Trespassing Across America


Trespassing Across America: One Man’s Epic, Never-Done-Before (and Sort of Illegal) Hike Across the Heartland by Ken Ilgunas, Blue Rider Press, 2016

A walk can perform wonders. It’s good to shake off the dust from your limbs and clear your head.

But the desire to go on a real long walk — a transcontinental hike, for example — is a luxury and privilege enjoyed largely by the white middle class, those who have time to worry and wonder about existential dread and possess the money and resources to do something about it. Exhibit A: Christopher McCandless of Into the Wild fame/infamy, the wildly unprepared, wannabe explorer who didn’t even have a topographical map of the Alaskan region where he starved to death in 1992.

Author-environmentalist Ken Ilgunas, who received an MA from Duke University, began his own journey for similar reasons. But Ilgunas thoroughly stocked himself with money, food, a destination and a purpose. That didn’t make his trek any less difficult or enlightening.

In Trespassing Across America, Ilgunas records his travelogue of the seemingly most-boring region of North America — the Great Plains.

“It would be just as well to refer to the area as the ‘Great Boring,’” Ilgunas writes. “Not only are the Plains plain, but they’re enormously plain.”

Finding himself discontent washing dishes in Alaska, Ilgunas planned to trace the path of the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. Beginning his quest in September 2012, Ilgunas hitchhiked from Denver to the northern end of east-central Alberta’s Tar Sands, from where oil would be transported southeast to Port Arthur, Texas, near the Louisiana border. He’d walk the length of the hypothetical pipeline, traipsing borders and private pastures, as something of a nonviolent protest against both climate change and land-property rights.

The resulting book, which was not part of his plan, contains poignant moments of self-examination and humorous self-deprecation. But Ilgunas soon realizes Big Oil is even more complex than he’d believed.

“Oil was everywhere; it was in everything,” Ilgunas opines. “And going without oil or coal or natural gas was, on this hike and in life in general, pretty much impossible.”

He also recognizes the importance of oil to the people he meets and their communities.

“[The Heartland] feeds us, irrigates us, powers our cars and planes, and bears some of the best and worst of our history as a people,” Ilgunas concludes.

Adventurers go on hikes to learn more about themselves, but Ilgunas learned more than that — he learned about modern America itself, good and bad.