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  • Ken Ilgunas

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:

  1. Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman approved the re-route of the Keystone XL going through Nebraska. He objected to the route at first because the pipe would pass through the Ogallala aquifer. It still goes through a 90-mile section of the aquifer, so he’s essentially flip-flopped. Now, the decision is entirely up to President Obama, who will decide sometime after March.

  2. The Sierra Club, for the first time in the organization’s 120-year history, has decided to resort to civil disobedience to protest Tar Sands development at this February’s President’s Day rally in Washington D.C. in conjunction with the group (I’ll be attending, too.)

  3. John Kerry, who’s been outspoken about climate change, will have influence over the KXL decision if he’s confirmed as Secretary of State. President Obama, meanwhile, addressed climate change in his second inaugural address.

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.


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