Ken Ilgunas lived  in his van while he attended Duke’s Graduate school’s liberal art’s program.
Special to The Chronicle
Ken Ilgunas lived in his van while he attended Duke’s Graduate school’s liberal art’s program.

After leading an unconventional lifestyle for over two years, Ken Ilgunas—who received his masters in liberal studies in 2011—chose to emulate philosopher Henry David Thoreau with an experimental Duke experience. 

A student of history himself, Ilgunas was inspired by his own personal history when he chose to live in a van for the duration of his Duke graduate education. llgunas said that prior to applying to graduate programs, he had lived a relatively atypical lifestyle— in addition to living in Alaska for two and a half years, he had also travelled with Canadian voyageurs who dressed in 18th century garb, paddling 20 miles a day in birch bark canoes and eating salt pork and pea soup every day. As a result, Ilgunas said the idea of living a conventional lifestyle in Durham was not appealing. Ilgunas documented his experience of living in a van in a memoir published last month, titled “Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom”—a spin-off of Thoreau’s book “Walden.”

“I had lived a pretty rugged lifestyle, and the thought of coming to grad school and moving into an apartment and hanging curtains and buying a rug to tie the room together was just unthinkable,” he said.

After graduating with a degree in history and $32,000 of debt from the University of Buffalo, Ilgunas, a New York native, attempted to find a journalism job to pay off his debt. He was rejected from 25 paid media internships before moving up to Arctic Alaska—the northernmost region of Alaska that consists largely of tundra—to become a tour guide and start a new life. Despite low wages, Ilgunas benefited from free room and board, which allowed him to save every dollar he earned to pay off his debt.

“I learned two things on this journey—the first was that I never wanted to go into debt again, and the second was that I wanted to go to a grad school program,” Ilgunas said. “I just really missed the stimulating college culture.”

After spending over two years paying off his debt, Ilgunas applied to three graduate programs—Duke, Wake Forest University and Wesleyan University. Ilgunas ultimately chose Duke because it was the most affordable and Durham’s warm weather seemed enjoyable after two years in the tundra.

Joining a graduate program was not enough to convince Ilgunas to change the way he had been living, he said. His experiences in Alaska and time spent traveling altered his perspective and challenged the way he used to think. As a result, Ilgunas invested in a van and transformed it into his home for the next three years. 

He noted that the price of room and board, transportation fees and other Duke-related expenses would have dragged him back into debt, something he refused to experience again. With this in mind, Ilgunas embraced the van-dwelling life.

What had begun as a way to avoid debt turned into a social experiment to see how little he could live on, he said. 

Although Ilgunas did not initially tell his fellow students about his living situation, he wrote about his day-to-day life on his blog, “Ken Ilgunas: Vandwelling.” But toward the end of his time at Duke, he became more outspoken about his living situation. He first presented his story to fellow students in a class he took with English professor Christina Askounis. 

“He wrote this essay in my class, and I was really impressed with it,” Askounis said. “I told him that when he got it polished up, he should send it out somewhere.” 

After editing the piece, it was published on the front page of Salon.com—an online news website.

Ilgunas also wrote about his van-dwelling experience for his final project in a magazine journalism class taught by Bob Bliwise, Graduate School ’88 and adjunct lecturer at the Sanford School of Public Policy. Ilgunas explored the deep and wide ranging aspects of the history of American individualism for his piece, Bliwise said. 

“While his story was so self-referential, it was much deeper than that, and that really showed off Ken’s intellectual range and love of ideas and passion,” Bliwise said.

His pieces in both Askounis’ and Bliwise’s classes serves as the basis for Ilgunas’ book.

Ilgunas noted that his lifestyle does not permit him to sit idly and write. Instead, he travels across America and recounts his experiences. Last year, for example, he walked 1,700 miles from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast. This experience inspired Ilgunas’ second book, “Trespassing America,” which is soon to be published.

Despite writing two books about his experiences, Ilgunas said his profession is still not nailed down.

“The overarching goal is just to live a full and adventurous life and if that leads me into one or several professions, that’s okay,” he said. “It’s not about being financially free but turning your wildest, weirdest dreams into reality. The decision wasn’t entirely economical, it was the thrill of doing something novel and adventurous and bold.”