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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Reviewed: Trespassing Across America, Ken Ilgunas

Ken Ilgunas is one of those loony environmentalist types.

A few years ago, he made a name for himself writing about his extremely frugal tenancy in a Ford Econoline van, which helped him graduate Duke University completely free of debt. More recently, Ilgunas walked the entire length of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast in South Texas.

He set out to discover the potential impact of the project 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 most memorable passages of the book sketch for us the many hard-bitten Plains people he met along the way, often instinctively generous, offering food and shelter without a moment's thought. Most of them, unlike Ilgunas, were also unshakably convinced of the value of the pipeline, and the evils of environmentalists.

Ilgunas has a keen and sympathetic ear; he empathizes with many of his subjects, including the endless police officers who obstruct and even detain him throughout the Midwest. He also has a talent for painting 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 ponderous exposition of facts and figures to bolster his anti-pipeline stance or provide context. These can take on the forced feeling of a high-school science report. Once Ilgunas entered central Kansas, I couldn't help thinking of William Least-Heat Moon's PrairyErth: A Deep Map. While that book didn't have a goal of raising awareness of a cause in the public mind, it was phenomenal at fostering love and concern for a forgotten land. Least-Heat Moon managed to evoke concern in a subtler way, using craft instead of a hobby horse. His book, though, was genre-defining, and it may be unfair 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 passed off as mind-boggling.

On the whole, though, the book is worthwhile. I didn't need convincing that fossil fuels could be the death of us all, but I did enjoy the human interactions, the travel inspiration, and the personal insights gained along the way.

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