top of page
  • Ken Ilgunas

Day 31: Val Marie, a day's walk from the U.S. border

I spent three and a half days in Shaunavon, SK, recuperating from a devastating shin splint injury. I hung out in coffee shops, the library, and, when the library closed, the local bar for the Wi-Fi and a Molson. Mostly, I spent my recuperation reading electronic books in my iPad. Over the course of this trip, I’ve spent 2-3 hours a night reading.

I’ve read a variety of climate change and energy policy books, including David Owen’s The Conundrum (about how making things more energy efficiency actually does little to reduce CO2 emissions, as it only encourages more consumption), Richard Hanson’s Storms of my Grandchildren (about the failed politics of curbing global warming), and Andrew Nikiforuk’s Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent (about the Wild-West, capitalism-run-amok energy extravaganza taking place up north). I’ve also read two history books/biographies about famed heretics: Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life by Jon Lee Anderson (superb!) and Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz about John Brown’s unbelievable attack on Harpers Ferry (also superb). I’m about to dig into Doris Kearn Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, Edmond Morris’s Colonel Roosevelt, Bill McKibben’s Eearth, and Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo.

I get most of my enjoyment, though, from reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which I read for the first time ten years ago. After a day spent walking on feet blistered and rubbed raw, I have little energy to suffer through disillusioning books on energy politics. Rather, I savor walking through fictional lands on a journey far more hazardous than my own. I look forward to reading Tolkien’s simple, elegant prose as much as I do devouring a warm meal after hours of toil.

Before I left Shaunavon, I turned off the iPad, slipped in my Dr. Scholl’s gelled insoles, popped my first of three ibuprofens, and tightly wrapped an ACE bandage around my lower leg. Amazingly, for the first time in close to a week, I could walk in relative comfort. Relief! Hope! Ecstasy! This is what I felt as I walked in brisk weather and through the dim streets of Shaunavon. Before, if I crossed my legs while sitting, removing my injured leg from the other was a painful undertaking. Yet here I am now, walking southeast underneath a 30 pound pack, and I feel, well, okay.

My goal was Val Marie, SK, just north of the U.S. border, where I’d pick up another five days worth of food Josh had mailed to the local post office. It was a two-day journey that I decided to stretch out to three days.

I took across over pasture, rangeland, prairie. I came across three horses and lavished them with attention, rubbing my hand up and down their head, brushing my knuckles against their soft snout. I didn’t realize until then just how much I’d craved touching another sentient creature. When I come across coyotes now, I feel remorse when they sprint from me in terror. “Come back!” I think. “Oh, how nice it would be to have a companion, on two legs or four!”

I set up my tent in glorious terrain: amber hills of rolling prairie, home to lolling cows and cackling coyotes and leaping antelope.

The next day, now short of water yet again, I continued on. I’d gone the whole morning without coming remotely close to a household, but on my map I saw a few buildings and hoped someone lived there. I approached one such house in the afternoon. I saw a woman hauling a giant bucket of water. I worried I might startle her, approaching her and her home where no one else thinks to walk, but she reacted nonchalantly, as if bedraggled strangers were as common as cows moaning from the field. She told me I could camp on her land, and her husband, Ron, offered to bring me home a plate of warm food, as he and his wife were going to a Fall Festival dinner in the village of Climax. At night, they invited me in and I ate a meal of corn, turkey, potatoes, stuffing, and a slice of cherry cream cheese pie.

Ron told me about how he’d been a farmer all his life, as had his son. He was in his late 70’s and had had multiple types of cancer. When he complained about pains to his doctor, the doctor said, “You’re getting old. I can’t give you a pill to make you younger.” Ron realized, then, that he was on his own, and that he could no longer count on socialized medicine. “When you get old, they’re not as willing to spend lots of money on you,” he said, smiling. He took a flight to Tijuana, Mexico, where he received some unorthodox medical treatment. Amazingly, he recovered, and has been healthy ever since. I asked him if he still supported socialized medicine despite not getting the care he needed in his older years. “You bet you,” he said. “Absolutely.” Despite almost dying, he believed that the system was good for the many, even if it hurt the few.

I continued on, over more prairie. I came across a herd of cows, and feeling an odd sense of composure, I walked right through the middle of their ranks, dividing the anxious herd like Moses parting the Red Sea.

My shins were sore, but I was able to maintain a steady stride, but new fresh gashes spread across my heels and a blister emerged on my recently broken pinkie toe. I staggered into Val Marie in the late afternoon. The roads were gravel and some of the signs, put up the Knights of Columbus promoting pro-life initiatives, were peeling. I stopped in the town’s hotel/restaurant to buy some juice and check my email. When I went to leave in the evening to find a campsite, the owner stopped me and offered me a room. “I’m afraid that’s not in my budget,” I said to her. “It’s on me,” she said.

I went up to my room, washed my ankles, massaged my shin, and turned on my iPad to read The Lord of the Rings. I’m at the point where Frodo and Sam are on their own, and Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are walking through Rohan. As of now, the fellowship has survived because of the generous nature of strangers: Tom Bombadil, Strider, Barliman Butterbur, Elrond, Lady Galadriel…

Sometimes the generosity of strangers moves me to the point of tears. How proud I am to be a part of this flawed but noble race. Traveling alone, to me, is not to be on a daring solo adventure. To travel alone is to force yourself to depend on others. It is to fall in love with mankind.


The tough life of a convalescent. Pouring over maps and drinking beer.

I spent three nights at a campground that had closed down for the year. On the weekend, teenagers would wander past my tent and say stupid things. I spent one night in a local motel.

Prairie south of Shaunavon.

Frenchman River. It was shallow, but I don’t think I’ve ever walked in water so cold.

Drying out my clothes after the river crossing.

Ron from the Cassel Ranch, north of Bracken. Here I got food, water, a good campsite and fine conversation.

Val Marie, Saskatchewan.

Fresh wounds! When will they stop? I’ve asked my friend Josh to mail me a new pair of hiking boots, as I’m ready to blame my troubles on my footwear, and not my sensitive feet.

Val Marie Hotel room.

Recent Posts

See All

A letter to a church in Atkinson, Nebraska

Dear Faith Wesleyan Church, Today is the 65th day of my journey. I am walking cross-country from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas. For the first part of my trip, when I’d have to camp in a t


bottom of page