Within a week of his inauguration, President Trump signed an executive memorandum reviving the Keystone XL pipeline that President Obama had previously blocked. But Trump’s support is no guarantee that it will be built, says Ken Ilgunas, a young writer who hiked all 1,900 miles of the proposed pipeline, which would carry oil from the tar sands of Alberta to Texas. [See a map of the Keystone XL pipeline.]
Ilgunas’s book, Trespassing Across America: One Man's Epic, Never-Done-Before (and Sort of Illegal) Hike Across the Heartland, tells the story of his nearly five-month journey down the pipeline’s contested path. Speaking from his home in North Carolina, Ilgunas explained why conservatives and liberals united against the pipeline in some states but not in others; how he experienced both hostility and kindness during his walk; and why he’d rather live with hope than despair. [Find out what the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines will do to people, animals, and the environment.]
We first encounter you working as a camp dishwasher in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Set the scene for us and tell us how you came up with the idea for this insane trip.
[Laughs] I’d just graduated from graduate school at Duke University with a Liberal Studies degree and I was engaged in an experiment to graduate debt-free in America. I avoided going into massive debt by living in a van but graduated with only about $1,000 in my bank account. I wanted to write a book about that but ran out of money, so I moved to Alaska and got a job dishwashing in the middle of the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. The male to female ratio is nine to one; it’s nothing but dudes and equipment.
But I think it’s in those moments of despair and meaninglessness that we’re most ready to commit to a big change. The Keystone XL was all over the news. People were going to jail over it, protesting it. Here were these people living lives of meaning and sacrifice on this important battleground in the war over climate change. And yet here I was, washing dishes for the oil industry.
It was a kind of existential crisis. So my buddy Liam, who was a cook working alongside me, suggested we hike the Keystone XL pipeline. It was a crazy idea but I embraced that spirit of craziness and thought, “What the hell! This could be my escape.” In the end, my friend couldn’t make it. So my hike became a solo adventure: Frodo going by himself to Mount Doom.
You started your trek in the tar sands of Alberta. Give us a picture of this landscape and explain how the pipeline will increase the threat to the environment posed by the tar sands.
What we’re talking about in northern Alberta is arguably the worst man-made environmental disaster in world history. The tar sands are a massive area in Northern Alberta, about 54,000 square miles or the size of England. It’s basically what they call muskeg [grassy bog] and boreal forest. But to get to the oil you have to bulldoze the boreal forest and create this hellish, lunar landscape with enormous tailings ponds where they put the liquid residue from the refining process; giant, black fields of petroleum coke, which is an extract from the refining process; and these weird, yellow sulfur pyramids.
What a project like the Keystone XL will do is make this area expand, by creating more demand for the tar sands area to be developed. There is wildlife displacement, Native American villages are experiencing unprecedented rates of cancer, the rivers are being polluted, and the tar sands themselves are contributing unbelievable amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. It’s a disaster.
You write, “To travel alone is to force yourself to depend on others. It is to fall in love with mankind.” Tell us about some of the random acts of kindness you received.
I walked into this project as a cynic, a misanthrope. But when you’re walking across a continent, and every day some random stranger comes to you out of the blue with money, food, and shelter, it’s tough to remain a cynic. It’s tough to remain a misanthrope. One time in Oklahoma, while trespassing over land alongside a road, a truck rode past me. Fifteen minutes later, the driver came back, holding out a bag of McDonald’s and said, “I figured you were hungry.” Here I was with this giant backpack, probably hadn’t showered in weeks, with an enormous, grizzly-looking beard, so folks had every reason to be suspicious of me. Yet, more often than not, they responded with hospitality, compassion, and charity.
What did the locals you meet think about your trip—and the pipeline? Were they for or against it?
I was called crazy and told that I was going to be shot, pretty much every day. Anyone who goes on an adventure has to deal with that. As to the pipeline, it varied by region. In Alberta and Saskatchewan, they were in support of the pipeline because oil is such a huge part of their economies. Alberta is like the Canadian version of Texas.
It wasn’t until Nebraska that I saw some resistance on grounds of environmentalism because of the Ogallala aquifer. They are reliant on it for drinking and irrigation, as they grow corn, which needs lots of water, and these Great Plains states don’t get a lot of rain. They are very afraid the pipeline will contaminate their precious source of water. So there were a lot of groups—not just environmentalists and progressives but a coalition of conservative and liberal forces—opposing this pipeline.
Soon after I entered Nebraska, I spoke with a woman at a library, who posted a little thing about my walk on Facebook. It took off with Keystone XL pipeline radicals, and soon enough I was being interviewed by local newspapers and TV. But the moment I walked across the border into Kansas, the light switch turned off. Within an hour, a guy pulls up and up-front asks, “What are you? A bum or a transient?” In Kansas, I was confronted by law enforcement 2-3 times a day. People were really suspicious and paranoid. I was no longer a champion of the environment. Now, I was an anonymous drifter.
How did you feed yourself along the route? Where did you sleep? Talk about the logistical challenges you faced.
In the U.S. we have this term ‘thru-hiker’ for someone who does a massive hike, like the Appalachian Trail. I studied how they do their journeys and figured I’d copy that. I bought a lot of food, boxed it up, and my buddy in Denver then shipped these boxes of food to post offices along my route.
I had a little tent. In the Great Plains, there are not many trees so oftentimes I camped out in the open under this big sky. Once I started walking through more populated regions, the first place I’d go was the churches. They were usually very generous about offering me a lawn to set up my tent and often allowing me to sleep in the church.
The unusual thing about my hike was that I wasn’t walking along a trail, like the Appalachian Trail, which has signs, tree-walled shelters, and guidebooks. I was walking over the countryside—mostly cow pasture, hayfields, and harvested corn and sunflower fields—so I encountered a lot of obstacles that the typical thru-hiker does not, like huge herds of thousands and thousands of cows! As a suburbanite from New York State, with no exposure to cattle, I was appropriately terrified.
You experienced many hardships but you also had moments of what you call “love, and joy, and ecstasy.” Talk about some of the highs and lows.
In those first few provinces and states—Alberta, Saskatchewan, Montana, and South Dakota—where there are not many people, buildings or roads, I’d sometimes go for days without seeing anybody. I felt like I had the whole Great Plains to myself, and this region of North America is completely under-appreciated for its natural beauty. This was not a flat, boring landscape. This was rolling grasslands, with deer and pronghorn, and enormous skies with no hills or forests obstructing them.
I’d be walking alone over the most foot-friendly terrain and sometimes I would feel this ecstasy, this wild joy. On a journey like that, you don’t know what’s behind the next hill. Every day is completely novel and original, and there’s something enlivening about that. I would carry this wild joy in my chest for hours. But you can’t have these sublime experiences when your feet are killing you. And at the beginning of the trip I had terrible shin splints, so I was walking with unbearable pain every step of the way.
You say, towards the end of the book, “not one person I encountered had said anything even halfway intelligent when denying global warming.” That’s a pretty damning verdict, isn’t it?
[Laughs] Uh, yeah! But, frankly, my thoughts have not changed on that much at all! Across the American Heartland, terms like environmentalism and climate change are dirty words. You feel reluctant to bring them up because you know how explosive they are. When I did have conversations with folks about climate change, they usually dismissed it as a left-wing hoax or a government power grab. They were climate-change deniers. They didn’t believe the science and shared the same right-wing talking points over and over.
It’s not just education, though. It’s about their identity and economic situation. On the Great Plains I came across countless ghost towns and abandoned homes. The folks out there realize the sense of mortality when it comes to community. So any project that’s going to bring in a bit of money is not going to be questioned on the grounds of climate change or pollution. It’s going to be greeted with open arms if it can help their community last a bit longer.
These are folks who see themselves as hardy, self-sufficient, small government individualists. If you believe in climate change, you’re giving in to the idea of government coming in to fix things, collective action to impose greenhouse gas limits, and reining in the evils of the free market with stricter regulation. This conflicts with so much of that heartland identity.
When you hiked the pipeline it had not been approved. What was your reaction when President Trump gave it the go-ahead—and how did your journey change how you feel about the future?
I wasn’t surprised when President Trump approved the pipeline. He’d been saying he was going to approve it all along. So it seems like we’re suddenly going backwards in terms of creating new fossil fuel projects and developing fossil fuel resources.
But what I’ve learned about the Keystone XL is that you never really know what’s going to happen. The pipeline got going in 2008. Now, we’re nine years away and even though President Trump has motioned for it to be built, I’m still not 100 percent certain that it’s going to go into the ground.
One of the driving forces behind my book was the idea of coming to terms with climate change and not feeling constant doomsday despair. Human beings are such terrible predictors of the future. So, though I don’t want to discount the science, we don’t know how things are going to play out. We’re worried about the Earth warming, triggering other things that will eventually make Earth this smoldering Venus. But the climatologist Kerry Emanuel says we might also trigger a negative feedback loop.
The ocean and climate are so complex we may not entirely understand what’s going on. So the fact that we don’t know how things will play out and that we’re terrible predictors of the future allows me to operate in the 21st century with some hope. That may only be a sliver of hope. But it’s enough for me. I’d rather live with hope than despair.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.