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  • Ken Ilgunas

Days 3 & 4: Canada!!!

I was sleeping in the Lewis and Clark National Forest south of Great Falls, Montana, and I was having the same dream over and over again. It was about my friend Josh mailing me another sleeping bag, which would keep me warm on nights like these. I kept waking up throughout the night, shivering, and anxious–anxious because I knew it was going to get a lot colder than this. The Montana night had merely dusted the grass with a light frost. In the months to come, I might be subjected to truly uncomfortable weather, so I couldn’t help but feel foolishly unprepared.

My drivers, Molly and Josh, were headed to Glacier National Park en route to California, where they’d take a flight to New Zealand. (See their blog at We stopped at an outdoor store in Great Falls, MT, where I bought a new 5-degree-rated sleeping bag and they cleaned their stove. I later mailed my 32 degree-rated bag home.

They dropped me off 20 miles south of the Canadian border in Shelby, MT. I walked most of the way to the border except for a short ride with Doris, who lived in the town of Sunburst, where she owns a herd of cows. Since I’ll be trespassing on farmland for most of the hike, I’m most worried about bulls, which I have no experience with. “Just look them in the eye and talk to um manly,” she said. “When they charge, just step to the side of them. Tire them out like that.” She insisted that I come back to her place for a sandwich, and while I wasn’t hungry, it was one of those situations in which it would be insulting to decline someone’s generosity. She made me a sandwich, and her 8-year-old son, who shook my hand, offered me a bottled water. I asked him if he likes living here. He said it was okay, but it’s tough “because we don’t have much food,” adding “mom has to use food stamps.” Doris’s ex-husband, who she called an “asshole,” was on the couch and refused to get up or look my way. When she told him she’d brought a guest home, he muttered, “why’d you brang him here?”

Doris dropped me off back on the I-25, and I plodded on to the border. It was dark, so I walked down a steep slope next to a field where I laid out my pad and bag to sleep under the stars, where I was positive neither farmer nor driver would spot me. The sky was a sparkling mural of galaxies and supernovas and fiery meteorites that I was happy to again be re-acquainted with.

In the morning, getting rides was tough, as I was so close to the border, so I had to walk nearly 10 miles to customs. When I arrived, I walked right up to the window where cars normally pass through. I declared my bear spray and knife, and the agent sent me into immigration for further inquiries. I knew what I planned on doing would probably be frowned upon, so I took some liberties with the truth, telling the officer that I wanted to “write a book about the Alberta prairie,” adding that I have my first book coming out soon, and that I’d be “sleeping in motels along the way.” It’s possible that I may write a book and it’s possible that I may sleep in the motel, so these weren’t outright lies, but probably will, in the end, be quite far from the truth.

I quickly got a ride after crossing the border with a young man attending college in Lethbridge, AB. “You didn’t look like a vagrant,” he said to me. Complimented, I said, “Thanks, I prefer to think of myself more of a hitchhiker or philosopher-tramp.”

He told me all about his recent trip to Vietnam and Japan. He took me to a Tim Hortons, where I bought a small coffee, and then to his parents’ house so I could fill up on water. He introduced me to his sister as a “philosopher-bum.”

“Philosopher-tramp,” I said, correcting him.

My next ride was with Shane, who was going 20 miles south of Calgary. He was just laid off from his job in Lethbridge, so he told me he was going to find construction work closer to home. He told me about how is girlfriend of three years was finally bringing up the topic of baby-making, but felt a little uncomfortable about it because “she’s a flirt” and he wasn’t sure if he could trust her quite yet.

He let me off short of Calgary, easily the worst portion of my trip so far, as I had to walk along busy roads for miles without getting any lifts. I’d probably walked another 10 miles until I got a short ride from a woman, and then a really long ride with Jake (I actually don’t know his name–it’s difficult to keep track of them after so many) who worked on an oil rig near Edmonton. He said he works two months at a time, working between 16-24 hours a day, oftentimes with only 2-4 hours of sleep. I wan’ts sure how much of this was exaggeration, but he led me to believe that that line of work was grueling, hyperbole or not.

Last night I slept next to an abandoned barn, in Leduc, Alberta, just a few miles south of Edmonton. With my backpack and fashionably stubbled cheeks, I find that I am suddenly an object of attraction, and have been ogled at by more than one Tim Hortons server. Soon, though, I will soon no longer cut so romantic a figure as the grime builds and the beard gets long and hobo-like.

I’ve spent the morning preparing (printing out maps at a Staples, getting Canadian cash from an ATM, doing more last minute edits for a Duke Magazine story at the library, and trying to figure out my communications issues). Unfortunately, my cell phone doesn’t work in Canada and my iPad is incapable of picking up a cell reception, so I’ll only be able to do blog updates when I have a WiFi signal: maybe once or twice a week.

In the evening, I’ll continue on. My destination is about 300 miles north of Edmonton, where I need to see something before my hike can finally begin.

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