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 catalogues the costs and benefits of opting out of a conventional consumer existence dominated by cars, cellphones and homes.
In less skilled hands, this could easily 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 (as Thoreau shared in “Walden”) grounds his more abstract story of struggling to escape from the grasp of modern consumer society, and the memoir is much stronger for his command of detail.
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.
Norton edits a Midwestern food journal called the Heavy Table and is the author of “The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin.”