I recently finished Ken Ilgunas book Walden on Wheels. I was really inspired by his story. The way that he thought really resonated with me because we have very similar opinions on a lot of things. He just has a much better ability to showcase them beautifully.
His story is this: He was a recent college graduate and had $30,000 in debt. But, society wasn’t right with him. He spent some time in Alaska and longed for that lifestyle. However he couldn’t just drop out because his mom was the co-signer on his loans. Determined to pay off the loans he takes a job in Alaska that pays for room and board. This allows him to use all his earnings to pay for his debt.
I don’t want to talk to much more about it because I want you to read his book. However, I do want to share some experts that I really appreciate.
We can only miss what we once possessed. We can only feel wronged when we realize something has been stolen from us. We can’t miss the million-strong flocks of passenger pigeons that once blackened our skies. We don’t really miss the herds of bison that grazed in meadows where our suburbs stand. And few think of dark forest lit up with the bright green eyes of its mammalian lords. Soon, the glaciers will go with the clear skies and clean waters and all the feelings they once stirred. It’s the greatest heist of mankind, our inheritance being stolen like this. But how can we care or fight back when we don’t even know what has been or is being taken from us. (page 72)
This paragraph is a perfect description of why some people simply just do not care to protect the environment.
I remember when I was starting to learn about climate change, more than ten years ago now. It was around the same I started go camping and hiking. I would go back to the same meadow a few hours from my home for more than a decade.
In that time, I watched the ecosystem change. I watched the changing climate affect a place dear to me. There used to be two lakes. One seasonal and one three-times-as-big-year-round laek. I remember wading out to rocks and catching frogs in the seasonal pond. But over time it stopped showing up. Then a few years later the year-round lake dried up completely. I haven’t seen water there in over a year.
Other people suffering from nature-deficiency disorder can’t understand what they are missing. They can’t understand the negative impacts of their actions because they live life inside.
My relationship with nature was changing. No longer did I think of it as something to conquer, like a mountain summit. Nor was nature something to be glorified, which we tend to do at scenic road pull-offs. Nature, to me, was no longer beautiful. Nature, I realized, is only beautiful when you’re at a safe distance from it. Watching a setting sun from a windshield can mean romance, serenity, beauty. On the water, though, it was a warning for mosquitoes, storms, and the cold. When I was mesmerized by nature before, I was merely disconnected from it. After more than forty days on the voyage [paddling in a canoe]. I no longer saw nature and myself as independent entities; rather, I was nature…” (Page 117)
This backs up my earlier comment. People who don’t spend time in nature cannot come to terms that we are from nature. We are nature. To harm nature is to harm ourselves.
Dave Foreman, one of the co-founders of Earth First! talks about how the current trend to save nature as a playground for humans is wrong. Nature, the wilderness, he argues should be protected because it is wild. It should remain wild.
The yuppie lifestyles of Outside Magazine and Backpacker use nature as a playground. They protect National Parks so they have something pretty to look at. These two men see nature as so much more. Nature should be wild!
From my home, I could see suburbs in all directions. When I was a boy, at least there were pockets of woods to stoke my imagination. But now all I could see were endless rows of cookie-cutter homes, bland corporate parks, vast retirement complexes, all separated by a grid of loud, fast, angry roads. The suburban landscape, before, had never produced any thoughts in me or incited any ire, but now, having roamed the Brooks Range, the Canaduian wilderness, and the Mississippi jungle I could imagine the terrible genocide of trees and swamps and fields that took place here years before. We got rid of all that for this.” (Page 149)
Up until now I was never anything but a worker and a student. When I looked up at a dark arctic night sky, I thought I could be something else. I didn’t want a job, a salary, a home. I didn’t want to be a bold in the consumer-capitalist machine. Or a boring Ph.D student. When I looked up at the stars, I could see my path. I wanted to be a comet hurtling through the sky, governed by no one’s laws or expectations but my own. (Page 89)
When we are raised by institutions, we are fashioned, in ways big and small, to be like everyone else. But, when we go on a journey – especially a journey that follows no one else’s footsteps it has the capacity to help a person become something unique, an individual.
While Western society never had anything quite like the vision quest, we do have a heritage of journeying laced into our cultural DNA. In the 1930s, Americans hopped trains. In the 1950s, beat poets wrote about road trips. In the 1960s, we hitched rides. Today, however, it seems like the whole “coming of age” adventure has been abridged from a young person’s life experience, leaving no gap, no bridge, no moment of real freedom in between school and career. (Page 116)
I’m lost. I’m in a crossroads in my life. I don’t know where I should go next or what I should do.
I’m constantly comparing my life to the life of my peers. Wondering if I should follow their footsteps. At least they are doing something! But this life is my experience and mine alone.
In order to live the experience that a human life is to it’s fullest potential I must live mine to my fullest potential. Only I can decided what this means for me. And, only you can decide what it means for you. It’s just hard though.
“Our relationship was kind of like our hitchhike adventure. It wasn’t supposed to last forever. It was simply a means of getting from our past selves to our future selves. And like the hitchhike, we’d take from it, learn from it, say good-bye to it, be better for it, and think back on it fondly.” (Page 163).
Sometimes I have a hard time not getting sentimental for past experiences. Great times I once had. I wonder why this moment right now isn’t as amazing as that moment. But, they can’t all be.
Good or bad experiences, I am learning to appreciate them all. Friends and lovers who are no longer in my life, I forgive for our drifting. I look back on the times, good and bad, and learn. All of my mistakes, my fucks up, the time I was an asshole, the times I was taken advantage of, I’m okay with them now.
I have learned.
I must keep moving forward.
“When I thought about my hitchhikes, the voyageur trip, Duke – I was happy to have suffered; i was happy to have been miserable; i was happy to have been alone… That’s because it was in those moments, when I was pushed to my limits, that I was afforded a glimpse of my true nature.
I learned such a glimpse cannot be gotten with half-hearted journeys and soft endeavors. Nor could I hope for such a graphic feature, like getting to the top of a mountain. Rather, I knew one must confront the very beasts and chasms that haunt our dreams, block our paths, and muffle the voice of the wild man howling in all of us, who calls for you to become you – the you culture cannot shape, the you who is unalterable, uncivilized, pure. You.” (Page 272)
As plans are coming along for my own great adventure Ken Ilgunas words give my heart the encouragement I need. He tells us that the only way to become the best you, the true you, it to suffer. Suffer while thriving for what you most desire.
I am terrified of being alone. Lost in thoughts that take me down dark places in my mind; self-loathing. I want to overcome these beasts. I want to struggle my way through my great adventure and come out alive strong than ever on the other side.
Thank you for writing such an amazing book Ken! I look forward to reading your other works soon! Safe travels.
Ken Ilgunas recently walked the entire length of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. You can head about here.