A few years ago, Ken Ilgunas made a bit of a name for himself with articles about his extremely frugal tenancy in a Ford Econoline van, while completing a graduate degree at Duke University completely free of debt.
More recently, he decided to walk the length of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast in South Texas. He proposed to discover the potential impact of the pipe on local people, and to deeply experience rural North America. Trespassing Across America: One man's epic, never-done-before (and sort-of illegal) hike across the Heartland (Blue Rider Press, New York; 2016) is the story of that five-month, 1,700-mile hike.
The more memorable passages of the book, offer sketches of the innumerable hard-bitten Plains people he met along the way. They were often instinctively generous, offering food and shelter without a moment's thought. Most of them, however, were also unshakably convinced of the value of the pipeline, and the evils of environmentalists and climate scientists.
Ilgunas has a keen and sympathetic ear; he empathizes with many of his subjects, including many of the endless police officers who obstruct and even detain him throughout the Midwest. He also has a talent for beguiling landscapes—the sweep of prairie grass, or the roll and dip of desolate sand hills.
If he has a fault, it's in his occasionally leaden exposition of facts and figures supporting his argument or providing context. These sometimes take on the forced-recitation feel of a high-school science report.
Once Ilgunas steps into central Kansas, I couldn't help harkening back to William Least-Heat Moon's genre-defining PrairyErth: A Deep Map. While that book didn't have a goal of raising the awareness of a single cause in the public mind, it did at least as much as Trespassing to foster love and concern for a forgotten land, and in a more subtle way. It's perhaps unfair, however, to compare a rookie to a decorated master.
Other niggles inlude a few too many skin-of-his-teeth escape tales, and only faintly weird encounters.
On the whole, though, the book is well worth reading. I didn't need convincing that fossil fuels could be the death of us all, but I did benefit from the human interactions, the travel inspiration, and the personal insights gained along the way.
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