Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Day 46: Fallon, Montana

The landscape has changed. The prairie, which I've hiked and grown fond of these past many days, has gradually become grayer, rockier, older.

These hills--apparently known for its bounty of fossils and dinosaur bones--are rocky and old, dry and decaying. It's a geological sideshow: giant slabs precipitously balanced by columns of dirt; the ground, as if it's full of air, sinking an inch with each footfall; the rocks are soft, shattering when I try to use them to hammer my tent stakes. The rotting, flaky cliffs are like statues, worn and crumbling, reminders of a grander age. One feels that mighty things once happened here long ago, but now the land's denizens--farmers and hunters and cows--seem like secondary citizens, portly tourists on a historic battlefield where Jurassic glories once shook the earth.

As I walked from Glasgow to Nashua (to pick up my food package), and then south along the pipeline path, the temperature chilled and the wind picked up, seeping through my clothing layers and biting my skin with frosty fangs. I put on my hat and gloves. Then my coat. Then my rain coat and pants. And finally, at night, my thermal underwear. In my tent, in all my clothes, in my five-degree-Fahrenheit-rated sleeping bag, I still couldn't stop from shivering. This was troubling, of course, because I was wearing every article of clothing I had, and if it had been another 10 or 20 degrees colder, I would have suffered all the more. I managed to sleep well enough, but in the morning my stomach growled angrily for food. I devoured four Pop Tarts--determining to up my calories during these cold spells--packed up my stuff and continued on through Eastern Montana's canyon country.

I was finally about to meet up with the pipeline. All through Montana I'd been miles from the path because I took a long detour so I could legally cross the U.S-Canada border. I was walking a dirt road to meet the pipeline path where I encountered a succession of trucks. In the first were two young men who gave me a Powerade and a bottle of water. They were surveying the creeks in the area for the Keystone XL. In the second was an older worker who told me I can't trespass. When I politely told him I'd been doing just that for a month, he scoffed and drove off. The third wore a cowboy hat and had a long white beard, but no mustache, and he told me that he'd heard about me. Heard about me!? Either that CBC interview made its rounds or he was familiar with even the most obscure websites in blogdom. He told me to stick to roads around these parts because I might be confused as a hunter, or that cowboys would think I was out to steal a calf (as if I'd go anywhere near one of those demon-children).

Eventually I broke off the road he recommended because it was taking me out of my way, and headed in my standard southeast direction with the aid of my compass.

I reached a gravel road and, low on water, I stopped at a local ranch. I yelled "Hello!" and a young man came out of a barn, carrying a giant gun in a holster strapped around his waist. The gun was ridiculously long--compensatingly long--so long the barrel poked through a hole and dangled nakedly around his lower thigh.

"Sorry about the gun," he said. "You never know when you're going to need it."

Presuming that the Sioux haven't embarked on any raids lately, it was obvious that he'd just equipped himself with the gun for me. I asked him if I could have some water. He said, "No," but proceeded to grab my bottles and began filling them up. I could tell he was nervous about me, so I tried to put him at ease by telling him about my trip and remarking about how beautiful the land was. I asked him where I might set up my tent, hoping he'd offer his land, but he pointed down the road and told me I could set my tent up wherever I wanted in that direction.

All throughout the night, I listened to snowflakes fall onto my thin tent roof, scraping down the sides. Here it is, I thought. Here's winter. I was far from disillusioned, though. I'm reminded of George Orwell's dilemma in Down and Out in Paris and London when Orwell worried constantly about the day he'd finally go broke. But once he went broke, he no longer had anything to worry about. Essentially, he told himself that he'd figure it out; he'd be okay. And now that I am confronted with what I had feared for so long, I find that my worries have all but vanished, too.

Between looming winter, my foot/shin problems, and a number of other amateurish mistakes, I've come to accept all setbacks with a goodhearted and, perhaps, half-deranged laughter. My latest blunder: According to my mileage chart, I was 96 miles away from my next food package in the town of Baker, Montana. Looking more closely at the map, however, I discovered that I was actually 170 miles from Baker. I will be out of food, with summer gear, in Montana, in November. Really, there's nothing left to do but laugh.

Honestly, though, I'm having such a grand time that I have little problem with the prospect of an extended trip, especially now that my feet and shin ailments have been cured. I find that all of my senses are more sensitive, keener. I am constantly looking to horizons, seeking good paths. When stealth is required, my ears listen carefully for cows or trucks. Coming over a hill, I, for the first time in my life, smelled an animal before I heard or saw it: a coyote, half-amazed, half-terrified, tripping over itself as it sprinted from me, too bewildered to take its eyes off me. I am constantly making daily goals, meal plans, watching the skies, observing the winds, wondering how this hill or river got to be where it is. My mind and body, awoken from their torpor, feel invigorated, healthy, alive.


"This is the sheriff. Good morning."

It was 8 am and I was camped, as the young man suggested, along the road, not far from his home. On the edges of my tent, snow had piled up in small mounds. Everywhere, the grass, coated in frost, glistened.

I unzipped my tent and began putting my shoes on as I wished the sheriff a good morning and said something along the lines of, "Well, this probably looks pretty strange, doesn't it?" The sheriff had drove his vehicle over the grass and parked on one end of my tent. When I stepped out of the tent, I saw behind me that the sheriff had brought with him a posse. Strategically positioned--in a sort of triangle around me--was a middleaged man wearing a flannel hat with ear flaps and his son, the young man I'd spoken with the night before. They stood erect with steely expressions. I looked at the young man and wanted to say, "Dude, what the hell. I thought we were cool?" Instead, I wished him a good morning and thanked him for the water. I was surrounded by armed and paranoid Montana men.

This is the sort of situation, though, that I thrive in. Despite the beard, the bedraggled appearance, and my eccentric plan, my affability is quick to put others at ease. And, truthfully, I'm just happy to talk with other people, as I'm usually starved for conversation out on the lonesome prairie. I explained what I was doing--acknowledged how crazy it sounded--mentioned my family, and said I wanted to go on an adventure before I had to go back to work. Once they realize I have a family, a job (even though that's debatable), and that I can speak well enough, all the things that made me seem so foreign are quickly forgotten.

"I got a call from the neighbor," said the sheriff. "I just wanted to come out here and make sure you weren't crazy."

"Well you gotta be a little bit crazy to do something like this," I said. The sheriff laughed, but the middle-aged man appeared to be unaffected by my charms.

"You wanna to be careful around here," he warned.

"Why, does this area have a reputation for crime?" I asked.

"No," he said, taken aback. "But people around here ain't used to what you're doin. The owner of the land here, if he saw you walkin', he'd of shot ya.

"What you're doin aint normal," he continued. "In my lifetime, I've never seen a hitchhiker down this road. And my dad's never seen one in his.

"What you're doin, it's... it's... strange."

At the moment, I was innocently standing next to my tent, yet he spoke as if I was oiling myself up for some Satanic ritual.

"It's strange," he muttered again.

"Well, I'm sorry I raised the alarm," I said. "I'll pack up and be on my way now."

My tone was compassionate and apologetic, yet I was annoyed. This was the first time in 40 days that someone had asked for my ID (not including border crossings). He suggested I might get shot. But for what? Walking? Taking pictures? It's a shame, I thought, how I'd just walked through incredible scenery--a stunning landscape--yet no one except for me, a few cows, and a handful of xenophobes would ever get to see it. It's a shame that millions of American acres go unexplored because of a few trigger-happy whackos and their ridiculous "No Trespassing" signs. I sympathize with and understand the desire to keep hunters off one's land, but to close off a vast portion of the earth from the innocent walker seems unreasonably restrictive.

But as for thier xenophobia, I felt a sense of empathy. If I was in their situation--having grown up in remote lands without much contact with other cultures--I'd probably feel just as scared and act the same way, too.

They all wished me luck, and I walked down a road covered in an inch of soft snow. The next day, I'd arrive in the town of Circle, Montana, where I bought another six days worth of food because I was soon going to run out due to my severe mileage miscalculation.

As I stuffed myself on Pop Tarts, jumbo candybars, and a package of bite-size twizzlers (which have no nutritional or caloric value, but reminded me, warmly, of my boyhood spent eating them in movie theaters), I thought, I'll figure it out. I'll be okay.



martin said...

Glad to hear you are doing so well. Brilliant writing and pictures as usual. I feel sorry for the people who can't understand what you are doing. I think as the weather conditions worsen even more people are going to think you are crazy. But maybe some of them are going to think about the value of what you are doing (both for yourself, and for others) and be inspired to break out of their comfort zone and do something extraordinary too.

Betty said...

Oh my...that was kind of scary.

You will figure it out and, you will have great stories to share.

Your word verification is very hard to read. I am on my third attempt. Can you help?

Fourth attemp

fifth attemp

Anonymous said...

Having walked through much of Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, I can affirm that people will be afraid of a stranger such as yourself, will call the sheriff on you again and again, and you may actually be taken in for questioning, as I was, for merely being a stranger who they think is up to no good. Best wishes for a continued safe journey!!


Carolyn said...

I've been reading your blog since you were van dwelling at Duke.

You still amaze me... the part about your body in the previous post just blew me away...

I think you're the cat's meow ;)

Jen H. said...

"compensatingly long". That's hilarious! You forced me to come comment with that gem!
Good for you for keeping such high spirits in spite of those assholes making you feel like you're being so "abnormal" just for walking around!!!!
That pisses me off! What do they think you're going to do?
"At the moment, I was innocently standing next to my tent, yet he spoke as if I was oiling myself up for some Satanic ritual." HAHAHAHAHA! Also very funny! But it drives the point home too.
You go, Ken!

Michael said...

You've been writing some great stuff! I shared your lil' excerpt about how we need is a effing sweater on Andy Skurka's Facebook. I wonder if he liked it.

Anonymous said...

Sorry you had a tough time with these folks, Ken. Just wanted to tell you that I've been enjoying your account of your walk, and eagerly look forward to each new post. You're doing a great thing, and your fortitude, as well as your writing, is fantastic!

Ms. Minimal said...

I've been following you for quite some time, and find your blog fascinating. Montana "law" seems to be different than the rest of the world. Be safe up there and best to you on the balance of your journey. I'm a 40 y.o. woman, living full time in a 22' motor home and loving life. Hope to go fully mobile within the next 2 years, right now I am tied here for work.

Ms. Minimal

shopteacher said...

Wow...sounds kinda touch and go with the rancher and sheriff. Sounds like you handled it well. You would think they would be up for visitors seeing how remote they are. The media has some people scared to death....

Yukon Alvin said...

this encounter with the trio makes me sad; some people world is that small?

Joshua Baker said...

You come off as a little more than naive calling these people xenophobes. Imagine it people who own land in a remote country suggesting you might be shot for trespassing. When some well intentioned yet self-serving writer gets annoyed because they're greeted with hostility(you do look like a vagrant) you cry about it on your blog. Now I've followed your blog since you lived in the van and today I can say with certainty that you have an inflated sense of what people owe you. If you had been shot it would've been within their legal rights to do so and nobody would've batted an eyeball. YOU are the one who is not realizing the gravity of your situation. You ARE strange. The world doesn't you anything. It would be in your best interest that with your pop tart breakfast you consume a big bottle of humility and get over yourself.

Ken said...

Betty--Thanks. Sorry, I don't have control of the word verification. I think if you use the "name/URL" option, no word verification is required.

Candace--I'm sure people will be a little alarmed, though I hope no one sees it necessary to call the law again.

Carolyn--The cat's meow. I'm not familiar with the expression, but it sounds complimentary--so thanks!

Michael--Thanks man. I've got to catch up on your blog. I'm sure he noticed the comment and recognized my name--my article about him should be coming out very soon.

Kim--Too kind! Thanks.

Ms Minimal--Appreciate the kind words. I'm sure one can find the "Montana law" to which you refer in lots of secluded parts of America.

Shopteacher--I would say a huge reason beyond someone's xenophobia--here and elsewhere--is the media. Right on.

Yukon--A little too small, indeed. Though I admire their lifestyle all the same.

Joshua--Friend, please be nicer to me. I don't think I'm owed anything, and I'm not sure why you insist I am. I am merely challenging the custom of greeting strangers with undue suspicion or unscrupulously shooting them. Call my crazy, but I think the world would be a little better if there was more trust and less paranoia (and less shootings). Also, they were xenophobes, and I don't use that term derogatorily. They feared "the unusual"--and I point out that I would react similarly if I was in their situation. As for "crying on my blog"--I share what angers and annoys and upsets me freely because I believe it's the writer's duty to document his/her thoughts as true-to-life as possible, as there is value in seeing the world, cleanly, through another's eyes. Honesty--whether of a savory or unsavory nature--is the only way to bridge the chasm between writer and reader. So if I come across as imperfect and unsaintly, it's because I'm far from perfect and no saint--but honest no less.

Ken said...

Martin & Jen--Sorry, missed your comments in my earlier response. Appreciate the kinds words. They're definitely not assholes; what I'm doing definitely is strange in relation to what they're used to. These parts are very remote; I'd be cautious and a bit surprised, too, if I was in their shoes.

David said...

Joshua Baker needs to be set straight on a point of law. In no jurisdiction is it legal to shoot someone who is walking across your land, even if they are trespassing. Even the radical "castle doctrine" laws now in effect in 20 states do not permit this. Castle-doctrine applies to one's home, an occupied vehicle, or the "curtilage" around one's home -- roughly the front and back yard. Joshua Baker also needs to be told that psychologically he's projecting something onto Ken and that he needs to go for a long introspective walk to figure out what that is.

Betty said...


Your pic/blog was mentioned on
the Mr.Money Mustache blog.

Do you read it? It is a great blog too. :)

Jennifer said...

I was also a bit disturbed by the sense of fear and paranoia you encountered in Montana. What are these people afraid of?

Perhaps it is just the world we live in these days - suspicion has trounced trust - but I hope this is not true for most of us.

Anonymous said...

Having been raised in Montana, partly near Baker, I found myself somewhat defensive of these Montanans, and more than a little dismayed. Please don't generalize to all Montanas; most are kind people.

Ken said...

Anon-I don't think I generalized. I agree that most Montana's are kind. These fellas were, too; they were just confused and frightened.

Sean said...


I remember well the interview Dick Gordon had with you about living in the van while attending Duke. Appreciated what you did then as I do now.

Let me also say that I am a very conservative Baptist preacher in Texas as well. I am sure just those words will ruffle the feathers of most of your readers "toot sweet." :) :)

I also appreciate this beautiful creation the LORD provided for mankind. I mean both the land and especially the people. We are headed in the wrong direction as a society and we must make a change. I applaud you for doing what you’re doing to facilitate change in a positive and productive way.

I have been a lurker, but I felt that this particular post, and the related comments, compelled my contributions.

Categorizing these men as xenophobes: According to the definition of that term, you would qualify as much for that label as you perceive these men. Their motives and culture are strange to you. I don't think you fear them, as I also don't think they "fear" you. The point being exactly what they told you - this is a very, very strange thing for them (what you are doing). They wanted to check out what you were doing. They wanted to make sure you were safe (in the head!) and that there “stuff” was safe as well.

Most parts of the country have pretty strict criminal trespass laws - and that is what is happening here, even by your own admission. These people own this land and have posted no trespassing signs. Most of them have busted their butts working the land and keeping it in the family. Don't forget that aspect of what is going on here. I really admire the walk you are on and would love to do the same. My limit would be trespassing on other’s land. I also understand that I would not be able to truly follow the path of the pipeline in that manner.

There are areas of land my family owns that I am armed when I am there. Why? Some are near prisons. Some have a history of people breaking into buildings and either squatting or stealing. I am not out to play cowboys and indians (especially since I have too much American Indian blood in me :), but it is about personal protection.

Now, I have to admit that I have read ahead and have seen what happens to you in other instances, especially the sheriff in Boone County, Nebraska. That "ain't" right neither. So, I guess I just really felt like I needed to tell you that I am here as a conservative, follower of Christ, gun-owner, world traveler, hiker, outdoorsman who appreciates what you are doing and (for the most part) how you are doing it. I also encourage you to do some of your walking in "their" shoes as well and strive to understand where these folks may be coming from.

I love our country and this planet. I love my GOD and all of His creation. I agree that we abuse all of these things He has given us, and, in general, are a very wasteful people. Sustainability is the right thing. Taken care of the planet and the people is the right thing.

Do the right thing!

God bless you as you continue on your journey.

Cujo said...

I'm new here, but let me get this straight: You think a land owner is wrong to react badly to strangers wandering around on his land?