Waldon on Wheels by Ken Ilganus

Waldon on Wheels

Ken Ilgunas, 2013

Wheels, an enjoyable, suitably-assembled, mostly well-written book, is told in many parts with charm and fun.

I object, though, to the title. Thoreau purportedly advocated a simple life, but no writer uses him as a model. Thoreau was a nut. On a winter walk in 1862 he encountered a fallen tree, counted its rings; counting many for too long, he got the sniffles, went home and died.

Ilgunas has far better authors to emulate, and parts of his book resemble Typee (Melville, similar financial condition as Ilgunas) and Roughing It (Twain flees the Civil War). Like Ilgunas both were new authors, and their stories of le jeunehomme, of being outdoors and telling adventure cogently and coherently came with gusto, vibrancy and joy.

Those elements are present in Wheels: Working to get off debt. Working in Alaska. Describing the work well, portraying experiences he would have once and never again or certainly not in the same way. Like Melville and Clemens Ilgunas presents himself as sane, whereas he is only goal oriented – mental health is something else. Enthusiastically and elegantly, Ilgunas economically, efficiently and effectively describes Alaskan wilds and its animals.

There is a valuable lesson in Wheels for persons with debt from school or other sources. Freedom from debt, obligation, outside responsibility is a relief to any human being. At book’s end Ilganus can go off and live the life he wants, making the mistakes we all do, but perhaps he will be wary and careful. Since publishing this volume, student debt has made the news again. It is a problem, but the answer is not in a collective solution but in individual responsibility, like Ilganus amply shows. The solution is at hand for anyone with the mind and discipline to follow through in work and encountering people. Throughout the book his many amusing descriptions of the human world have possibilities, especially in its easy style, but out of Alaska he resorts to regimented, awkward approaches.

An example – hitchhiking across the Continent: Ilgunas does it briefly and without details (actual words of drivers). I was once driven from Dorset to London sitting in the backseat of a mini; the front seat passengers were smokers. Most of the roads seemed a lane and a half; it was poor weather. While I was being asphyxiated, they talked about mounds in the countryside, sliding from the Saxons, to the Romans and ending with the Druids/Aliens/Wicans. Their magazine knowledge exhausted, the driver was inspired and started on Moby Dick. He avoided its driving theme – the consummate power of hate – to go off on fantasies about the white whale. This paragraph has the elements upon reworking, but mostly it needs one or two quotes about the mounds and a few dialogue sentences about the whale, white, blue or sperm.

Wheels does not make connections between the reader and drivers. That was the connection because readers already know the narrator, and the drivers were the persons who could terrorize them. Certainly the narrator/writer would not interrupt and would not add much beyond “I know,” nods, grunts or approval and murmurs of sorrow, as tales of woe came.

Later in the book Ilgunas talks to people impressed by the hitchhiking and interested in doing it themselves. Was hitchhiking as easy as he made it out to be? He provides little insight: At the mercy of the drivers. At the mercy of the elements. Be prepared to be dropped off 30 miles from nowhere. Have no schedule. And those are safe days on the road.

Equally difficult is the human world outside of Alaska, more than half the book. Ilgunas reaches Duke and is living in the van. The details of life are fewer, unlike Alaska which is rich in detail. It seems for Ilgunas, what is seen by humans and externally experienced is magnificent and needs to be told; what happens inside any human being, specifically himself, development of the mind, travails of the mind and body, influences of the environment are less important. Ilgunas raised this very topic and should have developed it:

“The voyage was teaching me how unexceptional I was and how exceptional the human mind and body is. What wonders the human mind and body are capable of achieving! How so few know how much we can do! Our limits are merely mirages on the far side of the lake – we can see them ahead, but that’s all they are: mirages. Our real limits are beyond the scope of our vision, beyond the horizon, a boundary worthy of our exploration.” (p. 117)

The book mostly leaves a memoir style, and resembles a diary/journal with essay analyses. One experience – Alaska to Duke – stealing the stars. The Alaskan weather clears. Ilgunas knows nothing of the stars because he spent his childhood playing video games. But he was not deprived of them because of ecological damage in upstate New York. Later at Duke he is less concerned about another hidden world seen only through a microscope.

While reading about his life in Alaska, I realized he was living a monk’s existence. Toward the end of the book Ilgunas (p.258) also realized it but didn’t fully explore the anomaly: An eremite at Duke and being open and free in empty Alaska. It is no wonder while in graduate school, he voices customary undergraduate complaints, meaningless gripes, retreads from the undisciplined ways of his debt years (circa p. 240-45)[excellent analyses see Adam Ulam, The Fall of the American University].

Instead, Ilgunas’ adventure at Duke does not tell his life – the education of the mind, mental exploration and development, all the while living in the van with earlier and existing cares and concerns. He was motivated to finish school and did. He needs no more classroom work to be original and to write. This book evinces promising talent and a rage that can be disciplined and controlled. Unfortunately, how life and school helped Ilgunas and his mind, other than grades and a degree, is not in these pages.


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