NORTHAMPTON — Andrew Forsthoefel walked out of his mother’s house in southeastern Pennsylvania one day in 2011 and kept going. Having just graduated from Middlebury College, he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. He had plenty of questions, so he went searching for answers.
For the next 10 months, outfitted only with a 50-pound backpack, a pup tent, a mandolin, and a sign on his back that read “Walking to Listen,” he tramped the highways and country roads of America. Every chance he got, he struck up conversations with strangers. Many of them offered him access to a shelter or a place to pitch his tent; some insisted he take a pillow in the guest room. Many gave him meals or even money.
They all had advice for him, some of it spiritual: “Everyone has something divine to share,” a man in Louisiana told him. And some of it survival-oriented: “You can eat maggots out there on the road, you know,’’ an uncle advised.
Young, old, black, white, financially comfortable or not, nearly everyone he met was intrigued by his undertaking, eager to hear his story — and just as eager to share their own. “I just started talking to people about their lives and, sometimes, what their lives had taught them,” he writes in his new book, “Walking to Listen: 4,000 Miles Across America, One Story at a Time.” “The more authentically interested I was, the better I listened, the more it seemed people opened up.”
People told Forsthoefel about their formative experiences: love, loss, addiction, the military, religious conversion. A Virginia goat farmer observed that a life tied to seasons lends a broader worldview. A widow of an embittered vet who lost his will to live wondered why some are faced with so much suffering. An astrologer in Santa Fe warned that too many pass their days as if asleep. One woman who gave him a quick ride in her minivan used the time to tell him about her hysterectomy.
“I began to realize how rare listening actually is,” Forsthoefel said recently, taking a morning walk on the wooded trails of Northampton’s Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Area. “I realized in retrospect that I didn’t really know what those words on my back meant.”
For now, Forsthoefel lives in a modest apartment here, between a liquor store and a Chinese restaurant.
He calls it his “little downtown dojo.” It’s temporary, though. He can see himself settling down in the Pioneer Valley.
“I’m amazed to hear myself say that,” he says. “For a long time, the thought of staying anywhere longer than a month freaked me out.”
A product of a divorce, he’d conceived his cross-country walk — from the mid-Atlantic states to Louisiana and Texas, through the Southwestern desert to the edge of the continent in California — in the peripatetic tradition of Johnny Appleseed, “On the Road,” and Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods.” It was “a graduate program in the human experience,” as he writes.
In diners, convenience stores, and community centers, the young man recorded 85 hours of talks with everyday people. Upon his return, he incorporated excerpts from those exchanges into a 50-minute radio program, which led to his book deal.
Crossing the American landscape, he passed through mountains, pastures, swamps, and desert. Inside his head, there were “deserts of doubt, swamps of loneliness.” Yet the uncertainty — where would he sleep? Would he be welcome? What about tomorrow’s weather? — was life-affirming, he says.
In his book he quotes from Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet,” one of three books he’d tucked into his backpack (along with Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet” and Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”). “This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us,” Rilke wrote: the courage to face the unknown.
Though he considers himself “about as liberal as they come,” Forsthoefel admits that he was forced to confront some discouraging traces of his own biases. There were times when he found himself palming his pocket knife when coming upon strangers, just in case; others when he hesitated to speak with someone because they seemed to wear their racial, social, or political prejudices on their sleeve. Rather than confronting them, he soon found it more helpful to try to understand: What do you believe, and how does it feel to believe it?
It’s not lost on Forsthoefel that his book, which took him about three years to finish, comes out at a divisive time in the nation. He has begun facilitating workshops on walking and listening; inevitably, part of the program focuses on conflict resolution. (“Don’t ever watch the news,” as one general store owner told him.)
Along today’s ramble, he strikes up a conversation with two women walking their dogs. For them, this trail is part of their weekly routine. Carol Heon’s energetic lab, Sweet Pea, bounds over to greet the newcomers. But Cathleen Grady’s bearded little mix, Bailey, is shy: She fixes her gaze on her human, ignoring the strangers. She isn’t so thrilled about men she doesn’t know, Grady explains. By the end of a brief chat, Forsthoefel has piqued the women’s interest in coming to his local book reading.
Forsthoefel recounts a story in his book about an LGBTQ activist who was out walking her dog in a desolate part of downtown Las Vegas when she came upon a big guy walking toward her, scowling and “a little inebriated.’’ At first she was afraid. Then she smiled and greeted him. He first appeared shocked, then responded in kind. “We’re all scared of something. We’re angry at something,’’ she concludes.
Forsthoefel agrees. Learning to listen will “help us figure out how to live together in kindness,” he says. “And that’s on all of us.”James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.