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  • Ken Ilgunas

Day 99: Kansas

In Nebraska, I was a celebrity. I was interviewed by countless small newspapers, the Nebraska chapter of the Sierra Club, and two TV stations. I was given organic cheese, buffalo jerky, and money was stuffed in my pants. Several drivers who were, dare I say, “starstruck,” pulled over to say hello. “I can’t believe it’s you,” said one driver. “I mean, I was just out for a drive. And there you were.”

But when I crossed the border into Kansas, it was as if I suddenly turned back into an anonymous bum.

A father and daughter pulled over in their car, and the father asked, “What are you a…a…a… transient?”

I was walking perfectly south through Kansas, taking a country road that paralleled the Keystone Pipeline. This is where the Keystone XL and Keystone Pipeline can get confusing.

Let me try to explain…

The Keystone XL will be a 36-inch-diameter pipeline. It has yet to be built. If it is approved by Obama, Tar Sands oil will travel down already-existing pipelines from Fort McMurray, Alberta to Hardisty, Alberta. In Hardisty, the Keystone XL will begin. From there, the Keystone XL will run across Alberta, Saskatchewan, Montana, and South Dakota to Steele City, Nebraska. In Steele City, the oil will begin to flow through the already-built Keystone Pipeline.

The Keystone Pipeline, built in 2010, is a 30-inch-diameter pipeline that goes through many of the same states/provinces that the Keystone XL is planned to go through. At Steele City, it branches off and ends at refinery hubs in Patoka, Illinois and Cushing, Oklahoma. The second part of the proposed Keystone XL will begin again at Cushing, Oklahoma. The Keystone XL will be built to link Cushing with refineries along the Gulf Coast of Texas.

If none of that made any sense, just look at the map below.

It had rained the previous night, so the dirt road I walked along had turned into a soft, custardy mud. With each step, my boots would suck up mud that would cling to my soles in sloppy clumps, sometimes curling over the toe like the floppy tips of Oompa Loompa shoes. At times, it felt as if I was carrying an extra ten pounds on each foot. I got off the road and walked over pasture and wheat fields, which were just beginning to sprout blades of dark green grass.

Kansas was not the flat plain I’d imagined, but a never-ending succession of gently rolling, up-and-down, tree-topped hills. Like southeastern Nebraska, the roads here are spaced a mile apart, and almost all of the land is developed crop land or cow pasture. Kansas is nothing like Alberta, Montana, and South Dakota, where there are endless stretches of roadless prairie, and while I miss the desolateness of those wide-open, half-wild spaces, as I continue south, I find that I am less discriminatory with nature. I do not need mountains, or ocean monsters, or endless prairie to dazzle me; in a handful of soil there is enough wonder to keep me agog for a century.

The winter remains unseasonably warm–with highs in the high-40s and low-50s– so I walk in as much comfort as I can ask for. I can hear birds again. I listen to them chirp from thickets, flitting from branch to branch. Out in the open, I watch great families of them jubilantly skim the tops of cut corn fields. My feet and legs have strengthened admirably, and while I am always sore at the end of the day, I am in good enough condition now to know that I will prepared for another 20 miles when I wake in the morning.

Around dusk, I veered off the road and head to the woods, where I set up my tent and cooked a meal of ramen noodles, powdered mashed potatoes, olive oil, and parmesan cheese. Sitting alone, in the dark, in the woods all by myself, I felt sad thinking that this journey is approaching its end. I will miss all this, I thought: The interactions with strangers; the simple joys of camping; the occasional wild thrill of the dangerous; the never-knowing of what’s behind the next bend in the road or beyond the next hilltop.

In the morning, I continued on to the town of Chapman, where I hoped to charge my electronics and enjoy some of the other luxuries town offers: perhaps a church floor or a pint of chocolate ice cream.

Kansans, to the this point, hadn’t been giving me the warmest of welcomes. For my first three days of hiking across the state, I’d been approached by 4-5 officers (I’ve literally lost count), who’d gotten calls from people worried about me walking with my beard and backpack down their rarely-traveled roads. In just a couple of days, I’d had my ID checked more times in Kansas than I had it checked in all the other states/provinces combined. But it wasn’t just the cops (who were all really nice, actually). Oftentimes my waves to drivers weren’t returned. Dogs, which had yet to be a problem on this trip, would sprint from their homes and snarl at my heels. These were labradors from hell: red-eyed and savage. A giant pit bull, chained to its doghouse, lunged at me over an over again. An obese woman in sweatpants came out to yell at the dog. I waved at her twice, but she just dumbly stared at me.

Normally, I have no problem putting people at ease. I have little difficulty sensing what someone else is feeling or thinking, and I am hyper-conscious about my every facial expression, my every hand gesture, and my position as a traveler in rarely-traveled lands among people who’ve never seen someone walk past their home before. I know never to dig into my pockets without casually alluding to what I was about to retrieve. “Can you show me where I am on my map?” I say before digging into my back pocket. I look at people in their eyes, and keep a healthy distance between myself and them until I sense that I’ve earned their trust. I compliment the beauty of their land, make some remark about the weather, and make fun of myself for undertaking a journey in winter. I use “sir” and “maam.” I say “good afternoon” instead of “hey.” In a flash, I go from being melancholic and solitary to affable and extroverted: and I wear each mask as genuinely as the other.

I made my way into Chapman around dusk. I headed straight to the Methodist Church, as I’ve come to learn that churches are welcoming to travelers. There was no one at the church, so I asked an old man walking a dog where the pastor lived. “My name’s Harold Bray,” he said, shaking my hand. “I’ll take you to his home.” Harold was a retired music teacher, who still plays the trumpet and volunteers for an organization that supplies hotels with Gideon Bibles.

Suddenly three cop cars converged on me at once.

Well this is a bit excessive, I thought.

Two cops got out, one wearing a smile and the other, a steely glare. At this point, I was right behind the pastor’s house, and I was conscious of how being surrounded by cops wasn’t helping me make the best first impression on someone whose trust I needed.

Harold, who I’d already determined was one of the kindest, sweetest men I’d ever met, seemed taken aback by the cops. “I was just taking him to the pastor’s house,” he said.

I explained what I was doing and asked one of the officers if he’d like to see my ID.

“You probably have this happen to you all the time, huh?” asked the officer.

“Not until Kansas, actually.”

I’ve been saying that I’ve received nothing but kindness and generosity on this trip–and that’s definitely true–but some of that has to do with what I am: I am white, straight, American, in my twenties, with nothing particularly unusual about my speech or appearance, minus the beard and backpack. Yet even as a white, twenty-something, straight American (who could easily be confused to be Christian and conservative as well), I have been ID-ed nearly every day of my walk through Kansas. I was approached by paranoid Montanan men and kicked out of Boone County, Nebraska. If it’s this hard for me–walking through homogenous Caucasian country–what would it be like if I was black, or gay, or Korean, or Muslim?

The pastor wasn’t home, so Harold took me back to his place, where he introduced me to his wife, who he called “Saint Maralee.”

“Your mother must be worried sick,” said Maralee.

“I think she’s used to me doing stuff like this,” I said.

“No,” said Patty, a friend of Maralee’s. “She’s just putting on a good front. Mother’s don’t get used to something like this.”

“You can tell her,” said Maralee, “That now you have two more mothers worried about you.”

They fed me chili, and let me spend the night at their home. Patty was embarrassed with how the local police confronted me, so she called the next town I was headed to to make sure I’d get a better reception. She gave me a phone number for their ex-mayor, Don. I called Don and he told me that I could have the town’s “Ladies Lounge” for the night.

The Ladies Lounge?

The very name of the place sent excited shivers up my spine and set my loins aquiver. I pictured a large, matronly woman welcoming me into a velvety room, cloudy with opium haze and smelling of an anything-goes carnal stink. Along the walls, women with bored expressions would be fanning themselves in aging pastel corsets.

I walked another twenty miles and got to the town of Hope. Their were no ladies in the lounge: only Don, a shelf of books, and a few wicker chairs.

I was grateful, of course, especially since there was supposed to be a blizzard that night.

I stepped outside at midnight to observe the blizzard. The snow, seemingly ungoverned by gravity, zipped across the street horizontally.

In the morning, Don brought me a breakfast of pizza and chocolate milk, and he told me he’d called the mayor of my next town, where I’d be able to sleep at their senior citizens center.

Because the road heading straight south was icy and relatively busy, I moved a mile to the west so I could head down a dirt road, where I was sure I’d see no drivers.

After a few miles of walking, I saw a dark figure in the distance, walking toward me through this white, barren landscape.

Seeing someone else out here was unusual for several reasons. First of all, it’s rare that I see anyone out for a walk. Secondly, this was a a remote part of the state, with maybe a house for every mile of road. Thirdly, it was a cold day, with biting, 20 mph winds. Parts of the road were covered in a foot of snow.

What the hell was he doing walking out here?

I moved to the right side of the road to give him a clear passageway to my left, yet in whatever direction I went, he went. As he came closer, my curiosity gave way to confusion and fear.

It was a young African-American male. He was wearing baggy gray sweatpants and a sweatshirt.

“Good afternoon,” I said.

“Do you have a phone?” he asked cheerlessly. He was clearly in need of some “putting people at ease” training.

I said no. I did have a phone, but it stopped working nearly two months ago. Plus, my iPad was out of cellular data for the month. While it was true I had no connection to the outside world, with hindsight I think I answered his question more out of impulse than deliberation. For some reason, I suddenly became protective of my gear; all I wanted was was to keep walking my way and let him walk his. What the hell was he doing out here?!

He gave me a disgusted look, and said, “My car slid off the road.”

I’d just passed two homes, so I suggested he approach one of them to ask for help.

As I continued on, I became doubtful about his story. Why would he take this dirt road that hasn’t been plowed and is never driven on–even when it’s nice–when there is a perfectly good asphalt road a mile to the east? And why didn’t he have a cell phone?

But sure enough, a mile down the road, I saw his car stuck in hard, crunchy foot-high snow, and I felt sick to my stomach. I was disgusted with myself. Is there anything I could have done for him? Could I have offered to help push it out? Maybe I should have explained my phone situation better, so he didn’t think I was some small-minded xenophobe or racist.

All along my journey, I’d been looked upon as a transient, a bum, and even as a criminal, yet I discovered that, even with these experiences, I am just as quick to misjudge, to fear the unusual, and to be governed by unexamined and deeply rooted prejudices.

There was no happy ending to the story. I never found out if he ever got his car out of the snow, or if he was just passed along to the next house, and the house after that, by other scared people.

I resolved, then and there, that as I push forth, I will be quick to forgive those who misjudge me, and to let my first instinct–the next time I come across a person in need–not be mistrust and fear, but compassion and charity.

The Keystone Pipeline. This goes straight south through Kansas to Oklahoma. I’d walked a decent section of the Keystone in Alberta, so I felt a strange pang of nostalgia when I ran into it again in Kansas.

Vast fields of wheat. The wheat will remain dormant over the winter and grow again in the spring.

Not gravel roads, but dirt roads. They are pleasant to walk along, and good for the shins/feet when they’re dry, but darn-near impossible when there’s been rain.

Lots of soybean and corn fields in Kansas. This field has been “disked.” In other fields, the corn stalks are still rooted in the ground and about a foot high: very uncomfortable walking.


Harold, Buddy, Ken, Maralee

The Ladies Lounge in Hope, KS

Don, the ex-mayor, of Hope

A blizzard came in while I stayed at Hope. It was easy walking on roads, but there were a few section where the drifts were thigh-high.

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