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  • Ken Ilgunas

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.


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