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  • Ken Ilgunas

Trespassing across America—An Imperfect Journey

There’s almost nothing good that will come from reading a book review about your own book. After you’ve poured your life and soul into a book for almost three years, reading one critical sentence in an otherwise glowing review can ruin a perfectly good afternoon. Maybe I’m just overly sensitive, but I’m guessing that criticism is tough to take for most authors and artists, especially when this criticism is made public for everyone to read.

Most of the time I won’t read reviews unless someone has gone out of their way to tell me that it’s a great review, and even then sometimes I choose not to. Better not even chance it, I’ll think. But I do feel some obligation to read them, as I do want to grow as a writer and learn what I can from professional critics. And of course I’m simply curious to find out how people respond to a literary work that I’ve rewritten and reread a hundred times with the aim of making it a pleasurable read. Did I succeed? If not, how did I fail?

There have been at least two negative reviews of Trespassing across America, which has been out for two months now. Since there are patterns to the criticisms in these reviews, I wish to address them. Not in an angry, vengeful, Twitter-war way. But in a literary and intellectual way. In a way that defends my book while acknowledging its shortcomings.

In one of the earliest reviews, written by LA Times book critic Dean Kuipers, Kuipers refers to me as a “a reluctant interrogator, constantly backing away from encounters that might prove too hot.” Kuipers is referring to my reluctance to talk with landowners about climate change. This is of course an important conversation for me to have on a journey in which I’m walk over a controversial oil pipeline.

Ilgunas walks into a face-full of what one strongly suspects is regurgitated Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, and for reasons of either politeness or fear he can’t break through. Finally, in the middle of the book, he is invited to lunch by Stan, a pro-pipeline guy who thinks climate change is fake but who says he hopes the backpacking stranger can help him understand differently. When he asks Ilgunas, “Don’t you believe environmentalism is all about power?” — voicing a conservative belief that climate change is a plot to increase government control — Ilgunas shuts down. “From the phrasing of this one question, I gathered that any sort of mutual understanding was impossible.”… We need him to transcend the confrontation.

Elizabeth Kelly of the Star Tribune writes something similar:

Time and again, confronted with ranchers, farmers, oil workers, merchants who stand at the other pole from Ilgunas on the pipeline issue, he mumbles that his mission is merely a long walk rather than risk the direct challenge of an opposing view… [U]ltimately this backing down by the author reduces his account to a mere travel journal when he had begun his journey with the announced intent to change the world’s energy habits.

On one hand, I certainly see their points. In a book sort of about big, important political things, you want the author to charge ahead and tackle them head on. You want the protagonist of a book to act heroically. To act courageously. To act assertively. And oftentimes I was calculatedly unassertive. As a liberal New Yorker illegally walking across people’s lands in arguably the most conservative part of America, I certainly had to exercise a lot of caution. Bringing up a subject as contentious as manmade climate change, I recognized, could be the difference between my having a positive social interaction and one in which I’m legitimately worried about my safety. To their credit, these critics acknowledged my unique situation, even if they didn’t let me off the hook for it.

But to defend myself and my book, I should say that I did have many talks about pipelines and climate change. Most were too unexceptional to make it into the book, or they overlapped with other conversations I had. I got a lot of people’s positive impressions of the fossil fuel industry and their disbelief in manmade climate change, for all the usual reasons. These are peppered throughout the book. What I’m getting dinged for is not sticking up for what I believe in. For not confronting these folks with the hard facts behind manmade climate change. My constant sheepishness can be frustrating to the reader.

I am not proud of my sheepishness, but I feel that my depiction of my sheepishness needs to be defended on two levels. Firstly, my confronting a few dozen — or even a few hundred — landowners on climate change would have accomplished nothing. Debating climate change is almost like debating religion: people’s minds, especially among older-aged folks, are made up. Persuading folks, one after the other, of the validity of climate change was never my goal. In the end, I got what I came for: their beliefs and an understanding of where they’re coming from.

And on another level, I deliberately kept my sheepishness in the book because I wanted to faithfully chronicle one normal guy’s experiences talking about a subject as toxic and complex as climate change in the years 2012 and 2013. Then and now, climate change is not an easy subject to bring up, debate, or change someone’s mind about. (Even scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson, arguably the person most equipped to persuade ordinary folks about the existence of manmade climate change, has said he won’t debate deniers.) If you happen to live in a progressive bubble, it may sound unusual that I felt reluctant talking about climate change with other folks.

But out there, on the Great Plains, climate change is a subject that’s explosive and emotionally-charged. Tied up in the issue of manmade climate change are folks’ livelihoods and identities. Implicit in a conversation about climate change are threats of having to undergo an upheaval in how we live and how we identify. Will we have to leave behind the images of ourselves as hardy, self-sufficient, small-government individualists in order to tackle something as tremendous as climate change, which will require a robust government, collective action, keeping fossil fuels in the ground, building an international coalition to impose greenhouse gas limits, and containing the evils of the free market with stricter regulations—all anathema to the right-wing mind?

Rather than coming to terms with things that imperil the sanctity of their identity, it’s easier for them to just deny climate change and angrily dismiss believers as deluded halfwits doing the dirty work for a nefarious, power-grabbing leftwing. Imagine talking about abolition with a sympathizer of slavery in 1850’s Georgia. Talking about climate change in a red state today isn’t quite that bad, but it is one of those subjects where there’s starkly different opinions and little-to-no middle ground for sympathy and mutual understanding. When your identity is so synchronized with a belief, it’s something worth going to war over—and it was this tension that I felt whenever I brought up environmental subjects.

I wanted my sheepishness to be a part of the book because it says a lot about our times. And I wanted it to be in the book regardless of whether or not it makes me look bad or ultimately frustrates the reader, because it showcases how difficult it is for a person to have a conversation about a politically-charged and scientifically-complex subject. It’s about feeling awkward about identifying as an “environmentalist” to Republicans. It’s about not having any confidence in my ability to marshal facts about CO2 levels and ice-core studies in a conversation. It’s about not talking about contentious subjects in the unprecedentedly partisan atmosphere of the Obama era. (Early on in the book, I recount a story of one of my drivers on my hitchhike who threatened to kick me out of his car if I said something positive about President Obama—this is a prime example of the hyper-partisan country we’re living in.) Consider these facts from a recent New York Times article that borrows data from a Pew Research Center survey about contemporary partisanship:

  • “For the first time since at least 1992, the majority of Democrats and Republicans say they view the opposing party ‘very unfavorably’… [A]round half of the members of either party said their opponents stirred feelings of fear and anger in them.”

  • “Today… 91 percent of Republicans view the Democratic Party unfavorably, with 58 percent holding ‘very unfavorable’ attitudes toward it. Among Democrats, 86 percent view the Republican Party unfavorably, while 55 percent hold it in a very unfavorable light”.

  • “The Republican Party strikes fear in the hearts of 55 percent of Democrats surveyed, Pew found. Among Republicans, 49 percent felt the same way about the Democratic Party.”

  • “Roughly 1 in 3 members of each party said they considered their political counterparts to be less intelligent than other Americans.”

  • “Exactly half of Republicans and 46 percent of Democrats said they find talking politics with a member of the opposing party to be ‘stressful and frustrating.’”

That I couldn’t have difficult conversations or even refer to myself as an environmentalist (which I certainly did plenty of times, but in the book I wanted to point to the instances in which I didn’t for all of the above reasons) is a testament of our toxically-partisan era. My sheepishness then is not just a personal failing; it’s a product of social, political, ideological, and religious forces that affect us all. It’s something worth developing in a book about climate change set in the 2010’s.

I should also say that my book is about an imperfect journey. It doesn’t wrap up neatly like Eat, Pray, Love or A Walk across America. There was no life-altering transformation. I didn’t marry anyone at the end of it. I didn’t change any minds about climate change, and I certainly didn’t singlehandedly stop the Keystone XL.

So is my book worthwhile even though I accomplished little? Should it have been written?

Critic Elizabeth Kelly says that my “backing down” reduces the book to “a mere travel journal when he had begun his journey with the announced intent to change the world’s energy habits.” This line is difficult to take not only because of the many months of research that went into the book — of Great Plains history, American property history, environmental ethics, and energy policy — that I undertook with the intent of turning the book into something much more than a mere “travel journal.” But my so-called intent of changing the “the world’s energy habits” ought to have been regarded as the tongue-in-cheek naïveté from a dreamer consciously reveling in a moment of ridiculous monomania that it was. The journey was not about “changing the world”; it is about one person walking out to confront climate change head on, which, given one individual’s relationship with something as enormous, amorphous, and out-of-my-hands as climate change, the journey could only result in feelings of despair, impotency, powerlessness, and occasional hope.

My journey was imperfect and incomplete. Yet there is value in presenting it in such a way because most journeys are imperfect and incomplete, and our journeyers usually don’t quite accomplish what they’d originally set out to do.

I once talked with a young guy who’d hiked the Appalachian Trail. This young guy seemed disturbed by his reflection that he’d changed and learned little from his months-long journey. If we’re honest with ourselves, like this young man was, we’d acknowledge that often the expectations we take into our journeys go unmet and that the romantic notions that led us into them were in some ways misguided.

One of the travel books I most admire is Robyn Davidson’s travel memoir Tracks, about her 1,700-mile trek across the Australian desert with three camels in 1977. I’m not sure if I liked Tracks, but I admired and respected the hell out of it.

I’m not sure if I liked Tracks because Davidson is a tough character to like. She presents herself as unsociable, misanthropic, and sometimes as stubborn as the camels she takes on her trip. A lot of the book is her griping about the paradoxical nature of her trip: She wanted to trek across Australia with camels as part of a grand, solo adventure, yet she must rely on a sponsorship from National Geographic. And this sponsorship requires that she routinely meet up with a photographer who takes staged pictures of her, undermining the authentic spirit of the trip she’d imagined. She reflects on how her newly-won fame gave rise to a series of unpleasant experiences with tourists, who gawked at her as an eccentric novelty: the 27-year-old “Camel Lady.” Davidson, then, is not an adventurer in the style of the great explorers of the past whom she so admired. Rather, she’s embittered by the fact that she’s something quite different: a tabloid adventurer who needs the support of the public as much as she resents it.

Tracks is very much a 21st Century journey. Different from the Age of Discovery between the 15th and 18th centuries and our early 20th Century races to the Poles, the late 20th Century and early 21st Century journey is something else entirely. Because everything that’s presently discoverable has already been discovered, these modern-day journeys are undertaken for other purposes: they’re for “causes,” self discovery, breaking speed records, or simply recreation. Yet we all want to feel what those old explorers felt. Unlike the adventurers of the past (see Thesiger’s Arabian Sands or The Journals of Lewis in Clark), we modern adventurers have one foot in the past, in which we strive to achieve the transformational qualities of the “man vs nature” dramas, and one foot in the present, in which our planet has 7 billion people, far fewer wild spaces (that only exist because of government protection), and has been thoroughly Google-mapped. (Think Chris McCandless of Into the Wild, or really any modern thru-hiker.) There’s something inherently sad about a modern journey—for we’re setting out to embrace something that’s no longer truly there. It’s almost as sad as playing a video game set in a Medieval world in order to desperately escape our service-economy present to live virtually in a wilder, more adventurous, but long-gone, past.

Still, these modern-day journeys are most definitely journeys (they’re just far more existentially complex than the simpler discover-and-plant-a-flag journeys of the past), and that’s why Tracks is so valuable: Davidson honestly confronts the messiness of the modern journey in which things like branding, sponsorships, Kickstarter campaigns, and the media all get entangled in journeys that are never quite what we imagined them being. To make a worthwhile 21st Century travel book, this messiness needs to be dealt with honestly and made central, even if it’s just quietly lingering in the subtext.

I’ve tried to do that in my book, which is certainly not immune to criticism. Like with any of my writings, there’s plenty for me to be embarrassed about and the book has its share of shortcomings. One could easily and perhaps rightly criticize a few cheesy lines, some repetitious walking passages, and the sometimes disjointed nature of my trying to weave together history, reflection, and the travelogue itself. With this entry I don’t mean to insist that my book is above criticism; I only mean to defend what critics have twice now pointed out to be my book’s fatal flaw, which, though still a flaw, is also a strength when the book is read with the context of our times in mind.


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