A 'Listening Pilgrim': In Book, Middlebury Grad Recounts His Open-Eared Walk Across U.S.

Apr 21, 2017

In 2011, Andrew Forsthoefel graduated from Middlebury College and faced a common question: What to do next? Forsthoefel decided he would walk across the country.

The culmination of that 10-month journey is told in Forsthoefel’s new book, Walking to Listen. He also produced a radio documentary about his journey in 2013.

VPR spoke to Forsthoefel about his journey, what he learned and why he hopes people will go on "listening pilgrimages."

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. Listen to the full audio above.

VPR: When did you get the idea to just start walking?

Forsthoefel: “Well, I initially didn't realize I would walk. I wanted to take some kind of time after graduation to immerse myself in the question of, 'Who am I, actually?' I wanted a boots-on-the-ground exploration of that and wanted to explore the question of coming of age.

“I had originally planned to study coming of age in indigenous communities. I got a job in a lobster boat in Massachusetts to finance it, but then got fired from the boat and didn't have the funds I thought I was going to have to pursue this project. So then I thought, 'What if I just walked out my back door?'"

What did friends and family say about this idea? Did anyone try to talk you out of it?

“I have to say, my friends and family were all very supportive — and it could be that they just knew me so well and so weren't terribly surprised.

"Vulnerability was the cornerstone of this whole experience, in a way. I mean, I think it's the cornerstone of the human experience." — Andrew Forsthoefel

"My mom had a lot of excellent challenging questions, and she asked them in a way that was not trying to manipulate me into not doing [it, but] asking it in a way that helped me clarify what it was I was trying to do here.”

It's a lot of roughing it on a trip like this — sleeping outdoors much of the time, being vulnerable not just to weather but people and situations. Did any of that give you pause?

“Absolutely. I had no idea what I was going to encounter, what I was walking out into.

“Vulnerability was the cornerstone of this whole experience in a way. I mean, I think it's the cornerstone of the human experience. It's easy to forget that at every moment we are vulnerable in these soft, frail, fragile bodies.”
 
How did you meet most of the people that you encountered along this journey?

“I wasn't taking any rides. I was intentionally walking and I had this sign on my backpack that said ‘Walking to listen,’ and I intended that to be a kind of invitation to people to come see what it was.

“And a lot of people did pull over on the side of the highway and say, ‘Hey what are you doing here?’ and often interactions would start that way.

“So when I finally would make it to a town at the end of the day — if I made it to a town at the end of the day — I would then need a place to camp or stay. And so I would start looking for preferably an establishment of some kind and a general store, a gas station, a bar, a church, and ask them for permission to camp out.

“Often that would lead to interactions and sometimes I would even knock on people's doors. Just imagine somebody knocking on your door, you know, five o'clock in the evening — this guy in big backpack outside saying, ‘Hey I'm walking across America to listen to people's stories and I'm just looking for a place to sleep tonight. Can I camp out in your yard?’

“I spent three out of four nights underneath a roof of some sort over the course of that year. Not always private residences. I spent the night in an alligator ranch in Mississippi and a mariachi radio station in Texas — just all kinds of places.”

What are some of the most compelling or moving stories that you heard from people?

“It's a hard question to answer in this format because part of what sharing a story like that requires is a lot of space and a lot of silence and a lot of slowness.

“I can't relate to you the fullness of a story like that. A little tidbit I can offer is again just the power of listening.

"One doesn't have to walk across America to practice this kind of listening ... The burden of this kind of listening and the privilege of it must be shared by all of us, regardless of what our walk looks like."

“I mean, my God, this was not something — there was no listening major at my college or in high school. It was sort of framed as either like a chore or something I had to do to stay within the realm of socially acceptable behavior.

“So this other form of listening was not something I had any formal education in, but I sort of stumbled into it on this journey. And as I became a better listener, people really did open up and humbled me.”

The country really seems more divided now than at any time in modern history. Do you think you would hear different things now from a lot of those people that you encountered in 2011?

“Yeah, I think a lot about that. I think my first answer to that is that I think it's important to note that one doesn't have to walk across America to practice this kind of listening, and that in fact the burden of this kind of listening and the privilege of it must be shared by all of us, regardless of what our walk looks like.

“And then the other thing that makes me think of is I would love to see pilgrimage become a bigger part of American culture. There is some of that with the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, but I'd love to see people starting to walk east and west more, on the highways more, where they're meeting a diverse cross-section of people and proposing to listen to them.

“I would love to see listening pilgrims all the way across America because that's the only way to know who someone else is, to listen to them. The media can't do that for us, the president can't do that for us, our legislators can't do it, only we can.”

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