“Don’t you think it’s a little late in the year to be traveling?” asked the cashier at a Reynolds Supermarket in Glasgow, Montana. Sliding a box of Pop Tarts and a stack of jumbo-sized candy bars over the scanner, the cashier, an old woman, who, I sensed, was the type who normally radiated a grandmotherly warmth, asked her question with a steely coldness. This was not the innocent query of a stranger, but a stern admonishment of a mother, one who keenly and quickly gathered the foolishness of my enterprise, as if I was a member of her brood.
I felt embarrassed and guilty, and tried to reassure her–but was really trying to reassure myself–that I wouldn’t have to deal with the Montana cold since I was heading south to warmer climes, far from the icy clutches of winter. She shook her head and warned me to at least stay away from the town of Wolf Point. “If anyone there as much as walks toward you, get away,” she said.
Luckily my route doesn’t take me through Wolf Point, but it’s obvious that this is no longer an autumn expedition. My gait has been so slowed, and my days, so shortened–by injury and poor preparation–that I am now walking in 50 mph winds, sleeping in temperatures in the teens (F), and traveling under a sky that has seen fit to acquaint me with hail, freezing rain, and a few gentle–though unsettling–snowflakes. The cold is no longer at my heels. It’s here. I am now on, it seems, a winter excursion.
I was a day’s walk from the U.S.-Canada border in Val Marie, Saskatchewan. Before I picked up my package of food and began south, a few reporters from CBC’s “The National” stopped by to talk with me. (They were following the XL pipeline and talking with landowners, like I was, except from their vehicle.) The interview was thoroughly enjoyable, largely because my mind, until that point, had not been deeply probed, as many of the strangers I’ve met have not thought it appropriate to ask anything other the same few polite, and basic, questions.
At one point in the interview, I was stumped by a question. I felt I had a response deep in the recesses of my mind, but as I had yet to turn my feelings into thoughts and my thoughts into words, I stumbled. I’d been explaining why this hike couldn’t be an anti-oil protest, since all my gear, clothes, and food either had petroleum in the creation of the product, the shipment of the product, or was in the product itself. The reporter asked, “Do you think that’s why they’re building this pipeline?” In other words, “Do you think we need oil?” I forgot what I said exactly, but I mumbled and bumbled and wish I had said, “No, I don’t think we need this pipeline. We don’t need to expand the Tar Sands or transport billions of barrels of oil each day from Canada to the U.S. and then overseas. And I don’t need that fancy backpack, or these trekking poles–all made or shipped with petroleum. I don’t even need this trip. North Americans have a funny understanding of the word ‘need.’ We need more oil like a heroin addict needs another hit. We use twice as much energy per capita than Europe. The Tar Sands, themselves, emit more CO2 in the atmosphere than many countries. We need, rather, different consumptive habits, less cancerous sprawl, a whole new relationship with the world, a new religion. We need to quit destroying everything out of a sense of need, when all we really need is a fucking sweater.”
After the interview, I continued south. At night, I tried to set up my tent in the open prairie, but it was too windy, and I couldn’t get my tent up. I went back to the road I’d been walking along and set it up in a ditch because it was the only place that offered protection from the wind. But in the middle of the night, around 2 a.m., the wind shifted direction, whipping the tent back and forth, until it pulled out one of my stakes, rocketing it off into a field, where I’d never find it. The tent collapsed on me, and the wind caused one of my trekking poles, which served as a ballast for one side of the tent, to beat against my chest. If a passerby had come by at this awful hour, he’d have cause to wonder if there were two inhabitants making violent love inside. But I was alone, frantically trying to stop the pole from beating me, searching for the tent zipper, and undergoing my first foray into claustrophobia. Though windy, the night was strangely mild, so, after escaping the tent I walked along the gravel road, unearthing large rocks to hold the tent down.
In the morning, the wind had picked up. At times, I felt as if I could fall forward, and the wind would push me upright. The tumbleweeds did not tumble across the prairie; they hovered across until crashing into a barb wire fence where they all crowded together, desperately clinging to the wire. The prairie grass in such ferocious winds, I thought at first, looked like the rippling waves of an ocean storm. But, on second thought, it was more like fire, lifting and falling, lifting and falling, dancing and licking and lifting and falling.
I took a wide detour off my path to the Port of Monchy, where I’d cross the border legally and fill up my water bottles. In Montana the wind was just as bad, oftentimes knocking me off balance, almost to the point where I was close to falling. I knew I couldn’t set up my tent in this wind, so I searched for a buffer of some sort, and found one in a rustic Waldenesque shack that I would have slept in, if it weren’t for the floorboards that were either missing or too brittle to support my weight. Normally, I’d only camp in concealed hard-to-spot places, but in these moments when the elements were particularly challenging, I no longer harbored the slightest worry about getting caught trespassing; the only thing on my mind was my survival.
I continued on over cow pasture, and prairie, and hay field, and country road, slept next to a church in the town of Whitewater, was followed by two snarling curs near a farmer’s home, and sought, usually once a day, some home where I might fill up my water bottles. Incredibly, all my foot problems vanished, likely because they’ve toughened, and because I’ve taken pains to keep them dry and my socks clean. The shin splints, though, have improved only moderately. Usually I will start the day with a hardly perceptible soreness. But then I will awkwardly step on a rock, or fall into a gopher hole, or get it tangled in the brush, and I will fall to the ground in agony. The steady hum of soreness, over the course of the day, grows louder and louder, and by dusk, I’m walking with a noticeable limp.
It’s disheartening when every piece of me–mind and body–wishes to go on and walk till night, but can’t, simply because one small part of me isn’t working properly. As imperfect as the human body is, I find that I’m mesmerized with it, mesmerized in spite of my frustration. I think of my body, it seems, as if it is a shell or a vehicle that carries me; that’s hardly a part of me; that’s separate. When I curse my shin or foot, I might as well be cursing a blown tire or a dead battery in a car. Yet I’m mesmerized because of all that the body does without any sort of guidance or thought or consciousness. At night, while I read or sleep, my body is busy doing a million things, digesting my food, sealing up the cold sore on my lip, clearing the chafing on my heels, reducing the inflammation in my shin, coddling the dark bruises on my hips. Yet this body, for all its complexity, sophistication, and evolutionary magnificence–the arrangement of blood, bone, and muscle–is nothing but 175 pounds of machinery that exists just so I may carry, in my head, a few weightless dreams and ideas that magically make this hulking heap of matter, a person.
I’d expected to be in Glasgow, MT in four days, but it took me a disconcerting seven. Tomorrow I hobble on toward Nashua, where I have my next food drop, then to Baker, Montana, where Josh has mailed me another package of food, winter clothes, and a sturdy four-season tent.