Have you ever wondered what it would be like if you left your hometown tomorrow and just started walking? By yourself with little more than just a compass and a general direction? Well that is exactly what Andrew Forsthoefel ’11 did on October 14, 2011. Currently in southern Alabama, Andrew has been walking for the last four months with one purpose: to listen. He has no specific final destination, just an abstract goal of reaching the Pacific. The project is truly more about the journey where he hopes to learn more about this country’s land, its people, and himself simply by listening, especially to stories of transformation. You can track Andrew’s progress and learn more about his journey by visiting his blog. Andrew was gracious enough to take the time to sit down (get it?) and answer some of our questions.
If you’d like to meet Andrew, walk with him, share a story or a meal, offer a place to stay, or even just say hello, he can be reached at: email@example.com
Where did the idea for a “listening walk” come from?
The idea for this listening walk has been growing in me for years. I think it probably began when my parents moved our family to India when I was seven and I got a taste for what it’s like to be around people who seem totally different from me. I loved it. The idea grew during my time at Middlebury as I became more immersed in listening to the stories of others. In many ways, this walk is an extension of a column I wrote for The Campus called The Interface for which I’d go out and talk with folks in our greater community that I wouldn’t normally come across as a student: Jamaican apple pickers, Mormon missionaries, homeless people, whoever I could find that might be able to share a new perspective. The How Did You Get Here? project also gave some concrete form to my desire to listen and find the extraordinary in everyone. That’s what that project – and this walk – is all about: celebrating the compelling, beautiful lives we all lead. So, it’s been percolating for years. The direction I intuited at Middlebury coupled with my lifelong yearning to journey, seek, and wander pushed me off into this listening walk. And sure enough, here I am in little Camden, Alabama.
Did you always plan on walking? Or were other methods of transportation (biking, car, etc) considered?
I never considered any other form of transportation, really. For me, the walking is just as integral to this experience as the listening. It’s the channel into myself, a ride into the depths inside. The solitude, the exhaustion, the rolling emotions, all the facets of this experience brought about by the walking are so crucial and would not have been possible in any other way, for me. The walking is also an excellent “in” with people. You’re so vulnerable when you’re walking, you need things, you need help, you need people. And this is how I’m able to have the astounding interactions with once perfect strangers that have defined this trip: people opening their homes to me, honking me on, stopping to drop off lunch, picking up my tab at the local diner. And then sharing their stories. It’s amazing stuff. The walking is kind of like my payment for it all. It’s my commitment and dedication to these people that I’m meeting and all those I have yet to meet.
How do you find stories along your way? Have you found that certain locations are better for finding stories than others?
The stories come in all sorts of ways. There’s no formula. Diners are always a gold mine. So are gas stations and general stores, places where there’s a crew of regulars who gather around the table at the same time every morning. Normally, I”m such a bizarre anomaly walking into these places looking like I’ve just stepped out of the Yukon that I’m able to join right in with these folks. Sometimes people see the sign “Walking to Listen” on my pack, pull over and ask what’s up, and then say they want to tell me their story. Sometimes people look me up on the blog, track me down, and then share with me for a couple miles of walking. It’s incredible what happens when you take the time to listen to someone. The speaker is validated as being the extraordinary person they are, worthy of being listened to, and the listener is given the sacred lessons of the speaker’s life. It’s a powerful exchange, particularly when it’s happening with someone you didn’t know five minutes ago.
How are you documenting these stories?
I’m taking notes and audio recordings, hoping to synthesize it all when I’m finished. Keep checking Andrew’s blog for more updates on the stories he has recorded.
Now that we are in the thick of winter, what role has weather played in your journey?
The weather plays a direct role in my day to day experience. Because I’m walking, I’m at the mercy of the elements. If it rains, I get wet. If there’s a headwind, I walk slower. If it’s sunny, my face gets burned. And if it’s cold, I’m cold, especially at night. The weather also directly affects me emotionally, too. I went through a low spot passing through South Carolina, and I realized in Georgia that a lot of that was probably due to the fact that most of my walking days were dark and rainy. In terms of being in “the the thick of winter,” as you say, Alabama winters ain’t got nothin’ on Middlebury winters. It was 70 degrees today.
Where do you most often stay along your route?
There’s also no formula to where I stay at night. It changes every single day. People will take me in or let me camp out, fire stations and churches will do the same. I’ve stayed at a rescue mission, in a police trailer, in someone’s backyard shed (a souped up shed, I’ll add). And there are friends along the way, and friends of friends, and friends who are separated by so many degrees of removal I lose track. If I can’t find anyplace to stay and no one to ask permission, I’ll take to the woods. The prospect of finding a place to stay at night really stressed me out at the beginning of the walk, almost to the point of panic sometimes. But I’ve learned that it will always work out. I’m much calmer these days. And in fact, this is almost without fail the most exciting part of the day.
What has been your favorite or most impressionable story/memory thus far?
There’s certainly no superlative concerning all the memories and stories. Sifting through my mind attempting to pick one, I’m overwhelmed at all the faces, all the voices, the stories and thoughts and little lessons given to me by the listening and the walking.
What skills or lessons has Middlebury taught you that have been most useful on this journey?
The discipline and accountability I learned at Middlebury has helped me with this walk. Getting the papers written, memorizing the Chinese characters, managing the D8 for a semester, somehow finding time for all my loved ones up there (not as much as I would have liked, or as is necessary), and jumping through all the hoops prepared me well, I think, for the demands of a cross country walk. At times, it seemed onerous, and was, but having gone through it I have an appreciation for it. The critical thinking skills have been invaluable, too, looking at everyone curiously and everything with a questioning eye. I think it’s only lately that I’ve realized what a superpower nuanced, critical thinking is. That it is the result of a good education and a nurturing environment (though not exclusively) is humbling and saddening when thinking about all the people that do not grow up with these things. Such thinking allows for an open-mindedness and morality that would heal a lot of the world’s wounds. I have taken some friendly flak from people along the way, though, for being a college grad. “What did you major in, walking?” isn’t an unusual comment, almost as frequent as the Forest Gump comparisons.
MiddBlog wishes him the best of luck as he continues his journey!