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  • Ken Ilgunas

Day 78: Nebraska

I was eating a pumpkin pie with a plastic spoon while hiking down Highway 18 in southern South Dakota. A homeowner, who saw me walk past his home, thought I might be hungry so he jumped in his truck and brought me three-fourths of his leftover Thanksgiving dessert. This was one of several kindnesses offered to me near the town of Winner, SD. A hardware store manager fixed my trekking pole that had broken in two (with hard plastic tubing and a lot of duct tape), I charged my electronics at a Chinese restaurant, and the local police station suggested I set up my tent in the local park.

But as I broke off the highway and began trespassing over farmland once again, the warmth and hospitality of town gave way to a cold and uninviting countryside. It was a weekend and hunters were out, so every few minutes I heard the “putt, putt, putt” of rifle shots. Most of the shots were far away, but there were a few sharp “bangs” from nearby that felt so close I found myself looking at my limbs to make sure I hadn’t been shot and was walking purely on pain-numbing adrenaline. A covey of quails rocketed out of shrubbery, and my heart stopped.

Thankfully, in town, I’d thought ahead and bought an orange vest to replace the one I flung off and lost during the cow stampede. I hoped the orange would make any trigger-happy hunter think twice before collecting another bearded trophy.

This was bad land to be trespassing over. Unlike the Alberta and Montana prairie, where I could walk for hours before seeing a home or road, and where I felt so unobserved I would drop trou and use the bathroom as unabashedly as the cows do, here there was vast network of country roads and many small, family-run farms of corn, sunflowers, and cow pasture. I felt like I was being constantly watched, or that I might accidentally walk into someone’s backyard after mounting a hill. I hopped a barb wire fence, and when I looked back I saw a red truck prowling behind me. I waved but no wave was returned.

It was cold and the sun was hidden behind an overcast sky. Because I didn’t have the directional aid of the sun and because I was nervous about the red truck, I walked due west–in the wrong direction–for an hour.

On the road, a landowner who owned a dump saw me walking. He looked like he’d been twisted and broken by the winds of work. Gangly, missing teeth, impoverished. Battered perhaps by an addiction, buoyed perhaps by religion, he was a rescued dog: bearing a renewed faith in humanity from kind treatment, but in the depths of him still lurked the monster of his past, who might snap at someone’s hand whether extended out of kindness or malice. He was the sort who would give you the shirt of his back one minute, and rape you in the woods, the next.

“I’m on a long walk,” I said.

“You’re fucking crazy, man,” he said.

“Well,” he said, reconsidering, “I guess you gotta do something. Me, I run this dump. And about 400 head of cattle. I get in trouble if I’m not doing something.”

I asked him if I was in Nebraska yet, and he said that the state was just past a line of evergreens. Careful not to walk on his property, or in his woods, I took the roads into Nebraska.


I crossed the South Dakota-Nebraska border around dusk, and staggered into the town of Mills. The town, like many country towns in these areas, was hardly a “town” in the conventional sense of the word. There weren’t any businesses, and only about six homes, half of which seemed abandoned. I called out “Hello!” in front of one, but was only greeted by a sleepy dog. There was another building–the town’s community center/history museum with a truck parked in front of it. I knocked on the door and no one answered, but I heard a vacuum purring inside, so I sat on my pack on the front lawn, waiting for them to finish. Another truck pulled up and a large man in his seventies, wearing a camo-patterned shirt, got out and, amused, asked, “Well, what might you be doing in Mills?”

I told him my plan, and asked where I could set up camp for the night. He said I could set up my tent in the woods by the creek. But first, he brought me into the museum for a tour. The museum, which Gary runs, used to be a home. It’s still fully furnished and operational, serving as a sort of hunting hostel during autumn, but also as a museum for the locals in the area, who’d give the museum their family histories and photo albums.

Gary showed me around. I looked at all the pictures on the walls. Many were family pictures, or pictures of kids lined up in front of their school. “Mechanization has changed the way of life here. When I was a boy, there were four schools within 20 miles. Now, there’s one high school with 30 kids.”

We sat at the kitchen table, and we talked, or Gary talked and I listened. He told me about his 28 years as a county commissioner, his son’s ranch down south, and a few times he lobbied in Washington for a farming program.

“When you get older, you get more opposed to change,” he said about himself. He said he’s appalled that the Ten Commandments can’t be displayed in government buildings, he’s “scared to death” about the influx of foreign exchange students for fear of another terrorist attack (that might take place in Omaha, Nebraska, where the U.S. Strategic Command is based), and he’s doubtful that climate change has been influenced by mankind, claiming that the weather was just as warm during Lewis and Clark’s expedition across the region 200 years ago.

I listened carefully, keeping all my thoughts to myself. I didn’t say anything, but I was taken aback and somewhat unsettled with how different our concerns were. We got along well enough, though, and he offered me the house/museum for the night, along with all its amenities, and whatever food I could forage from the fridge and cupboards.

He left for his home, and I had a Risky Business moment in my thermal underwear on the kitchen’s linoneum floor. I knew I was going to enjoy this.

I started with a long, steaming-hot shower, periodically nudging the shower dial closer to the “H,” making it hotter and hotter. I shampooed my hair twice, scrubbed my armpits, and thoroughly cleaned between my toes. I threw my clothes into the washing machine, made a supper of lima beans, tater tots, ground beef–all retrieved from the freezer–and turned on the Packers-Giants Sunday Night Football game.

The house felt like it had been lived in well, broken in like a floppy first baseman’s mitt. There were awkward-looking family pictures from the 1990’s, shelves of books with 1950’s bindings, a rifle mounted on two deer hooves. Oh, the domestic bliss! I felt like I could have spent a whole week there–happily–sleeping next to a propane heater, watching stupid television shows, concocting strange dinners from the food that visiting hunters had left, playing Minesweeper on their aging computer.

I walked down the halls of the museum late in the night, looking at the pictures of families from the 1930’s and 40’s. The people looked young and strong and thin. I wondered if a place like Mills–and all the abandoned towns I’d walked through–would have been better off without the mechanized industry that made these families, with their hard limbs and tough hands, unnecessary and obsolete. I thought I’d be happier in villages with good, homemade food, close neighbors, and laughing children than in an empty one where one man and a few John Deeres can handle 6,000 acres. But I suppose it’s easy to get nostaligic about the past. Perhaps, in my reverie, I’ve failed to take into account the aching backs, the workdays from sun-up to sun-down, the dead infants, the dairy cows gone dry. “It was all hard labor,” Gary had said.


In the morning, I watched “The Today Show” as I ate my breakfast and packed up. There was an inch of snow on the ground, and I was sad to leave Mills.

I walked over prairie, hopping over fences rather than rolling under them so as not to let the wet snow moisten my clothes.

I kept on Highway 137, even though it didn’t follow the pipeline, because I wanted to use the bridge to cross the potentially-uncrossable Niobrara River.

A thirty-something man in a small SUV pulled over to me and asked me why I was walking. “Because I’m crazy,” I said.

“I’m about to make some lunch. Do you want to come over for some?”

I walked a half-mile back to his home that seemed both local (with its mounted heads of deer and camo bed spreads), but worldly (with a shiny keyboard placed in front of a big Apple computer monitor). While Stan made a watermelon smoothie, grilled cheese on pumpernickle bread, and offered zucchini bread, still moist, that his mom had made him, I filled him in on my adventure. The XL, it turns out, goes through his land, which he’s okay with because of the compensation he’ll receive and because he acknowledges that we have an oil-dependent economy. “But don’t even think about going on my neighbor’s land,” he warned me. I thought this was going to be another Midwestern tough-guy boast, but appartently his neighbor, Dan (I’m making up names here), is extremely upset about the XL going through his land, so much that he’s taken his gun out and threatened TransCanada representatives who tried to cross his land. “He’ll really shoot you,” Stan said.

“Say no more,” I said. “I’ll stay off.”

I thought Stan and I were of the same feather: we were close in age, it seemed he’d been college educated, and he had an appreciation for the beauty of the prairie, which I’ve come to admire, too. Unlike my conversations with older folks who prefer to talk more than listen, my conversation with Stan was far more “give and take.” I’d been hoping to meet someone like him: someone who I could ask provocative questions without worry of causing offense; someone who might give me a clearer picture of the Midwestern mind and culture.

“Are people around here concerned about global warming?” I asked. This was the question I wished I’d been asking people all along, but hadn’t because I knew it was a contentious–possibly explosive–subject.

“No,” he said, surprised I brought it up. “Why? Are you?”

“I’m defintiely worried that we’re warming our planet,” I said.

Stan said he was happy I was here because he never gets to talk to people like me, and that I might be able to fill in some of his blindspots. He said that the people in this area are independent, hard-working, self-reliant, and that they resent any sort of government interference. He told me that the government asked that some of the ranchers build fences around their canyons, so their cows couldn’t crap in the Niobrara. He also said that the government was spending tens of millions of dollars studying a bug that might be affected by the pipeline. I was doubtful about the bug thing, as a narrow pipeline will have little impact on any species, but what did I know? Perhaps there is such a ridiculous study, and without that knowledge I couldn’t disagree with him.

He said he thought global warming was all “hype,” created so that the government could seize more power. “We can take care of our own land,” he said. “We don’t need the goverment to come here and tell us how to live.” Environmentalism, as he saw it, was more or less a ploy for more government control.

“Don’t you think environmentalism is all about power?” he asked.

I was stunned silent by the question. It was clear we had such different values, such different ways of thinking. My mind went in a hundred directions at once, giving me no clear rhetorical path to follow. Environmentalism, to me, was stopping another Love Canal from happening. It was keeping fracking out of Stokes County. It was keeping the Gates of the Arctic National Park wild and undeveloped. It was about giving caribou calving grounds, it was about eating foods from healthy soils, it was about making our planet habitable for the next seven generations. To me, environmentalism was, well, life. And to be opposed to it was so unthinkable to me that my mind had no response prepared, and could not improvise one on the spot. From the phrasing of this one question, I gathered that any sort of mutual understanding was impossible.

My speechlessness was slow to break, and what words came out were garbled and mostly incoherent. The subject was changed and we awkwardly said goodbye, both of us maintaining good humors. I walked down the highway, careful not to step on his farmer’s land (that had a “This Property Is Governed by the Castle Doctrine” sign on it). I crossed the Niobrara River over the bridge, hopped a fence, and continued southeast through Nebraska prairie, feeling alone. Very alone.

Pictures from Mills Museum. I wouldn’t want to mess with Louise.

I’ve acquainted myself with several styles of barb wire on this trip, and can happily say that some of these styles are no longer used in the area.

Home for a night.

The Castle Doctrine according to Wikipedia: “A Castle Doctrine (also known as a Castle Law or a Defense of Habitation Law) is an American legal doctrine that designates a person’s abode (or, in some states, any place legally occupied, such as a car or place of work) as a place in which the person has certain protections and immunities and may in certain circumstances use force, up to and including deadly force, to defend against an intruder without becoming liable to prosecution. Typically deadly force is considered justified, and a defense of justifiable homicide applicable, in cases when the actor reasonably fears imminent peril of death or serious bodily harm to himself or another.'”

Forest! I hadn’t seen forests since central Alberta, except by creeks and rivers. At first, I greeted their return in Nebraska, but then remembered walking through a forest is much harder than walking over the bare prairie.

Nebraska is a red state, as are all the states/provinces I’m walking through. This sign is just so stupid…

In Nebraska, the pipeline path is yet-to-be-determined due to environmental concerns. For four days, I walked the Cowboy Trail, which is an old railway converted to a bike path. No cows allowed; just how I like it.

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