From Gandhi’s Salt Satyagraha to King’s marches in Montgomery, Selma, and Washington, D.C., the most influential protests in our history are witnessed by massive movements of individuals, arm in arm and step by step, sharing the “truth-force” and “soul-force” of nonviolent dynamic change.
The summer of 2017 could see yet another pilgrimage for progress, this time in the name of environmental stewardship and removing financial influence from our governance system.
The potential marchers have been training for months, but not for this long walk. The Appalachian Trail sees 2 million unique visitors per year, up to 3,000 of whom are thru-hikers. Millions more use the Pacific Crest Trail, whose association issued an equal number of thru-hike permits in 2016. Over the past three seasons, the Continental Divide Trail, the longest and least defined of the Triple Crown, has still seen more than one hundred thru-hikers walk its 3,000 miles. The summer of 2017, the 49th anniversary of the National Trails System Act, could see the great trails of America empty as its hikers are drawn to a more meaningful pilgrimage: The route of the Keystone XL Pipeline.
Beginning in September 2012, Ken Ilgunas spent five months trespassing the 1,700 mile length of the Keystone XL, hiking from the Tar Sands in Alberta, Canada to the pipeline system’s Southern terminus in Port Arthur, Texas. Ilgunas says the potential influx of backpacking protesters is “a great idea;” he recalls his own experience:
I wanted a thru-hike experience, but I wanted it to mean something. I love those Triple Crown trails, but at the same time I think about how unoriginal they are and it surprises me how we’re so unwilling to dream up more original adventures.
Ilgunas says the AT, PCT, and CDT will still draw thousands of hikers, but that the KXL would be a “wonderful” way for outdoor enthusiasts to “channel their energy into something more substantive than merely devoting six months to test their physical mettle.” He warns against the millions of trail hikers who “consider Trump and the Republicans to be real and serious dangers,” but decide to escape on “self-absorbed pleasure tours of wild America while the rest of the country goes to hell.”
A mental image begins to form: A migrating mass of backpacks and soul, a walking city, makes its way Northward from Steele City, Nebraska, interrupting dumbfounded construction workers and highlighting the pipeline’s reliance on outdated energetic conventions.
“Practically, though,” Ilgunas adds, “it wouldn’t work.”
Ken references his Keystone trek’s reliance on stealth, “constantly keeping an eye out for landowners, carefully stepping over wire fences, evading cows, [and] camping in concealed spots.” He thinks the casual stream of hikers seen on established trails “would make it pretty easy for landowners and law enforcement to put a stop to it.” He adds, “plus there’d probably be legitimate disturbance to domesticated animals, planted crops, and fences, which wouldn’t win the support of the greater public.”
Ken’s perceptive consideration directly juxtaposes the brazen mentality of the pipeline’s proponents. TransCanada confiscated private land, “suing many who refused to allow the pipeline on their property even though the controversial project [had] yet to receive federal approval.”
Ilgunas believes a “blockade in Nebraska” similar to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s defense against the DAPL “would be more practical and effective” than a pilgrimage of protests along the KXL’s construction route.
The solidarity of Standing Rock has reminded our society how to protest the inertia of cultural mindlessness; Ken Ilgunas may be right, that the most poignant use of protest may be to sit-in on the KXL’s construction in lieu of walking the pilgrimage to Tar Sands.
If the outdoor community can unite with established environmental activists, we might not have to choose.
Featured image via Michael Kline