• Ken Ilgunas

Day 46: Fallon, Montana



The landscape has changed. The prairie, which I’ve hiked and grown fond of these past many days, has gradually become grayer, rockier, older.


These hills–apparently known for its bounty of fossils and dinosaur bones–are rocky and old, dry and decaying. It’s a geological sideshow: giant slabs precipitously balanced by columns of dirt; the ground, as if it’s full of air, sinking an inch with each footfall; the rocks are soft, shattering when I try to use them to hammer my tent stakes. The rotting, flaky cliffs are like statues, worn and crumbling, reminders of a grander age. One feels that mighty things once happened here long ago, but now the land’s denizens–farmers and hunters and cows–seem like secondary citizens, portly tourists on a historic battlefield where Jurassic glories once shook the earth.


As I walked from Glasgow to Nashua (to pick up my food package), and then south along the pipeline path, the temperature chilled and the wind picked up, seeping through my clothing layers and biting my skin with frosty fangs. I put on my hat and gloves. Then my coat. Then my rain coat and pants. And finally, at night, my thermal underwear. In my tent, in all my clothes, in my five-degree-Fahrenheit-rated sleeping bag, I still couldn’t stop from shivering. This was troubling, of course, because I was wearing every article of clothing I had, and if it had been another 10 or 20 degrees colder, I would have suffered all the more. I managed to sleep well enough, but in the morning my stomach growled angrily for food. I devoured four Pop Tarts–determining to up my calories during these cold spells–packed up my stuff and continued on through Eastern Montana’s canyon country.


I was finally about to meet up with the pipeline. All through Montana I’d been miles from the path because I took a long detour so I could legally cross the U.S-Canada border. I was walking a dirt road to meet the pipeline path where I encountered a succession of trucks. In the first were two young men who gave me a Powerade and a bottle of water. They were surveying the creeks in the area for the Keystone XL. In the second was an older worker who told me I can’t trespass. When I politely told him I’d been doing just that for a month, he scoffed and drove off. The third wore a cowboy hat and had a long white beard, but no mustache, and he told me that he’d heard about me. Heard about me!? Either that CBC interview made its rounds or he was familiar with even the most obscure websites in blogdom. He told me to stick to roads around these parts because I might be confused as a hunter, or that cowboys would think I was out to steal a calf (as if I’d go anywhere near one of those demon-children).


Eventually I broke off the road he recommended because it was taking me out of my way, and headed in my standard southeast direction with the aid of my compass.


I reached a gravel road and, low on water, I stopped at a local ranch. I yelled “Hello!” and a young man came out of a barn, carrying a giant gun in a holster strapped around his waist. The gun was ridiculously long–compensatingly long–so long the barrel poked through a hole and dangled nakedly around his lower thigh.


“Sorry about the gun,” he said. “You never know when you’re going to need it.”


Presuming that the Sioux haven’t embarked on any raids lately, it was obvious that he’d just equipped himself with the gun for me. I asked him if I could have some water. He said, “No,” but proceeded to grab my bottles and began filling them up. I could tell he was nervous about me, so I tried to put him at ease by telling him about my trip and remarking about how beautiful the land was. I asked him where I might set up my tent, hoping he’d offer his land, but he pointed down the road and told me I could set my tent up wherever I wanted in that direction.


All throughout the night, I listened to snowflakes fall onto my thin tent roof, scraping down the sides. Here it is, I thought. Here’s winter. I was far from disillusioned, though. I’m reminded of George Orwell’s dilemma in Down and Out in Paris and London when Orwell worried constantly about the day he’d finally go broke. But once he went broke, he no longer had anything to worry about. Essentially, he told himself that he’d figure it out; he’d be okay. And now that I am confronted with what I had feared for so long, I find that my worries have all but vanished, too.


Between looming winter, my foot/shin problems, and a number of other amateurish mistakes, I’ve come to accept all setbacks with a goodhearted and, perhaps, half-deranged laughter. My latest blunder: According to my mileage chart, I was 96 miles away from my next food package in the town of Baker, Montana. Looking more closely at the map, however, I discovered that I was actually 170 miles from Baker. I will be out of food, with summer gear, in Montana, in November. Really, there’s nothing left to do but laugh.


Honestly, though, I’m having such a grand time that I have little problem with the prospect of an extended trip, especially now that my feet and shin ailments have been cured. I find that all of my senses are more sensitive, keener. I am constantly looking to horizons, seeking good paths. When stealth is required, my ears listen carefully for cows or trucks. Coming over a hill, I, for the first time in my life, smelled an animal before I heard or saw it: a coyote, half-amazed, half-terrified, tripping over itself as it sprinted from me, too bewildered to take its eyes off me. I am constantly making daily goals, meal plans, watching the skies, observing the winds, wondering how this hill or river got to be where it is. My mind and body, awoken from their torpor, feel invigorated, healthy, alive.


***


“This is the sheriff. Good morning.”


It was 8 am and I was camped, as the young man suggested, along the road, not far from his home. On the edges of my tent, snow had piled up in small mounds. Everywhere, the grass, coated in frost, glistened.


I unzipped my tent and began putting my shoes on as I wished the sheriff a good morning and said something along the lines of, “Well, this probably looks pretty strange, doesn’t it?” The sheriff had drove his vehicle over the grass and parked on one end of my tent. When I stepped out of the tent, I saw behind me that the sheriff had brought with him a posse. Strategically positioned–in a sort of triangle around me–was a middleaged man wearing a flannel hat with ear flaps and his son, the young man I’d spoken with the night before. They stood erect with steely expressions. I looked at the young man and wanted to say, “Dude, what the hell. I thought we were cool?” Instead, I wished him a good morning and thanked him for the water. I was surrounded by armed and paranoid Montana men.


This is the sort of situation, though, that I thrive in. Despite the beard, the bedraggled appearance, and my eccentric plan, my affability is quick to put others at ease. And, truthfully, I’m just happy to talk with other people, as I’m usually starved for conversation out on the lonesome prairie. I explained what I was doing–acknowledged how crazy it sounded–mentioned my family, and said I wanted to go on an adventure before I had to go back to work. Once they realize I have a family, a job (even though that’s debatable), and that I can speak well enough, all the things that made me seem so foreign are quickly forgotten.


“I got a call from the neighbor,” said the sheriff. “I just wanted to come out here and make sure you weren’t crazy.”


“Well you gotta be a little bit crazy to do something like this,” I said. The sheriff laughed, but the middle-aged man appeared to be unaffected by my charms.


“You wanna to be careful around here,” he warned.


“Why, does this area have a reputation for crime?” I asked.


“No,” he said, taken aback. “But people around here ain’t used to what you’re doin. The owner of the land here, if he saw you walkin’, he’d of shot ya.


“What you’re doin aint normal,” he continued. “In my lifetime, I’ve never seen a hitchhiker down this road. And my dad’s never seen one in his.


“What you’re doin, it’s… it’s… strange.”


At the moment, I was innocently standing next to my tent, yet he spoke as if I was oiling myself up for some Satanic ritual.


“It’s strange,” he muttered again.


“Well, I’m sorry I raised the alarm,” I said. “I’ll pack up and be on my way now.”


My tone was compassionate and apologetic, yet I was annoyed. This was the first time in 40 days that someone had asked for my ID (not including border crossings). He suggested I might get shot. But for what? Walking? Taking pictures? It’s a shame, I thought, how I’d just walked through incredible scenery–a stunning landscape–yet no one except for me, a few cows, and a handful of xenophobes would ever get to see it. It’s a shame that millions of American acres go unexplored because of a few trigger-happy whackos and their ridiculous “No Trespassing” signs. I sympathize with and understand the desire to keep hunters off one’s land, but to close off a vast portion of the earth from the innocent walker seems unreasonably restrictive.


But as for their xenophobia, I felt a sense of empathy. If I was in their situation–having grown up in remote lands without much contact with other cultures–I’d probably feel just as scared and act the same way, too.


They all wished me luck, and I walked down a road covered in an inch of soft snow. The next day, I’d arrive in the town of Circle, Montana, where I bought another six days worth of food because I was soon going to run out due to my severe mileage miscalculation.


As I stuffed myself on Pop Tarts, jumbo candybars, and a package of bite-size Twizzlers (which have no nutritional or caloric value, but reminded me, warmly, of my boyhood spent eating them in movie theaters), I thought, I’ll figure it out. I’ll be okay.











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