Something that fascinates me about America is the fact that there is more land without people than there is with people. It’s easy to get bogged down in the mire of the ever-raging political battles and America’s position on the global stage, but the true spirit of the U.S. lies in its uninhabited wild spaces.
But despite being wild and open, much of the privately-owned land is not open to hikers. When Ken Ilgunas set out on a 1700-mile walk from Alberta to Texas in 2012, following the proposed route of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, most of his journey took him across “No Trespassing” land.
As Ilgunas explains, walking across wild America is difficult unless you’re either in a national park or on a trail approved by the government — “In America, the so-called freest country on earth, no one really has the right to roam” (Ilgunas, 2016).
It’s quite bizarre when you consider that other parts of the world, such as Germany, Denmark, Switzerland and Scandinavian countries, allow hikers to walk across unenclosed countryside without hindrance. In Sweden, he says, they take it one step further: allemansrätten (every man’s right) means that everyone must have access to nature, with the exception of private gardens, in the immediate vicinity of dwellings and on cultivated land. Putting up a “no trespassing” sign can actually be considered a legal violation of allemansrätten unless it’s necessary to keep hikers away from a place where they really shouldn’t be walking.
Encountering ghost towns, herds of stampeding cattle and countless warnings of “you’ll be shot if you walk across so-and-so’s land”, Ken Ilgunas writes with great humour about the trials and the beauty of walking across America’s heartland. Despite the threatening presence of “no trespassing” warnings, Ilgunas recounts the many kindnesses that he was given by people he met along his route. He was treated with compassion by the majority of people that he met, and a few weeks into his journey, he realized that “his cynicism […] was breaking apart and dissipating like one of these prairie clouds after a thundershower”.
The size and scale of the places he walked through has to be witnessed first-hand to be appreciated. But Ilgunas’s book paints a detailed picture for the reader. He writes about the sheer magnitude of the rolling prairies; miles and miles of wild, open land. His description of the vastness of the Great Plains sky is particularly noteworthy, likening it to a “great blue dome“, “a Sistine ceiling“, “a vast ever-changing sky painting” above him.
Trespassing Across America is both a travel memoir and a reflection on climate change. At the time of writing, plans for the Keystone XL pipeline were in progress, but they were rejected by President Obama in November 2015. Keystone XL was highly controversial from an environmental perspective. It would have increased tar sands production methods and tar sands pipelines are vulnerable to leaks, putting agricultural land and water at risk in states like South Dakota and Nebraska.
At the beginning of the book, Ilgunas takes a trip to the Alberta tar sands in Canada, where bitumen (which is refined into oil) is mined, and witnesses the environmental destruction that it entails. You can see photos and read his blog post about it here: Day 7: The Tar Sands of Alberta.
The tar sands mean that vast swathes of boreal forest must be cut down, turning the land into a barren wasteland, and the mining process emits millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That isn’t the only issue: because the water table reaches the surface in most areas of muskeg (peat bog), oil sand development leads to contaminated and polluted water.
Communities near the “tailing ponds” where the toxic sludge is stored are beset by health problems, and a whopping three million gallons of sludge is leaking into the Athabasca river everyday, causing havoc to the ecosystem and wildlife habitats. It’s sobering stuff to read about, especially when trying to change the course that we are collectively taking feels like a Sisyphean task.
Many of us try to do our bit for the environment, but single efforts can feel rather insubstantial — like an ant trying to push a boulder up a mountain — especially when you encounter people who flatly deny climate change or that the oil industry is negatively affecting our planet.
A major point that Ilgunas observed supporters citing in favour of the pipeline is the creation of jobs. There’s big money in oil, but as Ilgunas points out, is it really worth it if the jobs themselves are soul-destroying? Despite the high pay, many oil pipeline workers have to live far away from their families for months. Alcohol and drug use are very real issues, along with other social problems such as domestic violence. And if the Keystone XL pipeline had gone ahead, it would have created a mere 35 permanent jobs after the pipeline had been built.
Ilgunas writes with a refreshingly open-minded stance. He is an environmental supporter (and with good reason), but he acknowledges that being anti-oil is hard in a world which is currently reliant on it. As he says in this blog post from Day 10 of his trek, “all my gear has petroleum in it, and the food I bought has been made or transported with oil. How could I possibly get food and gear with no trace of petroleum? It’s darn-near impossible”.
There is always a risk of being labeled “preachy” or “santimonious” when talking about climate change issues. But Ken Ilgunas doesn’t come across as having a holier-than-thou attitude. His writing is very likable, and this is a thought-provoking book written with humour and sincerity.
Trespassing Across America: One Man’s Epic, Never-Done-Before (and Sort of Illegal) Hike Across the Heartland will be released April 19, 2016 — published by Blue Rider Press.
Disclaimer: I received an advance reader copy from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.