Trespassing Across America

by Ken Ilgunas

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

When he formulated his plan to walk 1,700 miles, Ken Ilgunas had counted on sharing the trek with Leo, a friend and coworker at an Alaskan oil field. Ken envisioned their comradeship and adventure as a classic duo, perhaps a modern-day Lewis and Clark. After Leo decided not to make the trip, Ken had to rethink his approach. Knowing that he would be on his own, he realized the high degree of self-sufficiency he would need to go the distance.

Ilgunas’s pedestrian sojourn through the North American landscape places him in good company, in literary, intellectual, and spiritual terms—both the influences he states and the predecessors his perspective suggests. Ilgunas is squarely located among nonfiction narratives about pilgrimage and other journeys on foot, including walking meditations on the human place in the natural world. His work shows kinship with Henry David Thoreau, including his comments on living within nature and away from company in Walden and his reflections on sauntering on Saint Terre in “Walking.” It brings to mind, more recently, the mixture of contemplative and inquisitive qualities of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.

Unlike these modern trekkers on established, federally maintained trails, Ilgunas mostly walked on private lands. In walking onto those lands, he committed the crime of “trespass.” The author effectively combines his reflections on borders and boundaries in terms of property ownership with the multiple connotations of trespass as any sort of infraction of rules and moral guidelines. He constantly brings the reader’s attention back to the impact of massive, irreversible transformation of the landscape for the purpose of extracting oil—a transformation that he came to see as fundamentally destructive. More than just an individual spiritual journey, Ilgunas has assembled a work with political implications, as he argues that corporate greed constitutes inexcusable trespass over the ethical boundaries of responsible stewardship.

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