In September 2012, Ken Ilgunas stuck out his thumb in Denver, Colorado, and hitchhiked 1,500 miles north to the Alberta tar sands. After being duly appalled, he commenced hiking the route of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, from Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast.
Chérie Newman: It began as a far-fetched idea conceived by two men working in a Prudoe Bay oilfields’ kitchen in Deadhorse, Alaska.
Ken Ilgunas: I was 28. I was broke. I was washing dishes in, very possibly the most miserable place on earth, 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle. My life had so little meaning, I had so little to show for my 28 years, I was just very susceptible to inspiration. I was susceptible to grand ideas.
CN: But unlike most people, who only talk about grand ideas, Ken Ilgunas grabbed onto the notion of hiking the entire length of the proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline, and, unlike his co-worker, actually did it. He walked for all except 17 miles of his nearly 2,000-mile route between Hardisty, Alberta, Canada, and Port Arthur, Texas. (Those missing 17 miles were because he was forced into a police car and driven out of Boone County, Nebraska.)
His adventures have just been published by Penguin Random House in a book with a really long title: "Trespassing Across America: One Man’s Epic, Never-Done-Before (and sort of illegal) Hike Across the Heartland." The proposed pipeline’s route was all on private property, hence the word “trespassing” in the title, which was fine in Canada. But once he crossed into the U.S., things got dicey.
KI: In Canada I was trespassing and I talked to folks about it and it just wasn’t a big deal. But once I crossed the border into Montana, pretty much every day, I got called crazy and people prophesied that I was gonna get shot that very day.
CN: In spite of their dire prophesies, Ilgunas liked the people he met in Montana. Well, maybe except for the three men he calls:
KI: The Posse.
CN: Someplace between Glasgow and Broadus, he doesn’t remember exactly where.
KI: I was walking some grasslands and it was getting to be that time of evening where I wanted to set up my tent for the night. And I was also out of water. So I walked up to this rancher’s home and this young man was out there and he had a pistol with a barrel that was so long — like right around his hip — and I knew that he must have heard from someone else that I was in the area, ‘cause there’s just no way you would carry a gun like that around when you’re doing just general ranching duties. And he was very nervous when I asked him for water. And normally, I’d just lay on the charm as best I could, and that often put people at ease. But it just wasn’t working with this guy. And I just asked where can I camp, and he just said, Oh, down the road, wherever you want. Just to get me away from his property. So I set up my tent, I don’t know, a mile, or so, down the road next to this creek on some grassland. And in the morning I wake up to a sheriff’s voice. He says, 'good morning, this is the sheriff.' And I get out of my tent and I’m surrounded by three guys. At least one of them is armed — presumably, all of them were. And they just all had steely glares. [laughs]
You know, at that point, I was just playing the best card I had, which was just like this please-don’t-shoot-me self-deprecating submission. And I was just trying to make fun of myself. And they’re like 'we just came out here to make sure you weren’t crazy.' And I was like, 'You gotta be crazy to be doin’ somethin’ like this.' And one of the older gentlemen kept saying, 'what you’re doin’, it’s strange, it’s strange; no one comes walkin’ out here, what you’re doin’, it’s strange.' He kept saying that, and I’m like standing innocently next to my tent. But he spoke as it I was oiling myself up for a satanic ritual or something. And he said, Just don’t trespass. And I think I probably obeyed that for about ten minutes.
CN: "Trespassing Across America" is full of such stories. An aggressive bull moose chased Ilgunas in Alberta, he dodged bullets in Saskatchewan, endured attacks by mongrel dogs and cows (yes, cows) in Oklahoma and South Dakota, and he was harassed by law enforcement everywhere in the U.S. — just because he was walking, wearing a backpack and a beard. But he says the walk was a life-changing experience, and most of all:
KI: The people of Montana and the heartland — and the Great Plains — they were really nothing but kind and generous.
You can find more information abut "Trespassing Across America" here.