My 1,700-mile hike across the XL Pipeline

I wanted to learn everything about the environmental battle. I saw a country marked by apathy, and flickers of hope

Published January 20, 2013 12:45PM (EST)

I'd felt strangely drawn to the Keystone XL.

In the fall of 2011, when I fantasized about walking the length of the 1,700-mile proposed pipeline -- that, if approved, will carry oil from the Tar Sands of Alberta to the Gulf Coast of Texas -- I was a lowly dishwasher at an oilman's camp in Deadhorse, Alaska.

At the time, I was broke, just out of grad school, and demoralized with my situation. I had a miserable job that didn't require a high school diploma, let alone the liberal arts degree that had nearly bankrupted me, and I was living in quite possibly the coldest, darkest, dreariest place on earth. I was an adventurer at heart, burdened with the duties of making a living.

I can say, from experience, that when you find yourself washing spoon after spoon, in the middle of the night, in a silent kitchen, at a working camp 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle, you will begin to question the direction of your life. But I can say this also: The soul must first be caged before it can be freed. And when Liam, the cook I worked with, suggested we go on an adventure the next summer and hike the XL, I knew his idea was both crazy and brilliant. I looked at him and said, with what must have been an almost frightening excitement, "We must!"



More than just another pipeline, the XL, to me, is a historic battleground: the first-ever fight -- led by Bill McKibben and his organization -- over a project because of climate change. Even if its path would lead me through the "middle of nowhere," with the fate of a warming world at stake, I thought of the XL as the center of the universe. And I wanted to be there and learn everything I could about it.

If President Obama approves the XL -- which he may or may not do in the next few months -- the Tar Sands of northern Alberta will continue to be developed (perhaps to the size of Florida), a prospect that one climate scientist has called "game over" for climate change. Obama has the final say, and while experts predict that he will grant his approval, environmentalists hope that a rejection of the XL might mark a turning point, one where we will begin to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and head toward a more sustainable future.

After I left Deadhorse later that autumn, I began preparing for the hike. I bought a software program so I could map out my route, as well as a new ultralight tent, a quality sleeping bag to endure shivering nights, and about $1,000 worth of food. I packaged the food -- mostly energy bars, granola and powdered potatoes -- in Priority Mail boxes, which a friend in Denver would mail to post offices along my path. I jogged five miles nearly every day to get myself in shape. Everything was coming together.

And then, in a flash, everything fell apart.

My hiking partner, Liam, bailed when he learned that he was still banned from Canada for an offense committed north of the border in his wayward youth. Meanwhile, an article I was writing for a magazine delayed my start by nearly a month. And -- perhaps worst of all -- while descending the stairs at my friend's house in Denver, I tripped and broke a pinkie toe.

To take off to northern lands on the eve of winter with a purple toe and no trail to follow or guidebook to consult would be, to most rational thinkers, insane. Yet since everything about the Tar Sands and the XL and America's contempt for the reality of climate change struck me as insane, too, I thought it would be fitting to embrace this spirit of insanity, throw all caution to the wind, and embark on my adventure anyway.

And so: On a cool morning in September 2012, I strapped on my backpack, stuck out my thumb north of Denver, Colo., and hitchhiked 1,500 miles to the Alberta Tar Sands. After viewing the Tar Sands -- a horizon-to-horizon Ayn Rand wasteland of bulldozed Boreal Forest, eerie yellow sulfur pyramids, and Armageddon-black tailing ponds -- I hitchhiked south to Hardisty, Alberta, the northern terminus of the pipeline-to-be, where I'd begin my hike. My ultimate destination would be Port Arthur -- an oil refinery city on the Gulf Coast of Texas, which would be the southern terminus of the XL.

At first, I was daunted by all the unknowns. Where will I get my water? Where will I sleep? Will landowners shoot me for trespassing over their property? And what sort of terrain will I even be walking over? These were questions I had no answers to. The best plan, I figured, was to have no plan, except to adapt and improvise as conditions changed. And to walk every step of the way.



The life of a hiker, I'd quickly learn, had its advantages. Each day was my own. I'd wake at sunrise, set up my tent at sunset, and walk as much as I could in between. Much to my relief, my contact with (and the possibility of being shot by) landowners -- over the wide open Canadian prairie -- was limited. Sometimes, while walking over cow pasture and hay fields, I'd go days without seeing a person. Here, I was daily reminded of the Heartland's simple -- and underappreciated -- beauty: grass, the color of butterscotch, waving in the wind; a herd of white-tailed deer, 50-strong, loping up and over a hill; packs of coyotes cackling under a ceiling of sparkling stars. Every day, every moment, every sight was new and different, and as I plodded toward an ever-changing horizon, with a map and compass in hand, a wild joy would swell in my chest.

Plus, I'd get to eat a whole box of Ho Hos without feeling any guilt.

At the beginning of my trip, with a new backpack and fashionably stubbled facial hair, I found that I'd become an object of attraction. Passing through a town in Canada, I caught two waitresses -- perhaps viewing me as a daring and mysterious adventurer -- muffle coquettish giggles with cupped palms. But as the weeks passed, and as I pushed through forests, waded across rivers, and rolled under barbed wire fences, my confident stride would become a hobo's hobble, my clothes dirty and torn, and my beard a bushy bird's nest of neglect. No longer in the mold of a swashbuckling romantic, I was a tramp you'd worry might steal a chicken from the backyard.

I'd set up my tent in hidden areas: in clusters of trees, deep in canyon labyrinths, or in hollows between hay fields. I got my water from cow ponds, windmill springs and -- if no natural sources were available -- I simply went knocking on the doors of country homes.



Tramp or not, I was treated with kindness and generosity by people all along my path, regardless of their opinions on the XL. Carl, a rancher from Alberta, fed me hamburgers and let me stay in his RV for the night. He called the Keystone Pipeline (different than the proposed Keystone XL) "the best thing that's ever happened to me" because of the generous compensation he'd received. Jenny and Tom, farmers in Montana, who invited me in for coffee and cookies, called the Keystone XL's land agents "shysters" for refusing to give them straight answers about what will happen if there's a break in the pipe, for threatening eminent domain, and for making them sign nondisclosure agreements so they couldn't talk with neighbors about their contracts.

Each day offered a new obstacle, a new trial, a new adventure. In Alberta, I was charged by a moose. In Montana, I woke up to a sheriff and his posse surrounding my tent. In a field in South Dakota, a freezing rainstorm forced me to hole up in my tent for three days. Later, after I'd just gotten over my fear of cattle, I was chased by a stampede of Black Angus cows.



In towns, I charged my electronics at bars, slept on the lawns of churches, and talked with anyone I could about the XL.

Of the landowners in the U.S., I gathered that most were opposed to the XL, but all of them spoke with resignation about it. To them, the XL was inevitable and unstoppable. Threatened with eminent domain, many swallowed their pride and took generous compensation checks. Others, victims of the oil industry's propaganda campaign, happily acquiesced, thinking that the XL will bring America jobs, oil and national security.

But I'd learn that the Keystone XL will offer none of these things. TransCanada, the company that will build the pipeline, has falsely claimed that there will be upward of 20,000 jobs. An independent study, conducted by Cornell University, determined that the pipeline would create only 2,500 to 4,650 jobs, almost all of which will be temporary, and only between 10 to 15 percent of the jobs will be local, in-state hires.

As for the "we need oil" claims, few realize that much of the oil won't be used in the United States. The oil will be pumped down to Port Arthur, Texas, where it will be refined and shipped off to foreign nations. Valero, one of these refining companies (which will get 20 percent of the Keystone XL oil), will not have to pay taxes on the exported oil since Port Arthur is in a Foreign Trade Zone.

And as for national security, few think to question whether climate change may pose a bigger risk than a few hostile nations in the Persian Gulf (where we get only 13 percent of our oil).

"Climate change," in these parts, is a dirty term. It's rarely uttered, and when it is, it's with skepticism and disdain, even during a freakishly warm winter and the worst drought the Midwest has seen in a generation. I've tried to talk with folks about it, but they quickly steer the conversation in other directions, scoffing that climate change is nothing but "hype," or that while, yes, the planet's warming, it has nothing to do with us.



Yet, on more than a couple of occasions, I noticed that when folks, for instance, will suggest that climate change is probably just a vast government conspiracy, they'll stop making eye contact and the tone of their voice will no longer be fortified with conviction -- maybe because they know, deep down, what we're doing to the planet. Yet because a warming planet is so frightening, and the prospect of changing their lifestyle so unsettling, they force themselves to believe it isn't true. And it's hard to blame them for it. Living in ignorance, after all, is probably easier than living in fear.

But denial is not exclusive to the Heartland. It seems that the more temperature records are broken, the more sea level rises, and the more destructive our storms get, the more we, as a country, put climate change out of our minds. Congress won't touch the issue, and for the first time since 1988, climate change was not brought up in any of this year's presidential debates. According to a Pew research poll, only 18 percent of Romney's supporters believed in man-made climate change. Meanwhile, 97 percent of climate scientists acknowledge man's role -- a consensus Galileo would have killed for -- and many agree that the development of the Tar Sands (which will supply the oil to be pumped through the Keystone XL) would be catastrophic for our planet. Because of the enormous amount of energy required to mine and refine Tar Sands oil, to make a barrel of it releases three times the amount of greenhouse gases that a barrel of conventional oil does.

As I made my way into Nebraska, I thought the battle had already been lost and that the XL was bound to be built. The Heartland, once a hotbed for progressivism, now beat with a dull, dying thump. Barns are abandoned and rotting. Barbed wire rusts on old wooden posts. The place seemed more lolling cow than charging buffalo. There is a foreign corporation jamming a giant, 36-inch diameter pipe through the land their great-grandfathers homesteaded, yet where is the Wild West unrest, the cowboy chivalry, the prairie wisdom, the call for rebellion?

In Nebraska, I walked over rolling prairie, through fields of flaky corn stalks, and along the Cowboy Trail -- an old railway converted into a bike path that parallels the path of the XL. I stopped in the town of Atkinson, Neb., to pick up a package at the post office that contained five days’ worth of food, and to check my email at the library.

At the library, I bumped into Cindy Myers, an R.N. from Stuart, Neb. She'd voted Republican all her life but had become disillusioned with the party and its gung-ho stance on the XL, which may threaten her and many other Nebraskans' drinking water.

This was the person I'd hoped to meet all along: a red-state radical, furious and determined. Myers' family drinks pure ground water from the Ogallala aquifer, which sits beneath 174,000 square miles across eight states and much of Nebraska, providing water for 27 percent of the irrigated farmland in the United States and 82 percent of the drinking water for those who live atop it.

"[Water] is more valuable than gold to me," said Myers. [It's] more valuable than oil. I just felt in my heart that it was my responsibility to do something."

Like many Nebraskans, Myers became outspoken about the XL when she heard that the pipe and its dirty oil (called "dilbit") would flow through her groundwater. After Nebraskans voiced their concerns, TransCanada proposed an alternative route, but the XL will still run through a 90-mile stretch of the aquifer where the water table is less than 50 feet beneath the surface. Myers has good reason to worry. In 2010, 840,000 gallons of heavy Tar Sands oil spilled into Michigan's Kalamazoo River. The leak went undetected for 17 hours. Cleanup, still ongoing, has cost $800 million. InsideClimate News has reported that Keystone XL's leak detection system will rarely detect leaks of less than 1 percent of pipeline flow. This means that the pipe will have to gush 294,000 gallons of oil before the detection system is triggered.

Myers was preparing to testify at a hearing in Albion, Neb., on Dec. 4. She told me there would be hundreds in attendance, anti-XL rallies, and impassioned testimonies. "You need to get to Albion, Ken," she said. "It's going to be big."

Determined to get to Albion in time for the hearing, I continued down the Cowboy Trail, sleeping in the woods in between farms. I turned south down Highway 14, hopping from one small country town to the next. When I made it to Petersburg, I only had 12 more miles to Albion, where the meeting would take place the next day.

I walked into the town of Petersburg in the early afternoon, and settled into a seat at the town's convenience store that, in addition to selling groceries, ran a small Chester's Chicken fried food franchise. I felt the presence of something to my side, so I looked over and saw a deputy glaring down at me. He wore a tan uniform, and on his breast was a shiny, sharp-cornered brass star. He was firm and humorless. All business.

"I have orders to take you out of the county," said the deputy.

"What did I do?" I asked, bewildered.

"I'll tell you in the car," he said.

As I got in the back seat, surrounded by a hard metal cage, I thought about how this was the first time I'd been in a vehicle since I began my journey 70 days before.

What had I done? Unlike in other parts of my trip, I hadn't been trespassing. Surely that wasn't the problem. I wondered if maybe someone became suspicious upon spotting me looking into the town's library windows. Or maybe they thought it was strange that I had aired out my wet sleeping bag in the local park. Without a better explanation, I worried that someone had caught me peeing by an evergreen tree in the previous town when I thought no one was looking.

The deputy explained that a local homeowner had called in and said he'd come home to discover that his doors were unlocked when he'd remembered locking them. Also, a few blocks away, someone's dog had been let out of the house.

"Does this look familiar to you?" the deputy asked accusingly, pointing to a small home that was allegedly broken into.

"I haven't even been on this side of town," I said.

"I hope it wasn't you," he said. "And if I find out if it was, you'll be coming back to Boone County, Neb."

"How far along is the county line?" I asked, distraught.

"You got 13 miles till you get to Albion," he said. "Then another 13 to 18 miles to get out of the county. Alls I know is that I'm gettin' you out of my county because of what's happened so far. I can't prove you did anything wrong, and you're not in any kind of trouble, but things like that don't happen in a population of a town of only 180 to 220 people. We don't got no crooks in Petersburg." (I know this sounds made-up, but I have audio of the conversation here.)

Eventually, the deputy passed me off to another officer, who turned out to be far more levelheaded. After I explained to him what I was doing and how ridiculous the other officer's accusations were, he very kindly took me to Albion.



The next day, I walked with my backpack and trekking poles to the Boone County Fairgrounds, where the hearing was taking place. Between my near-arrest and bedraggled appearance, I began to feel vaguely guilty. I imagined that the drivers in passing cars were eyeing me warily, perhaps even thumbing 9-1-1 on their cellphones. I began to feel like a bum -- a criminal -- on a pointless journey among people who were indifferent about their planet.

For the length of my trip so far, it was still unclear to me why I felt so drawn to the XL. But after seeing so much complacency, I began to understand my motivations better.

Everything the XL and the Tar Sands represented -- the wholesale destruction of the earth, the conscienceless unregulated capitalism, the mind-boggling shortsightedness -- was nothing new to me. I'd grown up in a suburb outside of Niagara Falls, N.Y., just four miles from Love Canal, the site of one of the most tragic environmental disasters in history. Because I'd had to frequently pass through the ghost town to get to the local baseball diamond, Love Canal -- whose residents, in the 1970s, were plagued with epilepsy, cancer and miscarriages from toxic waste that had been buried in the ground by a chemical company -- would serve as a reminder of what happens when industry gets to act naturally. But after I moved out of town, I noticed that, wherever I went, the captains of industry were mobilizing their forces, preparing to plunder the earth to get out all of the resources we supposedly "needed."

During summers, I often worked in Alaska, where the oil, gas and mining industries seek to extract whatever resource they can, regardless of the ecological consequences. After college, I moved to Stokes County, N.C., to work on a farm, where the gas industry plans to frack, and very possibly contaminate our groundwater. The XL had been the steel straw that broke the camel's back. Not just a project that might affect a community or a state, the XL -- and all its implications for the Tar Sands and climate change -- was a global issue that could affect us all.

But still no one understood why I’d wanted to hike the pipe. I'd been called "crazy" nearly every day of the trip. And having seen, all along my path, a country plagued with misinformation and apathy, I began to lose hope.

When I arrived at the fairgrounds, I noticed "Stop the Pipeline" signs plastered everywhere. A Native American tribal leader, standing with his family and a small horse, was giving a speech to a throng of protesters.

I walked into the lobby of the fairgrounds, which was a hornet's nest of Nebraskans who'd come here from all parts of the state to have their final say on the pipeline.

"It's the walker!" yelled a woman across the room.

I was swarmed. What the hell is going on? I was barraged with questions about my hike, given enthusiastic hugs, wholehearted "thank you's," and two women stuffed $70 in my pants. Ranchers brought me buffalo jerky and homemade pepper jack cheese. Cindy Myers brought me a jug of pure, delicious Ogallala water. (Apparently Cindy had posted a message about my journey on Facebook, and it went viral among XL radicals.)

I may have been covered in dust and I may have been able to smell my crotch in a cold breeze, but I walked into the hearing with a straightened back and a raised chin, feeling, for the first time, like an adventurer.

One-hundred-sixty-seven people signed up to speak, and the hearing went until 2 a.m. There were union members wearing orange T-shirts that read "Approve the Keystone XL Pipeline so America Works." Members of Americans for Prosperity, supported by the Koch brothers, came to lend their support for the pipeline. But most of the crowd were farmers, ranchers and plain old Nebraskans, deathly afraid that this pipe might -- whether by climate change or contaminated water -- destroy their lives. (The fate of Nebraskans and their water is in the hands of Gov. Heineman, who will make his decision on the proposed reroute within the next month, and President Obama, who is expected to approve or reject the Keystone XL in early 2013.)

Over the course of the next six hours I listened to Nebraskans speak. There were hoots and hollers and raucous applause. A woman called for rebellion, and an old farmer, grizzled and clad in denim, shuffled up to me, looked me in the eye, and whispered, "That's how we do it in Nebraska."

The next day, I packed up my things and, with the wind at my back, Ogalalla in my veins, and hope in my heart, I continued south, to Kansas.

By Ken Ilgunas

Ken Ilgunas is a journalist and the author of Trespassing across America: One Man's Epic, Never-Done-Before (and Sort of Illegal) Hike Across the Heartland.

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