Friday, February 8, 2013

Day 146: Port Arthur, Texas--the final day

(Photo credit: Pete Churton)
How would my journey end?

Perhaps it would end heroically? I'd imagined that after months of toil and deprivation, I'd be on my last legs. Gaunt and haggard, starving and sun-beaten, I'd stagger toward Port Arthur's Sabine-Neches waterway, into which I was determined to place my final footsteps. Just before reaching the water, I'd collapse to my knees, and, drawing from the very last of my energy reserves, I'd commence to crawl the last few feet to the finish line. I'd hack out bloody phlegm and crap my pants without realizing it. Finally, with my last ounce of strength, I'd defiantly plop into the water, from which I'd be lifted out, like a limp piece of meat, by a throng of admiring fans.

But upon leaving Beaumont, Texas on the morning of the last day of my trip, I was so well rested and so well fed I could hardly zip up my pants. I'd spent the past two nights fattening up in a house on the northern edge of town, where I stayed with a guy named Pete and his wife Beth who fed me as much gumbo and beer as I could take. Pete and Beth had found my blog and offered their place to me, and I chose to extend my stay an extra night because another guy, Woody, offered to pick me up from Port Arthur on the afternoon of 7th.

So, on the morning of the 7th, I filled up a small backpack with food and water, laced up my boots one last time, and left Pete and Beth's home just as the sun rose behind a bleak, overcast sky. It would be a long day -- 26 miles -- and I had to finish by 4 p.m. so I could pick up a box of clean clothes and shaving clippers at the post office before it closed.

I walked along 11th Street through Beaumont's chain store commercial district. I could tell, as I cruised through the city, that over the past five months I'd turned myself into a hiking machine. The soles of my feet were smooth and tough. My legs, accustomed to the steady motion of a long march, no longer felt sore. My shins had healed, my knees felt well-lubricated, and my back and shoulders were sturdier than ever. My mind was no longer a factory or an art studio; it was a gentle breeze: at ease, peaceful, uncomplicated, perhaps even a little slower, a little simpler. I'd just walked across the country, and I knew, if I wanted to, I could keep going and walk across the world.

I took my first break on a store's empty parking lot. I was eating one of my last energy bars when a lady pulled up in her car to ask me if I was the guy who she'd seen standing on top of the overpass.

"No, I don't think that was me," I said.

"I thought you were going to jump," she said, dipping into her pocket to offer me a handful of money.

I continued on down West Port Arthur Road, hiking next to giant, white, cat food canister-shaped petroleum holding tanks, by the grown-over grounds of the Lucas Gusher of Spindletop (which, in 1901, triggered the oil boom in Texas), and alongside the occasional rusted pump jack, slowly nodding its head like an old man continually falling asleep and waking up during church service.

As I approached the refineries, each mile greeted me with a new smell. After the first wave of your standard, and vaguely enjoyable, rotten eggs stench, I was hit by the slightly more pleasant, but more unsettling, aroma of smoldering fireworks. Finally, the smell evolved into something more toxic, something more synthetic, a bubbling cauldron of chemicals, a bonfire put out by a gallon of Windex. My tongue began to tingle so I tried my best not to swallow.

I was in Mordor, on the last leg of my journey, heading toward the summit of Mount Doom: The Valero Refinery, with its billowing smokestacks and spouting towers of fire, where the XL oil would be refined and shipped off to foreign markets.

Unpleasing to the eye and nose as it was, I was happy to be here. I was learning. I was stimulated. I was traveling. To get to the heart of America, we cannot simply walk its forests and fields; rather, we must cut through its industrial underbelly and pull out and examine its ugly organs: its railways and refineries, its coal plants and pipelines. Its guts.

I felt a sense of acceptance looking at the litter, the pollution, the industrial wasteland. It wasn't that I'd come to accept these things as "okay," or that I'd become numb to them. It was just that I was sick and tired of constantly feeling angry and powerless and frustrated. I came to simply acknowledge that: This is how things are, and this is the world we live in, and I can't wish or curse these things away. The best I can do is to enjoy what's left, fight for what's right, and keep putting one foot in front of the other. And that's just what I did, kicking a cardboard box of Bud Light out of my path, and stomping over an empty can of Dr. Pepper.

I was approaching the Valero refinery. Pipes emerged from the ground like bamboo rods. Smokestacks puffed out white smoke. I was surrounded by an astonishingly complex network of pipes and steel and flaming towers and holding tanks. I couldn't begin to understand what each part did, how this whole place worked, or how much thought and labor and ingenuity went into building this place.

It was close to the same thing I felt at the beginning of my trip, nearly 136 days before, when I flew over the Tar Sands of Northern Alberta--the worst manmade environmental disaster in our history. There, I flew over the muddied waste pit that looked like it had been carved out by some planet-ending meteor. I flew over eerie yellow sulphur pyramids, smoking refineries, and a horizon-to-horizon wasteland where fish once swam, moose once browsed, and Natives once hunted. Yet, there, above all of that devastation, I'd hardly felt a thing. I was more concerned about dropping my camera out of the plane's window.

The human mind struggles to sympathize with a devastated landscape, especially one that was never our home. A whole ecosystem removed from the earth is an unbelievable sight. It's an abstract concept. And appreciating it requires more than just our eyes and ears. On first sight, we'll feel shock and awe and amazement, but I'd wager that only a few are overcome with the moral indignation that we'd originally expected to feel. It's not until afterwards, when we've had time to think it over, to reflect on industry's shortsightedness, to imagine the exodus of animals, and to consider the implications for our climate -- all nebulous, abstract things -- that we'll begin to feel what we'd expected to feel.

But, looking at this refinery, I felt something else, and I felt guilty feeling it. I felt impressed. I was impressed with its size and complexity, impressed with how many workers and how much labor had gone into creating this, impressed with how the human mind -- or a collection of human minds -- could build something so incredibly sophisticated. We are mining some of the toughest-to-get oil in the world, pumping it through a 36-inch pipe across the continent, and here we're turning it into fluids that run our cars and planes. I'm impressed, not because what we've done is "good," but because what we've done is amazing. As a member of this incredible species, I felt impressed, prideful, and, most of all, hopeful: If we can do this, what else can we do?



I was startled by a loud robotic voice behind me. I jerked my head around to see a cop talking into the microphone in his car.

He got out and said, "In Texas, you should walk against the traffic, on the other side of the road. You never know when a drunk driver will run off the road and hit you from behind."

"You weren't the guy taking photos of the refinery were you?" he added.

"Yeah, that was me," I said, looking ahead to the Martin Luther King Jr. bridge, less than a mile ahead, beneath which I was eager to place my feet and conclude my journey.

"They called up complaining," he said.

"Well, I won't be around long," I said. "I've been walking for 1,700 miles and 136 days. This is my last mile. I'm going to end my trip beneath the bridge up there."

"Were you that guy on Yahoo News?" he asked.

"Hmm... I don't think so, but I've been interviewed by other places."

He shook my hand and wished me luck. But less than a minute later, his and another policecar, as well as a large truck (perhaps a Valero security truck), had parked behind me with their lights flashing.

Oh, what now!? I thought.

"Sir," he said. "I was telling my partner what you were doing, and she wanted a picture with you."

With much glee, I took pictures with the officers and continued on. Pete from Beaumont was taking photos of me up ahead, and Woody, also a professional photographer, was also positioning himself ahead for shots.

When I got to Pete, who was standing by his car in front of the bridge, two more cops had pulled behind him and asked for his ID.

"The refinery is pissed," said the policewoman, exasperated.

"Don't take any more pictures of the refinery," said the policeman. "They don't like it."

It was 4:15 p.m., and I had to get to the Post Office before 5 p.m. so I was eager to get my feet in the water. There was a levee under the bridge that was surrounded by fence and barbed wire, so if I wanted to get my feet in the water, I'd have to cross this quarter-mile-long, unusually steep, definitely sketchy, no-shoulder bridge. Things began to feel a little chaotic. I wasn't sure if Pete was going to get arrested or a ticket, I was running out of time, and I had this last obstacle in front of me.

"I'm going to try and walk it," I told Pete, who was still being interrogated by the police. "If it's too dangerous, maybe I'll turn back."

I hopped onto the bridge and walked the narrow 18-inch-wide elevated concrete guard on the left side. I looked at my watch, and realized that I was running out of time, so, between the sense of urgency created by my logistical conundrum and the excitement of ending my journey, I took off on a sprint up the bridge. While running, I looked down upon the elevated grassy levees, then the wide waterway, and finally the gloried, lush wetlands of Sabine Lake, which looked all the more prettier having just passed through Port Arthur's Hiroshima-ed industrial district. I didn't care about preserving energy or being in pain tomorrow. This was the end, and I had the freedom to give it my all. So I ran, and I ran hard.

I left the bridge and, saturated in sweat, continued my jog on Pleasure Island, running toward a small mosquito-infested park where Woody and Pete (who didn't get arrested) were stationed with their cameras. I descended the muddy, eroding bank, took off my boots, and sunk my feet into the water--the final step of the journey.

I had imagined this moment many times on my walk and I had already experienced the emotions that this moment might bring, so I didn't really need to experience it again. Each time I had imagined the end, I'd come close to tears thinking about all the people I'd met. Ron in Wyoming, Harold and his giant Mormon family in Alberta, the Caswells in Saskatchewan, Patty and Lewis in Montana, Rick and Heidi in Nebraska, Harold and Maralee in Kansas, Dusty and Darcee in Oklahoma, Pete and Beth in Texas, and the hundreds of others, and I would feel this deep sorrowful love for my fellow man, and this anachronistic, but very real, pride for being North American. I'd think about how I came on this journey to learn about pipelines, but how I would learn more about the goodness of mankind.

Oh, and the dear prairie. How I'd think about walking over you, feeling the long grainy tails of your green grass waving against my legs, the cloud mountains, moving mountain chains, sailing across the deep blue sky, the chatter of coyotes, the groans of cattle, the stars, oh the stars. I'd feel melancholic thinking about you, about how I have you yet don't have you at all. This life is so mortal, so finite, and I wish I could keep coming back to see you every year, forever, and savor your sights and these joys over and over again. Then you'd be mine. But I can't, and I'll have to be content with these memories and this sweet sadness--the sadness of having done, but not having the lifetimes to do again.

I'd think about how the Thoreau in me is cynical, critical, misanthropic; at peace in the company of pine needles, but crabby in the company of men. But also about how this trip has brought out the Whitman in me -- a lover of all things man and nature -- and how sometimes I just want to exuberantly catalogue all the professions of mankind in an epic poem, along with the clatter of our tools and the babble of our speech.

I'd think about America, and about how the history of the place would come to life, and how my very path would be the rolling parchment onto which our history has been scribed. I'd felt the ghost of the Pawnee horseman at my shoulder. I'd seen the arms of the pioneer building his homestead. I'd heard the laughter of the Creole Cowboy. I'd admired the craftsmanship of the pipeliner, and marveled at the genius of the engineer.

When I think of the men and women of North America, I don't think we need this pipeline. A pipeline is built to send a resource from a place that has a lot of something to a place that doesn't. But civilization won't collapse without oil; it'll collapse without clean water, healthy soil, and a stable climate. What we ultimately need, it seems, is what no pipeline can bring because it's already here. Walk across America, and view the paths that were once been blazed by hand tool, the wilderness tamed by pluck, the tree roots yanked out by grit, and see, within us all, the deep reservoirs of goodness, the wellsprings of love, and you can't help but believe that -- with our nimble hands, inventive minds, compassionate souls, and a good pair of feet -- we can go far.


Below, the photos have been taken by myself, Pete Churton (formerly a photographer with the Beaumont Enterprise), and Woody Welch, also a professional photographer, who's based in New Braunfels, Texas (where I am now). Woody and I will be driving up to Washington D.C. in a few days to take part in the President's Day anti-Keystone XL rally. You can view Woody's photography at

Triumphantly placing my feet in the Sabine-Neches waterway. It's here where the tankers from the refineries ship the oil to foreign markets.
(Photo credit: Woody Welch)

The walk to Beaumont.

Pete, his neighbor Jesse, and me.

Walking toward Port Arthur.

Port Arthur refineries.

(Photo credit: Woody Welch)

Several policecars stopped to inquire what I was doing.

My "interrogation." The officers were actually really nice, as were all the officers I met along my trip. I probably had upwards of 50 encounters, all of which were pleasant except for one in Nebraska.

(Photo credit: Woody Welch)

(Photo credit: Woody Welch)

(Photo credit: Woody Welch)

Port Arthur levee, picture taken from bridge.

Railroads from bridge.

Running along the Martin Luther King Jr. bridge.
(Photo credit: Pete Churton)

Sabine Lake wetlands.

Pleasure Island park.
(Photo credit: Woody Welch)

Placing feet in the Sabine-Neches waterway.
(Photo credit: Woody Welch)

(Photo credit: Pete Churton)

(Photo credit: Pete Churton)

(Photo credit: Pete Churton)



Monday, February 4, 2013

Book Recommendation: "What We Know about Climate Change"

Kerry Emmanuel is a professor of climate science at MIT. He was a registered Republican, but he recently changed his political affiliation to "Independent" because of his former party's stridently contrarian stance on global warming. (This New York Times book review gives a bit more background on him.)

What We Know about Climate Change is an easy-on-the-eyes read for the layman. It's neither technical nor muddled with scientific jargon; it simply compiles everything we know about climate change in a book that can be read in a day. And it's definitely not partisan: Emmanuel takes shots at both halves of the political spectrum.

As a scientist, Emmanuel speaks authoritatively on the current science of climate change, but I found his commentary on the politics and psychology of climate change denial to be especially enlightening. (I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he has degrees in sociology and psychology, as well.) I wholeheartedly recommend his book. The Kindle edition is only $7.50.

Some snippets:

We are not the first organism to alter the earth's climate:

"There is little evidence of much oxygen before the advent of cyanobacteria, a phylum of bacteria that produced oxygen through photosynthesis and began the transformation of the atmosphere into something like today's... Clearly life has altered our climate. We humans are merely the most recent species to do so."

Why global warming will cause more floods and droughts:

"Basic theories and models point to another consequential result of a few degrees of warming: more floods and droughts. This happens because the amount of water vapor in the air rises exponentially with temperature: a 7°F increase in temperature increases the concentration of water vapor by 25 percent."

Emmanuel says, "Certain findings are not in dispute, not even among those skeptical of climate risk:"
  1. "Carbon dioxide has increased from its pre-industrial level of about 280 parts per million to about 396 parts per million today, an increase of about 40 percent. For ice-core records, it's evident that present leves of CO2 are higher than they have been in at least the last 650,000 years."
  2. "The earth's average surface temperature has risen 1.2°F in the past century, with most of the increase occurring from about 1920 to 1950, and again beginning around 1975. The year 2005 was the warmest on the instrumental record, followed closely by 2010 and 1998."
  3. "The acidity of ocean water has increased by about 30 percent since the beginning of the industrial era."
On free market solutions to climate change:
  • "The U.S. government provides billions of dollars in annual subsidies to the coal, oil, and natural gas industries. Reducing or eliminating these subsidies would free up markets, make alternative energy sources more competitve, and motivate energy companies to develop cleaner alternatives."
  • "In a true free enterprise system, all businesses would cover their external as well as internal costs." [i.e. an external cost would be health problems related to coal mining, which now fall on the individual and private insurance companies.] "Insisting that the energy industry do so, in addition, naturally favor cleaner alternatives."
On placing some of the blame on environmentalists and their opposition to nuclear power:

"Environmentalists must accept some measure of responsibility for today's most critical environmental problem. Indeed, by focusing on solar and wind power sources -- whose limited potential and high costs prevent them from meeting more than a small part of our energy needs -- the environmental movement is engaged in unproductive theater that detracts from serious debate about energy."

On the role of "mavericks" within the scientific community, and how they're used by the media to create controversy:

"Within any scientific endeavor, there are always mavericks, and they play an important role in the constant introspection that helps ward off groupthink and other perils to progress. It is not difficult for extra-scientific organizations to amplify these maverick voices so as to create the illusion of serious controversy. This tactic, generally aided by journalists' attraction to controversy, has been particularly successful in denigrating mainstream climate science."

On how the country is propagandized:

"Other components of a successful campaign to cast doubt on scientific findings include conflating uncertainty with ignorance, associating scientists with extremists and otherwise impugning their motives, and planting the romantic idea that mavericks are often right while scientific organizations, such as the National Academy of Sciences, are often wrong. Most people, when it comes to their personal health, would never ignore the advice of 97 doctors in favor of three. But through the wondrous alchemy of marketing, it is possible to get some people to do just that in the realm of climate science."

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Day 140: Rye, Texas--85 miles from Port Arthur

I was sitting on an olive-colored couch, in the lobby of an extravagantly-furnished church, surrounded by three preachers.

I'd come to the church, as I often do, to ask for a patch of grass to set up my tent. The youth minister I first spoke with said I could, and that I should feel free to charge up my electronics in the lobby until they had to lock down the church after their Wednesday night service. He asked why I was hiking the pipeline. I sensed that he was one of those open-minded progressive-thinking churchmen, so I said, "Well, I guess I'm one of those whacko environmentalists."

Noting that we were in conservative oil country, he said, "Just don't tell our church members that. Say you're just going on a walk or something."

His partner, Pastor James -- a middle-aged, lean-bodied preacher looking dapper in his pastel dress shirt, tie, and trousers -- came up to me, introduced himself, and asked, "Has anyone on your journey talked to you about Jesus?"

"Of course," I said, surprised with my aplomb and with how fluidly the lie exited my mouth.

While I've interacted with countless preachers and practitioners over the past five months, no one, on this trip, up until this point, had attempted to indoctrinate me. In my life before the trip, though, I'd been preached to many times, and because I did not want to be preached to again, I thought I'd try to out-maneuver the pastor and dodge having to listen to what would most certainly be an agonizing monologue. But when he asked, "What do you think it takes to get into heaven?" I knew there was no way out.

"Well, I don't have a denomination," I said. "But I believe in the church of caring for our fellow man and Mother Earth."

"But have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior?" he asked.

"No, but I have a Gideon Bible," I said, pulling out the tiny Bible, given to me in Kansas, as if it was a magical amulet that would stun him into silence.

"And have you read it?" he asked.

"No," I said, feeling the snare tighten around my ankle. "But my mother's Catholic. And I was baptized Catholic."

"But you don't go to church?"

"No... I guess I don't." Short of lying -- and boasting that I was in fact in the Country Club of the Saved -- I had no other way out.

Pastor James stared more than he looked. He pointed his gaze toward my eyes, but not into them; he looked at my eyes as if they were a pair of elbows. He was more machine than man, more dry doctrine than deliberate thought, more steel than soul. He had the sort of half-dead stare that brings to mind a prisoner in solitary confinement or a POW camp survivor: He had the look of a man who'd lost his humanity.

"Haven't read the Bible. Doesn't go to church," he muttered, listing my sins. His suspicions confirmed, he was clearly becoming excited. He looked like he was ready to snap the elastic of his underwear and stick something inside of me. He leant his head back, puffed out his chest, and rubbed his chin with two fingers before blitzkrieging me with the Word. He explained that we're all sinners, that Jesus died for our sins, and that I needed to accept Jesus as my personal savior to get into heaven.

I was slightly embarrassed for him. Two other preachers were standing around me, and I thought they might be thinking, "Oh boy, here goes crazy Pastor James again." But I could see that they -- nodding their heads in assent and chiming in with "Amens" -- were getting just as much enjoyment as Pastor James.

The whole idea of someone dying for my sins, I thought, does absolutely nothing for me. If I killed or committed adultery or did something undeniably bad, what difference does it make if someone else died for these sins? How does dying for my sin and my future sins, make my sins any more forgivable? Why does this crazy story work for so many people? And what's all this obsession with sinning? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I don't sin. I drink to be merry, I lie for the sake of social harmony, and I lust because I'm stuck with a 29-year-old male's body. I don't feel guilty for any of the above, as they aren't wrong, and when I do something wrong, my conscience catches it and I do my best to not do it again.

I didn't get the sense that Pastor James was preaching to me out of a sense of compassion, or that he truly cared about the fate of my soul. Rather, converting me was only a sort of game for him to play. In his church, sitting on his couch, in my dusty clothes, he did not see me as his equal, but as someone he could wield power over. I was little more than sport to him.

I sat there quietly, politely listening, while thinking to myself, "I'm smarter than all you fools." I knew that Pastor James, so blinded by his faith, would never have an intellectual discussion for the rest of his life.

I should point out, though, that I've been quite touched by the help I've received from Christians all along my path. And I find that almost all of them are moved to help, not because they wish to convert me, but because they find joy in helping. I was once a person who would scoff at the idea of becoming Christian, and while I will never become a "believer," because of the countless kindnesses I've received, I've started to think it might be possible, one day -- if I ever settled down -- to join a progressive, gays-allowed, we-interpret-the-Bible-metaphorically, let's-not-rape-the-earth church, if just to embrace the sense of community and heighten my sense of charity that these churches so admirably do.

"Well, I have lots of time to think on my walk," I said to Pastor James, hoping that that would end the conversation, as he could then rest assured that he'd planted a seed of thought in my head, and that I'd be mulling over his holy words of wisdom on my long walk. But all he heard was "I have lots of time."

"But you don't have lots of time!" he said. "None of us know God's plan." Service was about to start, so he plucked a pamphlet from a shelf titled "Do you know for certain that you have ETERNAL LIFE?" handing it to me with a look on his face that seemed to say, "If I didn't get through to him, this will."


Storms and I continued our southward walk across Texas. We slept in church parsonages, on church lawns, and when we couldn't find any churches, we knocked on doors asking for advice about where to camp, hoping that a homeowner would offer his or her lawn.

The weather had turned moist and sticky. The pine forest turned into a viny jungle, full of chirping birdsong and the choral hum of insect kingdoms. Salamanders kept warm atop guardrails and the grassy roadsides were strewn with the carcasses of wild pigs, rat-tailed opossums, and the brittle shells of armadillos. Turkey vultures, in great flocks, hovered over the road, seeking their next mangled feast.

We knocked on the door of a small home and asked a guy named Barney if there was a church nearby. Before we could explain who we were, what we were doing, and where we were going, he offered his guest house to us.

Barney was a guitarist in a gospel band who had some rather progressive views on immigration, perhaps because he'd raised two Mexican-born boys who were taken away from him when they were in their 40's. But that was the end of his progressivism. After he'd invited us into his home for milk and chocolate cake, he went on an unprovoked rant about how the United States was becoming the Soviet Union, calling Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein "road whores," and how it was only a matter of time before we'd, like all other countries with strong gun control laws, become a dictatorial state. Having had such conversations with old cranky white guys 100 times on this trip already, I made an excuse to leave, abandoning poor Storms and leaving him alone with Barney.

Barney would tell us later that he was in support of the pipeline. "Anything that can give a man a job is good to me," he said.

Jobs, Jobs, JOBS!

This is all I hear wherever I go. Everything that creates jobs must be good!

First of all, few realize the pipeline won't create that many jobs. As I've reported before, according to an independent study by Cornell University, there will probably be less than 4,000 jobs created, and almost all of those jobs will be temporary. The State Department estimates that there will be as few as 20 permanent jobs!

Apart from aiding and abetting the destruction of the earth and its climate, the requirements of working on the pipeline and in the oil fields bring into question just how "good" these jobs really are. While the pipeliners are reputedly paid well, they have to live in motels or trailer parks for months on end, far from their families. And from what I saw, Fort McMurray, Alberta -- where the oilmen of the Tar Sands live -- is no Norman Rockwell painting. There, men aren't walking to work in hard hats each morning carrying lunch boxes and coming home to hugs and kisses from their children each night. Most all of the workers in Fort McMurray have left their families, and between the long hours, the morally-ambiguous nature of their job, and the utter absence of spirituality and civic engagement in their lives, many turn to alcohol, drugs, gambling, and prostitution. And it's obvious that many of them aren't putting their hard-earned dollars in cookie jars for rainy days, but toward the abovementioned fleeting enjoyments, or in brand new fuel-inefficient trucks set atop obscenely giant wheels.

I've begun to think that man will not morally object to any job -- whether the job requires that he kill puppies, make land mines, or poison his neighbor's water -- if it means he'll get a paycheck to feed and shelter his family. And I say this half-demoralized and half-full of pride. The North American conscience seems designed to very admirably care for self and family, but rare is he whose conscience is piqued by the sufferings of dwindling species, of a warming planet, and of the fate of generations to come. Unburdened by such abstract thoughts, we wish for little more than a fridge full of food, a big truck, and a warm home, and we think it nonsensical -- if we think of it at all -- to worry about a future we can never really predict, and certainly will never see. And while this seems all very shortsighted, it is not without sense.


But I never say anything like this to Barney or any of them. They're all older than me, and because they're old and I'm young, they assume they know more. And because I talk little, they think I know little, but because they talk much, I know they don't know much. Each speaks to me as if they are doing me some great service, as if they are imparting sagely wisdom from ancient texts. But more often than not, I see that they are propagandized, only regurgitating rumors they heard at the local cafe or half-remembered falsehoods they saw on the TV. They talk in absolutes, speak expertly on every issue, and rarely if ever will you hear one say, "Well, I guess I don't know much about that." They aren't free-thinking men, but stone tablets onto which dogma has etched its wicked creed.

When I started this trip, I wondered if I, perhaps, had been living too much in a bubble. Perhaps I'd been reading to many New York Times articles, perhaps I'd put too much faith in peer-reviewed science, and perhaps -- surrounded by open-minded, well-educated, progressives -- I might somehow be missing out on the bigger picture. Perhaps if I went out to The Heartland, I'd tap into the wisdom of the prairie and the farmers who work it. Maybe they knew the land and skies and environment in ways we suburbanites and city-dwellers don't. Maybe, I'd find, that they had good reason to deny manmade climate change.

But not one person has said anything even halfway intelligible when denying global warming. None have read books or articles on the issue, and they can't even begin to understand how peer-reviewed science works. They fashion themselves as forward-thinking skeptics; they see themselves as too free-willed and too independent of spirit to be duped into accepting something that someone else says to be true, regardless if that "someone else" is an accomplished and well-trained scientist part of an astonishing 97 percent consensus that has conclusively linked greenhouse gas emissions to climate change. But these skeptics are only selectively skeptical. They think themselves enlightened for resisting all this new proof and for remaining steadfast in not believing or trusting in anything someone else says. But it is a false enlightenment to only accept ideas that align with one's worldview while rejecting those that don't.

I'd found myself, on this trip, reading a number of Civil War biographies. I read Horwitz's Midnight Rising, about John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry; Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, about Lincoln and his cabinet; and Jean Edward Smith's biography on Ulysses S. Grant. It didn't occur to me until recently that I might have been drawn to the history of the Civil War because of its similarities with our current climate change crisis.

Like the pre-Civil War era, we have one half of the country who's supportive of a cruel and unjust institution -- or, in our case, a clearly destructive and unsustainable way of life -- and the other half (though abolitionists weren't quite "half" the country) who find something morally reprehensible in our fossil fuel free-for-alls and their larger environmental implications. And just as we, today, view the supporters of slavery as backwards, simple-minded -- even quaint -- future generations may look upon these deniers with a mix of disbelief, scorn, and amusement. But perhaps it's not so simple. Most deniers are old, and as one forward-thinking pastor explained to me, people just have a hard time believing something they haven't experienced in their lives. Lincoln, in one of those moments of great magnanimity that he was known for, said,

[The Southerners] are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up... I surely will not blame them for not doing what I should not know how to do myself.

Having lived in a world run on coal, gas, and oil that, up until recently, has caused little perceivable damage, perhaps we should sympathize with the deniers to some degree. As a young person who is unsettled in life, it's easy for me to accept the idea of "change"--even bold change. But for them, their whole lives are built around the consumption of fossil fuels, and, in a way, it seems almost natural to resist change and insist that climate change is untrue and our use of fossil fuels, harmless. If I was in their shoes, perhaps I'd act similarly.


Storms and I made it to the town of Wells. He was planning on heading back home to his wife and kid in Austin the next day, so he was eager to talk with more landowners who had something to say about the XL, since he was thinking about writing an article about the pipe and our hike. Reverend David at the Methodist Church, who very kindly let us spend the night at his home, told us he knew a guy (fake name "Bobby") who had a lot to say on the XL, and that this guy had special knowledge of protestors being paid.

Bobby was a bulky guy, gray haired, probably in his early 50's, who was wearing a camo jacket and blue jeans. Reverend David introduced me as a writer gathering stories on the pipeline, who's sort of against it. Bobby, looking at my beard and slightly ragged clothing, saw in me the very protestors who staged demonstrations near his land. Storms asked about how he knew they were paid. Bobby said he asked the protestors how they paid for their food and housing, and because they couldn't offer any clear answers, he automatically presumed they were "paid protestors" who some nebulous environmental network hires to send to the environmental catastrophe du jour. Unsurprisingly, that was the extent of Bobby's "evidence," and he didn't seem capable of distinguishing being supported as a protestor and being paid as one.

"Now let me ask you this!" he exclaimed, scowling, pointing his finger at my face. "Do you know how much a gallon of gasoline costs in Saudi Arabia?"

"No," I said.

"You don't!" he hurrumphed. "That's interesting."

"Do you know what a liter is?" he asked.

Never before had someone spoken to me so condescendingly. I was tired of avoiding conflict, avoiding the topic of climate change, avoiding telling the truth to these fools. My only thought: Bring it on, bitch! I'm taking this conversation all the way to climate change.

"Yeah, I know what a liter is," I said.

"Well a liter of gasoline in Saudi Arabia costs 16 cents."

"Yeah, but we don't get this oil," I said. "Or at least we don't get all of it. Valero, the refining company, which gets 20 percent of the Keystone XL oil, has stated that they're going to export it to nations overseas."

"Valero is one of the few refiners in the country," he said, "that gets its oil from America and sells its oil to Americans."

"Well, I can't tell you the history of Valero, but I can tell you they aren't selling that oil to America. The pipe won't do anything to lower gas prices."

Reverend David, seeing that things were heating up, interrupted to say that we had to head back to his house because dinner was ready. Storms, who also seemed to want to avoid conflict, tried to steer the conversation down a more peaceful path.

But Bobby jumped in, pointing at my face again. "What do these protestors care about whether this pipe goes through this or that person's land?!"

"Well, for them, it's not a local issue. It's a global one."

I was about to bring up global warming, which I knew would have enraged Bobby, but Reverend David got up and began to nudge us out of Bobby's house.

The next day, as we began our walk south again, I thought about all the things I could have said to Bobby, and how much more persuasive I could have been. I supposed it didn't matter, though: Bobby wasn't going to change his mind no matter how much evidence was put under his nose, as he'll never be convinced of something he doesn't wish to believe. The battle over climate change, I thought, like the battle over civil rights, will not be won by out-facting or out-moraling the other side, but by passing the torch of reason down to the generations to come, who will replace and laugh at us all.

Pastor Shane and family in the town of Providence fed me supper and let me set up my tent behind their church.
View from Rainbow Baptist Church in Rye, TX.