Broke and desperate but determined, 26-year-old Ken Ilgunas decided to buy a cheap van and secretly live in it in a Duke University parking lot to afford grad school. Walden on Wheels, his self-deprecating travel memoir, is a frank, funny, and brutally honest portrait of life in a van.
Though living in a van on a college campus was, in many ways, as ordinary as living in a dorm (albeit a cheaper, tighter, and somewhat smellier dorm), there were instances when the peculiar hardships of “van-dwelling” made me question whether living cheap was worth it. It turned out to be totally worth it—I graduated debt-free—but for your entertainment, I present some of the stranger, unexpected, and more unpleasant aspects of two years in a home on wheels.
A mouse lived in the van's ceiling for three days. During this period, I got little sleep as I obsessively watched the imprint of its tiny paw prints scurry across the upholstery.
Once a family had a picnic next to my van. For four hours! Living in there was a secret, so I couldn’t make a sound, let alone open the door. For those four hours, I remained fixed in the same sprawled position on my bed for fear it would squeak and I'd be discovered.
During my first rainstorm in the van, I discovered there was a leak in the roof. It dripped down onto the bed and left a pancake-size circle of wetness, making it look like I'd had a terrible accident.
I was so excited and nervous about going on a date with a girl (a rare occurrence, I assure you), I accidentally crashed the van into a concrete cylinder, leaving permanent scars that would ultimately make it unsellable.
Ants, thousands of ants, invaded my storage container one fall afternoon and carried off my food.
Without the luxury of refrigeration, I scoffed at the supposed need to keep some food items “fresh,” not bothering to chill my month-old bottle of squirtable butter. This resulted in a nightlong food-poisoning extravaganza that culminated in my throat discharging the entirety of my stomach’s contents into my wastebasket in one impressive burst.
When my secret was finally discovered, a student in the adjacent apartment complex told campus administration that my van made her feel “uncomfortable.” I was given a new parking spot next to the campus police station—and a law was created that more or less bans students from living in their vehicles.