Oil trail 

Ken Ilgunas talks Keystone, Plains folk and fear

Despite tremendous opposition, the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport oil from the tar sands of Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, seemed a done deal in 2011. At the time, Ken Ilgunas was a writer between projects working as a dishwasher in Alaska. He decided in September 2012 to hitchhike 1,500 miles from Denver to Fort McMurray, Alberta, then start walking the 1,700 miles of the pipeline's proposed route, all the way to Port Arthur, Texas. Much of the hike covered privately owned open prairie.

The result became Trespassing Across America: One Man's Never-Done-Before (and Sort of Illegal) Hike Across the Heartland. The book covers why Ilgunas embarked on the trek, the people he met along the way and the trials he had to overcome. He also covers the conditions faced by oil workers and the communities who live and die by the industry. While preparing for his next big journey—a nationwide book tour, which includes Missoula—Ilgunas shared his thoughts with the Indy on oil camps and the real and perceived fears he faced during his hike.

How surprised were you when President Obama put the kibosh on the Keystone XL last year?

Ken Ilgunas: I was mildly surprised. I thought it could go either way, but, looking back, it seemed like the stars were aligned for a rejection last November. The tar sands-obsessed Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, was ousted by Justin Trudeau. Plus, the Paris talks were coming up and I think Obama wanted a bit of momentum going into them. He's done many good things for the environment in the last years of his presidency—all while contending with an obstructionist Congress—so the rejection didn't strike me as at all out of the ordinary.

Whenever these gigantic projects are discussed, there is always vague talk of the great jobs that will be created. You get a ride into Fort McMurray with a worker who tells you what his life is like. It isn't too pretty, right?

KI: Indeed, we talk about the need to make jobs as if it's some universal good without taking into consideration whether or not we're actually creating good jobs. The workers in Fort McMurray, where the tar sands are, are paid well, but they also live far from their families. These workers typically don't lead lives enriched by civic participation, outdoor recreation, religion or other basic social institutions. I say this from experience, as I've lived in a couple of remote working camps. They just work a ton and then come back to their trailer or dormitory to drink, do drugs, gamble, seek prostitutes.

click to enlarge books_trespassing.jpg

People who watch documentaries on factory farms suddenly want to go vegetarian. It seems some kind of exposé on the working conditions in these oil camps would generate similar compassion for the workers.

KI: You should check out the documentary The Overnighters, because it does draw a good portrait of life working in the oil industry, and will make anyone feel sympathetic for what an oil worker has to deal with. So when we boast of creating all these tens of thousands of jobs for supporting the tar sands industry, we should remind ourselves that what's going on up there is no Norman Rockwell painting.

During your hike, plenty of folks seemed to think you were crazy—for hiking, for presumably opposing the pipeline, whatever—or that what you were doing was something incredibly dangerous. Did you feel like what you were doing was particularly crazy or dangerous?

KI: The hike was certainly strange. The folks I interacted with on the Great Plains had never seen a hiker in the area, so I was often regarded as someone who was insane, and they rarely thought to keep such thoughts to themselves. Most of the folks I encountered were very kind and generous, but anyone who's been on an adventure knows there are going to be people you meet who seem to deliberately overstate the risks of what you're doing. I think sometimes this is rooted in a sense of envy, and these folks want to discourage you so that you don't accomplish something they'd be envious of. And I also think, especially on the Plains, that the folks out there take pride in the ruggedness of their land, and in this way their warnings were reaffirming boasts about how rugged their land is and how tough the people who dwell on it are.

You talk quite a bit about your fears during the hike—animals, prairie folks threatening that if you cross so-and-so's land you'll be shot, the weather. Were those concerns based in reality or were they evoked by other people filling your head with potential dangers?

KI: The fear and sense of danger I did occasionally experience were very real. There were two times when shots were fired over my head—though I don't think I was being targeted. And I was chased by three different types of animals. By the end of the trip, I thought I'd lost eight of my nine lives.

Ken Ilgunas reads from Trespassing Across America at Fact & Fiction Wed., April 27, at 7 PM.

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