“To get to the heart of America,” writes Ken Ilgunas, “we cannot simply walk its forests and fields; rather we must cut through its industrial underbelly…its railways and refineries; its coal plants and pipelines. Its guts.”
Ilgunas’ walk through those guts, along the proposed path of the Keystone XL pipeline, is the subject of “Trespassing Across America: One Man’s Epic, Never-Done-Before (and Sort of Illegal) Hike Across the Heartland,” on shelves April 19.
Shaken by a stint as a dishwasher at an oil field in Deadhorse, Alaska, Ilgunas — who has also worked as an Alaskan tour guide and a back-country ranger at the Gates of the Arctic National Park — begins a 1,700-mile hike from Alberta to Texas in 2012, tracing America’s fuel supply from excavation to distribution.
His deep-rooted environmental ethic may have sparked the trip, but he wants, first and foremost, to understand the land and people who will be affected by the pipeline. He is an explorer searching for the moving target of truth, filtered through tangled layers of poverty, lost opportunity and unexpected beauty.
There is no judgment, only curiosity.
Ilgunas examines the American conscience with compassion, wrestling with the noble drive to care for self and family, while never losing sight of the cost for future generations.
More than an environmental investigation, though, “Trespassing” is a meditation on absolute freedom and wildness, in the vein of Thoreau’s “Walking.”
He makes a convincing case for movement without distraction, for time to make connections between long-held beliefs and newly-acquired knowledge:
“To go on a walk is to think. You are a moving monastery, a university of one, walking the contours of your mind the same way your feet travel over the hills and fields in front of you.”
A long walk offers the daily adventure and variety Ilgunas claims humans need to thrive. And, just as important, the chance to sort out what impact one person can make in a world where meaningful change comes only from governments and corporations.
But he warns against giving in to despair, calling that a “seductive alternative to a life of civic participation.” The book’s strength lies in its encouragement to acknowledge the world for what it is, fight for what’s right, and keep moving toward that next adventure.
In tackling both climate change and the struggles of daily life, Ilgunas realizes that success hangs on our ability to depend on one another. Reflecting on the trip, he sees himself transformed from a cynical Thoreau to an exuberant Whitman.
Fitting, because in “Trespassing,” he does, in fact, make America sing, in all its richness, contradictions, and wonder.