Un­ex­pected kind­ness on a hike across Amer­ica.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - RE­VIEW BY AL­LAN FALLOW 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 comin­gof-age ex­pe­ri­ence — may re­mind you that the road does in­deed go on for­ever.

This is 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.


An­drew Forsthoe­fel sought “a grad­u­ate pro­gram in the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence” on his 11-month, 4,000-mile hike across the coun­try.

WALK­ING TO LIS­TEN 4,000 Miles Across Amer­ica, One Story at a Time By An­drew Forsthoe­fel Blooms­bury. 371 pp. $28

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