Saturday, December 29, 2012

Day 108: Christmas in Kansas

I was walking down a country road in southern Kansas when I spotted a big dog trotting toward me. It kept its body low to the ground while keeping its wolf-eyes trained on me, moving with the sleek-bodied stealth and confidence of a hungry lioness. It was the size of a German Shepherd, but wore a shiny, jet-black coat.

As soon as it got to the gravel road it took off on a full sprint toward me, snarling through its white fangs. It stopped just feet from me, and then lunged at my ankles. I thrust both my trekking poles at its face. It backed off, but continued to closely follow me as I sped forward, always just a few feet away, separated by the short length of my trekking poles that I kept pointed at its face.

This wasn't the first time I'd had to deal with crazy country dogs in Kansas. Most times, I'll just ignore them and keep walking. They'll prowl behind me for a bit until they get too far from home. Sometimes, when I can tell the dog is merely bluffing, I'll "baby-talk" it out of its rabid fervor, and have them nuzzling their heads against my thigh in no time.

This dog, I knew instantly, wasn't the sort that could be baby-talked. It was savage and bloodthirsty, probably bearing a ferocious love for its family, but a dim-witted hatred for everyone else.

It followed me for several minutes, gnashing its teeth and sprinting at me whenever I turned my back to it. My only thought was to keep moving and not let it get in front of me. I used my trekking poles to keep it from going at my legs, but I felt my jackknife glowing in the right pocket of my pants. I knew, if it bit me, I'd let it have my arm or leg while I aimed to pierce a fatal blow into its chest or neck.

"Pedro! Pedro!" a little boy cried to the dog from the front porch of the home the dog had run from.

Hearing the little boy's calls seemed to incense the dog even more. Pedro followed me for a fifth of a mile, and didn't turn back until the man of the house came out and screamed for Pedro to return.

Once I was a good distance from the house, I put my pack down and retrieved the canister of bear spray in the back of my pack that I'd mostly forgotten about. Now, when I walk country roads, I have the bear spray strapped to my chest, ready to be deployed. Between Pedro and the other snarling country dogs, I now get nervous whenever I approach a home on a country road. Traveling in constant fear, I can say, takes the fun out of travel. Now, I eye all country homes -- and all dogs -- with fear and suspicion. Prejudice is as simple-minded as a demon dog.

I made it into the tiny town of Potwin, Kansas on Christmas Eve. A woman saw me walking down the road. I asked her if she knew any of the pastors in town. She said she did, but that they wouldn't be in town until the evening service that night. She invited me into her home where she fed me chili and cookies. I attended service with her family, took communion, and slept on the floor of the church balcony.

On Christmas day, I continued south to the medium-sized city of Augusta. It was 20 degrees outside with blistering 25 mph winds. My map said the country road I walked along would lead me over a creek, but when I reached the creek, which was wide, deep, and frozen, I saw that there was no bridge leading over it. I heaved a large dead branch into the air, and when it fell upon the ice, I felt encouraged when the ice maintained its solid form. I began to walk over it, but after two steps, fault lines spread across the ice from the force of my foot like cracks in a broken mirror. I quickly turned back for shore, where I'd begin my long detour to another road to find a way across the creek. When I hopped over a tall barbed wire fence, my maps fell out of my back pocket and were carried away in the brisk wind like crispy fall leaves, destined to decompose under a foreign, faraway trunk.

I walked straight east along a road, took a southeast shortcut over a cow pasture, and then head south along a new gravel road, which was a creek-less, river-less route, according to the map application on my iPad. On the road, two dogs rocketed out from beneath their porch and charged after me. Their barks were terrifying at first, but once I sized them up -- a small white chihuahua and a young black lab -- I knew I had nothing to worry about.

The lab kept running after me, but once I parried its barks with baby-talk, it let out a relieved whimper and ran up to my legs. It put its two front paws on my hip, I petted its head, and it let out a deep guttural moan, like I was finally giving it some long withheld pleasure. I sat down to have a snack and fed it a slice of buffalo jerky. It followed me for the rest of the day, 10 miles, all the way to Augusta.

I enjoyed the company for the first half-mile, but once I realized that it wasn't going to turn back home, I resolved not to look or talk to it, except to angrily yell at it to go back home. But each time I yelled at it, it only fell on its back submissively.

I secretly adored the dog, and had thought up a name for it ("Kansas"), but dared not utter it aloud, for fear that -- by giving it a name -- I would allow this nascent friendship to evolve into something more. Despite my fantasies, I quickly determined that Kansas was not the best companion for a long walk across Oklahoma and Texas. He was too small and too timid to be able to defend himself against big, angry dogs. And he was stupidly fearless around cars and roads. I knew that, eventually, he'd get run over and meet the fate of Peter Jenkins's dog (from the classic A Walk across America).

I did well to maintain my vow of silence, but when we reached a busy bridge with narrow shoulders, I knew I had to again acknowledge the dog's existence. I knew the dog would follow me over the bridge, and would very likely get run over, so I had to do something.

I made a leash with a thin orange tent guy line and began walking Kansas toward the bridge. Kansas was confused and resistant: not because he was stubborn, but because he clearly had never before had a leash put around his neck.

"Let's practice a bit first," I said to him.

We got off the bridge and walked back and forth along the grassy shoulder of the road. He got the hang of it, and we successfully crossed the bridge. After that, I determined to train it not to go anywhere near the road, casting discouraging invectives at it when it went to cross the road and lavishing it with warmth when it hung by my side. By the end of the day, I wondered if he might make a good companion after all. He wasn't the smartest dog in the world, but he clearly had a good pair of legs and a lot of perseverance: which was about as much as I could say about myself.

I brought him to the Augusta police station, where I explained who I was, what I was doing, as well as the dog situation.

They told me they were going to take him to the pound, where he'd remain for three days unless the owners claimed him. Then, they said, they'd "put him down."

"Put him down?!" I said.

What have I done?

Another cop showed up. He put a leash around the dog's neck and tried to pull him into the back seat. The dog wouldn't budge, so the cop asked me for help. I grabbed its body and struggled to shove the dog and its flailing limbs in the back. The cop closed the door, and I looked at the dog inside -- looking as innocent as always -- and said, "Bye Kansas."

The cop called churches for me -- to see if they'd lend me a floor for the night -- but none were open to receive me. The cop offered to buy me a motel room, but too prideful to accept money, I declined, even though I wanted more than anything a warm place to stay on so cold a night. I walked downtown to the local movie theater, where they were showing The Hobbit in 3D. It was freezing outside, and the theater had yet to open, so I went into a gas station, where I hoped to buy some coffee and stay warm in a booth for an hour or so. The owner -- a middle-age Indian man -- who was the sort obsessed with rules and protocol, approached me, as I drank my cappuccino in the corner of the store, and told me to leave.

I walked to the movie theatre, and knocked on the door, hoping someone would let me in. The owner inside, preparing for the movie, said that she was all alone inside and that I couldn't come in.

I felt kind of pitiful standing out in the cold, with wind blasting in my face, on this dark lonely street with no place to go on Christmas. But from this trip I have received so much kind treatment from so many that it was was impossible for me to feel upset or frustrated. It's as if I have a stockpile of goodness in me, so any sort of injustice or cool treatment has little effect, as nothing can make me doubt my renewed faith in humanity. Someone could shoot me and steal my belongings, and in my dying moments I will think only of the goodness of man.

Eventually, the theater opened and I watched The Hobbit. I got more than my $8 worth, but I wondered if the film would have benefited from more darkness, more humanity, more reality. Where were the moments of crippling fear? The raw emotion? The knee-buckling pain? Where's the traveler's grime or the hiker's hobble? Much of the darkness -- the reality -- of the original trilogy has been removed to make for a family friendly cartoon full of impressive -- but forgettable -- visual spectacles.

The owner of the theatre was so worried about me camping out in the cold that -- during the movie -- she called the police station and urged them to let me sleep at the station, which I ended up doing.

In the morning, I packed my things and got ready for my day's walk south, but I was held back by my conscience. This trip has become so much about love and compassion that I couldn't let the dog die in the pound. I determined to wait in town the three days so I could adopt it and take it along with me, but first I had to see if I could contact the dog's owners. I showed the police where the dog had come from on a map, but they said they didn't know how to get the phone number. I decided to put my internet stalking skills to good use, so -- through much googling -- I found the phone number of a neighbor of the dog owner and explained the situation.

Later, I got a call from the owner. "Thank you so much for taking care of our dog," she said. "A dog of ours died last year and many tears were shed. We'll be very happy to have him back."

And with that, I head south through Kansas, on to Oklahoma.


Kansas used to be an oil giant, but now, it seems, it's a dying industry with just a few rusty pump jacks.

My bear spray, ready to be deployed at a moment's notice.
Christmas packages in Potwin, KS from family and friends.
Some guilty pleasures.

Christmas Eve service in Potwin, KS.

Kansas the dog.
At the police station.

3-D goggles.
My police station room.
Another stupid sign.


Thursday, December 27, 2012

Day 104: What's the matter with Kansas?

On my first day in Kansas, I walked a country road to the medium-sized town of Washington, situated just a mile or so from the Keystone Pipeline that was built in 2010.

I left the country road and headed for town. A large man was walking with two mammoth St. Bernards. The St. Bernards ran up to me, and I asked their owner where I might find a spot in town to set up my tent. He asked me what I was doing, and I asked him what the people in town thought of the pipeline.

"Well, there are pros and cons," he said. "People are pretty upset about the exemption."

"The exemption?"

"Yeah. For some reason Kansas decided to give TransCanada a 10-year exemption. That means TransCanada don't have to pay no property taxes. We were the only state to do that."

"So what are the pros?" I asked.

"Well..." he said, pausing to think. "I guess there aren't any."

An exemption? That made no sense to me. The 2010 Keystone Pipeline goes through 10 states and provinces, yet Kansas is the only one to give them an exemption. (South Dakota also gave them exemptions, but those weren't nearly as generous as Kansas's.) All the other states tax TransCanada and make millions of dollars from those taxes. That's why states like pipelines: They get money. How much money Kansas is missing out on is unclear, but several sources say it's upwards of $20 million a year.

I did a little research and found out that Kansas gives 10-year property tax exemptions to energy companies to lure them into the state. But this exemption still made no sense because Keystone had to come through Kansas anyway so the pipe could reach the refineries in Cushing, Oklahoma. Plus, TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha has gone on record, stating:

[TransCanada didn't] originate this tax abatement issue. We weren't part of that discussion. We were already in the process of finalizing our proposed route.

When I stopped in Marion County, Kansas, I was told that there was one guy who would be able to answer all of my questions about the Keystone in Kansas. I met with and interviewed County Commissioner Dan Holub in the lobby of the local police station.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A letter to a church in Atkinson, Nebraska

Dear Faith Wesleyan Church,

Today is the 65th day of my journey. I am walking cross-country from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas. For the first part of my trip, when I'd have to camp in a town, I would normally find some shadowy spot to set up my tent--some place where I wouldn't be seen and where I wouldn't bother anyone.

I've learned, though, that traveling in this manner--solitarily, secretively, pridefully--is not the best way to travel.

There are many qualities that make a good traveler. Among them you could list strong legs, a sense of direction, and knowledge of other languages. But perhaps the most important is knowing how to take a favor.

In taking a favor, not only will I be more comfortable, less hungry, and better rested, but I will allow a bond to form between the giver and the taker of the favor. It provides me the chance me to engage with people I normally wouldn't engage with. I give them my story, they give me theirs, and we all feel richer in the end. I have allowed myself to receive many favors in Atkinson, and not only have I been rewarded with food, warmth, and this building in which I will comfortably rest tonight, but I will leave town with a store of stories, and a renewed faith in the goodness of people.

I should admit that I'm not a religious person. Far from it. If I have a religion, it's the belief that we ought to care for our fellow man and for Mother Nature. While I feel slightly guilty taking a favor from this church and you kind practitioners, I gather that our similarities are greater than our differences, and that maybe I shouldn't feel like such an outsider in here. And while I doubt that many of you are planning on going on a long walk across the country, perhaps you'll still be moved to know that, if you did go on such a walk, you'd find open homes and open hearts all along the way.

Happy trails,


Saturday, December 22, 2012

Day 99: Kansas

In Nebraska, I was a celebrity. I was interviewed by countless small newspapers, the Nebraska chapter of the Sierra Club, and two TV stations. I was given organic cheese, buffalo jerky, and money was stuffed in my pants. Several drivers who were, dare I say, "starstruck," pulled over to say hello. "I can't believe it's you," said one driver. "I mean, I was just out for a drive. And there you were."

But when I crossed the border into Kansas, it was as if I suddenly turned back into an anonymous bum.

A father and daughter pulled over in their car, and the father asked, "What are you a...a...a... transient?"

I was walking perfectly south through Kansas, taking a country road that paralleled the Keystone Pipeline. This is where the Keystone XL and Keystone Pipeline can get confusing.

Let me try to explain...

The Keystone XL will be a 36-inch-diameter pipeline. It has yet to be built. If it is approved by Obama, Tar Sands oil will travel down already-existing pipelines from Fort McMurray, Alberta to Hardisty, Alberta. In Hardisty, the Keystone XL will begin. From there, the Keystone XL will run across Alberta, Saskatchewan, Montana, and South Dakota to Steele City, Nebraska. In Steele City, the oil will begin to flow through the already-built Keystone Pipeline.

The Keystone Pipeline, built in 2010, is a 30-inch-diameter pipeline that goes through many of the same states/provinces that the Keystone XL is planned to go through. At Steele City, it branches off and ends at refinery hubs in Patoka, Illinois and Cushing, Oklahoma. The second part of the proposed Keystone XL will begin again at Cushing, Oklahoma. The Keystone XL will be built to link Cushing with refineries along the Gulf Coast of Texas.

If none of that made any sense, just look at the map below.

It had rained the previous night, so the dirt road I walked along had turned into a soft, custardy mud. With each step, my boots would suck up mud that would cling to my soles in sloppy clumps, sometimes curling over the toe like the floppy tips of Oompa Loompa shoes. At times, it felt as if I was carrying an extra ten pounds on each foot. I got off the road and walked over pasture and wheat fields, which were just beginning to sprout blades of dark green grass.
Kansas was not the flat plain I'd imagined, but a never-ending succession of gently rolling, up-and-down, tree-topped hills. Like southeastern Nebraska, the roads here are spaced a mile apart, and almost all of the land is developed crop land or cow pasture. Kansas is nothing like Alberta, Montana, and South Dakota, where there are endless stretches of roadless prairie, and while I miss the desolateness of those wide-open, half-wild spaces, as I continue south, I find that I am less discriminatory with nature. I do not need mountains, or ocean monsters, or endless prairie to dazzle me; in a handful of soil there is enough wonder to keep me agog for a century.
The winter remains unseasonably warm--with highs in the high-40s and low-50s-- so I walk in as much comfort as I can ask for. I can hear birds again. I listen to them chirp from thickets, flitting from branch to branch. Out in the open, I watch great families of them jubilantly skim the tops of cut corn fields. My feet and legs have strengthened admirably, and while I am always sore at the end of the day, I am in good enough condition now to know that I will prepared for another 20 miles when I wake in the morning.
Around dusk, I veered off the road and head to the woods, where I set up my tent and cooked a meal of ramen noodles, powdered mashed potatoes, olive oil, and parmesan cheese. Sitting alone, in the dark, in the woods all by myself, I felt sad thinking that this journey is approaching its end. I will miss all this, I thought: The interactions with strangers; the simple joys of camping; the occasional wild thrill of the dangerous; the never-knowing of what's behind the next bend in the road or beyond the next hilltop.
In the morning, I continued on to the town of Chapman, where I hoped to charge my electronics and enjoy some of the other luxuries town offers: perhaps a church floor or a pint of chocolate ice cream.
Kansans, to the this point, hadn't been giving me the warmest of welcomes. For my first three days of hiking across the state, I'd been approached by 4-5 officers (I've literally lost count), who'd gotten calls from people worried about me walking with my beard and backpack down their rarely-traveled roads. In just a couple of days, I'd had my ID checked more times in Kansas than I had it checked in all the other states/provinces combined. But it wasn't just the cops (who were all really nice, actually). Oftentimes my waves to drivers weren't returned. Dogs, which had yet to be a problem on this trip, would sprint from their homes and snarl at my heels. These were labradors from hell: red-eyed and savage. A giant pit bull, chained to its doghouse, lunged at me over an over again. An obese woman in sweatpants came out to yell at the dog. I waved at her twice, but she just dumbly stared at me.
Normally, I have no problem putting people at ease. I have little difficulty sensing what someone else is feeling or thinking, and I am hyper-conscious about my every facial expression, my every hand gesture, and my position as a traveler in rarely-traveled lands among people who've never seen someone walk past their home before. I know never to dig into my pockets without casually alluding to what I was about to retrieve. "Can you show me where I am on my map?" I say before digging into my back pocket. I look at people in their eyes, and keep a healthy distance between myself and them until I sense that I've earned their trust. I compliment the beauty of their land, make some remark about the weather, and make fun of myself for undertaking a journey in winter. I use "sir" and "maam." I say "good afternoon" instead of "hey." In a flash, I go from being melancholic and solitary to affable and extroverted: and I wear each mask as genuinely as the other.
I made my way into Chapman around dusk. I headed straight to the Methodist Church, as I've come to learn that churches are welcoming to travelers. There was no one at the church, so I asked an old man walking a dog where the pastor lived. "My name's Harold Bray," he said, shaking my hand. "I'll take you to his home." Harold was a retired music teacher, who still plays the trumpet and volunteers for an organization that supplies hotels with Gideon Bibles.
Suddenly three cop cars converged on me at once.
Well this is a bit excessive, I thought.
Two cops got out, one wearing a smile and the other, a steely glare. At this point, I was right behind the pastor's house, and I was conscious of how being surrounded by cops wasn't helping me make the best first impression on someone whose trust I needed.
Harold, who I'd already determined was one of the kindest, sweetest men I'd ever met, seemed taken aback by the cops. "I was just taking him to the pastor's house," he said.
I explained what I was doing and asked one of the officers if he'd like to see my ID.
"You probably have this happen to you all the time, huh?" asked the officer.
"Not until Kansas, actually."
I've been saying that I've received nothing but kindness and generosity on this trip--and that's definitely true--but some of that has to do with what I am: I am white, straight, American, in my twenties, with nothing particularly unusual about my speech or appearance, minus the beard and backpack. Yet even as a white, twenty-something, straight American (who could easily be confused to be Christian and conservative as well), I have been ID-ed nearly every day of my walk through Kansas. I was approached by paranoid Montanan men and kicked out of Boone County, Nebraska. If it's this hard for me--walking through homogenous Caucasian country--what would it be like if I was black, or gay, or Korean, or Muslim?
The pastor wasn't home, so Harold took me back to his place, where he introduced me to his wife, who he called "Saint Maralee."
"Your mother must be worried sick," said Maralee.
"I think she's used to me doing stuff like this," I said.
"No," said Patty, a friend of Maralee's. "She's just putting on a good front. Mother's don't get used to something like this."
"You can tell her," said Maralee, "That now you have two more mothers worried about you."
They fed me chili, and let me spend the night at their home. Patty was embarrassed with how the local police confronted me, so she called the next town I was headed to to make sure I'd get a better reception. She gave me a phone number for their ex-mayor, Don. I called Don and he told me that I could have the town's "Ladies Lounge" for the night.
The Ladies Lounge?
The very name of the place sent excited shivers up my spine and set my loins aquiver. I pictured a large, matronly woman welcoming me into a velvety room, cloudy with opium haze and smelling of an anything-goes carnal stink. Along the walls, women with bored expressions would be fanning themselves in aging pastel corsets.
I walked another twenty miles and got to the town of Hope. Their were no ladies in the lounge: only Don, a shelf of books, and a few wicker chairs.

I was grateful, of course, especially since there was supposed to be a blizzard that night.
I stepped outside at midnight to observe the blizzard. The snow, seemingly ungoverned by gravity, zipped across the street horizontally.

In the morning, Don brought me a breakfast of pizza and chocolate milk, and he told me he'd called the mayor of my next town, where I'd be able to sleep at their senior citizens center.

Because the road heading straight south was icy and relatively busy, I moved a mile to the west so I could head down a dirt road, where I was sure I'd see no drivers.

After a few miles of walking, I saw a dark figure in the distance, walking toward me through this white, barren landscape.

Seeing someone else out here was unusual for several reasons. First of all, it's rare that I see anyone out for a walk. Secondly, this was a a remote part of the state, with maybe a house for every mile of road. Thirdly, it was a cold day, with biting, 20 mph winds. Parts of the road were covered in a foot of snow.
What the hell was he doing walking out here?

I moved to the right side of the road to give him a clear passageway to my left, yet in whatever direction I went, he went. As he came closer, my curiosity gave way to confusion and fear.

It was a young African-American male. He was wearing baggy gray sweatpants and a sweatshirt.

"Good afternoon," I said.

"Do you have a phone?" he asked cheerlessly. He was clearly in need of some "putting people at ease" training.  

I said no. I did have a phone, but it stopped working nearly two months ago. Plus, my iPad was out of cellular data for the month. While it was true I had no connection to the outside world, with hindsight I think I answered his question more out of impulse than deliberation. For some reason, I suddenly became protective of my gear; all I wanted was was to keep walking my way and let him walk his. What the hell was he doing out here?!

He gave me a disgusted look, and said, "My car slid off the road." 
I'd just passed two homes, so I suggested he approach one of them to ask for help.
As I continued on, I became doubtful about his story. Why would he take this dirt road that hasn't been plowed and is never driven on--even when it's nice--when there is a perfectly good asphalt road a mile to the east? And why didn't he have a cell phone?
But sure enough, a mile down the road, I saw his car stuck in hard, crunchy foot-high snow, and I felt sick to my stomach. I was disgusted with myself. Is there anything I could have done for him? Could I have offered to help push it out? Maybe I should have explained my phone situation better, so he didn't think I was some small-minded xenophobe or racist.
All along my journey, I'd been looked upon as a transient, a bum, and even as a criminal, yet I discovered that, even with these experiences, I am just as quick to misjudge, to fear the unusual, and to be governed by unexamined and deeply rooted prejudices.

There was no happy ending to the story. I never found out if he ever got his car out of the snow, or if he was just passed along to the next house, and the house after that, by other scared people.

I resolved, then and there, that as I push forth, I will be quick to forgive those who misjudge me, and to let my first instinct--the next time I come across a person in need--not be mistrust and fear, but compassion and charity.

The Keystone Pipeline. This goes straight south through Kansas to Oklahoma. I'd walked a decent section of the Keystone in Alberta, so I felt a strange pang of nostalgia when I ran into it again in Kansas.
Vast fields of wheat. The wheat will remain dormant over the winter and grow again in the spring.
Not gravel roads, but dirt roads. They are pleasant to walk along, and good for the shins/feet when they're dry, but darn-near impossible when there's been rain.
Lots of soybean and corn fields in Kansas. This field has been "disked." In other fields, the corn stalks are still rooted in the ground and about a foot high: very uncomfortable walking.
Harold, Buddy, Ken, Maralee
The Ladies Lounge in Hope, KS

Don, the ex-mayor, of Hope

A blizzard came in while I stayed at Hope. It was easy walking on roads, but there were a few section where the drifts were thigh-high.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Day 93: The Breaking of the Fellowship

(Francis Gardler / Lincoln Journal Star)
(Francis Gardler / Lincoln Journal Star)
When the governor and I began our journey, the day was bright and sunny, and the temperature, a crisp 8 degrees. We set out from his mother-in-law's home, where I'd slept the last couple of nights.

Rick was reluctant to trespass over property, so we stuck to roads, which, in this part of the country, all run straight north/south and east/west as part of a vast grid in which each road is placed exactly one mile from the next.

As our boots crunched loose gravel, we swapped tales about past loves, filled each other in on our histories, and moaned about the XL. We'd intended to go all the way to the town of McCool, where Rick had a connection, but the 24 miles would prove to be too much for him on his first day. When we stopped to take a break in the ditch, I grabbed Rick's bedroll and strapped it to my pack.

"Hey, what are you doin'?" Rick asked.

"I've been carrying my pack so long I can barely feel the weight any more," I said.

"You're pulling me up by my tail," he said.

"By your tail?"

"When we have a calf that's struggling, we help him out. We pull him up by his tail. That's what you're doing for me."

Rick had spent two years in Ecuador with the Peace Corps and bounced around a few colleges studying sociology and reading Russian literature, but he was at heart a midwesterner, full of practical knowledge and cowboy wisdom. He called horse poop "road apples," taught me different species of grasses, and explained how irrigation pivots work. As it got warmer, instead of saying that he was going to remove a layer of clothing, Rick said, "I gotta shuck some duds."

Some of his explanations about farm equipment were so technical they went completely over my head, but I was happy to have a local guide, and, well, just someone to walk with. I called him "the governor" as a joke, but I saw that Rick did have a bit of a politician in him: He was smooth-talking and persuasive. He could be too assertive at times, but he was always genial. He could put anybody at ease.

My lack of knowledge--about everything--became apparent to Rick immediately, so he was determined to teach me everything he could.

When I asked him what a "combine" was (which is a machine that reaps, threshes, and winnows corn or soy bean crops), he looked at me with a mix of pity and bewilderment: the sort of look a Christian might give you if you asked them, "So who's this Jesus guy?"

"By the end of this trip, you're going to know a bit more about how the world works," Rick said.

We stayed at his friend Chet's house the first night, and the next day we made our way to the town of Fairmont, where we had another connection.

As we continued on, Rick began to appreciate how much longer we had to hike if we stuck to roads. With his heavy pack and sore feet, trespassing and reducing our mileage suddenly became an appealing prospect to him. We were looking at my map and I pointed out our route by road. "It's 6.5 miles by road," I said, "but about four miles as the crow flies." Rick, whose confident stride had turned into a hobo's hobble, scoffed at the idea of taking roads.

We were now going over corn and grass and soy bean fields. In a cow pasture, he exclaimed, "They're not going to hurt you. They're just curious!"

On a road, a woman, who recognized us as the pipeline walkers, pulled over in her car and offered to haul our packs to Fairmont. In mid-offer, Rick, who didn't even know this woman, tore off his pack and heaved it into her back seat. I wasn't sure what my "rule" was for pack-hauling, but I chose to keep walking with mine.

A journalist for the Lincoln Journal Star caught up with us, and we got in his parked car for an interview. I sat in the front seat and Rick sat in the back.

The journalist began with the standard question ("Why are you doing this?") and I started giving him my standard answer (Well, I wanted to go on a long walk...), but as I spoke, I felt Rick's fingers jabbing into my hip. Rick had joined the hike to stir up some publicity in order to fight the pipeline, and he wanted me to get straight to the point and nail TransCanada.

"You don't walk 1,700 miles to go for a stroll," Rick interrupted.

Ultimately, Rick was right. I'd went into this project with strong prejudices about the development of the Tar Sands--and thus the construction of the XL--but I also came with an open mind. By the end of this trip, if I had good reason to, I thought it was even possible for me to support this pipeline.

But by now, in this journalist's car, I realized that I'd made up my mind, and that I was ready to say how profoundly stupid this pipeline was.

The arguments for the pipeline are: 1. We need the jobs; 2. We need the oil; and 3. We need the national security (i.e. We're better off getting our oil from Canada instead of the Middle East).

I've come to learn that the Keystone XL will accomplish none of the above.

1. There won't be that many jobs.

In Canada, I've walked hundreds of miles of the Keystone Pipeline and other pipelines. There weren't thousands of men and women monitoring the pipe, checking for leaks, or manning pump stations. In fact, at all the pump stations I walked past, I can't remember seeing one worker. Projected statistics confirm my observations.

TransCanada, politicians, and unions have claimed the XL will create 20,000 jobs, plus 118,000 jobs in non-pipeline-related jobs in boom communities along the path. These estimates are hugely inflated. Cornell University conducted an independent study and, based on information TransCanada provided the State Department, they determined the pipeline will only provide 2,500-4,650 jobs. (And these jobs are not all new jobs, as it includes "existing Keystone and contractor employees.") Of these jobs, only 10-15% of the workers will be local hires. In 2010, during construction of the Keystone Pipeline in South Dakota, South Dakotans constitued "only 11% of the construction and inspection workforce." Moreover, there will be very few "permanent" jobs. In Nebraska's Pipeline Evaluation, the state predicts the pipeline may only support up to 110 annual jobs per year in Nebraska. (Source: Cornell University Global Labor Institute's "Pipe Dreams?" Report.

2. We don't even get the oil.

The Keystone XL oil will be pumped to Port Arthur, Texas. In Port Arthur, much if not all of the oil will be refined and shipped to foreign nations. Valero, a refiner that will own 20% of the Keystone XL oil, has explicitly detailed their export strategy. And because Port Arthur lies in a Foreign Trade Zone, Valero will not be taxed. (Source: Oil Change International's "Exporting Energy Security" Report.

Also, gasoline costs may even rise in the Midwest. The oil at refineries in the midwest will be moved down the Keystone XL to export-oriented refineries at Port Arthur, which will distort gasoline costs. TransCanada's 2008 Permit Application acknowledges this:

Existing markets for Canadian heavy crude, principally PADD II [U.S. Midwest], are currently oversupplied, resulting in price discounting for Canadian heavy crude oil. Access to the USGC [U.S. Gulf Coast] via the Keystone XL Pipeline is expected to strengthen Canadian crude oil pricing in [the Midwest] by removing this oversupply. This is expected to increase the price of heavy crude to the equivalent cost of imported crude. The resultant increase in the price of heavy crude is estimated to provide an increase in annual revenue to the Canadian producing industry in 2013 of US $2 billion to US $3.9 billion.”
3. Climate change is not good for our national security

Getting oil out of the Tar Sands requires huge amounts of water, gas, and electricity. Each barrel of tar sand oil releases three times the amount of greenhouse gases as a barrel of conventional oil. Andrew Nikiforuk, in his book Tar Sands, says that, "By 2020, project emissions from the tar sands could range anywhere between 127 and 140 megatons if production reaches 3.4 million barrels a day. At that point, the project would exceed the 2009 emissions of many European countries including Austria (88 mt), Portugal (81 mt), Ireland (68 mt)...."

He goes on:
Recent calculations suggest that if Canada and the United States fully exploit their oil shale and tar sands deposits over the next 50 years, North America could increase atmospheric CO2 levels by between 49 and 65 ppm. This catostrophic exercise would tip CO2 levels beyond 450 ppm. Many scientists now argue that CO2 levels must be returned to 350 ppm to keep the planet hospitable. But CO2 levels have already exceeded 385 ppm.
I did my best with the reporter, and Rick and I continued on to Fairmont, where a woman, sympathetic to our cause, had offered to provide us with food, showers, and lodging.

Juanita, 70, was from Nebraska. As the valedictorian of her high school class, she delivered a speech about the threat of communism. She said she opened her eyes upon moving to San Francisco, where she'd spend most of her adult life as a professor of theatre. She served red wine, potato stew, and squash, and Rick and I ate like we'd walked 16 miles, which we of course just did.

In the morning, Rick and I strapped on our packs and walked a railway, which Rick was excited about because, as a younger man, he'd worked as an assistant boss on railroads for three years. Eventually, the railroad ended, but there was a path, where an extension of the railroad once was, and we walked that for the rest of the day, ducking under branches and climbing down steep slopes where bridges used to be.

"I'm wavering," Rick said, mounting a slope.

Rick had hoped to go all the way to Steele City with me--at the Nebraska/Kansas border--but it was clear the three days of walking were taking a toll on him.

The dreaded silence of a hiking partner. It's good when they still bitch and moan: that at least means there's still a bit of fight in them. But when your partner becomes silent, you know he's made his decision, and it's only a matter of time before the expedition party splits.

Rick's sister-in-law Abbi came to the town of Milligan, where we ended up that night. Rick would treat us all to dinner. "I gotta husk some duds," I said in the restaurant. "You mean shuck," Rick said.

"Well, actually, you're right," he added. "You're learning, duckling."

Rick and I hugged goodbye, and we both very sincerely expressed hope that this wouldn't be our last meeting.

In the morning, I continued on, still following the abandoned railroad path, feeling, for the first time on my long journey, the curious and sharp pang of loneliness.

(Francis Gardler / Lincoln Journal Star)
(Francis Gardler / Lincoln Journal Star)

This is Rick's mother-in-law's house, where I stayed for two nights.

Rick and I walked gravel roads, across cornfields, and then over a railroad. This section of the railroad was removed, and is now half-wild and rarely traveled.
I forgot what these fruits are called, but Rick tells me they aren't tasty and that two of his cows suffocated to death upon eating them.
After Rick left, Bill Beachly, a biology professor at Hastings College, joined me for a couple of hours. Professor Beachly wrote a fantastic article about the Keystone XL in Nebraska's "Prairie Fire" Newspaper:
Steele City, Nebraska. This is the endpoint of the northern section of the Keystone XL. The XL, in Steele City, will connect with the Keystone Pipeline, which was built in 2010. From Steele City, NE, the Keystone Pipeline goes straight south through Kansas to Cushing, Oklahoma. The Keystone XL begins again at Cushing and goes to Port Arthur, Texas.
I bought some chips and guacamole at the bar in Steele City, and the bartender offered me Steele City's town hall for the night, which was undergoing restoration and serving as a garage for three motorcycles. The jukebox still worked, so I played Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds" over and over again.
I'm following dirts/gravel roads for the next few hundred miles, since they closely parallel the Keystone.
Kansas!! I slept in a park in the town of Washington, and am now in woods next to a creek, a good distance from any homes.