Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Video Diary: Round 2

For the first 10 videos from my trip, go back to this blog post.

This is footage from my flight over the Tar Sands of Northern Alberta. I took this footage a few days before I began my walk.


Part 11: The aftermath of my cow stampede in South Dakota. Plus, a rather striking hail storm.


Part 12: After many nights spent in a tent, a gentleman offers me the museum in the town of Mills, SD for the night. Plus, more cow encounters.


Part 13: Travels across the Cowboy Trail in Nebraska en route to Albion.


Part 15: (There's no Part 14.) In the town of Petersburg, I am escorted out of the county for supposedly breaking into two homes. Here's the audio of my conversation with the town deputy.


Part 16: I meet up with Nebraskan Rick Hammond, who puts me on a horse for the first time in my life.


Part 17: I go to a state meeting in Albion, Nebraska, where people from all over the state come to give comments about the proposed re-route of the Keystone XL.


Part 18: Nebraskan Rick Hammond decides to join the journey for a few days with the hope of stirring up publicity.


Part 19: Travels across southern Nebraska and Kansas. I meet up with the already-laid 2010 Keystone Pipeline.


Part 20: I interview Commissioner Dan Holub in Marion County, Kansas. He doesn't have many good things to say about the Keystone pipeline, which goes through his county.


Part 21: A dog accompanies me on Christmas Day in Kansas.


Part 23: Scared in Oklahoma.


Part 24: Soaked in Oklahoma.


Part 25: I bump into three members of Tar Sands Blockade in Cushing, Oklahoma.


Part 26: Some lessons in cooking in the backcountry. Author Storms Reback joins me in Texas.


Part 29: Interview with Mike Bishop, a Texas landowner whose property has been seized by TransCanada. They are currently laying the pipe in his property.


Monday, January 28, 2013

Day 133: Texas

I'd begun to feel a little wimpy.

In Oklahoma, because I'd been so terrified of the abject poverty, insane dogs, and men walking towards my tent at night carrying large weapons -- and because I sort of felt like I'd used up eight of my nine lives on this trip -- I decided I ought to be extra careful with my final ninth. So, instead of walking along the pipe in Texas (where it's currently being laid), I decided to walk on the shoulders of major highways, away from the pipe, where I wouldn't get robbed, attacked by dogs, stampeded by cows, or in trouble with landowners.

But the walk had become fairly boring. Out on the highways there's less interaction, less adventure, and certainly less of the Keystone XL. I'd walked nearly halfway across the state without having any meaningful conversation with a landowner affected by the XL. Frankly, I felt like I was "cutting a corner."

But after I received an email from a guy named Storms Reback who wanted to join me, I thought having him -- a partner in crime -- would make me feel better about following the pipe closely again.

Storms, 42, is a fellow Duke grad who lives in Austin with his wife and child. He's an author of three books about the game of poker. His latest is called Ship it Holla Bollas!, about a group of teenagers who made millions of dollars playing online poker before it was outlawed. It's selling well and the movie rights have been purchased by a major studio. But Storms had had enough of writing about poker, so, feeling the same strange draw to the Keystone XL that I'd felt, he decided to join me for a week or so.

He met me in the small town of Arp, Texas, where I had a package to pick up. I asked a guy where I might be able to set up my tent in town, and the guy (Paul) told me I could set it up on his front lawn. Once we got talking, and once he noticed I was very much in need of a shower (which he later confided to me), he offered his guest house, where Storms would meet me. The next day, Storms and I took off south. I was a third of the way through Texas, with about 200 miles to go to Port Arthur.

Storms was joining me on my hike just as the Keystone XL and the Tar Sands were becoming front-page stories again:

Storms and I, after heading south out of Arp, quickly came to the pipeline path, which was essentially a 100-foot-wide dirt road. Here, one of the many pipeline-laying companies had removed the trees and grass to make way for the business of laying the pipe. We walked next to a deep, 10-foot trench into which the pipes would be laid. The pipes, off to the side, were all propped up on pallets so that cranes could pick them up and set them in the hole. Colorful flags were festooned over the width of the path.

Storms was eager to jump into this adventure. "Well, what do you think?" he said, excited, looking down the forbidden dirt path.

"I say we go for it," I said. "If we take the pipe path rather than the road, we'll save a couple of miles."

And so we set off over the dirt path, which was a fine hiking trail, except for the barbed wire fences every hundred yards or so. After nearly 40 minutes of easy walking, we heard a truck rumbling behind us. They pulled up and two county cops exited.

"We probably shouldn't be on here, should we?" I said.

"No, you should not," said one of the cops.

Our licenses were taken and the policewoman explained to us that there'd been protestors from Tar Sands Blockade in the area in the past, so the landowners who'd caught sight of us thought we might be them. Eventually, they let us go, and we promised we'd stick to county roads that parallel the pipe.

We dealt with the typical travails of walking across the sometimes impoverished Heartland: weird looks from homeowners, the anxiety of finding a safe place to camp, packs of dogs on your heels. But I noticed the dogs were less vicious, less ambitious, less confident. And I noticed that I no longer was walking through Texas with any semblance of fear. While Storms doesn't exactly have a stature that you would call "imposing," the presence of another human being magically put me at ease.

We walked through East Texas Pine country, sometimes on dirt roads completely shrouded in the shadows of the pines' long bushy limbs. The homes, in this hillly country, looked like battered schooners riding up an ocean wave. Mesmerized as we were with the landscape, it became our goal to find a Texas landowner with whom we could talk about the pipe.

Mike Bishop is an ex-Marine, Vietnam vet, a retired chemist, and, at the age of 64, Mike will soon be entering his first year of med school. Mike made national headlines last month when his judge in a lawsuit brought the pipeline to a screeching halt. His contract with TransCanada stated that the company would be transporting "crude oil" when it will in fact be shipping "dilbit," which is heavier, more corrosive, and more toxic. Mike ended up losing the suit, though he says the battle is far from over.

We met him at a cafe in Douglass, and when we asked him for advice about where we should camp, he offered his lawn three miles down the road.

He had a campfire ready for us, and he recounted his fight against TransCanada and how unjust it is for a foreign company to take his rights as a landowner away. He talked about his arsenal of weapons, his days in the Marine Corps, and his solo fight against a giant corporation, and, coming from him, I've never been so flattered when he waved us off and remarked in his Texan drawl: "You guys got balls."




The bulls in Texas have horns.

Some impressive architecture in the town of Sulphur Springs.
A man from Dallas named Steve read about my journey over the Internet. Eager to help out, he visited me in the town of Winnsboro, where he bought me a steak dinner, three beers, and brought me a whole bunch of camping supplies.
My boots were falling apart -- and were no longer waterproof -- so Steve stopped at the local gear store -- Mountain Hideout -- talked to them about my hike, and in a show of support, the store very kindly gave me new boots at half price. ($80 for boots orginally priced at $160.)
New boots are from the Vasque company.
Steve also brought homemade cereal, Mountain House meals, and a small bottle of single malt Irish whiskey.
South of Winnsboro, the restaurant Lazy Days, and its owner Steve, fed me for free (despite my objections) and let me stay in their storage vehicle for the night. I had liver and onions, a pulled pork sandwich, and eggs and biscuits in the morning. Steve is an artist who's personally decorated the restaurant.
My home for the night: Steve's storage truck.

East Texas is pine country.

The Oil Palace, south of Tyler.

Storms Reback (on the left) joined me in Arp, Texas. In Arp, where I was picking up a package, I asked a guy named Paul at the post office where I could set up my tent in town. He ended up giving Storms and I his guest house, where I slept on the bed, showered, and washed my clothes. Those four empty beers on the left were all mine.

The pipe, from Cushing, OK to Port Arthur, TX, is currently being laid. This shot was taken when trespassing over someone's property.

Here we are getting in trouble with the law.
Ashley, a young lady from the University of North Texas, visited us in the town of Concord, TX, where she brought us dinner, breakfast, and a bottle of whiskey (that may or may not have been entirely drank). (And I may or may not have had an awful hangover the next morning.) That's her dog Banjo beneath me.
Mike Bishop.

In this part of Texas, the XL comes very close to some people's homes. This is Mike Bishop's yard.

There are several pipeline companies currently laying the pipeline. Lately, we've been seeing "Michel's" pipeline company from Wisconsin.

We stopped to talk with this fellow. All the pipeline workers have been kind, and they haven't seemed at all put off when I tell them about my project.

Storms cutting a form in his tape to cover a blister.

We stayed with Sonny in New Salem, TX. He gave us this old convenience store, which is now a place where his gospel music band plays.

Roughin' it. In the town of Reklaw the Baptist Deacon gave us an abandoned parsonage for the evening.

Storms with a blister.


Friday, January 25, 2013

Video interview with Huffington Post

In the tiny "town" of New Salem, Texas, I was part of a group of interviewees (including Nebraska's Rick "the Govna" Hammond) who told their stories about the Keystone XL. I used my iPad as a webcam. Technology can be incredible sometimes...


Sunday, January 20, 2013

An article about my hike for Salon.com

Today, an article I wrote printed in Salon.com. It's an overview of my hike from the beginning until I reached Albion, Nebraska, which was a turning point in many ways.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Day 122: Oklahoma-Texas border

There may be nothing scarier than watching a man walk toward your tent, carrying a large object, in the middle of the night, in an impoverished town.
No, there's definitely nothing scarier.
I made it into Atoka, Oklahoma just before nightfall. It's now my standard procedure to go straight to churches to seek advice about where I should set up my tent. Most all of the time they'll let me camp on their lawns, and some of the time they'll let me sleep on their floor inside. I spoke with the youth minister of a Baptist Church, who very kindly directed me to the backyard of a vacant lot in town owned by a relative.
The town of Atoka, I was told, suffers from some of the typical maladies of poverty: theft, drug abuse, broken families. "Fifty percent of the town is beneath the poverty line," the minister said.
He drew for me a map of the town with directions to the vacant lot. It was getting dark when I set out, and I took a wrong turn, which led me down a street very clearly suffering from poverty, where a Rotweiller, on a leash that looked about as thin and brittle as one of my beard hairs, lunged at me violently over and over again. I kept walking, thinking I knew where I was, until the road ended. To my side, I saw three men in the dark standing idly against the side of a home. I didn't have any reason to think they had anything malicious in mind, but I was scared in this neighborhood. Definitely scared.
I called the minister on my phone (which is working again) and he drove out and rode alongside me as he guided me to his aunt's lot. While the vacant lot was still in a poor part of town, he said it was safe, and it appeared to be so: The property was bordered with trees, so if I set up my tent behind the lot's empty house, no one would be able to spot me.
I set up my tent and inside I ate cans of tuna and sardines for dinner (that his wife had given me) and finished reading The Lord of the Rings on my iPad. I settled into a deep, peaceful sleep as I do most every night.
I woke up a couple of hours later to the sound of a dog sniffing my tent. My fear of dogs is new, and just from the few close calls I've had with ill-tempered country dogs, I've begun to experience some minor PTSD symptoms. Every distant bark causes my heart to stop. A truck behind me will be carrying three dogs in the bed, and when one of them barks, I think I'm being chased. I hear and see dogs everywhere. When I camp in the woods, and a wind causes the dead leaves hanging on branches to flutter, I think it's a dog sniffing the edges of my tent.
But there really was a dog this time. And strangely, I wasn't too scared, as I knew, in the back of my mind, that I was safe in my tent. Curious to see what breed it was, I sat up and looked out one of my tent's little portholes. It wasn't to the right of me, so I looked out the left porthole. It was 2:30 a.m., and that's when I saw the man walking toward me. He was coming straight for my tent. He had the gait of a horror movie antagonist: a confident and steady stride that could mysteriously overtake a couple of sprinting half-naked campers, whose steamy tent sex had been brought to an abrupt and unwelcome end.
It was dark out, but I could see that the man was carrying something big. Something like a mace or a shovel, maybe.
I was completely paralyzed by fear. I could have started to prepare myself for the attack. I could have opened my jack knife, taken off the cap of my bear spray, or simply dialed 9-1-1 into my phone. But I did nothing. I couldn't breath. My body was rigid. I simply watched him walk toward me.
Yet he continued to walk by my tent and into the woods, his dog following him at his heels.
What should I do? Perhaps he was harmless, but now maybe he's thinking to himself that he has an easy target? Maybe he'll come back with more people? Feeling more vulnerable than ever, I called the cops.
"This isn't quite an emergency," I said. "But I'm walking across the continent and I'm camping in Atoka in a tent behind an abandoned house in a vacant lot by ___ Street." (It wasn't until I said this that I realized how crazy what I was doing was.) "I don't know, maybe you could have a patrol car come out here?"
Ten minutes later two police cars came by. I emerged from my tent and the cops, who'd walked into the backyard, pointed their bright flashlights into my squinting eyes. I explained what had happened, and they seemed oddly comfortable with the turn of events.
"He was probably just coming out to get a look at ya," said one officer, as if approaching a random tent in the middle of the night with a medeival weapon was as normal a thing to do as taking out the trash.
"Yeah, he was probably just checking ya out," said the other.
I was grateful that the cops came out, yet I wasn't at all put at ease. I lay in my sleeping bag for the rest of the night, waking to any noise, gripping my weapons in each hand.
In the morning I head east along Highway 3 toward the town of Antlers. At this point, I was nowhere near the pipeline path. Because I needed a bridge to get over the Red River into Texas, I had to walk many miles to the east, toward Hugo, OK.
That night, I slept in the town of Lane next to a convenience store, where I used the Wi-Fi to begin the second season of Downton Abbey on David's Hulu account. The next day, I head toward the town of Antlers, Oklahoma. I knew from the hourly forecast that I was going to get hit hard by rain, so beforehand I made sure to tightly seal all my stuff in waterproof garbage bags inside my backpack.
And sure enough, the storm came. There was jarring thunder and white hot flashes of lightning. There was nowhere to take cover, so I kept walking on the grassy shoulder of the highway beneath the pounding rain. The rain picked up: thousands of big lumpy raindrops hit me at once like alien missles. Even with my rain gear on, the rain managed to seep through my clothing, soaking me all the way to the bone. My hands, wound tightly around my trekking poles, no longer had much feeling, and I could feel my body fighting to keep me warm. "KEEP WALKING!" I screamed into the storm. "C'MON!"
At one point, the rain was coming down so hard I thought it might knock me over. It was a Biblical storm: equal parts wicked and cleansing. In the matter of 20 minutes, three cars pulled over to ask if I needed a ride, and each time I had to explain that I was on a walking expedition.
I longed for shelter. Where will I sleep tonight? I imagined an attractive and lonely middle-aged widow -- a rancher's wife with straw-colored hair and a figure suited to the rigors of keeping up the farm all on her own -- calling me from the porch of her home to come inside for shelter. At first, she'd think I was a homeless person, and I'd come in and she'd say, "For heaven's sake, you must be freezing. Let's get you out of those wet clothes." I'd go into the bathroom, and through the gap between the door and the wall, she'd catch sight of me peeling off my shirt, noticing, to her astonishment, that I had neither the withered limbs nor the lumpy gut of a bum, but the finely chiseled physique of a hiker. "Dear God," she'd mutter to herself involuntarily, suddenly flooded with desires that had long lain comatose in her grieving heart.
Having received no such invitation, when I got to Antlers (that boasts of being the "Deer Capital of the World") I went straight to the local pizzeria and changed into my dry clothes in the bathroom, before buying myself a supreme pizza, which I'd greedily devour. A family with two little girls, who'd saw me come in, curious about what I was doing in Antlers, came over and asked. I told them tales of charging moose, stampeding cows, and crazy Nebraskan cops. The girls posed for pictures with me, saying they were going to talk about my trip with their class. The grandfather left $10 on the table, went to register, and paid for my pizza.
Today, I crossed the Red River into Texas, quite surprised that I left Oklahoma unscathed. And while Oklahoma scared the crap out of me nearly every day I walked across it, I wager that it will not be the dilapidated homes, crazy dogs, or needles on highway shoulders that will come to mind when I think back on my travels through the state, but the time a man pulled over and handed me a bag of McDonalds, or the poor Dollar General cashier who bought me a box of hot chocolate packets, or the church in Hugo who took me out to meal at Braums, or the many many other kindnesses from the good people of Oklahoma.

Days before the events described above, I arrived in Cromwell, OK on a Saturday evening. This was undesirable timing because I had a food package to pick up at the post office, and the post office wouldn't open until Monday morning. I stopped at the local convenience store and asked for the postmistress's number, called her up, she came to the post office, and disaster was averted. She recommended I talk to the pastor at the Pentecostal Church to find a place to set up my tent. A very kind Pastor Kelly gave me his church for the night, and even bought my dinner.

I slept by the front pew.

When I arrived in Holdenville, Oklahoma I couldn't find anyone at the local churches -- and there were no campgrounds -- so I went to the local police station. The person at the front desk, without my consent, called up the local "ministerial alliance" who got me a free room at the local motel--an offer I felt uncertain about because I don't exactly consider myself "needy." With nowhere else to go, I swallowed my pride, and walked into a room reeking of nicotine. A drawer was missing from the dresser. A cigarette butt was sitting on the drain of the shower. It was easily the nastiest motel I've ever stayed in. I was busy writing an article about my trip for Salon.com, so I bought myself a second night ($35), and -- to procrastinate writing the article -- I watched the entire first season of Downton Abbey with my iPad and the motel's Wi-Fi.
There were a few strange sights on Highway 75 heading toward Coalgate, OK. There was one really giant estate/mansion/old plantation and then this columned church, that read "God's Church," which is now clearly for sale.

This is why I don't travel at night. I come across similar obstacles all the time. This is an old uncovered well.

This is where the man and dog passed my tent in the middle of the night.

Muddy Boggy Creek on Highway 3 heading to Antlers, OK.

This is needle #7 I've come across in Oklahoma.

Church of Christ in Hugo, OK. I slept in their backyard.
The Red River. The river separates Oklahoma and Texas.

Pastor John of Lakewood Baptist Church in Powderly, TX.