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 book's most memorable passages sketch the classically 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, 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 his subjects—even 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 the author has a fault, it's in the ponderous exposition of facts and figures to bolster his position. These can take on the death-march 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, another account of the natural Midwest, which seamlessly fostered love and concern in the reader for a neglected land. Least-Heat Moon managed this in a subtler way, using craft instead of a hobby horse. However, I'll admit 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 geographic inspiration, and the personal insights gained along the way.

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