Wednesday, November 28, 2012
Tuesday, November 27, 2012
As I crossed the White River in southern South Dakota, I held my trekking poles in one hand and my hiking boots in the other. While my feet have toughened, for some reason they are more sensitive than ever to cold water. It felt like each foot was a rod into which the shallow river channeled its lightning-hot charge. I screamed and cursed the whole way across.
I cleaned my feet that were coated with sand with a thatch of grass. I put on my boots and climbed a steep embankment, where I reentered prairie country. There was something strange in the air. It was cool, yet stuffy at the same time. Something was afoot.
The prairie was as desolate as ever. I couldn't see any homes, and it was only once every few miles that I'd cross a rarely-traveled gravel road. I hopped a barb wire fence into a cow pasture, and casually walked up to a herd of Black Angus cows.
At this point of the trip, my fear of cows had vanished. I've interacted with thousands of cows, and I've come to appreciate that they are, except for the oddball curious son-of-a gun, a bunch of scaredy cats, always fleeing in droves upon catching sight of me. At the beginning of my hike, I took long detours around cows, and sometimes carried my bear spray in case of an attack. But now the cows were of little more consequence to me than a field of fire hydrants.
These cows, though, I was shocked to observe, weren't running away at all. I yelled "Get outta here cows!!!" and waved my poles in the air, trying to freak them out, but they only moved a few yards to the left and right. It was all a bluff of course. I am no threat to the cows, as any one of them could out-run and overpower me.
The land in front of me was flat, except for a gentle downward slope into a creek that had dried up. I walked down the slope, and in the grassy creek bed there were another dozen cows staring at me. The cows that I had just passed had gathered and were following me down the hill. I had moving cows behind me and standing-still cows in front of me. I was experiencing all the typical symptoms of panic: I had an accelerated heart rate, I was unseasonably sweaty, and my eyes were wide open and full of fear. I was floating on a sea of adrenaline: all pains and sores that I had been walking with were completely forgotten, as I now had one and only one aim: I need to get away from these cows now!
I was surrounded by cows. And then I heard it. It was a rolling thunder, the sort of gurgle from the skies that would bring a family out to the front porch to watch a summer thunderstorm. I looked back and saw that the herd was storming down the hill, coming directly at me. I only looked back for a second, catching a glimpse of wild-eyed cows launching tufts of grass and dirt into the air with each stride. I wasn't sure how many there were. It could have been six; it could have been 20. (I submit this as a new proverb: "When you're not sure how many cows are chasing you, don't stop to count.")
At this point, I was no longer acting under conscious thought. Something in me decided that the best thing to do was to run as fast as I could toward the cows staring at me in the creek bed. I sprinted down the hill. I was wearing my standard get-up: my khaki pants, two wool shirts, a black baseball cap, an orange hunting vest, and I had my 35 lbs pack on my back.
The cows in front of me scattered. I looked back at the stampede once more and saw that the tidal wave of black muscle was now just 10 yards behind me. I needed to run as fast as I could. I ran along the creek bed and tossed my trekking poles to the side. I unbuckled my waist belt buckle of my pack. The ground was shaking so much I worried it would knock me off balance. I brought up my hands to do unbuckle the top buckle, but the weight of the pack had made it difficult to undo this last buckle.
"C'mon!" I growled through clenched teeth, struggling to unbuckle it. The cows were getting closer.
Finally, it came undone, and the pack fell off of me. It thudded to the ground, and I had no chance to think that I'd just dropped $2,000 worth of gear to possibly be trampled by the herd.
I stopped running along the dry creek and began to mount the opposite, gently sloped hill. My arms pumped furiously, my toes dug into the ground, my leg muscles rocketing me forward. I flung off my hunting vest in mid-stride.
I climbed the hill and was now running over flatland. I could see another barb wire fence ahead. If someone was in front of me, he would have thought I was a madman. My face was a bright, wrinkled red, my eyes were squinted, and I was running for my life with the single-minded determination of a kick-off returner. I was running all by myself in the field. But then, my observer would see the herd emerge from the creek bed behind me, mounting the hill running side by side, their flanks brushing one another's.
Before I made the fence, they got tired and relented. I, unable to control my rapid breaths, ducked under the wire and lay on the ground, exhausted. The cows sauntered over and stood face to face with me, separated by the fence.
It was about an hour before sunset, and I knew I needed to get my pack, which of course held my tent and clothes and sleeping bag. I ducked under the fence and walked toward the herd, screaming like a maniac. They stepped back a few yards, but then started walking toward me again. I walked back to the fence. I couldn't bluff any more; they knew that it was me who was the coward.
I walked the perimeter of the fence, seeking a cow-free route to get my stuff. I told myself, "Just do it, Ken," ducked under the fence, and made my way toward the creek. I worried that I wouldn't be able to find the pack, but there it was, un-trampled, sitting on its side. A black cow with a white face climbed down the hill and trotted behind me, so I ran along the creek shouldering my pack, forgetting about the search for my dear trekking poles. The creek bed here was muck, so my feet and ankles got sucked into the earth. I escaped that cow, set my back outside the fence, and commenced another (successful) mission to find my poles.
The prairie gave way to canyon, and I set up my tent at the bottom, next to another dry creek bed. As I lay in my sleeping bag, staring at my tent ceiling, I thought about calling it quits. Shin splints, freezing rain, raging stampedes, crazy Montanans: it's been a trip fraught with danger and discomfort. But just as quickly, I dismissed the thought. I thought that a goal is a sacred object, and one that must be handled delicately. And however ridiculous the goal, the goal must be cared for as if it is a vital piece of you. To give up on a goal is not only to give up on one goal, but it is to put in jeopardy all forthcoming goals. It is to make one's promise worthless, and one's identity, flimsy. But to reach that final destination, even if the destination is ultimately meaningless, is to nurture a sense of consistency, of constancy, of wild-eyed perseverance. I told myself that I will not quit from pain or soreness or cold or even a stampede of cows. I will make it to the Gulf Coast unless death is imminent.
I heard footsteps nearby and then a deep moan. A thin gauze of clouds sat in front of a crescent moon, bright but fuzzy. I unzipped my tent door and could vaguely see the bodies of black cows walking along the creek: black ghouls, mostly harmless yet terrifying, floating across the grass. In the morning, I reached another barb wire fence into a cow pasture. I ducked under the wire and continued on, screaming and waving my poles over my head.
Sunday, November 18, 2012
Somewhere in central South Dakota, I passed the 600-mile mark of my trip. While my legs and hips and back felt good, and my feet were no longer plagued with cuts and blisters and gashes, I began to feel a weariness settle into my bones, into the very roots of me; a weariness that I knew wouldn't go away with a day's, a week's, or even a month's rest.
Because of the waning daylight, I'm limited to walking from 6:30 am to 3:45 pm, making it all the more difficult for me to reach my 20-miles-a-day goal. To compensate for the lack of daylight, I push myself hard, taking as few breaks as I can, reminding myself--when my feet and shoulders are aching--that I'll have the whole evening for lounging and reading and writing.
In Midland, South Dakota, where I'd pick up a food package, I spent the evening at the local bar, where I ate a double bacon cheeseburger and charged my electronics. The bar also functioned as the town's gas station, grocery store, and casino, the last of which was located in a small dark room behind old-style saloon doors.
I sat quietly in the corner trying to write, but the bar became rowdy and I wasn't able to focus, so I entertained myself with the Broncos-Chargers game on the television. The conversations in the room ranged from branding cows to hammering fence posts to Kim Kardashian to a very sincere debate about what it means to be a good son.
Roger the plumber was the first person to befriend me and he told me that when I went to the bathroom the whole bar wondered aloud who I was and what I was doing. "They thought you were a monster," he said laughing. What really confused them were my trekking poles. When the bartender, a middleage woman, asked me, later on, what I used my "skiing poles" for, she, clearly unsatisfied with my explanation, gave me a dubious look and seemed even more leery of me. When Roger announced to the crowd what I'd set out to do, the bartender told me I'd get shot if I walked over so-and-so's property, which was a warning I instantly dismissed, as I've heard warnings like this again and again. "Oh, he'll shoot you!" she said. I gathered that these aren't so much warnings, but reaffirmaing boasts about how rugged their land is and how tough the people who dwell on it are. The men, at most all of my stops, warn me about cougars, talking about the big cats with intimate knowledge, as if they engage in monthly wrestling contests with the animal, even though no one has even seen one. "Has he shot anyone before?" I asked the bartender. "Well, no," she said.
Roger called himself a "black sheep" because he was one of very few people who favored progressive politics in South Dakota. Throughout the night, the bartender screamed at him, with equal parts affection and scorn, "Obama lover!!" Roger laughed, and tried to engage them in a political discussion, but the bartender and the rest of the bar, deflected his efforts and repeated the refrain of how Obama helps lazy people. Roger suggested I sleep on his floor for the night--an invitation which I eagerly accepted.
He ordered two more beers ("two for the ditch") and I followed his truck to his home in the center of town. I sat with him in his house-trailer at his kitchen table, which was cluttered with a rat's nest of magazines, envelopes and a pair of Hane's briefs, which he saw no reason to remove.
"What do you think about the legalization of marijauna?" Roger asked while constructing a makeshift pipe out of a Coke-a-Cola can, piercing a hole into the polar bear's head. "It doesn't bother me," I said.
He told me that the South Dakotans are conservative and pro-business, but that they're "South Dakotans at heart" and they don't like it when a big corporation forces them to put a pipe on their property. Still, he said, they rarely vote in their best interests, unthinkingly favoring the party of the wealthy when it might be better for them to vote for the party that best represents the middleclass. When I asked him why they do this, he said, "People around here don't know how to have an intellectual conversation." His voice was a slow, slurred baritone: drunken but wise.
I knew what he meant. I'd been walking for two months, but it wasn't until now, with Roger, that I felt completely free to share my thoughts, uncensored, with another person. It is difficult to find a true conversant: one who is not ruled by his own prejudice or dogma or even his own opinions. The true conversant is one whose opinions are alive and vibrant, living documents of the mind, subject to change, evolve, and grow nuanced and complex.
In the morning, when I awoke, I found that Roger had already left for work. I packed my things, wrote him a thank you note, picked up my package at the post office, walked down gravel roads, and then hopped a barb wire fence into prairieland. And I didn't get shot.
Monday, November 12, 2012
There is a storm outside that the Weather Channel calls "Brutus." My tent flutters violently, pounded by 25 mph winds. I listen to the pitter-patter of freezing rain all day. And the cold--a tolerable 30 F now--will drop to as low as 8 F before the storm dissipates. All the sides of my tent shake, except the one nearest my head, which is solid, frozen inside by my exhalations, and outside, by the freezing rain. I push against it every now and then, and with enough force, I'll hear a loud crack, and the ice outside will come crashing down to the ground.
Despite the storm outside, I am cozy in my tent, maybe more so because of it. I think mostly hopeful, happy thoughts. I look forward to the days and the years to come. I eat as much in the tent as I do when I'm on the move, and I eagerly read the third installment of Edmund Morris's Teddy Roosevelt biography, Colonel Roosevelt. Normally I would resent being stuck like this, but I'd just walked 15 days straight, doing about between 15 and 25 miles a day, and I see the need for a good, long rest.
I wake up the second day without any expectation of hiking. The forecast--which I've been able to check on my iPad (whose battery is beginning to run disconcertingly low)--says the weather is going to get worse: colder, snowier, and with stronger winds. I put on all my clothes: thermal underwear, two pairs of socks, five layers of shirts, plus my rain suit, a beanie, a faux-fur hat, and a pair of gloves. I go outside, fill up my water bottles from the cow pond, and hammer in my tent stakes as deep into the ground as they'll go.
I ration my iPad usage so I can read throughout the day and night, take a 3-hour nap, and consume an inexcusable amount of food. The freezing rain stops momentarily right before sunset, so I get out to use the bathroom, and to climb a hill to see if I could spot a road, a house, or some sanctum of safety, if just for precautionary reasons. But I can't see anything except a herd of curious deer, who'd caught sight of me, by the cow pond. The sky, though, on its western end, looks like it's on fire. It's a brilliant orange, with big blue dark clouds passing over.
A few days before, I was in Buffalo, South Dakota, sitting at a kitchen table of a family who offered to give me a place to stay for the night. "For someone with a college education, what you're doing is pretty stupid," said the woman of the house. "I mean, it's really stupid." She was, and had been, laying on the criticism pretty thickly, but I was stupidly content, as I was eating the eighth pancake she'd made me, slathered in butter, and dripping with blueberry syrup. We'd had this discussion, it seemed, a half-dozen times, and I'd long ago given up trying to justify my trip, neglecting to parry her attacks with fresh retorts. "These pancakes are excellent," I said.
But constantly being called "crazy" and "insane" does have its impact. As I walked out of Buffalo, down the road, I wondered, "Am I crazy? Maybe I shouldn't be traveling cross-country? Is what I'm doing... wrong?"
Such thoughts are like burrs stuck to my pant leg, prickling me once every few strides. It's not until I get out onto the open prairie, or into canyon country, or under a ceiling of stars that I'm finally able to shake them off. There is a wild joy that swells in my chest. Every day there is a new trial. There's something new to learn; something new to see with every step, every turn, every drop into a canyon labyrinth. It's an infusion of newness! And when immersed in this constant newness--when every step is exploratory, every interaction, novel, and every day, completely different from the previous--it's hard to think of going back again to the dullness of the normal, the expected, the planned.
Staring at this orange sky now--whose color probably portends a more vicious stage of the storm--I am dazzled. It has nothing to do with being at the mercy of weatherly extremes or "pushing my limits." Rather, I feel the presence of something spectacular--sinister, perhaps, but no less spectacular--and it occurs to me that there are great truths bound in beauty, truths I cannot comprehend, but truths that are there, pregnant with mysterious meaning.
Worried that these clouds will bring a fog or blizzard that might impair my visibility--perhaps so much that I won't be able to find my tent--I run back to my tent as quickly as I can. The grass and cacti and thistles are frozen over, plump with ice coating their contours, forming a field of brittle, glistening stalagmites. As I run, the ground shatters, tinkling like a shaken Christmas tree.
I sleep restlessly. The cold is too cold, and my sleeping bag, over the past several nights, has accumulated moisture, and is no longer living up to its 5F degree promise. My iPad is dead, and my digital library, gone, but I'd taken note of the forecast and saw that tomorrow would be as cold and windy, though clearer.
In the morning, I pack my things with numb fingers and head southeast. Less than an hour into my hike, I see the forecast was mistaken. The sun, which was bright and blinding moments before, is now lost behind a encroaching plume of dark cloud. Snow begins to fall, and I can only see a mile in the distance. I do see, however, an abandoned barn, which becomes my new destination--my new "hole" for the day and night--where I'll build a fire, make a warm meal, dry my sleeping bag, and sink into a comfortable slumber even in the midst of this terrible, beautiful cold.
Tuesday, November 6, 2012
Earlier, on my walk through the prairie, I had a coffee and three oatmeal cookies with Patty and Lewis, farmers who had land about ten miles north of town. I knew I was off the pipeline path, so I wasn't expecting to glean insights about the XL, but Patty and Lewis were leasing land seven miles to the west, where the pipeline was to be laid.
Land agents, representing TransCanada, the company that will build the pipeline, had been approaching homes in the area for years.
"Shysters," Lewis said. "They're damn secretive."
Apparently the land agents do as much as they can to deal with landowners individually. Lewis said that they'd coerced some older people to sign compensation contracts, but other landowners--worried about the quality of the pipe, the compensation they'd get, and who would deal with clean-up if there was a break--joined forces and acted under the Great Plains Resource Council.
The landowners were especially irked because TransCanada desired to use a thinner pipe under their land because it was allegedly a "low consequence area." They were also offering 15 cents a foot to landowners, but the Council was insisting on $30. But it's difficult to negotiate a fair sum, Lewis says, because all landowners must sign disclosures and keep their agreements with the company confidential.
"Who is responsible if that thing blows up? No one could answer that," Lewis said. "Most of the people want to be treated fairly. This secretive bullshit sits in your craw. How do we know what they're getting up in Canada or down in Texas? Land agents won't tell you anything. They keep you isolated. It's all up to you to negotiate."
We talked for about an hour, Patty filled up my water bottles, and I walked south to Fallon, where I'd cross the Yellowstone River over the I-94 bridge next to Fallon.
At the town bar/restaurant, the only place in town where I could get Wi-Fi, a middle-aged lady came and sat down in front of me. I'd seen her ten miles north of Fallon in her white pick-up.
"So what are you doing this for?" she asked. I explained that I was in the mood for a long walk and that I wanted to see the path of the Keystone XL before it was developed.
"What, do you think ethanol is any better?!" she exclaimed. Her tone was bitter and accusatory, and she spoke to me as if I was a lobbyist for the ethanol industry. But at this nascent stage of our conversation, I'd yet to give her any indication that I had any prejudices against the XL. I do of course have prejudices, but for all she knew, I could be on this trip to bless the sacred grounds into which the glorious pipeline shall be laid.
I didn't know much about ethanol, but I gathered that it wasn't a realistic solution to our oil dependency problems. "I'm not smart enough to know the solution," I said. "But I think we can reduce our oil consumption. We use twice as much energy as Europe."
"Yeah, but it's a lot denser over there," she said. "Look, you're using energy to power that computer," she said, pointing to the socket that my iPad was plugged into. "You don't think we need oil?"
(As for her "denser" point, author and scientist Jim Hansen has this to say: "Only a small part of the difference in energy use [between the energy efficient Europe and Japan vs. energy gluttons, Canada, U.S, and Australia] is accounted for by greater travel distances... The primary difference is that Europe and Japan have taken steps to minimize fuel needs." He adds, "California achieves energy efficiency close to that of Europe and Japan" because of an "astounding variety of energy efficiency standards and incentives.")
Agitated with her accusatory tone--that was only, I'd soon gather, a roughness of speech common in these parts--I said, "Well, the planet's warming. We gotta do something."
In my tent that night I was appreciative of her jarring questions because it forced me to think about the situation, but also troubled because I didn't have the faintest clue what the solution was. I opened up my Kindle application and went through the various energy policy books I've read over the course of this trip.
David Owen, author of The Conundrum, says that we must focus less on making things more efficient (because efficiency enables consumption), and more on reducing consumption, which is the root of the problem. (America, he points out, accounts for one-fourth of the consumption of oil, coal, and gas, and individually we "consume resources five times the global rate.") He recommends that we 1) Drastically reduce our dependency on automobiles; 2) Enact a "fee and dividend" tax system (in which consumers are taxed for purchasing things that produce greenhouse gases, but the public receives those taxes back so they can invest in more sustainable lifestyles); 3) Invest in grand alternative energy projects (he describes a team of scientists who would like to test, on a large scale, their idea for sending planes 2,000 feet into the air, where they'll harness the heavy wind energy which will be sent down a cable that the plane is attached to); and 4) Live in "dense, efficient, intelligently organized cities," which "are the future of the human race."
NASA scientist and climatology expert Jim Hanson, in his book Storms of our Grandchildren, recommends that we put an end to coal-fired power plants, forego unconventional fossil fuels (i.e. Tar Sands, shale oil), and that we employ a fee and dividend tax system, as described above.
Bill McKibben, in his book Eearth, recommends that we scale back to small economies and small farms. "By some estimates," McKibben says, "as much as half of global warming gases can be tied to the livestock industry, with its huge demands on our grain crops... It takes eleven times as much fossil fuel to raise a pound of animal protein, as a pound of plant protein."
Walking through these cow pastures and over these hay fields, I've often wondered if they will still be around in 100 years. Will we figure out a way to power the tractors and transport the cows and dispense the meat across the country--without unleashing the ghastly greenhouse gases? Or will the industry be immobilized by the scarcity of obtainable oil? Despite the bucolic character of the land, I recognized that this lifestyle--these hay fields and thousands and thousands of cows--cannot exist without large quantities of oil.
This woman drives long distances to and from her pasture every day. She probably runs a tractor over hundreds of acres of hay fields. Scaling down, small farms, higher taxes on gasoline. The sort of changes these experts recommend would be appalling, unthinkable--offensive even--to someone like her. It's no wonder why well-meaning scientists are so quickly dismissed, and global warming, denied, by those whose lifestyles are so reliant on oil.
After Fallon, I continued on to Baker, Montana. I walked through miles and miles of uninterrupted canyon country. When I approached a steep precipice, I would worry that I wouldn't be able to find a way down. But at every canyon rim, I was quick to find a path blazed by cows leading down and up the steep walls.
The town of Baker sat underneath a dank, overcast sky. When I first caught site of the town, I was standing next to an abandoned windmill. which used to pump water from a spring to provide cows with water. Half its blades were missing, and all it could do now was creak, hauntingly, with each passing gust.
North of town were dozens of pump jacks, some white, bearing streaks of rust, others, pitch black. Some were slowly dunking their probosces into the ground, but most, it seemed, stood frozen, paralyzed, dead, no longer able to sustain itself on the pools of black nectar that have since dried.
In town, behind hillocks of scrap heap, I could see the top of a crane busy moving metal. The town had an air of decrepitude, but when I entered I was shocked with the bustle of activity. There were hundreds of newly bought pickups, parked in front of bars, clustered at motels, Hummers headed down Main Street. There were trailers everywhere, housing for all the temporary workers building two pipelines in the area.
Baker is booming, but none of the bustle gave me the impression of prosperity, sustainability, improvement. The pipeliners will leave, the motels will empty, the bars will cut back on servers, and things will resume as they had. The money that once came in in such abundance, will be completely squandered and forgotten.
What a dismal looking future, I thought. Graveyards of pump jacks. Dead ducks on tailing ponds. Well water bursting into flame. Droughts on the plains. Hurricanes in the north. Water on the poles. Yet as the world warms and oceans rise, the country clamors for an employer-in-chief to create jobs, jobs, jobs, growth, economy, progress...
I walked into the post office, where I would pick up several packages. Josh had sent me four days worth of food, a brand new four-season tent, and winter gear: a merino wool shirt, a pair of gaiters (for walking through snow), a new pair of gloves, a new hat, a pair of hiking boots, two pairs of wool socks, and two new pairs of underwear.
I was delighted to have the new gear--ecstatic even--consumer that I am.