Mile 60 of the C&O Canal Towpath
At times, we need to stop to listen; other times, we need to keep moving. Andrew Forsthoefel experienced the latter truth when he walked four thousand miles from Philadelphia to the Pacific Ocean. He was twenty-three and after losing his first post-college job he “hoped to find some ingredients in an experience that would give me a potent learning experience.” So Andrew walked–what he calls the slowest distance between two points. Along the way, he asked each person what advice they would give their twenty-three-year-old self (the sign on his backpack read “walking to listen”).
In all, Andrew collected over eighty hours of conversations and music. He distilled that hefty archive into an hour-long radio piece where he sagely illuminates his fears and revelations. This American Life used a shortened version for “Hit the Road,” a stirring program on movement, but the full radio piece is required listening. Find it at Transom.
Andrew’s story reminded me of a talk I attended by John Francis who’s sometimes known as the Planetwalker. After witnessing the 1971 San Francisco Bay oil spill, he eschewed riding in cars for twenty-two years and remained silent for seventeen of those. During his abstinence, he walked across the lower forty-eight states and completed a PhD. He carried a banjo (Andrew carried a mandolin) and was, in a way, walking to listen as well. I’ll never forget the way his expressive hands expanded his speech.
On my own less-dramatic sojourn this year, I devoured Rolf Potts’ book Vagabonding. This book isn’t a travel guide, although it is filled with practical resources. Rather, it ruminates on why we move and expertly destroys myths like the expenses of travel. Potts argues that long-term travel is not a luxury reserved for the rich or the recent college graduate, but an essential part of life. And that, with a little reorganizing of one’s wants and needs, it’s simple and liberating to live this way. I highly recommend reading this one. It changed my life, whatever that’s worth. I can’t guarantee it will do the same for you, but at the very least, you’ll come out armed with some damn good quotes. (See an excerpt read by the author below.)
A related book I have my eye on is Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust. She pulls together notions of walking across era and discipline–a history of movement. As I paged though this one in a B&N, I noticed that she runs (or walks) quotes along the bottom of each page throughout the book. Clever girl.
You’ve got to walk / that lonesome valley / Walk it yourself / You’ve gotta gotta go / By yourself / Ain’t nobody else / gonna go there for you / Yea, you’ve gotta go there by yourself.
“Lonesome Valley,” Traditional Gospel
It’s a bit too easy to romanticize “mindfulness” and “slowing down.” These terms have lost much of their original punch as they peak in mainstream dialog. Still I think the parables of Andrew and John are useful. Andrew walked to listen, and I would suggest adding to your repertoire listening to your walk; that is, your sounds and those around you. I’m interested in the confluence of sound and movement and I hope to write more about this in the future. Now and then the slowest distance between two points is the fastest means to happy days. So keep walking. But, perhaps more importantly to me, keep listening. But don’t listen to me, go outside.