Neil King Jr. is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor and the author of the forthcoming “American Ramble: A Walk of Memory and Renewal.”
OpinionWhat I learned about America at 3 miles per hour
So I walked out my door a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol, took a left past the gate and lit out for New York City — a slow stroll up a fast corridor.
I didn’t go to notch some great physical achievement. My meandering, 330-mile saunter along the edges of roads and highways was all about paying homage to the land in between and to what it could tell me, step by step, over 26 days.
This walk through a founding swath of the nation came at a time when the country was plainly out of sorts. We were fighting over statues, over which of our national dead to honor and which to cast aside. We were fighting over our origins and the stories we tell our children about our past. We were fighting over an election and whether we hold any truths to be self-evident.
All that was grist for the walk, but my paramount aim was to devote myself to simple things. Which of the fruit trees blossomed first. Why the maples might have flowered on a hillside but not in the valley. The first flash of an osprey overhead. How the earliest settlers built first with wood, then with fieldstone and later, if lucky, with squared-off blocks quarried from the earth.
I stopped to examine the handmade hinges of barns along the Mason-Dixon Line. I studied how the farms changed and got prouder once you crossed the Susquehanna River. I counted the micronations passed along the way, each still defined by the imprints of its earliest settlers.
I am not pretending that a long walk will cure us of our personal or national woes. But I can attest to deep astonishment, as the weeks and miles ticked by, at how the quiet attentiveness of those days cleansed my eyes and opened my spirit. How they changed me and created a space I can step into even now.
There is nothing new in this. Noticing and honoring the particulars — the details we’ve grown so good at missing as we stare at our screens — lies at the heart of most great science and art — and so much of religion, too. What would Charles Darwin be without his finches, or Galileo his tiny stars in the shadow of Jupiter? “Attention,” the poet Mary Oliver said, “is the beginning of devotion.” She paid attention, like all great poets.
Our country’s history is best seen on foot, in its gritty specifics, day after day, in the contours of the canals and railways and cemeteries we have built going back to our earliest years. A walker can examine our past and present up close and come to some hazy conclusion over where we might be heading, not unlike Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens and so many others did when wandering similar byways during another uneasy patch of our history.
You get a deeper understanding, walking the small roads, for the back-and-forth wash of memory and oblivion. The Indigenous villages on the colonial maps where not a physical trace remains. The sunken graves to forgotten luminaries in the all-Black cemeteries. The rail beds in northern Maryland where proslavery forces bombed the bridges in the days after the Battle of Fort Sumter. The once-proud manor houses gone to seed and the one where 10 generations have kept their stone home perfectly neat. You see up close how quickly the earth can take back even the most solid efforts to memorialize.
You see, too, the fickleness of whom we honor or neglect. In the tidy Pennsylvania town of Lancaster, I wandered the meticulously kept home of President James Buchanan, the antebellum Southern sympathizer who reviled abolitionists. And I visited the hulk of a townhouse once owned by his nemesis, Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, the radical lawmaker who did as much as anyone to codify the end of slavery in the Constitution. His home, only now, is becoming a place to visit and revere.
We fight over the Founding Fathers, but on a long walk your respect deepens for those other founders, the anonymous ones — some enslaved, others barely scraping by — who cleared the forests and dug the canals and blasted the rock to lay the rails. Who built the elaborate stone walls to divide the meadows now taken back by forest. Hundreds of ragged laborers died of cholera when digging the canals that skirt the Delaware. Their bones are buried there still.
The thing about these details is they round out us humans, too. We all have our attributes that help forgive our faults. We have our many facets. If you come to know just the objectionable ones from afar, you’re missing the whole person. We do a lot of that now with the flattened people we fume about on television and Twitter.
Along the walk, I met many people, some faintly like me and many not. We stood and talked alongside their tractor or inside their barn or at the end of their driveway, and even those who held views contrary to mine had things about them I found endearing.
There was the bearded auctioneer in Pennsylvania who said God no longer loved America for all the ways we were sinning, but then beamed when showing off the vintage tractors he would sell at auction in the morning; my phone had died, and he gave me good directions to get to where I was going. Or the drywaller in New Jersey with the MAGA flags fluttering from his pickup who lavished me with snacks and jokes when he heard what I was doing; as we talked in his driveway, he gave me a cold beer.
Encountering people on a common patch of ground makes a real difference. Day after day, I had to size people up, and they me, to figure out what we made of each other. This encounter is both more complex and more satisfying as a pedestrian, especially a wayfaring one with a pack on his back. You begin quickly to hone your skills at belonging in the odd places where you arrive — the airless roadside tavern, the Mennonite butcher shop, the tennis court where I persuaded a stranger to lend me a racket and play.
No, you don’t have to walk for weeks on end to glimpse what I’m talking about. Study a route, immerse yourself in its history, its geography, the lay of the land and how it got that way, and go walk it attentively, if only for a couple of days.
When you do so, you may see how the effort can renew the spirit and unleash fresh reserves of awe. I had moments of rapture that boiled out of nowhere — in a tavern as rain poured outside, along a road as a slanting snow blew, on the Bayonne Bridge when I caught my first silvery flash of Lower Manhattan. The days and all those miles had pried open a part of the human spirit that magnified the potency of simple things and granted the commonplace a touch of the divine.
We can’t solve what ails us merely by meditating over what we see while walking over a few days or weeks. But we’ve been traveling at the speed we are now for less than two centuries. That is a tiny fraction of the 5,000 years or so since we began scribbling our collective stories.
A slow walk won’t buttress your certitudes — more likely the opposite, imbuing the mundane with wonder and magnifying the world’s extraordinary complexity. There are great wonders out there for anyone who decides to go look at the world, particularly a stretch you think you already know, at three miles an hour. The speed of love, as one philosopher wrote.