Trespassing Across America

by Ken Ilgunas

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Trespassing Across Americaby Ken Ilgunas is not only a meditation on his hike along the Keystone XL Pipeline; it is a meditation on the climate of modern American politics and the country’s division. When Ilgunas first planned his trip across the Keystone Pipeline, he believed that there would be opportunity for discourse and intelligent discussion. Instead, he found people so rooted in their own opinions that they refused to acknowledge empirical data or evidence contrary to what they believed to be true. Ken Ilgunas ended up finding that people do not seek new information or education; rather, they only look to information that will reinforce their already entrenched beliefs. The memoir becomes a devastating portrayal of America around the time of the 2016 election and a precursor to the current state of the nation. Throughout the book, Ilgunas both acknowledges the bleak reality and shows some hope.

Ilgunas writes,

To travel alone is to force yourself to depend on others. . . . It is to fall in love with mankind.

This quote is important in that it provides a deep contrast to the book’s conclusion about division in America. Ilgunas recognizes throughout his hike that it is impossible to have true civil discourse about the pipeline or climate change. He acknowledges that this is true of both sides of the argument on the Keystone XL Pipeline. In this quote, Ilgunas describes the basic goodness he encountered on his trip in spite of the disunity in political ideology. He discusses the fact that people helped him, even if they were wary of his intentions as a writer.

Not one person I encountered has said anything even halfway intelligent when denying global warming. . . . They saw themselves as too freewilled and independent to be duped into accepting something that an accomplished and well-trained scientist says is true. . . . But it is a false enlightenment to accept only those ideas that align with one's worldview and reject those that don't.

The quote above illustrates that Ilgunas was forced to recognize and come to terms with the fact that no one would be able to converse with him on an intellectual level about science or politics. This is important because this climate preceded the 2016 presidential election and the division that surrounded the opposing political campaigns, as well as the division between the candidates’ voter bases. Ilgunas ultimately is forced to realize that people take more pride in belittling education than aspiring to it. He begins to see that people only look to information that reinforces their beliefs instead of challenging them.

It’s a cliche and misleading to say that we’re “transformed” by our journeys. No one is ever really transformed into another human being. At the end of the journey, you’re more or less the same bundle of cells, memories, and values that you were beforehand. What changes, though, is that you’re able to make others believe that you’re this confident, capable, charming person (or some other set of uncharacteristic qualities).

In this quote, Ilgunas takes a moment to recognize the nature of human exploration and travel. While he is discussing how he felt at the end of his trip, he is also recognizing that travel does not necessarily bestow enlightenment upon the traveler. While this might come across as jaded, it has value in its recognition of the human need to shape and guard the self. What Ilgunas is truly saying here is that in order to protect themselves, people often have to create a public persona. In the context of the memoir as a whole, this quote points to the sense of enlightenment and meaning that people read into Ilgunas’s journey, along with the human need to protect oneself from feelings of inadequacy. On his hike, Ilgunas is forced to see that people would rather protect themselves with bluster and ignorance than acknowledge the feelings of inadequacy that come with being wrong.

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