College graduates are saddled these days with crushing debt that can take many years to pay off.
In an era when job prospects can be dim, a college degree can seem all but worthless.
When Ken Ilgunas found himself staring at $32,000 in college loans after graduating from the University of Buffalo, he decided to take the kind of action many might see as nothing short of madness.
He began living as frugally as possible.
We're not talking here about cutting back on beer nights or driving a bicycle to work.
Ilgunas moved to rural Alaska where he wouldn't be lured by fast food restaurants, shopping malls or other extravagances of modern life that would eat up earnings.
The story of how he's able to live simply, conquer his fears and eventually triumph is the lure of this memoir, "Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom."
As determined as he is to pay off his debt, he's also convinced that joining the middle class of his parents and so many other people who are unhappy with jobs and the expensive conveniences of conventional life is no way to go. That so many of his college-educated contemporaries are finding it difficult to find any kind of work beyond flipping burgers makes his decision that much easier.
And yet, Alaska has both its drawbacks and its thrills. He works at menial jobs in a tiny remote village but at the same time joyfully discovers the last wilderness that is the 49th state.
He also finds Alaska to be a kind of lost land of opportunity, filled with people not unlike himself looking for answers and perhaps fleeing from something.
Ilgunas, interesting enough, is a misfit among misfits.
A kind of modern day Thoreau, he embraces living simply, although it's difficult to know what he's really after other than a mission to pay off his debt.
Ilgunas perseveres, and his debt gradually shrinks.
Keeping in contact from afar with people from his former life - a mother upset over the life he's chosen, and a friend struggling with his own college loan obligations who cannot find work for which he's suited - he's reminded what he left behind.
Later, he heads to Mississippi to work for Americorps where he becomes involved in cleanup efforts from Hurricane Katrina.
Here, Ilgunas falls in love with a young woman who seems to share his adventurous spirit. They live in a tent and remain together for a time, eventually hitchhiking back to Ilgunas's boyhood home in upstate New York.
Back in Alaska, Ilgunas secures work as a ranger for the national park service.
He's outside, at one with nature, and the job is everything he seems to want. Why he decides to go back to school for a graduate degree is a twist on this story that perhaps Ilgunas cannot fully explain.
But, true to Ilgunas's nature, he doesn't simply blend in with the rest of the graduate students at Duke University. He buys a used van and lives out of it at the school, equipping it with a stove and a bed and other basic essentials. He showers at a school gym, works part-time and zealously keeps secret his tiny mobile home he keeps parked on campus, lest school authorities chase him away and force him to spend money living at the college or in town.
This book could have been a real downer, but Ilgunas has an engaging way of describing and facing down the different hardships.
With a spirit and a determination to live life on his own terms, he believes quite strongly there's an alternative to modern American life.
Readers can decide for themselves if he's made the right decision in thumbing his nose at materialism, a good job, and a normal lifestyle.
Ilgunas is an adventurer, a seeker, even a rebel, and his story is a compelling one.
I'd love to catch up with him again in a few years.