From the steamy heat of Louisiana's bayous to the fog-chilled Oregon seacoast, the travel time -- on foot, if you follow the meandering path of Woodstock graduate Peter Jenkins and his strong-willed, Baptist seminarian bride Barbara -- is just over 2 1/2 years.
The trek was, as the bearded Peter relates in the couple's homespun account of their 2,800-mile westward odyssey, an excellent education in "what this country is all about." It was also one heck of an adventure, right from the outset, and a demanding physical challenge that brought them close to quitting more than once.
Toting hefty backpacks that sported candy-striped golf umbrellas to provide portable shade, the pair set out from New Orleans on July 5, 1976, with $1,000 in traveler's checks. They had spent the Bicentennial packing.
Early on, they met a reputed voodoo queen, trapped alligators in the swamp with a Cajun guide and fought off black swarms of mosquitos at a mischosen campsite. Farther west, they dodged lightning bolts in a ferocious prairie storm, herded cattle on horseback at a mountain ranch roundup and entered Dallas with $1.87 to their name.
For seemingly endless days, they trudged the bleak back roads of West Texas under a throat-parching sun. Near the end of their walk, they almost faltered in the numbing cold of a snowy mountain pass where oblivious truckers zoomed by, splashing them with slush. Barbara, who seemed particularly out of strength, had, they soon discovered, become pregnant.
Several times they came close to disaster. In Utah, a careening car hurtled off the road and hit Barbara and Peter's sister (who had joined the hike for a few days), sending them both sprawling, fortunately with only minor injuries. In southern Colorado, they faced down a threatening trio of armed desperados high on drugs or alcohol.
That they did eventually reach their goal (Florence, Ore., Jan. 18, 1979) is in large part due to the astonishing friendliness and generosity of the small-town and rural Americans along the way. Something about the audacity of the trip -- and Peter and Barbara's cheerful determination to see it through -- captured the imagination of these folk.
"We're walking," the hikers told one young man, "so that we can meet people that we'd never meet otherwise. Walking makes us open to them, and them to us."
These strangers invited the pair into their homes, fed them thick steaks and gravy, gave them jobs to help pay their way and turned teary-eyed when they finally moved on after a few days or sometimes weeks or even months. Near 11,361-foot Slumgullion Pass outside tiny Lake City, Colo., rancher Perk Vickers and wife Emma Jean put them up in a small cabin for seven months to wait out the fierce mountain winter.
At the end, Peter and Barbara's families and many of the friends made along the way -- Perk and Emma Jean Vickers among them -- joined the couple to walk the last mile hand-in-hand to the Pacific Ocean. They ran the last few yards, plunging in waist-deep to embrace and kiss.
"There was no land left to walk," writes Peter. "I was glad it was over and I was sad."
This is the second installment of the cross-country walk that began for Peter in the college town of Alfred in western New York on Oct. 15, 1973. In "A Walk Across America," published in 1979, he explains how he had become turned off by an America buffeted by racial hatred, the Vietnam war, drugs and immorality. The breakup of his college marriage on graduation day helped spur him to seek an understanding of himself and his country.
By the end of the first leg of the trip, he had mostly achieved that goal. He had come to appreciate a basic goodness he found in the people he encountered, renewed his faith at a southern revival and met and married Barbara in New Orleans. But the urge to keep hiking to the Pacific Coast remained strong and, after hesitating for weeks, Barbara agreed to go with him.
They are a good couple to travel with, risk-takers and noncomplainers whose enthusiasm for poking into the unknown is infectious. Their prose is crisp and full of humor. They tell a story well, not forgetting those occasional days when the heat got so bad they took it out on each other in whirlwind spats, over as soon as they began.
Maybe their outlook sometimes is unsophisticated, but they have a friendly, questioning intelligence that served them well. It is easy to understand why so many strangers volunteered to help them on their way.
The authors introduce us to many of them, and it is these rural Americans -- the farm and ranch families with their tales of hardships overcome back in the days when more wagons than autos traveled western roads -- who give the book its essential characteristic: a feeling of warmth, of love reciprocated, of lives enriched by a chance encounter on the nation's byways.
As the once-disillusioned Peter concludes: "What an incredible country I'd found."