After two days spent in Fort McMurray, near the Tar Sands, I started hitchhiking south. My destination was Hardisty, Alberta--the northern terminus of the soon-to-be Keystone XL Pipeline. From there, I'll walk 1,700 miles south to Texas, the southern end of the pipeline.
My first driver was Travis, a giant man, half Native American, half Norwegian, who told me he was an alcoholic and a crack addict, though he'd been off the drug for three months. I was tense the whole ride south to Lac la Biche, largely because of his intimidating size and an open can of Budweiser in his cup-holder. He said he was quitting his job in Fort McMurray, despite the "disgusting" money he was making ($4,000 a week apparently), because his wife threatened to leave him if he didn't come home in Saskatchewan. He said he was leaving because he only got to see his kids eight weeks of the year and because of the terrible culture of camp life.
He said that after 12 hours of work, the workers would come home to their camp dormitory, more like "a jail cell," and many would rely on alcohol and drugs to cope with the strange living arrangement. They were in a "rut"--in which they couldn't leave because of the addiction to big money, even though they wanted out of town more than anything. With the long hours of work, no family life, and uninspiring setting, the men turned to alcohol and drugs. "Some people smoke crack," he said. "And for others, the crack smokes them. Fort McMurray takes your life, man. Fucking vicious cycle."
On all of my rides, the theme was work. Work, work, work. Oil rigs, carpentry at 40 below in steel-toe boots, snow-plowing, construction, mining, potato-picking. I admired them for their diligence but felt sorry for them at the same time: there seemed to be no art, no culture, no literature, no beauty in their lives. Just work. Hard work.
Travis, like my other drivers, thought of himself as a "closet environmentalist" but called himself a hypocrite for working up there. "All they talk about is reclamation," he said, referring to pouring earth on the tailing ponds, hoping the land will reclaim the areas that had been pit-mined. "Reclamation. How do you reclaim a river? Suncor sends 18 liters of tailing into the river every second."
He dropped me off in Lac la Biche. I walked the highway, jumped a barb wire fence, and set up my tent in a forest colored with the reds and golds and oranges of autumn. At night, packs of coyotes cackled.
The next day, I hitched 7-8 rides. My second ride was with a pair of guys coming down from Fort McMurray headed to Edmonton, where they'd resume work with their landscaping business. The driver was adamantly pro-oil, telling me about all the jobs it creates and how men can support their families with the money. "There will be jobs," he said. "It's going to happen."
Oil, I thought, is part of our way of being. It's ubiquitous and it's unavoidable. I tried to make this trip as oil-free as possible. I hitchhiked and took buses, so as not to use any oil that wasn't going to be used anyway. But all my gear has petroleum in it, and the food I bought has been made or transported with oil. How could I possibly get food and gear with no trace of petroleum? It's darn-near impossible. Doing anything without oil is pretty much impossible. Oil runs black in our country's lifeblood. It's a disease that's no longer a foreign substance, but as much a part of us as our hills and streets, nerves and organs.
Shall we simply not complain because we can't help but use oil? To argue we can't complain about oil while using oil is to argue that we cannot complain about a president, or an elected representative, unless we're violently revolting or rebelling against his every initiative. That's impractical and insane.
The argument is especially ridiculous because reducing our carbon footprint, as a country, will not happen on a person-to-person basis. We need oil and gas and coal for social mobility: to get to work and school, to heat our homes, to equip us with useful products. Sometimes there aren't any other choices or affordable alternatives, and we can't help but rely on non-renewalble resources. It's human nature to wish to improve or maintain our station in life, so to "go Amish" while the rest of the world moves ahead, gorging itself on energy, would be an exercise in futility, not to mention incredibly disadvantageous to the wellbeing of one's self and family. While we, as individuals, may travel via bus or run our homes on solar, the rest of the world will go to hell, as the coal plants emit chemical clouds and the pit-miners bulldoze bitumen.
For large-scale global problems, change may start from below, but ultimately change--whether in the form of "fee and dividend" or investment in renewable energy infrastructure--has to come from above. If change is going to happen, it must come from government, and that's why complaining and fighting for change--even while using oil--seems perfectly reasonable and hardly hypocritical to me.
After my ride with the landscapers, I got several more rides, and, as the sun was setting, I finally made it to Hardisty: a small town of the prairie with a hard industrial exterior, with tank farms and truck stops, but a soft inner core of simple homes and a small, endearing Main Street lined down the middle with pots of overflowing purple flowers.
Today, I set off on my hike, and in my thoughts is the Chinese adage, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."
Pictures of Hardisty:
Oil Sands Discovery Center in Fort McMurray: