The Keystone Pipeline introduced me to American politics. It came along at a time when I was becoming more aware of the disconnect between the GOP pro-business stance and what it was doing to small towns in America like mine. It was when I first began seriously researching what Ohio’s 8th Congressional District possessed — with regards to affluence and jobs — compared to what was promised by the ‘if we support business all will be well’ maxim.
My former Congressman John Boehner was an ardent supporter of the Keystone XL Pipeline project, which truly and honestly baffled me. The project offered nothing for his constituents, and overall offered very little for the state and country as far as long-term jobs. It felt as if he was doing a favor for a sponsor instead of looking out for the interests of the people who voted him into office.
So my interest was piqued when I came across the story of a man who hike the pipeline for environmental reasons. I knew the oil was ‘dirty’ and consumed a lot of energy to process, but what I did not know was which regions of the country were impacted by the project.
Author Ken Ilgunas sheds considerable light on the people and areas impacted by the proposed project — which was vetoed by President Barack Obama in 2015. But with a new president heading into office next year, that is no guarantee that the deal is done.
Hiking The Pipeline
Trespassing Across America: One Man’s Epic Never-Done-Before (And Sort Of) Illegal Hike Across The Heartland by Ken Ilgunas is a travel-based memoir and an engaging look at America’s heartland. The book opens with Ilgunas. a North Carolina native, hatching a plan with a co-worker in Deadhorse, Alaska to hike the Keystone XL pipeline. The opening provides aglimpse of what life is like in an oil-rigging town where all the ‘good jobs’ exists. He expands on it by looking reporting on one of Canada’s largest oil towns, Fort McMurray, Alberta — a town located near the Keystone Pipeline’s starting point.
Drawbacks on the Highway to Hell
The road to Fort McMurray is called the Highway to Hell by locals, he reports. The 150-mile stretch of road, officially known as Highway 63, is also one of the deadliest roads in Canada.
In 2004, the Royal Mounted police gave out 18,000 tickets on juts one stretch of highway, the average ticketed speed being 100 miles per hour. Between 2002 and 2010, there were 66 deaths, and between 2001 and 2005, there were more than 1000 collisisons and 250 injuries.
Much of this is attributed to oil-town workers who — off only a couple days per month — speed home to reconnect with family before returning to their 12-hour shifts and 12-day stretches of work. According to one worker, who gave the author a ride to Fort McMurray, alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling and prostitutions wiles away much of the workers’ time and money during the off hours — giving the town an 1800s coal mine town feel.
The author’s goal is to follow the pipeline form Canada to Texas by hiking directly above it. This means he will be trespassing. However, as the story unfolds, he does not trespass the entire 1900-mile trek. The fear of being shot prompts him to stay on public grounds for significant portions of the journey.
But the real story is not so much about the pipeline and the hike — it is about the people he meets along the way. Many are die-hard, anti-environmentalists, who view him with open suspicion. This becomes especially true when he enters Kansas and Oklahoma, where he is repeatedly stopped and questioned by police officers. In one small town he is even investigated for two home break-ins.
As Ilgunas describes ghost town after ghost town, it also becomes apparent that America the Great has fallen into disrepair — whether through neglect or exploitation — and people along the path of the pipeline often allow the pipeline on their land due to economic need. But in many cases, too, he is running into people opposed to government intervention and people who dislike everything — especially Obama and the EPA. What is often lacking in the individuals he describes, though, is a willingness to discuss an issue. When he asks one man why policy of Obama he disagrees with — the man replies ” all of them.” Ilgunas, discussing this mindset, writes,
They weren’t free-thinking men, but stone tablets onto which dogma had etched its wicked creed.
In another part of the book, he reintegrates this reoccurring theme. For the most part, Ilgunas admits he was treated kindly, but his walk revealed an unstable and uneasy undercurrent in America — a segment of our population driven, not by pride or patriotism, but by fear.
I’d been ID’d nearly every day of my walk through Kansas. I was approached by paranoid Montana men and kicked out of Boone County, Nebraska. If it’s this hard for me — a Caucasian walking thorough homogenous Caucasian country — what would it be like if I were black, or gay, or Korean, or Muslim, or woman, or all of the above?
In the end, the book is about more than the pipeline. It is about who we have become.
Rated: 4 out of 5 stars. As with most memoir-styled books, the title only hints at what the book addresses. Even a 1900-mile trek can become uneventful on the printed page. So Ilgunas intersperses his travels with stats, ancedotes and personal musings that move the story forward. It’s only weakness, is a couple of passages where the story lags a little. Overall, though, the book is an easy read and it offers a nice slice of American life while highlighting what our dependency on oil has done to our society. This is Ilgunas’ second book. He also wrote Walden on Wheels.