Tonawanda News

July 7, 2013

Wheatfield native getting plenty of attention for travel memoir/financial guide "Walden on Wheels"

By Timothy Chipp timothy.chipp@tonawanda-news.com
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Wheatfield native Kenny Ilgunas was living a quiet life in North Carolina. When he came home to visit family a couple weeks ago, it got a lot less quiet.

Oh, and a lot more fun. That might be the best word to describe being interviewed on “CBS This Morning” and “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” within a week of each other.

Ilgunas, 30, now living near Winston-Salem, N.C., wrote a travel memoir, called “Walden on Wheels,” about his adventures in getting himself out of debt and staying that way following his education at the University at Buffalo. Upon graduating, he said he found himself $32,000 in debt and no luck in the job market. He wound up at the edge of the world.

“I got a job at a truck stop in Alaska which is often seen on the television show, ‘Ice Road Truckers,’” he said. “I was isolated. The nearest store was 50 miles away. So I was able to pay off the debt.”

From Alaska, he made his way back to the east coast, where he was accepted into Duke University for graduate studies. But the prospect of more school presented a difficult situation for the newly debt-free Ilgunas. He wanted to remain debt free, not put himself right back under the pressures he’d only just escaped.

So he developed a plan which many would call unconventional or even completely out of the question. Ilgunas bought himself a van with most of the money he had leftover from Alaska and moved into the university’s parking lot. He lived there for his entire schooling, doing what needed to be done to survive.

Even if it meant getting a little dirty.

“I dumpster dived. I did what I had to do,” he said. “There was no way in hell I was going back into debt. There were sacrifices for sure, but after a while, they didn’t feel like sacrifices. It was really about accepting a life of simplicity.”

His new, simple life served as the book title inspiration. It’s a reference to Henry David Thoreau, who wrote “Walden,” a book about a spiritual journey of discovery and independence.

What the world is quickly discovering about Ilgunas is, though not considered mainstream, his journey has been anything but boring. In fact, it’s probably more interesting considering the upbringing he had in Wheatfield with his parents, Ken Sr. and Tina Ilgunas.

“I had a wonderful childhood,” he said. “It was unexciting, but wonderful. Actually, the fact that it was so unexciting probably led to me going on my adventures like to the truck stop in Alaska.”

Or the recent trips to New York City and Los Angeles. He said he was treated like a king both stops he made promoting his story. CBS This Morning, his first television interview, made him extremely nervous. He said he wore makeup for the first time in his life during the interview, sitting with Charlie Rose, Gayle King and Nora O’Donnell at a table.

He tripped over his words once, he said. But the nerves quickly subsided.

By the time he got to Los Angeles to tape Jay Leno’s show June 25, he said he was calm. It was his parents who were nervous then.

“They were thrilled,” he said of his parents. “They were more nervous than I was. They were frantic. It was a great experience. (Leno) was a very nice guy, really down to Earth.

“When I was getting ready in my dressing room, I heard my dad scream out, ‘Hey Jay!’ He came in and was very sweet to us all. My Dad’s Scottish and Jay’s mother is also Scottish, so they ended up talking about heritage.”

Ilgunas isn’t done. The author inside him – he graduated UB after writing for the college newspaper and majoring in English and history – is getting stronger and a second book is creating itself even as he continues to promote “Walden on Wheels.” He said he’s writing “Trespassing America” right now about the controversial Keystone XL, a 1,700-mile oil pipeline between Alberta, Canada and Texas.

And the press tour for “Walden on Wheels” isn’t done either. He’s planning an appearance on MSNBC Tuesday, though he’s not sure when it will air or even if it ever will.

Ilgunas’s travels are well documented online at his blog, www.kenilgunas.com

Contact reporter Timothy Chipp at 282-2311, ext. 2251 or follow on Twitter @timchipp.