This story of a man’s journey following the once-proposed route of the Keystone XL Pipeline describes not just the physical journey of Ken Ilgunas, but also the mental journey he went on when he decided to undertake this task.
The idea for this cross-two-countries trek formed while Ilgunas was working as a dishwasher at a camp for oil workers in Alaska. Though it started as a fantastical distraction at the time, it gained traction when he started questioning what he was doing with his life. And what he and the oil workers were doing in such an ancient, intimidating place.
He considered how the Inuit lived in that area for thousands of years, “leaving not the slightest blemish on the land.”
Which raised the question, what are we doing to this land?
This line of questioning follows Ilgunas as he follows the proposed route of the pipeline. Through prairies and sandhills, and across the property of strangers who would become friends and others who would question his sanity and try to run him off, he walked. From Alberta, Canada, all the way down to Port Arthur, Texas, he walked.
The land he encountered left an unshakable impression on him, as did the people. Whether they understood what he was doing or not, each encounter seemed to help direct him and his thoughts. What did the pipeline mean? Not just to the people it would affect, but also the land it would impact? And what did it men for the future of both?
As Ilgunas considered these potential changes and their meanings, he was faced with what land represents to different people. His writing paints a picture of the land we live on, walking us through the ages, from the time before we became a continent to the development and naming of The Great Plains.
For the Midwesterners it would affect, the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline was exciting and divisive. Ilgunas met many proponents along the way, who argued that the jobs it would bring were worth the environmental risks. However, he also meets several fiery opponents, who believed it would ruin their way of life.
In Atkinson, Nebraska, he met a woman he described as “the person I’d wanted to meet all along: a red-state radical, furious and determined.” She told him her family drank pure groundwater from the Ogallala Aquifer, and to her, “Water is more valuable than gold.”
These moments throughout the book force the reader to question their views. What do we consider more valuable in this world? Money and material possessions, or our health and the health of our descendants? But what about those who need the work the pipeline would have provided in order to survive this first time around?
While Ilgunas’ opinion on the pipeline was clear from the start, it didn’t distract from the actual storytelling part of the book, which is exceptional. His writing is sometimes poetic, sometimes blunt. Though this style seemed a bit incongruous at times, the story held together.
No matter what your opinions on the pipeline were, (or are), this book tells a story worth reading.
*You can catch Ken Ilgunas signing his books tonight at The Bookworm, 2501 S 90th St. Starts at 6 p.m. Or you can catch him in Lincoln at Indigo Bridge Books at 7 p.m.