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  • Ken Ilgunas

Day 17: Oyen, Alberta

As I sat on a toilet seat in the boys restroom at a public school in Consort, Alberta, I thought for the first time that I might fail to accomplish my goal. My feet were a mess. I looked at them and ran my fingers over crusted red scars rubbed raw across my toe knuckles and the tops of my feet. Underneath most of my toes I had blisters. It was excruciating to walk.

I went to the local pharmacist and he, an old man who sounded like he knew what he was talking about, explained that it wasn’t chaffing exactly, but a fungus, perhaps athlete’s foot. He recommended two creams and a sort of deodorant stick to roll atop the blisters that would reduce more chaffing. I dropped $30, and probably would have given him every dollar I had for some relief, and hope.

The principal of the school, meanwhile, asked me to give a short presentation to all the twelfth graders (about 8 students), and the local newspaper, the Consort Enterprise, interviewed and took pictures of me.

My fifteen minutes of fame already over with, I took off down the road around 4 pm, only to stop to camp at the nearest cluster of trees, maybe 2 miles down the road, because my feet couldn’t handle any more. In my tent I cleaned my wounds religiously and generously applied the creams, hoping that a long night’s rest would hasten my recovery.

The next morning, my feet still hurt, as if they’d been sunburned, but they were clearly in better shape than the day before. I walked along Highway 41 toward the town of Monitor, where I found–finally!–the actual route of the Keystone XL Pipeline. The XL will run alongside the Keystone Pipeline, which was built in 2009. It was a welcome sight, and–between the discovery of the pipeline and my recovering feet–I felt like the odds were turning in my favor.

There are many many oil and gas pipelines in the area, but for some reason, the Keystone is one of very few depicted on the maps I printed, which will make navigation through Canada so much easier. The Keystone pipeline runs underground and there is no visible sign of a pipeline beneath the ground, however at every road crossing their are markers (like the one below) indicating its path.

I walked the pipeline over barren prairie, occasionally coming upon an abandoned home or ramshackle farming equipment, slowly sinking into the ground. I approached one such home, and yelled “hello!” hoping to find someone to ask for water. A dog sprinted from the porch into the weeds and I heard no call back, only disquieting silence. With the overcast clouds, the prairie suddenly took on an eerie, haunted quality. I felt like a mysterious character in a Bronte novel traveling over the health, swarthy and perhaps misunderstood, assigned some calamitous, tragic fate. For most of the day, I could see no roads, homes, or even planes in the sky, only the distant powerline stretching to seemingly nowhere.

Desperate for water, I hiked to a road, and walked to a small farm. A man on an ATV rolled up to me and asked me what I was doing.

“I’m on a long walk,” I said. “I’m headed to Texas.”

“That does sound like a long walk,” he said. “Any reason why Texas?”

“Well, I’m following the proposed Keystone XL route,” I said looking behind him to see that the original Keystone pipe ran through his land.

“That pipeline is the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said.

Before the oil company built the pipeline, he and several other farmers got together and got the company to up their compensation by 30 times their original offer. “It’s a big boost to the local economy,” he said.

He invited me over for supper. While his wife cooked up hamburgers, he explained more about the pipeline and how they plan on building the XL this coming summer. I asked him what flag was up on his pole, a mostly red one with a British symbol in an upper corner, and he told me it was the Canadian flag used in WWII. “Then the liberals came into power in the 60’s and changed it to what it is today,” he said, adding, “Around here we shoot liberals.”

I wasn’t worried about being shot though, as his kindness and generous nature were readily obvious. We talked for several hours about his daughters, who’d all moved to Saskatchewan, his love for flying, and the pros and cons of organic farming. “Ninety-nine percent of farmers want to be good stewards of the land,” he said. “We care about the bees and bugs, and we don’t like to see them go. But we have to make a living, too.” And to make a living, he had to, like many of the local farmers, spray his fields and hurt the land.

He offered me his RV for the night. Their dog, Lou, a big golden retriever, was out harrassing the prowling coyotes. I began to feel slightly ill, so I went into his trees to use the bathroom. I squatted and Lou eagerly scarfed up what I pushed out.

The next morning, I continued south along 41, not on top of the pipeline path exactly, as I wanted to keep my feet dry as they continue to recover. Now, I’ve reached the town of Oyen, after two successful 20+ mile days.

While my feet are healing nicely, I begin to feel an illness overtake me, from what cause I’m not sure. The back of my throat is sore, I have a hoarse cough, and pints of green mucus gush from my nose every hour. In an A&W bathroom, I blew my nose into a sink and blood oozed out.

But ill or not, I’m happy to be walking on good feet and in a clear direction, south and then southeast, to Saskatchewan.

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