There's a stubbornness to author Ken Ilgunas that has served him well. With the grim realization that he was saddled with $32,000 in student loans, he paid it down by working odd jobs in Alaska for three years before continuing his education – this time with more frugality – by living out of a $1,500 van in the university parking lot and hiding out from campus police. He later wrote about his minimalist experiences in Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom, calling attention to both the student debt crisis and the possibility of following one's dreams.
Now he's back with a new release, Trespassing Across America: One Man's Epic, Never-Done-Before (and Sort of Illegal) Hike Across the Heartland, though Ilgunas attributes his 3,200-mile trek up to Canada and back down the path of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to naiveté instead of stubbornness. “Stupidity is a downright asset when you're committing to an adventure. Now that I know what I know now, there's no way that I would do it again,” says Ilgunas.
He's no shrinking violet when it comes to adventure, either. He's hitchhiked 10,000 miles across America, he embarked on a 100-day expedition along Canadian rivers and lakes in a canoe in the style of 18th- and 19th-century voyageurs. “But those always just left me with a slightly hollow feeling. That was because those were very personal adventures,” says Ilgunas. “I think I was saving trying to do something that was more than myself, and, as an environmentalist, I was really drawn to the Keystone XL.”
Ilgunas says that his interest in the environment began early on. “I'm from Niagara Falls, New York. Four miles from my home is Love Canal, and, in the 1970s, the community of Love Canal experienced cancer, epilepsy, miscarriage. Babies were being born with second rows of teeth. So I got to see very early on what happens when industry gets to have its way,” says Ilgunas.
He became interested in the Keystone XL pipeline in 2011, because it was all over the news. “I just saw that as a symbol that something huge was happening. This was the first-ever public works project that was being opposed on the grounds of climate change,” says Ilgunas. “[It] struck me that this was a historic moment, and I wanted to be there and experience it.”
Ilgunas began his journey in Denver and hitchhiked the 1,500 miles up to the Alberta tar sands, where he surveyed the land from an airplane. “You're up in a plane, as far as you can see to the viewable edge of earth. Plundered, bulldozed, backhoed, dug layers and layers into the ground,” says Ilgunas. But once he started hiking, he found that pristine, natural beauty still exists. “When you're out there, the rolling grass lands, under this big giant sky, this dark sky filled with stars, coyotes, you're just all alone out there. You're just this solitary ship on an ocean of grass, and you finally get to be alone. I was just absolutely mesmerized.”
Following the proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline back down meant that he had to trespass onto a lot of private property. He had a few unfortunate experiences with animals: apparently there are roving packs of dogs in Oklahoma (“the dogs have got some weird baggage”), he was charged by a moose in Alberta (“I had to climb a tree”) and, in South Dakota, he was chased by a herd of about 20 hyper-aggressive cows. “At the time, it was nothing but terror. I thought I was going to die,” says Ilgunas.
The people he encountered on the way down were, for the most part, friendly. “The first reaction always was suspicion. Who is this bearded guy with a backpack?” says Ilgunas. “But after a first couple of minutes of conversation, there would be trust. They saw that I wasn't completely insane, and then they understood.” The only state where he stopped cutting through private land and instead took to the roads? Texas, of course. He was stopped by the police more than a few times, and with greater frequency as he neared the refineries in Port Arthur. “I got pulled over by a cop and he said (nothing but polite), 'Yeah, the refinery called and was wondering what you were doing,'” says Ilgunas. “Another cop pulled up behind me and she had a gun, and she said, 'Sir, can I take a picture with you?'”
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[Houston Press news reporter Dianna Wray has written about the real winners and losers after President Barack Obama rejected the proposed pipeline, and the fact that legs of the pipeline have been built anyway and are fully operational.]
So, now that Ilgunas has traveled the route, what's his take on the whole deal? He says he saw the existing pipelines up in Canada, and realized that pipelines don't create jobs. “The belief that pipelines create a whole bunch of jobs and a whole bunch of revenue, is a lot of BS."
The environmental concerns remain an issue, even today. "I just wrote an article for Time Magazine last week,” he says, about the South Dakota oil spill as a predictor of further dangers. Ilgunas says that the states don't even get that much money, especially with equipment depreciation. “Kansas gave TransCanada a ten-year tax exemption, so they're not getting anything. It's insane. And then when you walk through a town like Cushing, Oklahoma, which is known as 'The Pipeline Crossroads of the World,' the town looks like a Third World country. The oil industry is great for a few but not great for the many."
Ilgunas will be reading from his book and signing copies at Brazos Bookstore, 7 p.m. Thursday, May 5, 2421 Bissonnet, 713-523-0701, brazosbookstore.com. Free.