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  • Ken Ilgunas

Day 112: Cushing, Oklahoma

I am terrified of Oklahoma. Nearly every moment of the nine days I’ve walked in Oklahoma have been spent in a state of fear. This is mostly because of the dogs. Every day a dog has run after me. Most of them turn out to be sweethearts, but many are quite evil. They are often aggressive breeds (Rotweiller, pit bull, German shepherd) that have been ill-treated all their lives. A dangerous combination. I crossed the Kansas-Oklahoma border and hiked south down the wide, grassy shoulder of Highway-77. I walked past several Native American casinos, small, derelict hovels (as well as a few quaint country homes), and over grass covered with an appalling amount of litter (flattened cans of Bud Light and Keystone, empty bottles of malt liquor, a tattered white McDonalds bag, a needle, a snowstorm of crushed styrofoam). Because nearly every home comes with a dog, I grow nervous every time I approach a home. With the hope of walking past each home unnoticed, I take several precautions: I move to the other side of the road, I stop whistling/ singing/ talking to myself, and I place my feet on asphalt (rather than over crispy leaves), and cease using my trekking poles so as to make as little noise as possible. There’s no way anyone’s living in there, I thought, as I passed what looked like a junkyard of RVs cluttered around a doublewide with a sagging roof. Just in case somebody was (and just in case there were dogs), I moved to the other side of the highway. Sure enough, a three-legged mongrel that had caught my scent came hobbling out of the scrapheap, barking at me, hungry for a pair of ankles. I’d escaped the mongrel, but now two pit bulls, from this side of the road, came running at me. I quickly scanned for traffic and scampered across the busy 77, which the pit bulls — quite prudently — decided not to cross. I was headed to the “Pipeline Crossroads of the World”: Cushing, Oklahoma. Cushing is the southern terminus of the 2010 Keystone Pipeline, and — if the Keystone XL is approved — oil will be piped from Cushing to Gulf Coast refineries in Texas. I’d been paralleling the pipeline on roads for over the past 200 miles or so, only occasionally walking the pipe’s actual path. Because the pipeline, for these last several hundred miles, had been heading straight north-to-south, it made sense to follow the nearest road, which also heads north-to-south. But in Oklahoma, the pipeline takes a southeast turn, so I would have to begin jumping fences and walking over cow pasture again. The romantic part of me looked forward to new adventures and glorious sights over rarely-walked lands: Oklahoma sunsets, rolling green fields, forests of slender pines. But the scaredy-cat in me resented having to walk once again through terrifying cow herds and keeping an eye out for zealous landowners. Oklahoma is oil country, and I hadn’t seen so many pipeline markers since Alberta. Because pipes, here, are as much a part of the landscape as the soil and forest and creeks, and because climate change, to most folks in the area, is a vast left-wing conspiracy, my journey, to most of them, seems silly and pointless. (“So, are you a bum?” asked a police officer in Stroud after I’d explained what I was doing.) And pointless it may be. All day, on these roads, semis zoom past me, each hauling three giant 36-inch-diameter Keystone XL pipes to be buried in Oklahoma and Texas soil. (The southern portion of Keystone XL — from Cushing to Port Arthur — has received presidential support and is currently being laid.) It was demoralizing having to watch all these trucks, all these pipes, and all this giant equipment being transported for the XL. It made me feel so small and powerless and hopeless that I felt compelled to just helplessly flop to the ground, where the earth, for all I cared, could swallow me whole.

Half the XL is already being put into the ground. Why bother fighting something that’s pretty much inevitable? I am looked at suspiciously wherever I go. Waves to drivers go unreturned. In the towns I go through, I am not given a patch of grass to set up my tent, but am advised to leave town and set up camp outside city limits. But I find that there are always folks who beam brightly in dark days: golden pales of humanity that break through the gloomy pall of paranoia. In Ponca City, where I was still walking roads, a man in a big hat yelled at me from his red car as I crossed an intersection. His name was Hoppy and he offered to buy me a sandwich. I ordered a Big Mac and fries at the local McDonalds. Hoppy was a retired construction worker and a recovering alcoholic.

“Has alcohol been a problem you’ve had to deal with for a long time?” I asked. “Not since I quit,” Poppy said. He asked me why I was doing this and I explained to him that I wanted to learn about the XL, but also to live life adventurously. “Are you a Christian?” he asked. “No, I’m afraid not,” I said. “Well you have a light in you,” he said. “I can see it.” “I don’t know about that Hoppy,” I said. “But thanks.” “I can see it,” he said. In Morrison, I’d set up my tent in the dugout of a baseball field so I could have a little more protection from the rain. The next day — New Year’s Eve — the rain continued, so I decided to spend the day snacking at the local gas station, and the night, back in the dugout. An oilman named Dusty spotted me sitting in the gas station booth and asked if I’d like to spend New Year’s Eve with his family. Wayne, a former police officer in the town of Ripley, offered me a trailer for the night that he was renovating. On the road the next day, he pulled over and handed me a bottle of orange juice and some warm biscuits and gravy. I’d tried walking over field and pasture along the pipeline path — where the 2010 Keystone Pipeline was recently laid — but I quickly determined that it was too dangerous. It led me too close to people’s homes–so much that I felt I was constantly being watched. Oklahoma is nothing like Alberta, where one family takes care of 6,000 acres, and where I might see just a few homes over the course of the day. Here, the pipe took me past many small, impoverished homes. Dogs would hear my footsteps and howl. I could see their thick white bodies moving behind a stand of trees. I carried my bear spray, with the cap off, in the side pocket of my pants, prepared to douse any growling curs with a mouthful of cayenne. This was poor country. Lawns were covered with rusty swing sets, rickety trampolines, faded multi-color plastic tricycles. To the side of each home was a junkyard of useless vehicles. Dogs lived miserable lives on short chains. Garbage was everywhere. Paint peeled from siding. Roofs sagged.

I felt pity, but also a sense of disgust: pity for the miserable conditions in which they were brought up, but a disgust for the cultural poverty that was as much their choice as their affliction. It’s easy to blame the travails of the poor on whatever political party you most dislike — and they probably deserve part of the blame — but one can’t help but think critically of lifestlyes when hardships are largely self-inflicted. The garbage, the baffling obesity, the drug addictions, the alcoholism, the glowing television sets in living rooms, the obsession with huge fuel-inefficient pick-up trucks. It’s a culture absent of culture. Instead of customs and norms rising organically from the earth and evolving from generation to generation, this is culture created by the TV, passed down, not from grandparents, but satellites. (And I write this, not just from having momentarily walked past a few homes, but from having lived in similar terrain for several years in North Carolina.) Part of this, no doubt, has to do with growing up in an area where one doesn’t have many opportunities, and where social mobility is stunted. Yet I could see that this poverty also derived from an almost-flagrant isolationism, an extreme privateness, a self-expulsion from society. Nearly every home had a fence around it and a snarling cur under the porch. There were countless signs reading “Beware of Dog,” “Private Property,” and “No Trespassing.” I presumed that it was just as unlikley for a neighbor to knock on one of these front doors as it was for an outsider. How can there be any sense of “community” when neighbors can’t visit one another? How can we understand the world when we’re secluded and holed-up in mindlessly protected hovels? And just as their homes are closed off to the outside world, so are their minds. I tried speaking with one of them about climate change, and all he said was, “Well, did you get that information from the liberal or the Democrat scientists? I tell you, there’s no way I’m voting for someone who wants to make my gas more expensive.” It’s moments like these — when I’m confronted with the other half of the electorate — that I lose all hope for meaningful action on climate change. After a few close calls with dogs, I decided to stick with highways, which would add many miles to my trip, but I figured it would be better than walking in constant fear.

Because Cushing is one of the oil hubs of the world — with a vast grid of pipelines, smoldering refineries, and fields of tank farms — I expected the city to be an island of prosperity in a sea of poverty. But I quickly learned that it was anything but. Grass was taking over sidewalks. Brick buildings were crumbling. Families lived in aging trailers alongside packs of wild dogs, barbarously kept within tiny fenced enclosures. We’re told that pipelines bring wealth and jobs to communities along its path, yet here in Cushing — at the center of the oil universe — it’s hard to tell if you’re still in a first-world country. Polished muscle trucks. Soaring semis. Shattered beer bottles. Broken PVC pipe. Fat children. Demon dogs. I looked at all this and thought what life in Oklahoma might have been like 500 or 1,000 or 10,000 years before. Look at how far this “progress,” has gotten us, I thought. We grow nostalgic for the days when gasoline was cheaper and the unemployment rate lower, yet I wondered if we’re not using our imaginations enough; if we’re not looking back far enough. Perhaps we should be hankering for the days when bodies were beautiful and strong, when the air we breathed and water we drank was clean and when the food we ate was something other than a reconfiguration of high fructose corn syrup. When the frontiersman walked the woods and when the native horseman crashed through a creek. I walked through Cushing as quick as I could, and felt the terrible desire, for the first time on this journey, to reach the end.


Many Native American casinos in Oklahoma.

In Ponca City, Hoppy asked me if I wanted a lift. I told him I was walking, and he offered to buy me a burger at McDonalds.

Casino at gas station on Highway 77.

Rock barn, Highway 77.

In Morrison, OK, I was advised to sleep in a baseball dugout during a rain storm. It kept me mostly dry, but you can see the puddles leaked toward the bottom of my tent.

A young gentleman in Morrison who offered to haul my pack for a bit.

New Year’s Eve country dance in Morrison.

Dusty and his family took me in for the night on New Year’s Eve. I had a shower, washed my clothes, took three shots of whiskey, and had a lovely time with a very loving family.

I came across these Keystone XL 36-inch-diameter pipes on Highway 108. This is, I am told, the site where Obama spoke last year. He promised to build the southern extension of the XL (which doesn’t need State Department approval because it doesn’t cross a national border). The pipe is currently being laid into parts of Oklahoma and Texas despite resistance from activists and landowners.

Cushing, OK.

Cushing, OK

Cushing, OK

Cushing, OK

These three members of the Tar Sands Blockade spotted me walking through Cushing. They got out and we chatted for a bit.

The tank farms south of Cushing, OK. I took this photo from the east.

Lesson to aspiring hikers: Not all containers of apple juice laying alongside roads contain apple juice.

Keystone XL pipe-laying.

Keystone XL pipe-laying.

Camped in woods outside of Stroud, OK.

While hiking south down Highway-99, I see a big trailer like this one bearing three XL piples about every ten minutes.

Camping south of the town of Prague underneath powerlines. The police told me to camp outside city limits. At 6 a.m. a wild dog woke me up by barking in my ear. I felt protected by the thin canvas of my tent, but couldn’t fall back to sleep.

Keystone XL pipe-laying near Cromwell, OK.

Keystone XL pipe-laying near Cromwell, OK.


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