There exists a certain splendor in the protestations of the electorate on the grounds of the Elected. Here, in the southern wing of the Nebraska State Capitol, roughly 75 farmers, ranchers, environmentalists, Native Americans and other dissidents have gathered to oppose construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, and more specifically, the Governor’s authority to approve the pipeline’s path through Nebraska. They’ve come wearing belt buckles and Wrangler jeans, bolo ties and t-shirts that scream “Pipeline Fighter” and “#NOKXL.” But it’s difficult, in these marbled and dimly lit halls, not to feel awed by the stature of it all, the history cast in bronze and embossed beneath your feet. Even the atheist may be overcome by the grandeur of a cathedral.
Today, September 5, 2014, nearly six years after Transcanada first proposed this route, the Nebraska Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that could potentially alter the fate of the entire pipeline. I have come at the last minute to report on the hearing for a national wire service, to harvest quotes and take notes on “the local color.” The light on my recorder blinks red as I mingle outside the chamber.
“You oughta talk to him,” one woman says, pointing behind me. “He’s walked it.”
Late 20s, I guess. Maybe 30. His wardrobe skews middle management, tired, maybe fired, maybe quit. Wrinkled brown slacks. Partially untucked dress shirt. He’s leaning against the wall, arms crossed, watching the protesters gather and divide like cells into smaller circles. I point the recorder in his direction, ask dumbly, “Like…all of it?”
“From Hardesty, Alberta to the Gulf Coast of Texas.”
“It was strange though,” he says. “Nebraska was pretty much the only place I met any sort of resistance to the pipeline.”
He tells me his name is Ken, spells out his last name, I-L-G-U-N-A-S. It sounds familiar, but I can’t put it together. Later, I’d recall an essay he published about living in his van while enrolled at Duke University. “Some of us are just born with the gypsy blood,” he will later tell me, but before I can ask more the hearing has begun and the protestors are funneling into the watch room like cattle in a shoot.
Two months later, we agree to rendezvous a few miles west of Benedict, Nebraska, where he’s renting a house and finishing a book he’s written about his transcontinental hike. He greets me at the door wearing a puffy blue jacket. He keeps his thermostat set below 50 degrees, writes wearing fingerless gloves and cocooned in a sleeping bag at his desk. I gift him a six-pack and we talk at his kitchen table.
“There were periods when I felt overwhelming ecstasy,” he says. “When I’m walking over this rolling, grassy South Dakota prairie all by myself, on my own trip, in the center of the universe—god damn, life feels good. I’d carry that with me many days.”
For much of the interview, I drift vicariously through his exploits, through previous odd jobs in the Arctic Circle, through aerial tours of the Tar Sands. But it dawns on me, two beers down, that I’m asking questions to no end; questions vaguely related to a pipeline threatening to cross just miles away, vaguely related to his book, to climate change, to his gypsy blood. I’m beginning to wonder why I requested this interview at all, what I hoped to gain by it. I scratch circles on my notepad.
“Are you an activist?” I finally ask.
“Sometimes I struggle with how best to help the world,” he says.
We stare out the window, at the naked shelterbelt across the road, the stubble of a winter cornfield beyond it. The house falls silent. It is uncomfortable, and then it isn’t.
There exists a certain splendor when all the talking fades.
Carson Vaughan is a freelance writer from central Nebraska. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Smithsonian, Travel + Leisure, American Cowboy and more.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Overdue Book (creative commons).