When Henry David Thoreau published Walden in 1854, he fueled a centuries-long debate about the relationship between man and nature and the shackles that we wear when we participate in urban civilization. The romantic image of Thoreau in his cabin is central to Walden on Wheels, a remarkable memoir that manages to stay light on its feet while saying a great deal about the state of modern American society.
When Walden on Wheels begins, Ken Ilgunas is in a bad place: working at a Home Depot, deeply in debt for a useless undergraduate education and unable to find meaningful work.
What begins as a confrontation with his $32,000 college loan becomes a much larger conversation involving the author, his parents and his even more indebted friend Josh. The real heart of Walden on Wheels is the servitude that most Americans willingly enter to buy houses, wardrobes, vacations, educations and cars that do little more than keep them competitive with the Joneses.
Ilgunas documents his travels to Coldfoot, Alaska, where he earns money doing manual labor under sometimes brutal conditions. He also hitchhikes back to New York, helps with the post-Katrina cleanup on the Gulf Coast, and sleeps in a van while attending graduate school at Duke University. All the while, he lives by his wits, learns from his numerous and candidly documented mistakes, and catalogs the costs and benefits of opting out of a conventional consumer existence.
In less skilled hands, this could become a journey into thinly veiled martyrdom, but Ilgunas has an acute sense of humor that keeps the tone earnest and self-deprecating. His use of expense and income amounts (like those Thoreau shared in Walden) grounds his more abstract story of struggling to escape from the grasp of modern consumer society.
Ilgunas is a rare and wonderful travel companion. Along the way, he describes natural phenomena so skillfully that you might be compelled to flee your desk and head for the hills, walking stick in hand.