In September of 2012, Ken Ilgunas set out to hike the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, stretching 1,700 miles from Northern Alberta through the heartland and into Texas. His main concern was all the cows: In the high prairie, Ilgunas would be walking among hundreds of cattle, travelling in herds. During his trip, Ilgunas spoke with a rancher about his fear of being attacked by a bull. “She said that if they charge at me, I should just look them in the eye and talk to them manly,” Ilgunas said.
Ilgunas gave a talk this past week at the Gund Gallery’s Community Foundation Theater as part of the Edgerton Lectureship series and to promote his newest book, Trespassing Across America. The book details his journey, beginning with its conception in Deadhorse, Ala., where Ilgunas had been working as a dishwasher.
Ilgunas had originally planned to make the trek with his coworker, Liam, but after Liam confessed to him that he had been banned from Canada for an unanswered court summons, Ilgunas decided to make the journey alone.
During his walk, Ilgunas intended to speak with those he encountered about the Keystone XL pipeline and its potential impact on their lives. One rancher he spoke to told him that Keystone One, XL’s predecessor, was the best thing that had ever happened to him, as he was able to support himself off of the compensation he received. Few expressed concern about the pipeline’s environmental impact. “I can’t tell you how many times people said that climate change was a liberal conspiracy,” Ilgunas said.
However, Ilgunas does not blame the climate skeptics he met, believing that many ranchers and landowners employ apathy as a tool for avoiding pain at the loss of their land, saying that he felt the ranchers he met had a sense of their community’s mortality.
Although Ilgunas often spent days walking across ranches without encountering a single human being, the people he met never turned down his request for a hot meal and a place to stay. Ilgunas told one story of a car who passed him on the highway and returned half an hour later with a Happy Meal. “I try not to think of my country as what I see on social media,” Ilgunas said. “I try to think of it as the guy who bought me McDonald’s.”
Ilgunas’ parting advice to Kenyon students was to plan a trip as soon as possible. His advice came with three requirements: don’t borrow money from your parents, leave your friends and partners at home and try to go for a long while. “I think it was great advice,” said Knox County resident and former professor of Biology Pat Heithaus. “I wish I was 20. Take a chance and go out there.”