The grand American tour is often an east to west rite of passage. For those of us who came of age in the bellbottom decades of the 1960s and ’70s, our inspiration came from Peter Jenkins, whose two books “A Walk Across America,” followed by “The Walk West,” were required reading for restless idealists. I devoured both volumes before hitchhiking from Colorado to San Francisco with a loyal blue heeler named Emmie Lou, a Guild guitar and a cheap Sears backpack. I was 18 at the time, and today, 43 years on, I consider the trip one of my greatest accomplishments.
In these cautious times of helicopter parenting, when you rarely see a kid alone on a playground, 23-year-old author Andrew Forsthoefel’s 4,000-mile walk from his back door in Pennsylvania to California is all the more remarkable. The recent college graduate felt his life sliding toward “a lifestyle of constant comfort and consumption,” and felt that “something was missing on that path, and it had nothing to do with money or accumulation or achievement.” Forsthoefel longed to understand how other Americans experienced this short “cosmic improbability” of, well, being alive.
So, rather than follow the straight and narrow, Forsthoefel beat a path out his back door with copies of Walt Whitman, Rainer Maria Rilke and Kahlil Gibran, and an eye-catching sign attached to his backpack that read “WALKING TO LISTEN,” the title of his book.
Forsthoefel’s 11-month meditative journey in 2011, south to the Gulf Coast, then west across the belly of America, is filled with the kind of heartfelt encounters that would convert the most cynical among us. Strangers open their homes to him, cook him meals, give him money and offer advice.
In High Point, N.C., when Forsthoefel asks 77-year-old widow Hacky Pitts what she would do differently if she could live her life over, she answers, “I wouldn’t worry so much. I used to worry myself to death, and now I realize, the things you worry about, how many of them come true?”
In a kitchen in Franklin, La., civil servant Paul Fitch tells Forsthoefel that he has tried to experience everything life has to offer. “I didn’t close myself off to anything. … Most of it was wonderful. Some of it wasn’t. But it’s all learning.”
As the stories and miles piled up, Forsthoefel realized there was one story he still needed to accept: his own. It was “the only way I was ever going to find peace, otherwise I’d be wandering forever, searching for an impossible something else.”
Isn’t that always the case, that what we are searching for is right in front of us?
Stephen J. Lyons is the author of four books, most recently “Going Driftless: Life Lessons From the Heartland for Unraveling Times.”
Walking to Listen
By: Andrew Forsthoefel.
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 371 pages, $28.