Three years ago, a young man named Andrew Forsthoefel graduated from college and decided to spend a year traveling around the world, meeting foreign people, exploring other cultures. But he soon realized he lacked the funds for such an ambitious journey, so he did the next best thing.
He decided to spend a year walking across the United States. You heard it right: he would walk on his own two feet, avoiding cars, trains and planes, across the entire U.S.A.
In the temperate month of October, he set off from Philadelphia, bound for California, and immediately set off south to New Orleans, in order to escape the oncoming winter. Carrying a knapsack with a change of clothing, a small netbook computer, a device to record interviews, a water bottle, bread and peanut butter and jelly, and less than $3,000, he began walking every day on dirt roads and state highways, heading south and then west across the bottom of America. On the back of his knapsack, he pinned a sign reading "Walking to Listen", hoping that this would encourage people along the way to speak with him, so that he could encounter Americans in all their awesome variety.
And that's what happened. Nearly every day, he was stopped by strangers who inquired about the reason for the walk, and in numerous cases provided him with hospitality for the night, meals, and encouragement. The most generous strangers? Native Americans who stopped him as he walked across Indian reservations and showered him with the most appropriate hospitality. Runners up? People in the deep South. Scary experiences? There really weren't any--the people he met were invariably friendly, and provided him with insights into the scores and scores of ethnic and cultural groups that make up our country.
The most difficult segment of his walk? It was to cross Death Valley into California, and thus avoid a detour of hundreds of miles. Because the daytime temperatures at that time sometimes reached 122 degrees, he decided to walk only at night, and to rest in the shade in daytime. Rangers he had met warned him that another solitary walker had recently died while trying to do a daytime walk across the Valley.
Andrew's impressions of America--and he is a remarkable observer, who was interviewed by Pauline and myself this week--are currently set forth in a fascinating blog called "WalkingToListen.Com", which you will surely want to read. But he has now completed a book on the experience--title still unchosen--which will be published by Houghton Mifflin in about a year. From what I heard during our own interview with him, it will be a superb and unique description of present-day America, experienced in the most basic way. While few of us have the stamina or courage to walk completely across America, we can enjoy the next best thing by reading his blog and eventual book.