Back in my magazine editing days, we received a story pitch from a photographer who planned to fly atop the entire route of the proposed Gateway pipeline, from Alberta to the British Columbia coast. The photographer, a Canadian member of the International League of Conservation Photographers, wanted to document the landscape that would have been impacted by this massive industrial undertaking. Sample aerial photos he had shot along a small section the pipeline route captured a black bear and her cub, a moose and her calf, and several stunning mountain and river scenes. These images have stayed with me for years. It seemed like an elegant way to explore the pipeline controversy in the pages of a geographical magazine.
Our publisher didn’t see it that way. Which was no surprise. (Although his rationale, that our organization had not built its reputation for eight decades only to sell it to anybody with a “cause,” would have certainly elicited a spit-take had I been sipping my water at the time.)
Needless to say, as someone with both a walking obsession and a critical perspective on pipelines, I was excited when I first heard about American writer Ken Ilgunas and his plan to walk to length of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, from Alberta to the Texas shoreline. Ilgunas, who is pictured below and generously shared the photos that accompany this post, wanted to experience in an intimate way a symbol that represented the debate between environment versus economy. Trespassing Across America, his book about the epic adventure, came out this spring, and it’s a lively and fascinating read (even for people who aren’t obsessed with walking lit).
On his 1,500-mile journey, Ilgunas is transfixed by the beauty of the Great Plains and talks to dozens of farmers, police officers, pastors, students and even the odd oil worker — regular people whose lives (and, in some cases, livelihoods) the pipeline controversy just happens to be passing through. He hops fences and skirts around aggressive cattle, but for every time he is warned that he might get shot for tramping across private property, somebody offers him a meal or a place to sleep. In short, he discovers the on-the-ground nuances that are usually overlooked when big issues get tossed around by the press, and that the simple act of slowly traversing the terrain where people live and work and play and pray and die will help you find — and understand — the common ground we all share.
“To get to the heart of America, we cannot simply walk its forests and fields,” he writes about his walk past a row of refineries in the book’s second last chapter. “Rather, we must cut through its industrial underbelly and pull out and examine its organs: its railways and refineries, its coal plants and pipelines. Its guts.”
Pick up this book if you like to read about (and embark on) long walks in unusual places. And, as a bonus, check out Ilgunas’ recent op-ed in the New York Times on the right to roam across private property. The headline? This is our country. Let’s walk it.