Ken Ilgunas is not your average adventurer (if, indeed, there is such a thing). He’s not off trudging up Himalayan peaks, swimming the Amazon or pulling a sled across the Antarctic. Instead, he hitchhiked to Alberta last September and set off on a trek south across what too many people have taken to calling “flyover country”—the heartland states and provinces of the U.S. and Canada. Along the way, he dealt with the fierce cold of a Great Plains winter, developed a healthy fear of cows, had some run-ins with the law and, above all, talked to a lot of locals.
See, his unconventional journey was very intentional. Using government maps for reference, Ilgunas’s 1,700-mile route traced the proposed path of the Keystone XL pipeline. The battle against the pipeline, he thinks, marks a watershed moment in the environmental movement’s ongoing fight against climate change, and he wanted to be out on the ground, taking a firsthand measure of the mood along the pipeline’s path.
In February, Ilgunas finished his 136-day walk in Port Arthur, Texas, where oil refineries process Tar Sands bitumen for overseas shipping. He unceremoniously waded into an industrial shipping channel on an overcast day, then headed off to Washington, DC for a high-profile rally against Keystone XL. We recently caught up with Ilgunas to learn more about his hike, and what he thinks the future holds for Keystone XL.
Why’d you hike the pipeline?
For a few reasons. First of all, I was in the mood for a good, long walk. I’d been a student for a couple of years, and then I wrote a book, so that meant I’d been sitting on my ass for a really long time, and I was really itching for some sort of big, physical and challenging adventure. The second component is that I was just strangely drawn to Keystone XL.
When I first got the idea for it, XL was a front-page story, and I recognized its symbolism and significance—this was the first time environmentalists were fighting a public works project because of climate change. I think we have something like 160,000 miles of oil pipelines in our country; when you include gas pipelines, it’s over 2 million miles. So for us to be fighting a pipeline, and for so many people to be so outspoken about it, there was significance there, and I recognized it. I wanted to come out and capture the natural mood, even if it would lead me over the lonesome South Dakota prairie. I thought of the XL as the center of the universe, and I wanted to be there.
The Tar Sands near Hardisty, Alberta.
Did you ever think, during the worst of the Great Plains winter, maybe I didn’t need to go quite this far?
No, definitely not. I think to accomplish something like this—I think a lot of mountain climbers would agree with me—you kind of have to be half insane when you’re going into it. If you start climbing a mountain, you can’t think, ‘If it gets too tough, I’ll just turn back.’ If you allow yourself that vacillation, there’s no way you’re going to get to the end goal. So when I committed to the Keystone XL trip, I pretty much told myself that, no matter what, I will get from the start to the finish unless death is imminent or I break a leg or something extremely serious. There’s no way I’d quit because of pain or soreness or struggle. The whole point of a journey is to experience those things and change and learn about yourself, and they were greeted as noble adversities.
Did you ever wish the pipeline was routed through a more dramatic, more majestic scenery?
No, not at all. I fell in love with the Great Plains, with the prairie out there. It’s a manageable landscape. And that was partly what also drew me to this hike was that it was going to take me down a path that no one had ever thought to walk before. We have the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail—you know, really popular hilly or mountainous trails. And no one thinks to walk across the heartland. If you think about trail walking, the townspeople you come across see hikers all the time, the animals have adapted to hikers. Your interactions with people and animals and your environment, I think they lose a sense of novelty and authenticity in those sorts of settings. But hiking through a place where no one’s ever seen a walker, that opens up a whole bunch of new opportunities, because there’s curiosity.
Near Glasgow, Montana
The prairie was absolutely gorgeous. I was walking down canyons and over Montana hills and South Dakota grasslands, and it was beautiful. Part of that beauty is—similar to the desert’s allure—the sense of silence and solitude and peace. I think that’s why people are often drawn to nature in the first place. And you get bundles of that out in the prairie, where one family living in one small house runs 10,000 acres. And I’d be up there for three days at a time, and wouldn’t have the opportunity to talk to anybody. It was almost like walking through wilderness.
Since you were often walking along roads where human encounters were more likely, do you think that gave you a better sense of the mood along the pipeline?
Sometimes, for sure. I think my more meaningful encounters actually happened while I was traversing across field and pasture, because it was in those circumstances where I really had to rely on other people for help. Walking across Alberta, Saskatchewan, Montana and South Dakota—when I was doing it almost purely cross-country—I would have to go up to houses once a day to have my water bottles filled up. And I’m going through areas where they’ve never seen anyone walking through, so those encounters were always interesting. In all cases, I received nothing but generosity.
Walking along roads, I stopped at churches and dining areas. While I still had meaningful interactions, they didn’t have that sense of rawness and wildness and spontaneity to them that my northern interactions did.
What were some of the more natural challenges you encountered?
For the first three of four weeks, my body just wasn’t prepared to be doing 20 miles a day, every single day. I experienced a number of problems with my feet—at one point I had eight blisters on my feet, I had gashes on my ankles, I had terrible athlete’s foot on top of both of my feet and, for about three weeks of the trip, I had a shin splints injury in my left leg that was cripplingly painful. And that’s because I was walking as far every day as I could, as fast as I could to avoid winter, because I’d started at such a silly time of the year. So I was trying to get south as fast as I could.
As far as other natural challenges? The prairie is really good walking; it’s a great place to put one foot after the other. Occasionally, I had to worry about big badger holes and, about 30 times a day, I had to duck under or jump over barbed-wire fence that would keep cows in. Of course, I was chased by a stampede of cows at one point, too, and dropped my bag and trekking poles in my escape. The other challenge was finding a place to camp. In the prairie, it’s not easy finding a concealed spot. Many areas are completely flat and treeless; I mean, you’d look at the horizon and you can’t see a single tree anywhere, and you’d think ‘Where am I going to camp?’ I would have to camp in spots where I wouldn’t bother anyone and where nobody would come and knock on my tent at night and where I’d be able to keep this hike as secretive as I could.
These cows 'chased' Ilgunas, causing him to ditch (temporarily) $2K worth of gear.
You met all sorts of people along the walk—those in favor or Keystone XL, those against it, climate change believers and deniers. Did any of those encounters surprise you?
I was surprised with how most people were able to adjust to this really foreign, alien person doing this really wacky thing, oftentimes on their property. They were always quick to become relaxed or disarmed, and then we would just have conversation as if I’d been living across the road from them for years. That was a big concern at first—how are people going to react? Are they going to give me water? Are they going to shoot me? But, luckily, it worked out.
And then, when I got to Nebraska, I was surprised at just how outspoken and radical the larger part of the citizenry was about issues related to the environment—climate change, their aquifer, their farmland. And that was really encouraging and inspiring, because up until that point, I’d only come across very small pockets of resistance. It wasn’t until Nebraska that I saw something more consistent, more widespread.
There were also people you met who you could probably never convince that climate change is real. Was that at all disheartening, or did you expect that?
I quickly gathered that climate change is kind of a dirty word through the heartland. It’s almost something like sexuality or race—things that aren’t typically talked about in public. It’s a contentious issue, and oftentimes when I was with someone I recognized what their opinion would be, and I just knew that I’d better not bring it up. Overall, I was pretty disheartened by people’s disbelief. It was pretty widespread. If I had to guess, I would say that four out of five encounters were with climate change deniers. I would engage in conversation with these people, and it wasn’t like their skepticism was grounded in research and truth. It was more or less them believing what they wanted to believe, because climate change is inconvenient and scary.
Near Midland, South Dakota
After completing the hike and having all of these conversations and seeing firsthand what this pipeline could potentially do, do you feel you better understand what’s at stake?
Again, there’s already 160,000 miles of pipeline in the U.S., and another pipeline is not going to break our environment’s back. I think what’s important in this fight is not who wins and loses—obviously, it would be wonderful, in my eyes, if environmentalists were able to convince President Obama to deny this pipe—but overall what’s important is that we’re resisting. We’re trying to draw a line in the sand and move in a different direction to curb our usage of fossil fuels and put an end to these terrible energy extravaganzas that are taking place in areas like the Tar Sands. I just think that when you resist something in the way that we have, you encourage and inspire and get the word out to a lot of other people who otherwise would not have cared about this issue.
I liken it to John Muir and the Sierra Club’s fight against the O'Shaughnessy Dam in what once was the Hetch Hetchy Valley. They lost that battle, and Hetch Hetchy was flooded and turned into a reservoir, but the environmental movement was born and bolstered. And that’s what I’m hoping comes from our fight against Keystone XL.
One image from your walk that really struck me was when you reached the refineries at Port Arthur, Texas and saw the terrible environmental toll they’d exacted there. Your reaction was quite different from what I expected. What was it?
It was an interesting reaction. What I felt looking at the refineries was something close to what I felt looking down on the Tar Sands in Ft. McMurray, Alberta. And that was just being generally impressed with what we’d done. I was impressed not because what we were doing was necessarily good, but because what we’d done and what we’re doing is amazing, when you think of the complexity, the scope, the sophistication, the millions of man-hours and the millions of parts that have gone into something like the Tar Sands or Port Arthur. It make you think, ‘If we can do this, what else can we do?’ Maybe we can do something wonderful with the capacity we have as human beings. It might be a hokey outlook, but I did feel it.
How did you feel, only a few days later, when you arrived at the Keystone XL protest rally in Washington, DC?
First of all, you feel shell-shocked from being in a giant crowd of people in a big city after having walked the lone prairie all by yourself. And when I was walking the Keystone XL and talking to people who often were very indifferent about the pipe and climate change—if I was to characterize the heartland’s mood about the pipeline, I’d have to say it’s indifference—I felt kind of alone on this issue. And then to go to DC, and see 40,000 people holding ‘NO Keystone XL’ signs, some of whom are dressed as polar bears, it’s just really eerie and surreal. Because of that, I wasn’t able to be swept up in the fervor of it the way other folks were. But I was happy I was there, and I was really encouraged by how many thousands of people were taking an interest in something that even years ago wouldn’t have happened. I mean, the Keystone pipeline that happened in 2009/2010, nobody protested that. And now, just a couple of years later, we have a large sector of the population opposed to this pipeline.
Near the South Dakota-Nebraska state line
You once said, ‘This little walk, and my little blog, that’s about all I can do for Mother Earth. That’s all that’s in my power.’ What do you mean?
One of my goals in life is to be a useful human being. When I came up with the idea to walk the XL, I was washing dishes up in Deadhorse, Alaska, and it’s in moments like that where you feel truly, truly useless. But you want something that will be filling, that will give you purpose. I knew I could do two things—walk pretty far and write. So I thought, ‘Why not walk the XL?’ And that’s about as much as I can do for Mother Earth. You know, I could sign petitions or ‘Like’ things on Facebook, but I thought perhaps I might have more of an effect if I got out there and explored the story from a first-person angle.
Ken Ilgunas, author of Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom, is currently working on a book about his Keystone XL walk called Trespassing Across America. To read a story he wrote about it for Salon, click here. Or read through his entire jouney on his website, kenilgunas.com.
All photographs here courtesy Ken Ilgunas, unless otherwise noted.