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  • Ken Ilgunas

Day 66: Midland, South Dakota

An American does not know how to converse, but he discusses; he does not discourse, but he holds forth; he always speaks to you as to an assembly. — Alexis de Tocqueville

I slept soundly in front of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Mud Butte, SD. After waking, I slipped into the church and grabbed my iPad and solar battery, which had been charging throughout the night. The water bottles I’d kept in my tent were frozen solid, but in the church I noticed a few jugs that contained water still in liquid form. I poured the water into my pot and added granola and powdered whole milk.

As I ate, I felt bad about all the things I’ve said about Christianity. I am in the Bible Belt, and I’ve received such kind treatment from the Heartland’s many practitioners. And while their views on same-sex marriage and abortion–among other social issues–are probably less than tolerant, their sense of charity, I could tell, has been heightened by their relgious upbringings. I wondered if some of their rigid social positions have more to do with seclusion and a fairly homogenous culture–which they’ve been brought up in and have little control over–and less to do with their mostly good-hearted religious teachings.

It wasn’t until an hour into my walk that it dawned on me that those water jugs might have been receptacles for holy water. As I continued my march southeast, now perhaps with the fluids of the lord in me, I felt a sense of rejuvenation. My body was in good shape, my belly, full of food, and the ten-day forecast looked heavenly: sunny, calm winds, with highs in the low-50’s.

The prairie was smattered with ice and snow, the melting signature of the storm that had just swept over the western states and kept me in my tent for three straight days. As I walked through a pasture, prickly with families of cactus and home to a herd of slow-moving cows, a man in a small red SUV spotted me and drove over the grass to talk. He thought I was a hunter at first–as almost all landowners do–but after seeing my trekking poles and backpack he gathered that I had other motivations. “Has the Lord called on you to do this?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “I guess I just wanted to go on a long walk.”

This is more or less my standard answer about why I’ve gone on this walk, but I’ve never been satisfied with the explanation. The truth is, I felt strangely drawn to the XL. I’m not sure why exactly, but I sensed there was something significant about this pipeline-to-be.

The story of the Keystone XL, so far, is an unusual one. There are over 160,000 miles of oil pipelines in the U.S. (and over 2 million miles of pipeline when you factor in gas pipelines), yet environmentalists have faught this pipeline with unprecedented perseverence. Author and environmentalist Bill McKibben, along with his organization, has been outspoken about the horrors of the Tar Sands and what the XL might mean for global warming. There have been numerous demonstrations, highlighted by a 10,000-person protest in front of the White House in November 2011. The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have spoken out about the pipeline, as have a cadre of Hollywood celebrities.

We’ve been building oil pipelines since the 1870’s. Why are we making such a big stink about this one?

I liken the environmentalists’ fight against the XL to John Muir and the Sierra Club’s fight against the O’Shaughnessy Dam in California’s Hetch Hetchy Valley in 1906. The Hetch Hetchy was reputedly one of the most beautiful places in Yosemite National Park, but planners wanted to turn it into a reservoir to supply San Francisco with drinking water. The fight to save Hetch Hetchy was noteworthy because never before had citizens united in such numbers to oppose a public works project. Hetch Hetchy signified a change in the national mood. No longer was the public eager to exploit every resource and convert every hill and river and valley into an economic enterprise. This was a fight to preserve beauty. Muir and the Sierra Club eventually lost, and the reservoir was built, but an environmental movement was born.

Now, one hundred years later, a similar fight is being waged, except this one has less to do with preserving beauty than curbing global warming. Just as Muir did, environmentalists are saying what’s normal isn’t necessarily right, and a line in the sand has been drawn.

The XL, to me, is a battlefield in which hidebound capitalists clash with people worried about our fate on a warming planet. It’s rampant development versus careful planning; a booming economy versus steady sustainability; it’s greed versus love; death versus life. Even though the XL is hardly a front-page story anymore, I felt like it was the center of the universe–and I wanted to be here to see it, even if it was on the lonesome prairie in South Dakota.

But at times the Heartland of America–beating with a dull thump–hardly seems like the center of the universe. The Heartland seems old, dying, sterile. So many barns are abandoned and rotting. Barbed wire rusts on old wooden posts. Hair is more gray than brown, and bodies, more round than square. I never see children, and the woman of child-bearing age seems to have vanished from the face of the prairie like the bison. The few men my age crowd around slot machines in bars. Hunting excursions take place more behind steering wheels than on foot. Wives are pleasured but six times a year. A group of farmers at a restaurant played gin. They questioned my sanity (which is openly questioned during most every visit into town), and they teased the big guy at the table, saying that he likes to go on long walks, too. “From the couch to the TV,” he said laughing.

There is a glaring absence of vitality here. All pale embers; no flying sparks. Maybe the hot, the passionate, the ambitious doesn’t suit this land, this lifestyle. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with taking over the land your great-grandpa homesteaded, and living a quiet, leisurely life on the farm. Maybe, but I thought there was something missing. There’s a heavy contentment with the everyday task, but where’s the exuberance of the uncommon deed? A life lived not half-wild is a life only half-lived.


Somewhere in central South Dakota, I passed the 600-mile mark of my trip. While my legs and hips and back felt good, and my feet were no longer plagued with cuts and blisters and gashes, I began to feel a weariness settle into my bones, into the very roots of me; a weariness that I knew wouldn’t go away with a day’s, a week’s, or even a month’s rest.

Because of the waning daylight, I’m limited to walking from 6:30 am to 3:45 pm, making it all the more difficult for me to reach my 20-miles-a-day goal. To compensate for the lack of daylight, I push myself hard, taking as few breaks as I can, reminding myself–when my feet and shoulders are aching–that I’ll have the whole evening for lounging and reading and writing.

In Midland, South Dakota, where I’d pick up a food package, I spent the evening at the local bar, where I ate a double bacon cheeseburger and charged my electronics. The bar also functioned as the town’s gas station, grocery store, and casino, the last of which was located in a small dark room behind old-style saloon doors.

I sat quietly in the corner trying to write, but the bar became rowdy and I wasn’t able to focus, so I entertained myself with the Broncos-Chargers game on the television. The conversations in the room ranged from branding cows to hammering fence posts to Kim Kardashian to a very sincere debate about what it means to be a good son.

Roger the plumber was the first person to befriend me and he told me that when I went to the bathroom the whole bar wondered aloud who I was and what I was doing. “They thought you were a monster,” he said laughing. What really confused them were my trekking poles. When the bartender, a middleage woman, asked me, later on, what I used my “skiing poles” for, she, clearly unsatisfied with my explanation, gave me a dubious look and seemed even more leery of me. When Roger announced to the crowd what I’d set out to do, the bartender told me I’d get shot if I walked over so-and-so’s property, which was a warning I instantly dismissed, as I’ve heard warnings like this again and again. “Oh, he’ll shoot you!” she said. I gathered that these aren’t so much warnings, but reaffirmaing boasts about how rugged their land is and how tough the people who dwell on it are. The men, at most all of my stops, warn me about cougars, talking about the big cats with intimate knowledge, as if they engage in monthly wrestling contests with the animal, even though no one has even seen one. “Has he shot anyone before?” I asked the bartender. “Well, no,” she said.

Roger called himself a “black sheep” because he was one of very few people who favored progressive politics in South Dakota. Throughout the night, the bartender screamed at him, with equal parts affection and scorn, “Obama lover!!” Roger laughed, and tried to engage them in a political discussion, but the bartender and the rest of the bar, deflected his efforts and repeated the refrain of how Obama helps lazy people. Roger suggested I sleep on his floor for the night–an invitation which I eagerly accepted.

He ordered two more beers (“two for the ditch”) and I followed his truck to his home in the center of town. I sat with him in his house-trailer at his kitchen table, which was cluttered with a rat’s nest of magazines, envelopes and a pair of Hane’s briefs, which he saw no reason to remove. “What do you think about the legalization of marijauna?” Roger asked while constructing a makeshift pipe out of a Coke-a-Cola can, piercing a hole into the polar bear’s head. “It doesn’t bother me,” I said.

He told me that the South Dakotans are conservative and pro-business, but that they’re “South Dakotans at heart” and they don’t like it when a big corporation forces them to put a pipe on their property. Still, he said, they rarely vote in their best interests, unthinkingly favoring the party of the wealthy when it might be better for them to vote for the party that best represents the middleclass. When I asked him why they do this, he said, “People around here don’t know how to have an intellectual conversation.” His voice was a slow, slurred baritone: drunken but wise.

I knew what he meant. I’d been walking for two months, but it wasn’t until now, with Roger, that I felt completely free to share my thoughts, uncensored, with another person. It is difficult to find a true conversant: one who is not ruled by his own prejudice or dogma or even his own opinions. The true conversant is one whose opinions are alive and vibrant, living documents of the mind, subject to change, evolve, and grow nuanced and complex.

In the morning, when I awoke, I found that Roger had already left for work. I packed my things, wrote him a thank you note, picked up my package at the post office, walked down gravel roads, and then hopped a barb wire fence into prairieland. And I didn’t get shot.

Mud Butte Church.

A hunter took this picture of me. I’m not sure why, but my head in this picture looks disproportionately larger than the rest of my body.

This guy, a Jehova’s Witness, heard about me when speaking with friends at the local diner, and drove out to offer me some food and any medical supplies I might need. I took a handful of electrolye supplements.

The towns on the map in South Dakota are often deceptively small. Some “towns” like this one–Plainview, SD–consisted of just these few vacant buildings.

More and more, I’ve had to get my water from unconventional sources. The creeks are few, and those that I find are often muddied by cows. There are, though, various wells and springs in the cow pastures that pump water from the ground. This was one of those pumps. I still treat my water with Chlorine Dioxide drops.

Cheyenne River

Corn! As I head south, I’ve been coming across different crops. This was my first corn field, and was rather unpleasant to walk through, as the stalks are sharp. I’ve also walked through sunflower fields.

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