alaska to pay off his debt show a penchant for isolation and rigid self-control. He talks of living a simpler life but most of us are not willing to live in such isolation, eating only subsistence foods (peanut butter spaghetti stew, anyone?), living without necessities like a winter coat or heat in winter. Ken gets awfully preachy and overly philosophical in between anecdotes, to the point where it sounds like he is trying elevate his choices to a greater philosophical meaning that I am not sure even Ken believes. It loses its edge of truth.

Interesting, sometimes tedious, offbeat memoir, but I don't think his lessons will last in my mind other than his valid warning about not accruing mindless debt.

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59 people found this helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars

Golly...Get A Plan

Ok, first I really like Nick Podehl and I thought his narration here was good. He captured the youthful voice of the author. This was a basic straight forward reading of the book and not one of those multi voiced performances that he really excels at. But overall the reading was good.

Now, on to the book. I agree with the author that far too many young people go deeply into debt financing college educations that prepare them to do nothing post graduation. Being sensible about choosing an eduction that will provide the student with easily marketable and money making skills makes sense. It has ALWAYS made sense. This isn't new news nor is it always fun to be careful in your choices. However, this approach does offer a foothold a person can use as a starting point in building a sustainable life. The author's approach was extreme, haphazard and amazingly--blindly contradictory.

Much of the thinking made no logical sense at all. For example, how could it make sense financially to drive all the way from New York state to Alaska and the Arctic Circle to work a summer job for $8 per hour at a dive motel that everyone reviews as terrible online?? Especially when you have a better paying job at home already. This is just the beginning of the scratch your head and chalk it up to impulsive youthful--wouldn't it be fun--kind of behavior.

To me, there wasn't enough or really any Walden in this tale of stumbling bumbling debt free live in your van story. Actually, the details of life in the van are beyond cringeworthy. I guess it worked out in the end...he is after all selling books on audible. Thank goodness I borrowed this copy.

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55 people found this helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
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Not Engaging

I just never came to care about this self-absorbed guy trying to figure out his life. I sure didn’t need to know his packing list on every trip, nor did I need a 10 minute listing of monthly/annual living costs calculated with three or four variables.

The writing was ho-hum. If I had been reading it instead of listening, I wouldn’t have finished it.

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47 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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Interesting and introspective story

I have listened to this audible book twice and both times thoroughly enjoyed it. I hope you will enjoy it too. Thanks Ken.

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20 people found this helpful

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A delightful foray into simple freedom

The first half of the book is about a young college students pursuit of a less than ordinary life after plunging into significant debt.He has some great ideas and moves to Alaska for a summer,where he works for small money,but has a free accommodation.He manages to fulfill his travel lust and pay down his loan with a year of work there.His cohorts were not the pillars of society,but he stuck it out and paid down his debt.Next he goes to Mississippi to work for the forest service.Again he meets lots of strange people.Except for one special girl.The two of them fall in love and when work is up after the second round of 3 month stints they hitchhike to his parents home in Niagara Falls,New York over the course of a month.The author having read Theroeau decides to return to graduate school and is accepted at Duke.Having paid off his debt completely after a second summer working a pretty good job for the parks service in Alaska.He decides he will live in an inexpensive van so as not to incur additional debt.He manages to keep this a secret for two years.In one of his final courses on creative writing he reveals his secret in a paper.The professor recommends he publish the well written paper.He even gets a three year writing job offer from a magazine which he declines.He seemed to have learned a great deal from this arduous living and there are many other moments I have left out here.Buy the book and support this guy.I realize I am perhaps a fellow misanthrope like the author I too have been trying to discover and alternate kind of happiness living abroad for the last 4 years.

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15 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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I loved this book!

If you could sum up Walden on Wheels in three words, what would they be?

Engaging, self-depricating, wonderful!

Which character – as performed by Nick Podehl – was your favorite?

I don't have one... but his narration was impressive! I wish he narrated more books that interest me; he is such a talent!

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

Ken's work in Alaska and Mississippi, his fear and dread about his debt.

Any additional comments?

This book should be required reading for any high school student headed off to college. Debt - both student debt and consumer debt - is at critical levels both in Canada and the USA. While Ken does not romanticize many of his actions, he is frank about the dread of being $32,000 in student debt. With a bit of luck and a spirit of wanderlust, he was able to pay it all off in a few short years, and still go to grad school debt-free. He grows up considerably in his mid-twenties, and I can't wait to see where the next few years lead him.

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14 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Absolutely hilarious, inspiration without schmalz

This audiobook had me hooked from the start, and I listened to it almost nonstop within a day. It is full of laugh-out-loud self-deprecating humor, woven in with the wisdom that comes from living an authentic and principled life. I am decades older than the author, but still paying off student loans and facing various financial nightmares. Like many of my generation, my financial life is far from what I had imagined it would be. This book was a welcome reminder that there are many ways to find meaning and adventure in life, and that financial security is not the only measure of success.

The narrator is excellent; it's easy to imagine that it was actually the author telling the story. He was skilled in altering his voice to portray a variety of people, with great comic effect. I am sure that I will listen to this book again at some point in time.

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13 people found this helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

A good story burdened by ceaseless flowery language

The story is very interesting and insightful. Thats why I listened all the way to the end. despite the relentless verbose flowery language. You can only listen to so many minutes of the description of one mountain or one bear before you lose track of where the plot left off. Editing would take a good hour off the tale and it would be better for it.

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9 people found this helpful