Trespassing Across America and This Land Is Our Land
Ken Ilgunas was a cook in an Alaskan oil-field work camp when he had an idea. At least, his friend and fellow cook Liam had an idea. They were concerned about global warming and the part they were playing in what he calls “our country’s wrongheaded conception of ‘progress,'” and they were tossing around ideas about what their duty was as citizens of the earth. “What if we hike the Keystone XL?” Liam asked. “Some deep, inner part of me recognized the brilliance of Liam’s idea with a startling immediacy,” Ilgunas recalls. “I hadn’t begun to consciously rationalize why, but some farseeing part of me knew then and there that I was going to–no, had to–hike the Keystone XL.”
And that’s what he did. Liam dropped out of the project, but Ilgunas carried on alone, planning a route and buying gear and mailing boxes of food to post offices along his route, the way through-hikers do. His idea was to walk the exact route of the pipeline, and not just wander along nearby roads, so he was going to have to cross private land the whole way. “You’ll get thrown in jail,” he was told. “You’ll probably get shot.” But he was committed to the project, despite those warnings, and in late September 2012, he set off from Hardisty, Alberta, a town of 639 people that is the northern terminus of the pipeline, for Houston.
Nobody shot at Ilgunas, although he did have a couple of run-ins with rural police, and when he was caught trespassing on the pipeline in Texas, he was asked to leave. In fact, everyone he met was generous and kind, even though he was trespassing on their land. Only in Oklahoma was he forced to take to the roads, mainly because of vicious dogs. Finally, after five months of walking, he reached Houston in February, 2013, and dipped his toes into the Gulf of Mexico.
Trespassing Across America: One Man’s Epic Never-Done-Before (And Sort Of Illegal) Hike Across the Heartland is the story of that journey. It’s filled with suggestions for people who might be thinking about walking in western North America. For example, Ilgunas only carried three litres of water, which he would drink over the course of a day, so he often had to stop at farms to ask for refills–and nobody ever said no. Ilgunas didn’t have money for motels, so he would knock on church doors and ask if he could camp on the lawn. Often, he was invited to bunk down inside, on the floor. I’d never thought of relying on Christian charity while walking. Trespassing Across America is an entertaining read, and it shows that you don’t have to rely on established trails (like the Camino de Santiago in Europe, or the Appalachian Trail in the U.S.) if you want to go for a walk. But despite reading about Ilgunas’s experience, I’m leary of trespassing; I keep thinking that the landowners I’d run into might not always be as accommodating as the ones Ilgunas met. Maybe I’ll just stick to grid roads.
Ilgunas’s journey led to his latest book, This Land Is Our Land: How We Lost the Right to Roam and How to Take It Back. It’s both a history of the right to roam in North America and elsewhere, and a call for the United States to adopt the kind of legislation that exists in Scotland and Sweden, which allows pedestrians to walk on private land (within limits). Americans (and Canadians) used to have that right, but over the course of the twentieth century it was eroded–mostly through court decisions that established the rights of landowners to exclude anyone and everyone from their property–to the point that right-to-roam laws now sound crazy to most people.
I wish the kinds of changes Ilgunas is calling for were on the legislative agenda anywhere, but in an era of increasing selfishness, it isn’t likely to happen in North America any time soon. So, if you want to be able to trespass, legally, you have to go to Europe. How unfortunate. I’m about to set off on a walk in Saskatchewan, and it’d be a completely different kind of walk if I could set foot in pastures and on native prairie, instead of being confined to roads. Maybe someday we’ll see that change. I hope we do.