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  • Ken Ilgunas

Day 93: The Breaking of the Fellowship

(Francis Gardler / Lincoln Journal Star)

(Francis Gardler / Lincoln Journal Star)

When the governor and I began our journey, the day was bright and sunny, and the temperature, a crisp 8 degrees. We set out from his mother-in-law’s home, where I’d slept the last couple of nights.

Rick was reluctant to trespass over property, so we stuck to roads, which, in this part of the country, all run straight north/south and east/west as part of a vast grid in which each road is placed exactly one mile from the next.

As our boots crunched loose gravel, we swapped tales about past loves, filled each other in on our histories, and moaned about the XL. We’d intended to go all the way to the town of McCool, where Rick had a connection, but the 24 miles would prove to be too much for him on his first day. When we stopped to take a break in the ditch, I grabbed Rick’s bedroll and strapped it to my pack.

“Hey, what are you doin’?” Rick asked.

“I’ve been carrying my pack so long I can barely feel the weight any more,” I said.

“You’re pulling me up by my tail,” he said.

“By your tail?”

“When we have a calf that’s struggling, we help him out. We pull him up by his tail. That’s what you’re doing for me.”

Rick had spent two years in Ecuador with the Peace Corps and bounced around a few colleges studying sociology and reading Russian literature, but he was at heart a midwesterner, full of practical knowledge and cowboy wisdom. He called horse poop “road apples,” taught me different species of grasses, and explained how irrigation pivots work. As it got warmer, instead of saying that he was going to remove a layer of clothing, Rick said, “I gotta shuck some duds.”

Some of his explanations about farm equipment were so technical they went completely over my head, but I was happy to have a local guide, and, well, just someone to walk with. I called him “the governor” as a joke, but I saw that Rick did have a bit of a politician in him: He was smooth-talking and persuasive. He could be too assertive at times, but he was always genial. He could put anybody at ease.

My lack of knowledge–about everything–became apparent to Rick immediately, so he was determined to teach me everything he could.

When I asked him what a “combine” was (which is a machine that reaps, threshes, and winnows corn or soy bean crops), he looked at me with a mix of pity and bewilderment: the sort of look a Christian might give you if you asked them, “So who’s this Jesus guy?”

“By the end of this trip, you’re going to know a bit more about how the world works,” Rick said.

We stayed at his friend Chet’s house the first night, and the next day we made our way to the town of Fairmont, where we had another connection.

As we continued on, Rick began to appreciate how much longer we had to hike if we stuck to roads. With his heavy pack and sore feet, trespassing and reducing our mileage suddenly became an appealing prospect to him. We were looking at my map and I pointed out our route by road. “It’s 6.5 miles by road,” I said, “but about four miles as the crow flies.” Rick, whose confident stride had turned into a hobo’s hobble, scoffed at the idea of taking roads.

We were now going over corn and grass and soy bean fields. In a cow pasture, he exclaimed, “They’re not going to hurt you. They’re just curious!”

On a road, a woman, who recognized us as the pipeline walkers, pulled over in her car and offered to haul our packs to Fairmont. In mid-offer, Rick, who didn’t even know this woman, tore off his pack and heaved it into her back seat. I wasn’t sure what my “rule” was for pack-hauling, but I chose to keep walking with mine.

A journalist for the Lincoln Journal Star caught up with us, and we got in his parked car for an interview. I sat in the front seat and Rick sat in the back.

The journalist began with the standard question (“Why are you doing this?”) and I started giving him my standard answer (Well, I wanted to go on a long walk…), but as I spoke, I felt Rick’s fingers jabbing into my hip. Rick had joined the hike to stir up some publicity in order to fight the pipeline, and he wanted me to get straight to the point and nail TransCanada.

“You don’t walk 1,700 miles to go for a stroll,” Rick interrupted.

Ultimately, Rick was right. I’d went into this project with strong prejudices about the development of the Tar Sands–and thus the construction of the XL–but I also came with an open mind. By the end of this trip, if I had good reason to, I thought it was even possible for me to support this pipeline.

But by now, in this journalist’s car, I realized that I’d made up my mind, and that I was ready to say how profoundly stupid this pipeline was.

The arguments for the pipeline are: 1. We need the jobs; 2. We need the oil; and 3. We need the national security (i.e. We’re better off getting our oil from Canada instead of the Middle East).

I’ve come to learn that the Keystone XL will accomplish none of the above.

1. There won’t be that many jobs.

In Canada, I’ve walked hundreds of miles of the Keystone Pipeline and other pipelines. There weren’t thousands of men and women monitoring the pipe, checking for leaks, or manning pump stations. In fact, at all the pump stations I walked past, I can’t remember seeing one worker. Projected statistics confirm my observations.

TransCanada, politicians, and unions have claimed the XL will create 20,000 jobs, plus 118,000 jobs in non-pipeline-related jobs in boom communities along the path. These estimates are hugely inflated. Cornell University conducted an independent study and, based on information TransCanada provided the State Department, they determined the pipeline will only provide 2,500-4,650 jobs. (And these jobs are not all new jobs, as it includes “existing Keystone and contractor employees.”) Of these jobs, only 10-15% of the workers will be local hires. In 2010, during construction of the Keystone Pipeline in South Dakota, South Dakotans constitued “only 11% of the construction and inspection workforce.” Moreover, there will be very few “permanent” jobs. In Nebraska’s Pipeline Evaluation, the state predicts the pipeline may only support up to 110 annual jobs per year in Nebraska. (Source: Cornell University Global Labor Institute’s “Pipe Dreams?” Report.

2. We don’t even get the oil.

The Keystone XL oil will be pumped to Port Arthur, Texas. In Port Arthur, much if not all of the oil will be refined and shipped to foreign nations. Valero, a refiner that will own 20% of the Keystone XL oil, has explicitly detailed their export strategy. And because Port Arthur lies in a Foreign Trade Zone, Valero will not be taxed. (Source: Oil Change International’s “Exporting Energy Security” Report.

Also, gasoline costs may even rise in the Midwest. The oil at refineries in the midwest will be moved down the Keystone XL to export-oriented refineries at Port Arthur, which will distort gasoline costs. TransCanada’s 2008 Permit Application acknowledges this:

Existing markets for Canadian heavy crude, principally PADD II [U.S. Midwest], are currently oversupplied, resulting in price discounting for Canadian heavy crude oil. Access to the USGC [U.S. Gulf Coast] via the Keystone XL Pipeline is expected to strengthen Canadian crude oil pricing in [the Midwest] by removing this oversupply. This is expected to increase the price of heavy crude to the equivalent cost of imported crude. The resultant increase in the price of heavy crude is estimated to provide an increase in annual revenue to the Canadian producing industry in 2013 of US $2 billion to US $3.9 billion.”

3. Climate change is not good for our national security

Getting oil out of the Tar Sands requires huge amounts of water, gas, and electricity. Each barrel of tar sand oil releases three times the amount of greenhouse gases as a barrel of conventional oil. Andrew Nikiforuk, in his book Tar Sands, says that, “By 2020, project emissions from the tar sands could range anywhere between 127 and 140 megatons if production reaches 3.4 million barrels a day. At that point, the project would exceed the 2009 emissions of many European countries including Austria (88 mt), Portugal (81 mt), Ireland (68 mt)….”

He goes on:

Recent calculations suggest that if Canada and the United States fully exploit their oil shale and tar sands deposits over the next 50 years, North America could increase atmospheric CO2 levels by between 49 and 65 ppm. This catostrophic exercise would tip CO2 levels beyond 450 ppm. Many scientists now argue that CO2 levels must be returned to 350 ppm to keep the planet hospitable. But CO2 levels have already exceeded 385 ppm.


I did my best with the reporter, and Rick and I continued on to Fairmont, where a woman, sympathetic to our cause, had offered to provide us with food, showers, and lodging.

Juanita, 70, was from Nebraska. As the valedictorian of her high school class, she delivered a speech about the threat of communism. She said she opened her eyes upon moving to San Francisco, where she’d spend most of her adult life as a professor of theatre. She served red wine, potato stew, and squash, and Rick and I ate like we’d walked 16 miles, which we of course just did.

In the morning, Rick and I strapped on our packs and walked a railway, which Rick was excited about because, as a younger man, he’d worked as an assistant boss on railroads for three years. Eventually, the railroad ended, but there was a path, where an extension of the railroad once was, and we walked that for the rest of the day, ducking under branches and climbing down steep slopes where bridges used to be.

“I’m wavering,” Rick said, mounting a slope.

Rick had hoped to go all the way to Steele City with me–at the Nebraska/Kansas border–but it was clear the three days of walking were taking a toll on him.

The dreaded silence of a hiking partner. It’s good when they still bitch and moan: that at least means there’s still a bit of fight in them. But when your partner becomes silent, you know he’s made his decision, and it’s only a matter of time before the expedition party splits.

Rick’s sister-in-law Abbi came to the town of Milligan, where we ended up that night. Rick would treat us all to dinner. “I gotta husk some duds,” I said in the restaurant. “You mean shuck,” Rick said.

“Well, actually, you’re right,” he added. “You’re learning, duckling.”

Rick and I hugged goodbye, and we both very sincerely expressed hope that this wouldn’t be our last meeting.

In the morning, I continued on, still following the abandoned railroad path, feeling, for the first time on my long journey, the curious and sharp pang of loneliness.

(Francis Gardler / Lincoln Journal Star)

(Francis Gardler / Lincoln Journal Star)

This is Rick’s mother-in-law’s house, where I stayed for two nights.

Rick and I walked gravel roads, across cornfields, and then over a railroad. This section of the railroad was removed, and is now half-wild and rarely traveled.

I forgot what these fruits are called, but Rick tells me they aren’t tasty and that two of his cows suffocated to death upon eating them.

After Rick left, Bill Beachly, a biology professor at Hastings College, joined me for a couple of hours. Professor Beachly wrote a fantastic article about the Keystone XL in Nebraska’s “Prairie Fire” Newspaper:

Steele City, Nebraska. This is the endpoint of the northern section of the Keystone XL. The XL, in Steele City, will connect with the Keystone Pipeline, which was built in 2010. From Steele City, NE, the Keystone Pipeline goes straight south through Kansas to Cushing, Oklahoma. The Keystone XL begins again at Cushing and goes to Port Arthur, Texas.

I bought some chips and guacamole at the bar in Steele City, and the bartender offered me Steele City’s town hall for the night, which was undergoing restoration and serving as a garage for three motorcycles. The jukebox still worked, so I played Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” over and over again.

I’m following dirts/gravel roads for the next few hundred miles, since they closely parallel the Keystone.

Kansas!! I slept in a park in the town of Washington, and am now in woods next to a creek, a good distance from any homes.

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