Learning to listen- A walk with local author Andrew Forsthoefel

Photo Courtesy Of walkingtolisten.com | Local author Andrew Forsthoefel spent 11 months walking across America, which he wrote about in his recent book.


Tyra Wu ‘19
Associate Editor

We’ve just rounded the bend of the small dirt trail by Paradise Pond, stomping over the layer of fallen leaves and mud that formed after the rain the day before. I ask if the walk author Andrew Forsthoefel took across the country changed his thoughts about religion. “Whoa,” he says. “I think that question needs a slower pace, like a glacier pace. That’s like a geologic-time question. ” So we start glacier-walking, moving slowly as he thinks over his answer.

“During my walk that question became a lived experience rather than just reading about it,” he finally says. “Before, I was really adverse to the idea of God and religion because I thought, in order to engage, I had to have an answer. Now, I’m not really interested in the answer. I’m interested in right here and right now.”

After graduating   from Middlebury College in 2011, Forsthoefel decided to walk across America. He often felt isolated and alone during college and took to the road to find out more about himself. After a few moments of silence filled only with the sound of leaves crunching underfoot, he says, “My walk became a way for me to walk my own relationship with myself and my world. The experience of tearing myself out of my little bubble of comfort forced to confront some of the realities of my human experience.”

When Forsthoefel first set out on his journey, he wasn’t sure how long he would end up walking. He wasn’t tied to a specific length; he could have walked for just a week, but he ended up walking for 11 months. The walk across America, which he calls his own little Ph.D. program, was about immersing himself in unfamiliar situations, with the hope of learning more about himself in the process. So he set off from his home in Chadds Ford, Pa. with a backpack full of supplies, a sign that said “Walking to Listen” and an audio recorder in hand. Over the course of these 11 months, Forsthoefel “craze-walked,” “read-walked,” “swamp-walked” and “fear-walked” across the Southern states, passing through Alabama, Texas and New Mexico. Forsthoefel walked through forests, farms and fields, camping during the night if necessary, or staying with a kindly stranger if he was lucky. He eventually ended in Half Moon Bay, Calif., with over 85 hours of recorded conversations with people he encountered during the walk.

Most of the people he met showed him unexpected kindness, offering him food, conversation and sometimes even a place to crash for the night. In Alabama, he’d met a guy who offered him a foot-long chili dog loaded with coleslaw. They chatted pleasantly until he started talking about “blackfolk town” just down the road. The man was quick to clarify. “I’m not racist,” he said, “I just don’t like it when they thug out.” During those 11 months, he often found himself at a crossroads between standing up for his beliefs and being impolite to the people who had taken him in as a guest in their homes.

“All the sudden I was having connections with people who I felt sure I wasn’t going to be safe with, and feeling something like love for them,” Forsthoefel said. “And getting challenged by that because it’s like how can I love you when you just said this racist thing?”

Ultimately, he was challenged by something that we all face; how to coexist with people we find profoundly disagreeable. Five years later, Forsthoefel is now 28, but still looks just as youthful as he did during the walk, with the addition of a red-brown beard. He has a lanky walk and a ready smile, and he’s sporting glasses and black Crocs. In retrospect, he feels that he found what he was looking for during those months on the road; however, it’s not about the finish line, he says, but instead, every day is a new walk.

During our conversation, we talked about his major in college (environmental science and nonfiction writing), solutions to the current political climate (a grassroots movement) and how some of the people in the book felt when they read it (they were tickled, he says.)

After the walk, he created a radio documentary featured on Transom.org and “This American Life.” Once he finished this project, Forsthoefel felt he still had more energy to share, so he set out to write his book, “Walking to Listen: 4,000 Miles Across America one story at a time.” Nowadays, the former self-professed vagabond has settled down in Northampton, where he is still learning about relationships.

“Now I’m learning how to put myself second,” Forsthoefel says. “It’s such a relief. It’s hard to be constantly thinking about yourself.”

We’re finally reaching the end of the trail, trudging back up the path toward the Botanic Garden. It’s my last chance to ask a question, so I ask him what’s been on my mind since I first picked up the book. “How do you avoid cliche in a genre that’s been written about countless times?” He stops walking abruptly, leaving me catapulting a few steps ahead of him.

“Anything that comes out of my mouth isn’t mine,” he says. “It’s the result of countless conversations that came before, countless people that are a part of me. I want to celebrate that.”

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