- Trespassing Across America: One Man's Epic, Never-Done-Before (and Sort of Illegal) Hike Across the Heartland by Ken Ilgunas
In the genre of nature writing one of the oldest motifs has been the walk, the perambulatory sojourn through the natural world. Ken Ilgunas provides an interesting and quite timely twist on this motif by closely following on foot the route of the Keystone XL Pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way he speaks with locals both in favor of and against the pipeline, is occasionally joined by some of the protestors themselves for short intervals, and waxes philosophically about Americans' gluttonous energy consumption and development on the public lands of the American West. In the process he also dramatizes the beauty of this neglected but rich bioregion of the United States, at times sounding like a modern-day George Catlin calling for the preservation of the continental interior.
Other nineteenth-and twentieth-century writers and visionaries come to mind as well. Hitchhiking northward from Colorado, [End Page 229] Ilgunas begins the journey in Whitmanesque fashion, declaring, "I am on the open road carrying only a backpack full of gear and a farfetched idea: to get to Alberta and then walk every step of the way south to Texas" (27). Sounding much like Thoreau, he exclaims, "Ah the preadventure jitters! If only we were kept awake every night by the delirious anticipation of tomorrow!" (25). Pointing out that there are 1.7 million miles of existing pipelines in America already, he wonders what all the fuss is about regarding the XL Pipeline, then likens the fight against it to John Muir's 1906 battle against the damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. Later, as he becomes more and more enamored of the natural and cultural diversity of the Great Plains, the author discusses the "Buffalo Commons" idea of geographers Frank and Deborah Popper that called for a 139,000-square-mile bison preserve, a proposal excoriated by locals but over the years slowly being realized in piecemeal fashion through both governmental and private reserves.
Ilgunas eschews epic hikes along existing and famous official national paths like the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails in favor of basically forging his own route, pointing out that there does not yet exist a Great Plains National Scenic Trail (though one is being proposed). He is charged by a bull moose in Alberta, by cows in South Dakota, and by snarling dogs in Oklahoma; suffers terrible blisters and shin splints early on; weathers blizzards and desolation in Montana; is accosted by several cops in various states; and experiences the usual emotional highs and lows of any traveler on an epic journey. Throughout he is heartened by the many kind and generous gestures of perfect strangers and becomes something of a celebrity himself as his social media skills earn him television interviews along the way. The book culminates with the author giving a rousing speech in Washington, DC, at an anti-XL Pipeline rally and the decision by President Obama in November 2015 to reject the pipeline's northern portion.
"Fate, on a journey, is no longer an abstract concept; it's who you're going to meet and what you're going to see tomorrow," Ilgunas writes (156). Ultimately, this book transcends political and regional issues. It is about both inward and outward exploration and the many benefits as well as challenges that can result from each. [End Page 230] The self-deprecating tone, Internet savvy, and twenty-something youthfulness of the author should make this text especially appealing to the millennial generation in a wide variety of undergraduate and graduate-level courses.