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  • Ken Ilgunas

Day 26: Down and out in Shaunavon, Saskatchewan

I write this from the Stardust Motel in Shaunavon, Saskatchewan–a medium sized prairie town 75 miles from the Montana border.

I took a shower and washed all my clothes, which are now draped over the shower rod and dripping water onto the bathroom tiles. “Gilmore Girls” is on the TV, and I can faintly here the deep voice of a man in a long conversation in the adjacent room. I am in bed, naked except for my spare pair of underwear.

Although I embrace the comforts that the Stardust provides–the warmth for my fingers to finally stitch together my torn clothing, a sink to wash my pot, and a fridge to keep my dinner of mozzarella cheese and pepperoni cool–I lay here in bed in a state of self-pity.

After I picked up my food package in Richmound, SK, I continued south at a furious pace. I was determined to get through Saskatchewan, Montana, and South Dakota as quickly as I could, leaping over latitudinal hurdles with vigor and determination so that, when winter finally hits, I’ll be hiking in the relatively warmer climes of Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.

I’d been moving fast, with several 20+ mile days under my belt. The chafing on my toes had mostly healed, and while there was one lingering blister, my feet were no longer the insurmountable problem they once were. I did, though, begin to develop new chafing, this time around my heels, which was uncomfortable, but the variety of anti-fungal creams I generously spread over them seemed to quickly bring a halt to the fungus’s expansion.

Mostly I navigated by map and compass. I am following a preexisting underground gas pipeline, next to where the Keystone XL will be. The path is sometimes hard to follow because the pipe is underground and there are markers indicating the pipe’s presence when it crosses roads or power-lines. So, to find my way, I use my compass over the barren prairie, heading almost perfectly SE. When I reach the next road, I find that I’ve navigated well, as I’m not too far off based on where the power-line or roadside indicators are.

For these last few days, though, I’ve had a nice, clear, straight path. Another pipeline (this is pipeline country, remember) called the Vantage Pipeline, which will transport ethane from North Dakota to Alberta, is currently being constructed. So, for several days, I had a dirt path to walk along, allowing me to stuff my compass in my pocket and focus on putting one foot in front of the other.

My only major anxiety, at this point, had been the cows. My terrain roughly consists of: 1/2 fields for hay, soybean, or wild grass, and 1/2 cow pasture. The cow pastures are often miles wide and long, so it’s been pretty easy to stay away from cattle that are clustered across the land in groups typically. But there have been several instances where I had little option but to walk right through crowds of cattle. For the most part, the cows are merely curious, or curious and scared, inspecting me from a safe distance. But there are other times when they are too curious, and will come right up to me. Unsure of their intentions (because I am altogether unfamiliar with cows), I’ve retrived my bear spray on a number of occassions when the cows have gotten too close for comfort. Two days ago, I had to find a way through a forest filled with black cows. I studied every noise nervously, thinking of them less as the docile bovine creature we imagine, and more like velociraptors, beasts hunting me from my blind spots.

Normally I zip through cow pasture with a brisk gait; speed and stealth and concealment has been the name of the game so far. But then I felt a tightness in my left shin, that, over the next few hours, would become unbearable pain. Each step felt like I was carrying a cannonball in my flesh. It felt like my bone was breaking off and would soon slice through my skin.

I was far from town, so I set up my tent in cow country, which I would normally never do, but I simply didn’t have the strength to find a better campsite. That night, I took my first pill in perhaps 6-7 years that night (not including a Duke paid research drug experiment a couple of years back). It was an ibuprofen, taken to reduce inflammation and help me manage the pain.

The next day, my shin was far worse, and I limped for the whole day. Sometimes, when I got going, I could continue my sluggish pace for a while. But once I stopped, it was a struggle just to get back on my feet. My goal, at this point, was to get to Shaunavon, SK, the nearest town, where I might find help and a place to rest.

Yesterday, I staggered into town, dirty, limping, smelly. I was only able to do half the mileage I’d been doing, and with far greater discomfort.

I camped out in the town’s RV lot, which is closed down for the year, but no one stopped me from setting up my tent. The next morning–today–I went to the pharmacist’s where I bought shoe soles to help absorb the shock of my footfalls, as well as a bottle of ibuprofen, which I’ll have to take fairly regularly. Now, I can hardly walk to the bathroom, let alone across a farmer’s field with haste and a 30 pound backpack.

The cause of my injury is obvious: I’ve tried to hike too hard too fast. Before this trip, I thought that I might have a rare gift for hiking long miles, which I’ve been able to do on many week-long trips on hiking trails and in the Alaskan backcountry. But those were all week-long trips, and my body and mind, on this trip, have been unprepared for this longer, more demanding hike. I’d never had to deal with blisters or chafing before, but only because, after the seventh day, I got to lay around in bed on the eighth and ninth and tenth days.

My shin splints, also, have resulted from walking many miles on pavement, and because I’ve yet to take a full day off after 15 days of hiking. Hubris, pride, poor preparation, a chronic sense of urgency: these are the vices I must quickly conquer if I wish to get to Texas.

Even though I’ve been walking along the flat and rolling prairie, it seems I’ve come upon a dangerous precipice, which I can see just ahead. It’s a great cliff that descends into a bottomless abyss. I’ve found the edge of my physical limits. And I don’t like the view one bit.


Mysterious prairie holes, supposedly home to foxes, but I’m skeptical. They’re all over the place, and a major hazard for ankles.

My first food package on the hiking portion of my trip. Richmound, SK.

Richmound, SK

This cat followed me for a quarter-mile.

Can you espy the coyote?

More chafing/fungus problems.

Pipeline path for the Vantage pipeline dug out.

Lots of pipes…

I try to hide in trees when I camp at night, but these three were the only trees I could find that evening. Sometimes, looking across the land, I won’t see even one tree.

Marshland I had to walk around. The trees on the left were infested with black cows.

Camping in cow country. I’ve become very observant of cow habits, and while I knew I was in cow country, I could tell from the degradation of the manure, that no cows had been here in a long time. There was however a beaver which flopped its tail twice that night.

There’s fucking snow already

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