Allan Fallow, a freelance writer and editor in Alexandria, Va., is a frequent contributor to Book World.
Stuffing fish skins into bait bags on a lobster boat in Cape Cod Bay was no picnic. But 23-year-old Andrew Forsthoefel hoped it would help pay for his research trip to a West African village, where he intended to study how indigenous communities around the world guide young people into adulthood.
When that scheme fell through, Forsthoefel undertook an epic initiation ceremony of his own: an 11-month, 4,000-mile hike across 13 states, from his home in Chadds Ford, Pa., to California’s Half Moon Bay. “I wanted to learn what it actually meant to come of age, to transform into the adult who would carry me through the rest of my life,” he writes in this earnest, contemplative account of his trek. “I wanted to meet that man.” What he was seeking, in other words, was “a graduate program in the human experience.”
And so, on a mid-October morning in 2011, Forsthoefel hoisted a 50-pound backpack and headed south, leaving his comfortable existence and doting mother behind. (The “marshmallow-stuffed Pillsbury croissants” she baked for Andrew early on the morning of his departure will break your heart.) To advertise the purpose of his project, Forsthoefel fastened a large sign to the top of his gear: “WALKING TO LISTEN.”
That simple invitation proved to be an even better icebreaker than the mandolin he also toted with him (or, for that matter, the American flag that fluttered from the top of his pack). A few days into North Carolina, for example, “one woman pulled over in her minivan, her two daughters in the back seat, and after just a couple minutes she told me all about her hysterectomy and how it had changed her life, just like that,” Forsthoefel explains. “It was not an unusual interaction. Often people would go straight to the heart of things, to the alchemical life moments that made them. They told me about motherhood and fatherhood, abandonment and abuse, drug addiction and death, conversion experiences and war trauma.”
These roadside oversharers confided the secrets of lighter folkways, too — of biscuit baking and raccoon hunting, of truck mudding and face-offs with wild animals. In a run-down gas station on Highway 221 in southern Virginia, near a town “that didn’t show up on the map,” Forsthoefel stumbles upon a circle of men discussing black bears:
“What are you supposed to do when you see one?” the innocent inquires.
“Well,” comes the philosophical answer, “the first thing I do is s--- my pants. Then I get the hell out of there.”
Conditioned to expect trouble on the road — his mother’s landlord, a retired Philadelphia cop, had pressured him to carry a knife — Forsthoefel was unprepared for the kindnesses he encountered. “People kept taking me in,” he reports. “Strangers were passing me to one another like I was a baton in a relay race.”
In Horse Pasture, Va., a firefighter presses $100 on him (“This is for your tip jar”) after the author plays a tune on his mandolin. In Blacksburg, S.C., a gray-haired man in hunter’s orange pays his breakfast tab. And on a lonely stretch of highway running from western Texas to Clovis, N.M., a long-haul trucker named Mel Jack shadows Forsthoefel for a week, stopping regularly to ply the author with Gatorade and popcorn. Jack even buys him a Bubba cooler, explaining: “With the hottest leg of your journey coming up, I want you to have a cold drink whenever you need it.” These episodes make “Walking to Listen” the ideal antidote for even the strongest bout of national doubt.
There are bunions and blisters aplenty, and soles that throb like a “bed of flaming needles” at the end of each day. In Austin, Forsthoefel buys a baby stroller to carry his pack, thus sparing a pair of tortured shoulders. He also suffers a sinister symptom dubbed only the Deep Itch: “I won’t elaborate,” Forsthoefel hints, “but a piece of advice if you’re heading out for a long hike: bring baby wipes.”
Despite frequent descriptive gems, “Walking to Listen” often slows to a crawl under its heavy burden of Whitman and Rilke quotes. And the author’s ceaseless interior monologue — in which he dissects everything from his fear of death and his struggles with solitude to his anguish at his parents’ divorce a decade earlier and his yearning for a transformative coming-of-age experience — may remind you that the road does indeed go on forever.
That’s a shame, because when Forsthoefel gets out of his head and lifts his eyes unto the hills all around, there is no better walking companion.
By Andrew Forsthoefel
Bloomsbury. 371 pp. $28