• Ken Ilgunas

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?


***

“HELLO!”


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 woodywelchphotography.com.

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)

Before.


After.