Friday, 6 May 2016

Lone Star..... 'Trespassing Across America'

I first came across Ken Ilgunas when I received a review copy of his debut work ‘Walden on Wheels’ . What I first thought would be yet another road trip travelogue turned out to be a smart polemical work on the higher education debt trap in the US and the author’s unique solution to this quandary. Of course, travel did intrude upon the narrative and it was clear towards the end of 'Walden’ that Ken was destined to continue his growing political education and further develop his campaigning zeal by looking to new horizons. In his latest work, ‘Trespassing Across America’ the horizon in question turns out to be Texas’ Sabine Lake which flows into the Gulf of Mexico. A far horizon which was 1700 miles and three months distant when the author took his first soft footed steps upon his epic journey in the Tar Sands blighted tundra of Canada’s Alberta province. ( Currently in the grip of a devastating wild fire concentrated around the principal oil town of Fort McMurray)

The goal was to walk the entire length of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline which would take American produced heavy crude oil/diluted bitumen (Dilbet) from the tar sands of Alberta to the refineries of Texas for processing for domestic use and export. For environmentalists, the opposition to the Keystone XL project has multifarious elements. Not least; the actual extraction process which has had a devastating ecological impact on the local flora, fauna and wildlife. The vast highly toxic tailing lakes of sludge left over from the extraction process covers a mind boggling 176 square kilometres of formally pristine wilderness.Add to this the ecological impact of a 1700 mile pipeline which apart from the aforementioned impact on wildlife, carries a constant threat to vital and vulnerable water supplies. The final poisoned cherry on the cake is of course, THE environmental issue of the moment- climate change.

With fossil fuels recognised as a major contributory factor in global warming,the exportation of two millions gallons of crude oil a day from Alberta’s tar sands has to be recognised as a serious black mark on America-and Canada’s- commitment to reducing its Co2 emissions. Given the implications, what else is a spirited environmentalist to do than to walk the proposed route in its entirety to publicise the project and in September 2012,that is exactly what Ken Ilgunas did. ‘Tresspassing Across America’ charts that eventful journey and all its highs and lows.

As a pure travel book and leaving aside the author’s occasional environmental and philosophical musings, it’s a beautifully observed and painfully honest account of a hard fought labour of love. Ken’s descriptions of the land, the people and his own frailties recalls a recent reading of William Least Heat Moon’s ‘Blue Highways’.Insightful, honest and absorbing in his descriptions of the empty plains and its people. Naturally, there are those ‘Wild’ elements; the black toenails, the blisters, the hip lesions which took six months to heal and of course, the moments of overwhelming loneliness which inevitably inspired bouts of the blues.But more than this,the book succeeds through the author’s fascinating dissection of ‘Middle America’. That-for Europeans at least- unknown far country often referred to as ‘Godland’.

Swinging his walking poles through the great empty plains and former dust bowl states, Ken reveals a society and culture far removed from his secular liberal values. After crossing the border, his journey South takes him through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and finally into Texas. Within these largely agricultural states, paradoxes abound.Paranoia and the milk of human kindness fill each day. For those on this side of the pond, many of our preconceptions about Middle America prove sadly all too true. A society where private property forms part of a holy trinity with God and guns.

The subjugation of the native American population in the 19th century and the wiping out of the buffalo saw the previously pristine wilderness, claimed and fenced off by the white invaders who all too quickly exploited a new invention ‘barbed wire’ to mark their territory. From here on in to the present day ‘Private Property’, ‘Keep out’ and ‘No Trespassing’ signs became part and parcel of the landscape. Despite the fact that in the US, large parts are still state owned, land ownership is jealously guarded and a right to roam is relentlessly challenged. More especially in the wide open spaces which Ken travelled through.

Intending to-as far as possible- follow the route of the Keystone XL pipeline, the author had little choice but to trespass across farmland. Climbing fences and avoiding if at all possible,being observed. His descriptions of these clandestine wanderings are both amusing and at times, plain scary! It appears that hiking across the plains of Middle America is not a pastime which generally finds many takers. Witness the paranoia which stalks the land. If we think that England and Wales has half baked access laws compared to many European countries including Scotland, then you have to admit that it’s an egalitarian paradise compared to places like Montana or Kansas.

Instances of the author walking up to a remote farmstead to ask for water to be met by the homesteader retreating inside to unleash a gun from his rifle cabinet occurs not infrequently. As does those occasions when he is stopped and ID’d by small town police who appear to consider every stranger-especially a young bearded scruffy hiker- a potential Charles Manson. On one occasion he was even driven to the county line by a paranoid officer on the grounds that a house he had passed had discovered one of their dogs missing!

For those in the UK and Europe for whom a wandering bearded hiker would not raise an eyebrow then its certainly sobering to see just how hikers are seen as complete wackos in this central belt.(Note to European hikers: Give Kansas a miss!) However, I’m sure that the last thing the author wants is to present parts of his country as a third world backwater made up of bigots, fruitcakes and rednecks. Throughout his epic journey through Middle America, the author encounters great kindness and generosity at every turn. Certainly the good outweigh the bad and the ugly. Despite his secularism, Ken experiences untold acts of Christian charity from individuals and families who ask for nothing in return. Not even a shot at saving his soul.

As his walk progresses, he finds himself regularly seeking out the local churches and throwing himself on their charitable instincts and always he receives a positive response. Whether by letting him sleep in their churches, community centres or pitching his tent on their lawns. Many times, this hospitality extends to inviting Ken to exchange his cold tent and meagre  rations for a shower,family meal and a warm bed.

As the walk progresses, the authors fame extends to local news outlets and even national networks which in turn brings out supporters who give him a hero’s welcome upon his arrival in the small towns and communities along the XL route. With winter chasing him south, the path is fraught and long. The elemental forces make progress miserable and slow. Driving him into churches and barns or falling upon the hospitality of supporters. Cometh the hour cometh the man, and right on schedule he stumbles into Port Arthur, Texas where nervous security goons at the Valero refinery alert the local police to this alien humblebum who is doing weird stuff like taking photographs of the refinery! With elements of farce intruding on the occasion, Ken slips through the net and legs it across a bridge, stumbling over the intervening levee banks to finally sink his hardened tootsies into the cold waters of Sabine Lake....Over!

The end is nigh. 
The mild mannered and gentle author might lack the bad ass elements of Edward Abbey but like Abbey his gift and the contribution he makes to the cause of environmentalism is through his words. Softly spoken perhaps but powerfully and convincingly expressed. Like the works of the aforementioned ‘Cactus Ed’, Ken Ilgunas’ Trespassing Across America successfully combines eco politics with sharp observations of the land and its people and skillfully brings it all together in a highly readable work which deserves a wide audience.

John Appleby:2016 

Photos: Ken Ilgunas

Keystone XL Pipeline

Obama rejects Keystone XL

Alberta oil sands