The summer after graduating from college, a young man walked out the back door of his home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania—and didn’t stop until he reached the Pacific Ocean, 4,000 miles away.
An excerpt from Walking to Listen
“Why don’t you just drive?”
That was one of the first things some people asked me when I told them what I was doing. The answer was simple: Sure, driving would get me there faster, but it would cut me off from everything in between the beginning and the end. And where was “there,” anyway?
Something human is sacrificed traveling at high speeds, I came to believe, because humans are actually quite slow. When we walk, we are brought back to ourselves again, immersing our awareness in the body and all its sensitivities, creating space for the mind to breathe and explore and play. There’s so much to feel, and there’s nothing to distract you from feeling it. Walk long enough and this immensity of feeling begins to blur the boundaries between you and everything else. One elderly man called it “the white time.” His name was Jerry Priddy. He walked two miles every morning, hadn’t missed a single day since 1995. That was like walking across America four times.
“You amble along,” he said, “and it’s like being whited out in a snowstorm. You can’t see anything and you’re not aware of anything, and it’s going on around you. It don’t amount to a whole lot, but the sum total is it’s a beautiful experience when you get through. It clears your head. You’re there.”
There was no such thing as boredom in the white time because everything was always in flux. The white time demanded my engagement. I couldn’t just sit in it, as I would in a car, because I was my own vehicle. I was married to the movement. I was the movement. Each and every stride was an active stitch binding me to the land and to everyone I met. In this way, the road wasn’t a contradiction, like it would’ve been at car-speed. When you drive, the car isolates and insulates you from everyone and everything you pass; it’s a severing from the surrounding world. When you walk, however, the road takes you from the beginning to the end not by severance but by connection—connection to the people you meet, to the land you touch, to the sun and the wind and the rain.
Despite the growing magic of it, the walking was, at the very same time, still utterly miserable at the end of most days. I’d been walking all through the winter by now, and it hadn’t gotten any easier. By dusk, I was always ragged and raw. The blisters kept coming, and I hadn’t gotten used to the ass chafing yet. I gave up hope that I ever would. The worst, however, was the Deep Itch. I won’t elaborate, but a piece of advice if you’re heading out for a long hike: bring baby wipes.
There was, in fact, something worse than the Deep Itch: mosquitos. It was February now, warm enough for them. They could fly faster than I could walk, which was unfortunate because I was about to walk through the swamps of Mississippi and Louisiana.
I’d heard horror stories about the breeds on the Gulf Coast. “They’re bigger than VW bugs.” “They drink DEET like blood.” “They’ll carry you away.” They only caught me twice. The second time, I was in southern Louisiana setting up camp in a field shielded from the highway by a grassy berm. When the steady pestering became a full-fledged attack, I took refuge in my tent. I lay naked on my back, watching the mosquitos slowly flood the space between the mesh ceiling and the rainfly outside. There were hundreds. They floated so delicately, silent little sprites poking at the mesh skin, hopeful for a drink. I watched them for nearly an hour, the ballet of bloodsuckers.
But the first time the mosquitos swarmed me, almost in Mississippi, I was on the road, exposed. I put on my rain jacket. It didn’t do much. Now they all just went for my face. I started swatting at the air and slapping my face, bellowing. This was craze walking, a manic, delusional unraveling. If I found myself babbling in an argument with the headwinds, begging aloud to the rain for mercy, or nursing personal grudges against each and every mosquito, I was craze-walking.
The mosquitos abruptly disappeared at around 5 p.m. I peeked out from my rain jacket. An egret was standing in the marsh, its ivory white shocking against the tall brown grass, and two blue herons burst out of the forest. Pelicans cruised above, joined for an improbable moment by a bald eagle. I started shouting, “Yes!” Over and over again. Perhaps a side effect of the craze-walking.
This was the real-life swamp, the bayou. The mosquitos were benign compared to the bigger beasts lurking deeper inside. There was legitimate cause for concern with the alligators. Wild boars ran free, and bobcats, too, and packs of stray dogs. Somewhere in the murky waters swam saw-toothed monstrosities called alligator garfish. There was even rumor of a panther, I would soon be told. And everything was soggy, which meant there were precious few camping spots. Not that it mattered. I wasn’t going to sleep on the ground in that hungry place. The tree canopy seemed much safer. Then again, there was the panther.
When I first crossed into Mississippi, I was spared a night in the swamp by a benevolent alligator rancher named Allen and his girlfriend, Addie. Allen ended up letting me stay in the guest room of his apartment above the ranch’s showroom. He had a few alligators in captivity, including a 13-footer called Big Bull, but those weren’t the ones to worry about. There were others outside the fences. Hurricane Katrina had flooded Allen’s compound when it blew through, raising the swamp right over the pens. When the waters subsided, the alligators were gone, all 150 of them. Allen had recaptured 40 in the seven years since the hurricane. The math didn’t favor camping.
The ranch was right on the edge of the swamp next to Highway 90 outside Pascagoula. Out back, a small fleet of airboats propelled by gigantic fans bobbed by a dock, and a swath of mucky marshland was fenced off for the alligators. Shining a flashlight that night from Allen’s porch, I could see their eyes gleaming.
The TV played in the living room, a show about passion killings. It was part of a series called Deadly Women Tuesday Marathon. Sitting between Allen and Addie, watching the grisly reenactments, I wanted to crack a joke—“I promise I’m not taking notes”—but I thought better of it. We were all sleeping under the same roof that night, and I didn’t want to put anyone on edge.
“Allen watches this to make sure none of the women he’s fooling with are on there,” Addie said. She had a riotous laugh. She called me “kiddo” and “dear,” and earlier, before Allen invited me inside, she had come out to my tent and brought me a plate loaded with lasagna. And then another one. After the second plate, I started calling her my Mississippi mother. She said that if her son were walking across America she’d inch along behind him in her car the whole way, shouting advice and honking at strangers. “You stay away from that boy!” “Drink some water, honey!” Addie reminded me of my Aunt Ginger back home. She’d said she was going to follow me in her minivan. My Aunt Janet had promised to join her.
“Your poor mother,” Addie had said when I first met her. “I don’t know how she’s doing this.” That was probably the most commonly asked question of all: “How is your mother doing this?” We talked often, and I asked her once myself. How are you doing it?
“If I don’t let you die,” she said, “if I don’t embrace that the end of your life could be at 23, then it’ll be a lot harder. I’ll freak out. So I have to completely let go and say yes to anything. I have to say the same yes you have to say, in a different way. I just have to work very hard to stay still. There are times where inside I’m like, ‘No! No! No!’ and I have to lock her up in the bathroom, that animal mother.
“So at night I assess: ‘What’s the fear? What’s hard about this?’ I’m worried about you being outdoors. It’s so anti-intuitive for me, because you were in my womb. You need to be sheltered somewhere, but you’re on a road without a shoulder with freaking 18-wheelers.
“That’s the hardest. ‘How will it be if he dies, or if he gets seriously, seriously injured?’ And I say, ‘It will not be good, and he can’t not do this.’ Because I know that if you don’t do this thing, it won’t be good for you. So it’s really about letting you not come back. It doesn’t fit with the animal mother in me, but my yes is becoming stronger than my fear. It’s a process. Every day is, ‘He could die today.’ I feel very alive. Awake. I literally feel like I’m in two places at once—where I am and where you are. I think that’s just love.”
The night before I left home, we had a bonfire out in the backyard. It was at the fire that I first felt, somewhere beyond my intellect, that I might actually die on this walk, and that this might be one of the last times I ever saw my mom. We prayed. I wasn’t entirely sure to whom or to what, but that didn’t matter to me. All the discussions I’d had in high school and college about the existence of God seemed so trivial now, even moot. I wasn’t interested in proving or disproving anything. I only wanted to start this walk on the right foot, and that meant acknowledging my own tininess, honoring the fact that I couldn’t do what I was about to attempt to do alone. At the end of our homegrown backyard ceremony, my mom washed my feet with warm water, a Catholic ritual that seemed relevant now given all the walking my feet had in front of them. That was when Mom first let me die.
I found many mothers on the road, and Addie was one of my favorites. She kept making me laugh. On the TV, a woman was braining her sleeping lover with a cricket bat.
“God, this is insane,” I said, looking away.
“Well, I lost my sanity a long time ago,” Addie said. “But don’t worry, I found it again. I keep it in a little bottle at the bottom of my drawer, so it’s not lost anymore. I just don’t have it on me. I’ll get it out when I’m ready. Until then,” and here she leaned forward to look at Allen, “watch out, baby.”
We both laughed.
Allen shook his head and grunted.
“Oh, he’s an old crank,” Addie said. “But I’m an old bitch, so we get along.”
Allen wore cowboy boots and a big belt buckle. He was from southern Louisiana, the first Cajun I’d met, born and bred on the bayou. He’d suffered a couple of alligator bites in his lifetime. The worst one was from a seven-footer. It almost took his hand off.
“It wasn’t no big deal,” Allen said. “He didn’t do it on purpose.”
“You ever wrestle any?” I asked.
“No, not really. Just when we had to go out catching them after Katrina. You gotta jump on they backs and hold them down. I don’t do tricks anymore, like them guys like they do? Put them heads in they mouth and all like that? That’s people that ain’t got no brains. That’s crazy.”
“What do you do if you get caught by one?” I asked. “A big one, like that guy you have out there?”
“Gator like Big Bull grab you? They ain’t nothing you can do.”
Allen told me a few more swamp stories into the recorder. The conversation drifted into nostalgia—how things used to be, how today’s just not the same—and then, rather abruptly, we were talking about the Apocalypse.
A Great Tribulation was on its way, Allen said. An Armageddon. A God War. I would know it when it came. It wouldn’t be tornadoes or earthquakes or another Katrina. It would be like nothing anyone had ever seen before, something unbelievable, like fire raining down from the sky.
“Says in the Bible, ‘One will be taken along and one will be left behind.’ So if you’re left behind that means you’re probably going to be destroyed. Bible says that God separates people, just like a shepherd. Separates the sheep from the goats. Says the sheep know his voice. The goats? Well, they’re gonna blow off into everlasting destruction. The sheep go off into everlasting life. God already knows who the sheep are.”
Allen spoke quite matter-of-factly about the end of the world, but perhaps that was to be expected from someone who’d nearly lost a hand to an alligator and didn’t think it was a big deal.
“No one can know for sure,” he said, “but I think it’s coming soon.”
I could see how the promise of an apocalypse was comforting as Allen described it to me. It explained the baffling complexity of the world. When Armageddon arrived at last, everyone would know the truth of this mystifying human experience. It would be absolute—there’d be winners and there’d be losers, the ones who just never got it. Sheep were sheep. Goats were goats. That was that. I almost wanted to believe it myself.
I didn’t know what to say as he expounded. Mostly I kept quiet, wondering if he thought I was a goat. To me, he was neither goat nor sheep. He was Allen. I was Andrew. We were each our own kind of animal, a tiny, unique branch in the dendritic evolution of humanity. Walking the country was like an exercise in taxonomy, cataloguing the varieties of the human species. I’d already encountered so many, and would meet many more as I continued: hitchhikers and hobos, waitresses and their regulars, road-trippers, ranchers, and roughnecks, raccoon hunters, deer slayers, hog stalkers, mothers of five and seven and ten, firefighters, police officers, professors and pot growers, laughing cowboys and solemn mechanics, the hippy-dippy ice sculptor, the drunken hibachi chef, the farmers of cotton and corn and goats, fledgling sweethearts and ancient lovebirds, an old-time bounty hunter, a small-time shrimper, a homemade-ice-cream maker and a biscuit baker and a master of crawfish étouffée, a Hopi glassblower, a Navajo medicine man, a Cajun mystic, an ex-con, an ex-president, preachers of fire and brimstone, football heroes fallen from glory, mariachi DJs, a deluded messiah, cosmetologists and embalmers of the dead, wannabe crop-dusters, would-be walkers, the lost, the found, the saved, the damned, and an old man on the highway called Nowhere.
And then there was Addie, my Mississippi mother, and Allen, the doomsday alligator rancher. Of course, all these people were far more than the titles I’ve just given them, but that’s taxonomy, finding some kind of order in the chaos and classifying it. Why bother, in this case? Because then an amalgam of indistinguishable faces splinters off into hundreds of millions of fragments—individual human beings. The closer you look, the more varieties you find, and any goat-and-sheep dichotomy starts to look completely absurd. Americans become Mississippians, who become alligator ranchers, who become Allen, who likes hunting in the swamp on his airboat at dusk and watching the Deadly Women Tuesday Marathon; who believes in goats and sheep, and probably thinks you’re a goat; and who feeds you a huge breakfast in the morning anyway.
Reaching the Gulf Coast was bizarre, like crossing into a new state. Did I really just walk to the Gulf of Mexico? A bit to the north I’d begun to see seafood joints and Cajun markets and billboards for beaches. It seemed impossible. My footsteps were actually covering ground, one by one making finite that which had once seemed so infinite.
On Highway 90 I passed through Pascagoula and Biloxi. The signature of Hurricane Katrina was still written everywhere, almost seven years later. Twisted trees kowtowed at absurd angles. Buildings were flayed down to their structural skeletons, or being built anew.
In the bayou country just north of New Orleans, fishing boats lay beached on the marshy banks, rotting.
Pearlington, Mississippi, had seen the worst of it. The quaint little bayou hamlet had become a war zone. Those who’d stayed for the hurricane had stared straight into her furious eye. I’d arrived in the town at sunset and, as always, I needed a place to camp out. A bar was on my left, a church on my right. I went left.
The bar was called Turtle Landing. I took a seat next to a tan, rough-faced man with an aquiline nose whose cigarettes smoldered in the dark. His name was Randy Turpin. His partner, Susie Sharp, looked strong and sturdy, and smiled a lot. She wore glinty glasses. They’d both just come back from the Mardi Gras parade in Bay St. Louis, the same one I’d walked past that morning. When I admitted I’d never really taken part in a Mardi Gras parade, Susie festooned me with a bunch of beads and a crown of purple panties, thrown from the floats. Everyone at the bar seemed to be wearing some mark of Louisiana loyalty—Saints sweatshirts, LSU hats—and although no one else was wearing panties like a swim cap, I thought I fit in better with them on.
After a few beers, Randy and Susie offered to put me up at their place for the night. At their kitchen table, they told me their Katrina stories. Everybody in town had one.
“You ever have one of those dreams where you’re falling and wondering whether you’re going to hit the ground or not, and you just won’t wake up?” This was Randy. “We never had a chance to figure out whether we were going to hit the ground or not. You just can’t wake yourself up from that nightmare until it quits. I’ve had over six years to think about it now, and that’s as close as I can put it. That falling dream. You know you’re falling, and you know you’re dreaming, but you won’t wake yourself up. And then the pressure changed, and it was like you were taking off vertical in a jet and your ears just go POOF!”
He spoke with little emotion, his voice sandpaper rough. He was the kind of guy I’d want to be around if I ever found myself trapped in a Category 5 hurricane, the kind of guy who takes an ax into the fray, which was exactly what he did. I wouldn’t have thought to do that, but it made sense: if the water rose too high, you’d have to get to the roof somehow.
“And then everything got calm,” Randy said. “Dead calm. They tell you about the eye of the storm? That’s what we was in. Pretty blue sky above you. Someone said, ‘It’s over!’ and I said, ‘No, we got the other side of this sombitch to go through. Something bad fixin’ to happen.’ About 10 minutes later, something bad happened. That’s when we seen the water. It just rose up so quick. You either moved right then or you drowned. You were past the point of being scared. There’s no room for being scared.”
“Everything that was down went up, and everything that was up came down,” Susie said, showing me pictures of the aftermath. It didn’t seem possible that water and wind could be responsible for such devastation. It looked more like the work of mercenary giants, legions of them. The bartender at Turtle Landing had told me that the whole bayou had emptied itself out onto Pearlington, the water climbing as high as 28 feet. Houses floated off their foundations, crashing into telephone poles like possessed pinballs. Trees snapped. Refrigerators shot through the roofs of flooded homes, propelled by their own airtight buoyancy. After it was over, sludge coated the town. Dogs lay dead. Fires burned.
“It looked like a nuclear bomb went off,” Randy said. “But we know how to survive in the woods and on the water. Hunting, fishing, trapping. Nobody went hungry. There’s no ‘me’ in this town. It’s ‘us.’ Because it’s us against the elements down here. It ain’t us against the government. It ain’t us against the blacks. It ain’t us against the whites. It’s us against what we got to deal with out there.” He pointed in the direction of the swamp. “Yeah, we just know how to get along. You do what you do with what you got. You have food to spare? You spare it. That’s just the way it goes.”
“Everybody knows everybody,” Susie added. “And if you don’t know somebody, somebody you know knows them.”
“So somebody like me sticks out?” I said.
“No, you don’t stick out,” Susie said. “You’re just . . . noticed.”
“We trust in people,” Randy said. “It costs us a lot sometimes, and sometimes it don’t cost us nothing but a handshake. It might be our curiosity. It might be just the way we are.”
This story is an excerpt from Walking to Listen: 4,000 Miles Across America, One Story at a Time. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright 2017 Andrew Forsthoefel.