When writer Ken Ilgunas set out to walk the 1,700-mile proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline and talk to the people he met there, he expected challenging debates about climate change, energy security and national sovereignty. In researching his new book, “Trespassing Across America: One Man’s Epic, Never-Done-Before (and Sort of Illegal) Hike Across the Heartland,” he expected to experience the wisdom of the people and decipher the pipe’s symbolic meaning. He expected enlightenment.
Instead, he found a country we wish were just a caricature: an America that does not actually value debate, or enlightenment, or wisdom at all.
It’s a reality so empty it’s hard to know what to make of it. The point of Ilgunas’ walk is to meet real, unmediated humans. But he’s confronted daily with a kind of hypermediated discourse that has obliterated the idea of empirical facts and replaced dialogue with a war of ideas between medieval walled villages, where data brought by outsiders are not just rejected but are ignored as if they never existed.
“In this regard, there was no happy ending,” said Ilgunas, 32, speaking via Skype from Costa Rica, where he was traveling once again. “I was very disillusioned with just how fixed in their beliefs people were. I was frustrated by the lost art of conversation. I was going into [this trip] with my own prejudices, but I wanted to open myself to learning as much as I could and developing a more nuanced opinion about climate change and the pipeline. And in the end, honestly, I just became more opposed to it.”
Make no mistake: Ilgunas met nice people, generous people, good people. He just couldn’t talk politics with them.
This is interesting because Ilgunas, though personally opposed to the pipeline, is not an environmental polemicist. He works somewhere between the modes of Henry David Thoreau and Paul Theroux — he lives deliberately and reflects on what that means, traveling to places such as the Alaskan bus where “Into the Wild” subject Chris McCandless lived and died, hitchhiking across the country, or walking his old hometown of Wheatfield, N.Y., to record how it was paved by suburbs. His 2013 book, “Walden on Wheels,” was a well-received account of getting his master’s degree at Duke University while living out of a van in order to beat student loan debt.
This approach affords a welcome opportunity to see a complex subject like suburban sprawl or student debt or global oil infrastructure with fresh eyes. Yet, in “Trespassing Across America,” Ilgunas quickly finds his basic project shut down. Arriving in September 2012 at Fort McMurray, Canada, he hires a plane to fly him high above the vast peanut-butter-like tar sands deposits that are to be diluted and pushed through the Keystone XL pipeline, and he questions how mile after countless mile of hideous destruction could be happening in relatively eco-friendly Canada, writing, “this seemed like the work of some deranged Third World tyrant bent on industrializing his nation at any cost.” He doesn’t know it at this start of the journey, but that remove, flying high above the bitumen, is about as close as he will get to the subject itself.
The locals he meets in the Alberta province talk about jobs, jobs, jobs; the oil work is brutal, dehumanizing, incredibly lucrative (truck drivers making $4,000 per week), and the best thing to ever happen to men who need to feed their families. The warnings start.
“If you start talking to people out here about the environment,” says a man named Alan, “they’ll punch you. They’ll get violent.” Ilgunas takes this to heart and keeps his head down and right away this becomes a different book.
Backpacking through the vast, empty prairies of Alberta and Saskatchewan, he sees few people, is chased by a bull moose, and deals with his fear of cows. He writes nicely about its natural history and the beauty of this empty quarter, scribbling in his notebook, “I was walking amid a hidden wonder of the world. The Sand Hills are steep furry pyramids of grass that glowed pink red in the dusk light. They are round, bulbous gumdrops, geographic Napoleon hats.”
Right away, he experiences a generosity that is real and frustrating. When he raps on doors asking to refill his water bottles, people invite him in, give him a room or an empty RV or the floor of a church to sleep on. Even the ones who loudly proclaim their support for the pipeline say it’s OK to go on trespassing across their land. Drunk workmen in a bar who tease him about being a writer and eye his journey with dark suspicion end up giving him money. People stop their cars to feed him. “To travel alone is to force yourself to depend on others,” he writes. “It is to fall in love with mankind.”
But even the kindness of strangers couldn’t deliver the depoliticized human discussion about the pipeline that he sought, the open questioning, the reasoned dinner-table hashing out of basic truths. He is a reluctant interrogator, constantly backing away from encounters that might prove too hot.
“I knew if I said, ‘I’m this treehugging liberal from New York and I’m walking this pipeline to oppose it,’ there would have been no conversation whatsoever, and I wouldn’t have got their perspective,” said Ilgunas. “So I had to kind of talk with them artfully.”
Which unfortunately means no real talking. Ilgunas walks into a face-full of what one strongly suspects is regurgitated Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, and for reasons of either politeness or fear he can’t break through. Finally, in the middle of the book, he is invited to lunch by Stan, a pro-pipeline guy who thinks climate change is fake but who says he hopes the backpacking stranger can help him understand differently. When he asks Ilgunas, “Don’t you believe environmentalism is all about power?” — voicing a conservative belief that climate change is a plot to increase government control — Ilgunas shuts down. “From the phrasing of this one question, I gathered that any sort of mutual understanding was impossible.”
Why? That is where the discussion starts. What we want from a book like this is something like the messy integration of human imagination and petrol captured in Rick Bass’ “Oil Notes” (Bass is a petroleum engineer by trade); a thirsty human’s take on the vast manipulation of rivers in Joan Didion’s essay “Holy Water"; the humanity found in the perambulations of Thoreau, John Muir, Edward Abbey, Peter Matthiessen; the raw discovery, exposure and anger in William DeBuys’ “The Last Unicorn.” We need him to transcend the confrontation.
Such discussions are rare in the country, but they are happening. Breakthrough local initiatives like the Blackfoot Challenge in Montana have been making great strides by putting farmers, environmentalists and government agents at one table and doing the hard work of talking to one another. And it is hard work.
Maybe that’s not possible for a man who’s just passing through and has to camp somewhere in plain sight for cops and others to constantly hassle him. But I can’t help but feel he should have stayed an extra day when insight was within reach. Instead, near the end of the book he admits he hasn’t had a single good intellectual conversation on the nearly five-month trip and lets loose a rant:
“Not one person I encountered has said anything even halfway intelligent when denying global warming…. They saw themselves as too freewilled and independent to be duped into accepting something that an accomplished and well-trained scientist says is true…. But it is a false enlightenment to accept only those ideas that align with one’s worldview and reject those that don’t.”
Instead of dialogue, he was finally appropriated as a symbol of resistance. As he approached the pipe’s terminus at the Valero Refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, in February 2013, other pipeline protesters walked with him, interviewed him, stopped for selfies and whisked him off to Washington, D.C., to speak to throngs of climate change activists who considered him a hero. But he feels sheepish, acknowledging that even as he brought new attention to the pipeline, he hadn’t changed many minds on the ground.
Still, he felt good about the experience. Unlike the hitchhiking and birch-bark canoe adventures he recounts in “Walden on Wheels,” Ilgunas said, “I feel like those are accomplishments that are pretty hollow because they’re affecting no one but myself. And I was striving for something more with the Keystone XL trip; I had more than myself in mind.”
“I did really love my life every day on that journey,” he added. “Even though I was exposed to indifference and was often disillusioned and was chased by dogs, I did feel that I was in the right place at the right time in my life.”
Ilgunas declared to the CBC at the outset that he was “out for a good walk.” The frustration he found along the way reveals that it’s going to take a singular event or talent to get people to really talk to one another about climate change. Maybe walking, no matter how good, isn’t quite enough.
Kuipers is a writer in Los Angeles and is the author of “Operation Bite Back: Rod Coronado’s War to Save American Wilderness.”