Note from Fruit-Powered Digest publisher and editor Brian Rossiter: I’ve been a fan of author Ken Ilgunas and his work since stumbling on his Walden on Wheels book on Amazon in December 2017. Ken Ilgunas has explored a number of themes in his books, from minimalism and vandwelling to wanderlust, freedom and climate change. He’s become an icon and barometer of our times, with his work helping launch cultural and magnify activism movements. Brian Rossiter interviews Ken Ilgunas by email in September 2019 in this Closeup interview.
Ken Ilgunas is an author, journalist and backcountry ranger in Alaska. He has hitchhiked 10,000 miles across North America, paddled 1,000 miles across Ontario, Canada, in a birchbark canoe and walked 1,700 miles across the Great Plains, following the proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline. He’s written for The New York Times, Time, Backpacker, Smithsonian Magazine and The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Ken Ilgunas’ adventures and books have been featured on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The New Yorker, National Geographic and NPR. He has a B.A. from SUNY Buffalo in history and English and M.A. in liberal studies from Duke University. He is the author of travel memoirs Walden on Wheels and Trespassing Across America and advocacy book This Land Is Our Land. He is from Wheatfield, New York, and is presently living in Dunbar, Scotland. Follow Ken Ilgunas on his website, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
Movies and TV Shows Were a Window on the World for Ken Ilgunas
Ken, you’ve enjoyed a number of revealing experiences, from living in a van to hiking and hitchhiking across America to challenging land laws inhibiting freedom of travel. How about we start much earlier, when you were growing up outside Buffalo, New York? Were you an insightful, adventurous, creative youth?
Ken Ilgunas: No. Definitely not. I was as average as they come. Average student, average athlete. Definitely not bookish and certainly not talented in any way. I had a great group of friends, good parents and a safe neighborhood. I was well-behaved and polite. If there was anything different about me, it was that I was on the far end of the introvert-extrovert spectrum. I very much had an inner life, as most quiet people do. With my alone time, I played a lot of video games and watched a lot of TV and movies.
I’m still trying to figure out if these were wastes of time that stunted my development or opportunities (especially with regard to the movies) that helped me access a bit of worldly culture in an otherwise conventional and closed-off suburb. Later on, when I started writing, my introversion proved useful for self-examination, and with self-examination, I was able to chart a life to be lived thoughtfully and deliberately.
Ken Ilgunas’ Experience Helps Launch the Vandwelling Movement
As someone who’s lived in several small spaces and yearns to have his own tiny house or converted cargo trailer or shipping container, will you reminisce on your time spent living in a van in a parking lot while a graduate student at Duke University, the subject of your Walden on Wheels book? What are the things that stick out, a decade removed from your graduation?
Ken Ilgunas: I generally think back on that time as a lonely period. Moving to a new place is difficult for anybody, but secretly living in a van in a new place made creating a social life even tougher. But I’m also very selective with friends and have an unhealthy draw to seclusion, so it’s not all the fault of vanlife. When I think back, I think of the times when I did homework or watched movies by myself in empty classrooms at 2 a.m. Of course, I have good memories, too. I enrolled in interesting courses. Every night was like camping, and I slept like a baby in my sleeping bag. I remember cooking meals out on the lawn. I read a ton. It was two years of mild misery, and that’s OK: Trying to grow as a person in school doesn’t need to be pleasureful.
Some folks have a tiny-living experience and get out after a year or two. I’m curious about what your thoughts about tiny living are these days, especially as the movement has exploded, penetrating the mainstream. I’m sure there are thousands out there who’ve been influenced by Walden on Wheels or your viral Salon article, spotlighting your van period.
Ken Ilgunas: If that’s the case, then I’d be honored. I started my experiment 10 years ago and things—with regard to minimal living—have indeed evolved. When I moved into my van in 2009, I couldn’t find any student who’d done what I was setting out to do. Now it’s sort of cool, and a lot of young people aspire to have similar experiences. I’m not sure if I’d go so far as to say there is indeed a movement—I don’t see all that many tiny homes or meet all that many vandwellers, but I think it’s healthy that there’s at least a conversation about living with less.
Vandwelling Years Lead to Dietary Shift for Former Duke Student
One thing that stood out to me in Walden on Wheels is your near-vegan diet during your time living in the van. You stuck to mostly plants—largely oatmeal, rice, beans and peanut butter—because of a lack of refrigeration and for financial reasons. You came at this sideways, with your living situation dictating some limitations, but you reported you “became leaner, got sick less and had more energy than ever before.” Fruit-Powered Digest readers are into health and would be interested to hear about your insight on this time and whether you might still favor a plant-based or plant-rich diet.
Ken Ilgunas: I should say that I’ve learned a lot more about nutrition since my van experiment. While you’re right that I was eating generally healthy, nowadays I eat a lot more organic foods and take care to vigorously wash my fruits and vegetables, which are things I didn’t do back then. Now, I eat a mostly vegetarian diet, with the occasional fish. I eat a lot of plant-based proteins. In the U.K., where I live now, Quorn products are always available, and it’s a great fungi-based source of protein, as I don’t want to overdo it with the soy products. I also eat as many semi-wild fruits as I can: blackberries, rosehips and sea buckthorn, all of which are plentiful on my side of Scotland.
Ken Ilgunas Embraces Alaska’s ‘Lawless Frontier’ While Paying off Student Debt
I’m backpedaling to just before your van period, when you moved to Coldfoot, Alaska, and worked as a lodge cleaner, tour guide and cook on your way to paying off $32,000 in loans racked up while an English major at the State University of New York at Buffalo. You learned some big lessons about minimalism, spartanism and self-reliance during these years, which also included a period as a National Park Service backcountry ranger. I’m so impressed with what you accomplished in such little time. What stands out about these chapters of your life and how have they shaped you to this day?
Ken Ilgunas: I was drawn to Alaska originally for reasons of romanticism. My next trip up there was out of practicality: I needed to pay off my debt and knew I had a job in a place I’d feel proud to live in. I was drawn to Alaska because Alaska, in some ways, is one of the most unusual states in America. You have a ton of wild, undeveloped land. There are some communities living largely subsistent lifestyles. In many places, it feels like a lawless frontier. And I think I was attracted to it because the Lower 48 felt diseased: too much sprawl, too many suburbs, too much work, and way too much consumption.
I suppose I just intuitively felt like something was truly wrong here and needed to get out and see someplace new. And while Alaska has its own 21st century problems, I think of the times I roamed over the Brooks Range or drank beer with coworkers on the banks of the Koyukuk River without worry of being harassed by the police or observed a reasonably intact ecosystem. Up there, I had a chance to test my mettle, pay off my debt and escape the consumer-capitalist system for a moment. I’m not sure how these times shaped me, but I’d like to think I took a little bit of the Alaskan wild back home with me.
Torchbearer of Ideals Carried by Chris McCandless and Henry David Thoreau
I was obsessed with all things Into the Wild from 2007 to 2010 and finally got to start traveling after years of waiting and paying off my student loan and car. I went to 50-plus destinations in 18 states over 64 glorious, freeing days spread across three July vacations, from 2008 to 2010. You explore some people’s fascination with Chris McCandless in The McCandless Mecca. Nowadays, some even view you, a masterful storyteller, as a torchbearer for the kind of ideals McCandless, John Steinbeck and Henry David Thoreau stood for: adventure, experience, love of nature and simplicity. Will you talk about who some of your major influences are and whether connections to these individuals suit you?
Ken Ilgunas: I really don’t think any one figure has influenced my thinking or values in any special way. I read and watch a lot and have no doubt absorbed many people’s thoughts into my own worldview, but no one person stands out in a significant way. I’d long wanted to visit Alaska before I read Into the Wild. And the critiques of American society I read in Walden felt like better-articulated echoes of my own criticisms. If these authors did anything, it was that they assured me that I wasn’t alone in my longings and judgments.
Ken Ilgunas Cherishes Freedom and ‘Enlightened Honesty’
Freedom is a major theme that runs throughout your body of work and is especially prevalent in This Land Is Our Land and Trespassing Across America. Will you open up about what you saw while on the road and in the fields, public and private, and how they impacted you deeply? When did you realize how important freedom is to you, and is it the value you cherish the most?
Ken Ilgunas: Especially in these times, I think I might rank “enlightened honesty” as high as freedom. But I do think we as country don’t actively seek moments that make us feel free. Voting is a healthy reminder of our freedom, but it’s too infrequent, and archaic structures such as gerrymandering and the electoral college make the process feel cheaper and less significant.
Going for a walk in a natural area where we can pick our own direction is one of those activities that, to me, at least, feels consistently liberating, and I think our society would benefit if these opportunities were more available. In Scotland, they have a law that guarantees the right to roam over land, whether it’s public or private. My last book, This Land Is Our Land, seeks to import this idea to the U.S.
Sharing a Vision for an Evolving United States
You’ve become an advocate for the environment, and Trespassing Across America, exploring your 1,700-mile hike across the Keystone XL pipeline route, from Alberta, Canada, to Texas’ Gulf Coast, not only puts you in the heart of the land but looks at climate change. What do you think the United States will look like come 2035, as the population skyrockets to about 370 million, the amount of open space dwindles and climate change impacts us even more?
Ken Ilgunas: Sadly, I think the trends you outline will generally come to be, but America certainly has a choice. We can continue to elect awful Republican presidents and allow them to roll back environmental protections, give handouts to corporate America and deny science. Or we can build a country that’s actually nice to live in. I presently live in Scotland. Scotland has its own problems, but at least we have universal health care, universal college education, a year of maternity leave, the right to roam, leaders who seem mostly sensible and no real mass-shooting problem.
There is no shortage of examples of how to craft a functioning, fair and caring society. Ultimately, I think America needs, at the local level, really tight and thriving communities, and on the national level, full-on Democratic socialism with big government solutions to the worst of our problems. I’d love to see America move away from roads and toward public transport. I’d like to see us abandon right-wing Dark Age Christianity and really commit to healing the planet. I’d like us to start a conversation about drastically reducing our consumption. I don’t think America will have accomplished these things by 2035, but I have a hunch we’ll at least be moving incrementally forward rather than lurching backward as we are now.
Ken Ilgunas Reminisces on Finding ‘Therapy for the Soul and Body’
Is there a favorite place of yours? As someone who’s seen and lived in a lot of places, where is home to you?
Ken Ilgunas: I used to live in Stokes County, North Carolina, a rural county on the border of Virginia in the rolling, forested foothills of the Piedmont. From my home there, I would go on a 3-mile jog down a winding country road and end up at the Dan River. There was a trail full of spiderwebs there that led to a small riverside beach. The Dan was never that high—thigh-high at most. I’d strip down and sit in the clear, cool river, which I always had all to myself. Every time, it felt like therapy for the soul and body.
Looking Ahead at Forthcoming Projects
What does day-to-day and season-to-season living look like for an author with a tremendous amount of wanderlust coursing through his veins? Are you able to reveal what book you’re working on these days?
Ken Ilgunas: I’m more of a homebody than you might think. One must have a mix of wandering and nest-building instincts to go on journeys and then spend years writing about them. I have a big travel-adventure book in the planning stages, which may include an exploration of the whole history of our species, plus a little time travel, but mums the word on that for the time being.
My friend and I have been talking about writing a how-to book called Get the F*ck out of Debt Now for student debtors, and we are starting to put some text down, but it remains to be seen if this is or is not an official project.