This guy is right up my alley. In Walden on Wheels, Ken Ilgunas chronicles the years he spent doing odd jobs and living in a van to pursue a Master’s degree and pay off student loans. This book is also a commentary on the education system in the USA, which is, to say the least, effed. When you’ve lived in other countries, then you live in the USA, you become incensed and livid at three things:
1. Education system
2. Health care system
3. California hothouse tomatoes
They just don’t taste like tomatoes. And even when you have health insurance you have to pay a “co-pay.” Even if it’s $20, if you’re a foreigner, you’re angry and feel like your basic human rights have been trampled. And after you graduate, you’re looking at hundreds of thousands of debt to pay off.
Not exactly a nice start in life.
I knew a lady who made a career out of being a college administrator just so she could finagle her way into a job at her child’s college of choice so they could get an employee discount on his education. She rearranged her entire career to make his education affordable. This is what people do.
Other people live in their van.
Being a “vandweller” and adopting a cheapskate lifestyle was the best way Ilgunas felt could get the education he wanted without the debt. A startling realization. The book is laced with great lines.
As he is contemplating how to get an education and stay out of debt:
“I went to high school because I was forced to; I went to college because I was supposed to: and now I’d enter Career World because I was financially obligated to.”
He traveled to Alaska to pick up work with a “lawless bazaar of meth heads, alcoholics and assholes,” in an obscure outpost called Coldfoot where that common Alaskan adage rings true: “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.” He took jobs no one else wanted because he got paid, free room and board, and was able to explore beautiful Alaska, where “the midnight sun carouseled around us.”
Once, when he was hiking up Blue Cloud mountain and was considering turning back…
“I’d wandered into that strange territory between my perceived limits and my actual limits.”
Been there. Didn’t like it.
And when he decided he’d pay down that debt and get the education, he changed this insurmountable feat into something a little more positive.
“My debt, I decided, would be the next mountain I’d try to climb. It would be my Blue Cloud. It would be an adventure.”
Obviously Ken Ilgunas is my people. Though I never lived in a van (not that I’m discounting this option), I’ve done some pretty drastic things to earn the money I needed to get where I wanted to go.
Adventure 1: I moved to California to pay off my Canadian student loans with the stronger USA dollar. The debt for my entire Canadian education the equivalent to one year of a USA education.
Adventure 2: Sold off everything and basically became a huge cheapskate for a year to finance a two year sabbatical in Europe. That was 2010. It’s 2015 and I’m still on that sabbatical, plus I managed to yank a whole new career out of my head.
Ilgunas also writes about Josh, his friend who went the traditional route of not living in his van to save for his education. We observe these newbies to the working world striving to be average people who pay for average things and live average lives.
“We spend our savings or go into debt for no other reason than to bask in the warm rays of peer approval.”
They were aiming for average because average is infinitely better than drowning in debt. Josh finally landed an office job where “his tie hung around his neck like a noose.”
Been there, too. Didn’t like it.
And these days, when odd oil prices are creating a domino effect in the stock market, when people are getting their credit card statement after a Christmas season, when the New Year’s resolutions of shiny riches dance above our heads, we could be having a few restless nights regarding finances.
So if at some point in this new glorious 2015, you find yourself on a very difficult mountain to climb, whether that mountain be debt, diet or dreams, try to think of it as an adventure.