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Ken Ilgunas, the guy who lived in his van at Duke, is still testing his limits

Trespassing Across America: One Man’s Epic, Never-Done-Before (and Sort of Illegal) Hike Across the Heartland

By Ken Ilgunas

Blue Rider Press

264 pages, $26.95

By Bruce Andriatch

Ken Ilgunas does not possess the instantly recognizable name of some authors, but he might have something better: an instantly recognizable story.

Ilgunas, a onetime Niagara Falls resident and University at Buffalo graduate, made news around the world six years ago when he decided to eschew campus housing while working toward his master’s degree at Duke University. Instead, he chose to live in his van.

In an interview with The Buffalo News at the time, Ilgunas explained his decision thusly: “I always just wanted to see if I could do it. I wanted to test my limits.”

The result of that experience was his first book, “Walden on Wheels.” He’s not living in his van anymore, but he might be addicted to testing his limits.

The result of his latest exploration is his fascinating and breezy new effort “Trespassing Across America,” a tale of what and whom he experienced in 2012 and 2013 while walking the length of the Keystone XL pipeline route from Alberta to Texas.

His idea was to find his way to the tar sands of Canada, where more than 800,000 barrels of oil would be moved along a pipeline that ended on the Gulf Coast in Texas, and walk the entire length of the route. To do so would require walking on private property – hence the book’s title – and confronting everything from wild animals and angry landowners to his own preconceived notions about the people who make up the nation’s heartland.

It’s difficult to read this book about a long-distance hike from north to south without thinking of the three Riverside residents who, as you read this, were expected to have completed their 2,700-mile walk from east to west. But unlike Ilgunas, those three men embarked on their journey for no particular reason other than to see if they could do it.

For Ilgunas, there were reasons: It was about learning who he was, what he cared about and whether it would be possible to understand why Americans put more stock in a few short-term jobs than in the long-term, very real consequences our fossil-fuel consumption will have.

The seeds of this journey were planted while he was washing dishes in a work camp near the Arctic Circle. A hike and a conversation with a friend led to the decision to do something to draw attention to Keystone.

“I thought of the XL as the center of the universe ­– and I wanted to be there to learn everything I could,” he writes.

Growing up close enough to the Love Canal disaster left an impression on Ilgunas and made him understand the fragility of the environment. It would be safe to call him an environmentalist. However, as he traveled through Red State America, where citizens generally seemed to favor the pipeline and the prosperity they thought it could bring – a support that sometimes seem to border on violent advocacy – he rarely felt safe calling himself an environmentalist out loud. But he explains himself quite nicely in writing.

“When I think about our culture’s addiction to fossil fuel, its indifference to the natural world, and the sheer impossibility of any major change happening soon, I can’t help but despair. Almost as depressing as an inevitable collapse is how powerless I feel as an individual.”

Ilgunas the writer has a wonderfully inviting conversational and confessional style. The book is not a journal, per se, but he does a masterful job weaving the details of his daily travels into a work of prose that is difficult to put down.

Here he describes how a series of mishaps and injuries as he planned his trek made him wonder if this was a good idea:

“I had more than enough excuses not to go and I wasn’t looking for any more, so I resolved not to research my route too closely. I knew I was better off not knowing about unfordable rivers, impenetrable forests, or prairie cougars. Naivete, though a shortcoming in most any other situation, is a prerequisite to adventure. (Stupidity can be an outright asset.)”

Here he writes of reaching a point where the physical difficulty of the trip gave way to a mental freedom.

“As my body took on all these jobs and began to perform them without any conscious direction, I was eventually granted much-needed peace to let my mind wander. The body, for all its complexity, sophistication and evolutionary magnificence, is nothing but 180 pounds of machinery that exists so we can carry in our heads a few weightless dreams, ideas, and memories – what we think of as our ‘self.’ ”

Along the way, he becomes a philosopher: “To travel alone, I’d learned, isn’t to rely on yourself. To travel alone is to force yourself to depend on others. It is to fall in love with mankind.”

He titled most of his chapters after one or more of the people he met along the way. There’s The Ogre and the Leprechaun (chapter 8); The Electrician (chapter 11); and The Stranger (Chapter 15).

Ilgunas veers into “preachy” occasionally, but not enough to make you want to stop reading. And he or his editor should have thought twice about the chapter tracing the 500 million year geological history of the Great Plains.

But any shortcomings are more than overshadowed by his willingness to dig deep into his soul, to come up with gems like this:

“Unlike normal domestic living, life on a long walk is not one of material accumulation but of extreme possessionlessness, where the prospect of carrying more things and adding more weight is unthinkable. And it’s not just things that you can’t add and carry with you, but thoughts and ideas and memories, too. You have this sight, this feeling, this breath of wind on your face one moment, and it’s gone the next. It’s thousands of minutes and miles on instantaneous impermanence, vexing, and liberating, at the same time.”

This is a very good book from a writer we should hope has many more waiting to come out. His van days should be over for good.

Bruce Andriatch is the assistant managing editor/features at The Buffalo News.