These days, every adventurer also seems to claim themselves to be photographers and film makers and authors and bloggers. So I was immediately drawn to Andrew Forsthoefel’s tale because, not only did he walk across America, he documented it through audio. This is such a different story-telling medium to pictures and video. To do it well, I’d hazard, is very hard indeed.
And Andrew did it very well. He produced this wonderful radio documentary about the people he met along the way. I highly recommend it to anyone – adventurers, story-tellers, people on their commute. It’s great.
I chatted to him on Skype as part of my ongoing Grand Adventures series of interviews . It’s not short, but it is good…
Alastair: Hi Andrew. Can you give us a brief explanation of what your trip was?
Andrew: I graduated from college in May 2011 with a ton of questions, unsure of what I wanted to do, and figured I’d try to create around myself a situation that would help me engage those questions. I thought I might go abroad for a little bit but then I got fired from a job and didn’t have the money I thought I would have. So I figured I’d just start walking and keep it simple.
I wore a sign that said, “Walking to Listen” and the idea was to get people curious and hopefully they’d stop and share a story or a piece of advice. And that was pretty much it.
I had a few basic rules: walk every mile that was possible to walk. And camp out more than not because that’s all I could afford. But really I just wanted to try to meet people, you know? And so I spent a little under eleven months, a little over four thousand miles walking from Chadds Ford, PA to New Orleans, and then to San Francisco.
Alastair: And roughly, how much did it cost?
Andrew: I didn’t keep the books as meticulously as I wish I had, but it cost, appropriately with this project that you’re doing, it cost less than a thousand dollars. Because of the way people helped me along the way.
Alastair: That’s wonderful. That’s a heck of a long walk. You’re the longest walker that I’ve spoken to on this so far. The previous record is a guy called Andy who decided in the pub one night to walk across the continent and then started two days later.
Andrew: That’s amazing.
Alastair: Did you have you much experience? Are you an experienced hiker or adventurer or was this all new for you as well?
Andrew: It was fairly new. I went to school in Vermont which is beautiful mountain country so I had certainly hiked before, but I had never done anything quite like this and it was fairly last minute. I mean, it wasn’t anything like Andy’s spontaneity but I lost my job and then six weeks later I was walking.
Alastair: Why did you walk rather than going on a bicycle or something?
Andrew: The main idea behind it was slowing down. I wanted to slow down and I had all these questions and I felt like … It didn’t feel like going onward with my life at the rate I had been going would do anything to help to answer those questions. So slowing down, walking, was just a great metaphor for that and it was literally, you know, slowing down and trying to appreciate what’s around you. Something about it just appealed to me. I like the simplicity of it. I didn’t know a whole lot about bikes and bike mechanics.
Alastair: Do you think of yourself as an adventurer?
Andrew: I would say yes. I think the meaning of that word has changed and sort of grown for me in recent years. And maybe in one of the most important ways it’s that adventure focuses around people for me. I think when I started this walk, the idea of adventure was just your classic diving into the unknown and seeing what’s going to happen, which is still the case, but for me this year was so defined by the people I met. And I can’t help but correlate adventure with people now. And I kind of like that, you know. The unknown in people is something that fascinates me.
Alastair: That’s interesting, that it’s the human side. I recently, before this, I interviewed a young woman called Sarah Outen who’s currently making her way around the whole world. Cycling across the land parts and then rowing by herself across the ocean parts.
Andrew: Oh wow. Wow.
Alastair: And I asked her which she preferred, the solitude of the oceans or the human side of the cycling because they’re both diametrically opposite, but both definitely adventurous and she struggled to come up with a good answer. To you it’s the people?
Andrew: Yeah, well that’s interesting. It reminds me that it was built into the structure of the walk that I did, where at the end of day, almost invariably, I would be with somebody. Whether that was somebody who would take me in, or I’d be at a gas station hanging out with somebody or at a bar or church, or whatever, and it would be an amazing connection almost all the time. But then at the end of the night, or the next morning I was ready to be alone again. And then, invariably, I would be alone because I’d have to walk. It was a nice balance because it did give me time to sort of process those interactions, get back in touch with the land and some of that solitude. Which I think is also part of the adventure and something I’m attracted to.
Alastair: When I cycled around the world I found that I loved the solitude and I hated the loneliness. And there’s a very fine line between the two.
Andrew: Yeah, yeah.
Alastair: I felt that the human encounters that made the trip so wonderful also massively added to the sense of loneliness on the stages between the people.
Alastair: Did you feel much loneliness or was it just solitude?
Andrew: I felt less lonely than I thought I would. But there were times, of course, when I felt lonely. And you know when you’re having these moments of, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m experiencing this” and I don’t get to share it with anybody. I think maybe as human beings there’s this natural desire to communicate and tell our stories to each other and revel in these experiences together. Not being able to do that in the moment was hard sometimes, but I think it made those moments when you could share something with somebody much more special.
I think the solitude and sometimes loneliness – but just that aloneness, really accentuated those times when I was hanging out with people. I remember somewhere in Texas I’d been on the road for five or six months, I was walking and I was bored and I tried to trace where I had spent each night…
Alastair: I used to do that too.
Andrew: Yeah, and I could do it! You know, each day was so memorable and so special in its own way that I could remember literally every night that had gotten me to that point. I couldn’t do that now.
Alastair: I liked on your website a line that says, “Life is fast, I’m slowing down.” That was really nice. That would be a good strap line for your book, I think.
Andrew: Yeah, yeah.
Alastair: When I cycled round the world I got used to traveling at roughly ten to twelve miles an hour and that’s how your world unfolds. Then I set off to walk across the bottom of India and I’m suddenly down to maybe three miles an hour. I found that, at first, massively frustrating.
Andrew: Ha! I was wondering what are the differences.
Alastair: Well when you see that there’s five miles to the next place you can get some water, instead of that being a 20 minute coast, it’s an hour and a half’s misery plod! But I came to enjoy and appreciate the simplicity and the slowness of it very much.
Andrew: Cool. Did you prefer one to the other?
Alastair: I preferred cycling.
Andrew: Oh. Why?
Alastair: I think I’m quite … hey I’m meant to be asking the questions here!
I think that cycling is the perfect compromise between being slow enough to stop if you want to but quick enough to cover some distance if you want to. You carry all of your kit on the bike and it doesn’t hurt your feet quite so much. But I did appreciate the slowness. I walked through a desert last year and we spent a lot of time on that thinking, “Maybe we should have done this by bicycle.”
Another thing on your website that struck me was saying that you were heading cross country in search of stories. That reminds me of another guy I interviewed recently called Steve who hitchhiked right away from the UK all the way to Malaysia. The thing that he loves about hitchhiking is that you are trapped in a vehicle with someone and you have to get that story. I think the story side of an adventure is something that is popular with quite a few people.
Andrew: Yeah. That’s cool. I mean ‘story’ to me is just another word for ‘connection’. It’s like a way of simplifying the complexity of our lives and of who we are. I was amazed at how interested people were in sharing. A part of me believed when I left that I wouldn’t meet a single person in my entire walk across North America. But that was so far from the case. People were really excited about it and when I asked them if they were interested in recording interviews, very rarely were people not inclined to say, “yes,” …
Alastair: I wonder if that’s partly because of your choice of medium, too. Audio is less intimidating… Why did you decide to record all this stuff and why did you decide to do it by audio?
Andrew: I decided to use audio because it was a medium I was familiar with. I had done a little bit of audio work in college. It’s also, it seems to me, a little easier. I also like that it’s less intrusive, and that it’s only the person’s voice. There’s something about audio/radio that gets into you. The listener can make it their own because it’s this dreamy, dreamy transference of one person into another. You can’t see the face and so you’re sort of imagining it.
As for why I recorded anything at all, I wonder about that sometimes myself, you know. I think there are a couple of reasons. One is that I was doing this thing alone and so wanted to share in that, and then wanting to remember. It’s amazing how easily we forget and so recording some of these voices is a way for me to remember. I can only imagine how grateful I’ll be, if and when I’m an 80-year-old man, listening back to Otho Rogers and Emmalou Daily and Marian Furman, you know. Interviewing can be a way to immerse yourself even more deeply into the present moment with somebody.
Alastair: A friend of mine called Nick Hand, he cycled the whole way around Britain, around the coast, I’ll send you the link. He met artists and artisans along the way – people, craftsmen – that was his project, the whole way around Britain. He was photographing and recording sounds. It’s beautiful.
Andrew: Ah. Very cool.
Alastair: And you also said on your website that you had no final destination when you set off. I think that’s really cool. I think there’s a danger when people set off on big trips if they’re all consumed by the end that they can forget to appreciate the ‘now’.
Andrew: Yeah, I didn’t want there to be that pressure. I didn’t want it to be framed in terms of success or failure. Like, if you don’t make it to a certain place, you didn’t do it. You didn’t win or something. It’s crazy. So holding lightly the end point was a nice strategy to appreciate the present moment and dig into what’s here and now instead of focusing on what’s maybe going to happen months from now. I’d do it the same way if I had to do it over again.
Alastair: That’s cool. One thing that people ask me about going off on trips that they’re worried about the dangers of people out in the world. Did you worry about that beforehand and how did the actual reality manifest itself?
Andrew: I didn’t worry about it so much that it prevented me from going but especially at the beginning, every day without fail, around two o’clock in the afternoon, I would feel fear and I would start to freak out, thinking “where am I going to sleep tonight?” The anxiety of not knowing where you’ll be resting your head was intense until I got used to it. But the more I did it the more I saw it work out in some way or another every time. Whether it was getting taken in or finding a secret little bridge to sleep under or something, the less afraid I became.
But people have said, “Okay, you’re a white male and there is a lot of privilege involved in that,” as unjust as it is and I wonder, like, how would that have been different if I didn’t look the way I did. Granted, people who don’t look like me have walked across America and so it can be done and they’re heroes, but I do wonder about the privileges of identity.
Alastair: Give me one example of ridiculous kindness from a random stranger.
Andrew: Oh man. This is a hard question because there are hundreds. There was the Verette family in Sulphur, Louisiana, who pulled over in their van, they had, I think, six kids together, this young couple. And the first words out of Willie’s mouth, the dad, were, “Would you like to refresh yourself at our house?” No bones about it, just “come on in.”
There was a moment in Arizona where I was walking through Navajo reservation land and I’d met a grandma and her granddaughter at a gas station and they said, “When you make it to our town, we’ll cook for you.” And a couple of days later I made it to their town which, it turned out, was just like an intersection in the middle of the desert somewhere and they’d brought out a tent and their neighbors came out and they cooked this feast for me, which is just – it’s insane. It’s ridiculous. I almost feel, I mean, totally humbled of course, but almost embarrassed at how good these people were to me and yeah, I guess you’ve just got to receive that graciously.
But to feel so celebrated is a remarkable thing and I think that’s another reason why I felt compelled to make the radio piece and why I’m excited about writing my book. I felt so supported and celebrated in my walk and so I want to give that back and celebrate these people who were just, time and time again, so amazing to me and for me.
Alastair: This idea of kindness is a common theme out of everyone I’ve spoken to and, as you say, it is quite humbling and embarrassing and sometimes quite hard to accept. I interviewed Anna Hughes and she cycled four thousand miles around Britain, but she didn’t like sleeping in a tent. So she needed to get a bed for every night of the trip and she didn’t have a huge amount of money so that essentially involved just staying with friends of friends of friends, and random strangers. She was very anxious at first that she was just sponging off people. But someone told her along the way that it was important to accept but not to expect.
Alastair: What impact did this walk have on your life, then? You started as a young guy just out of university. You probably – society and perhaps your bank manager too – expected that you ought to just go get a proper job and settle down but you chose something very different.
Andrew: I think at the basic level, it helped me understand that the possibilities are far greater than I maybe initially thought. What I can do – what we can do, where that can happen, where that can go. Having faith in myself. Having faith in people, and faith in the way things just work out. That maybe means that I’m a little less afraid in general.
I can’t help but think in terms of the walk and all these little metaphors. At the end of the day, you’re walking, you don’t know where you’re going to sleep and you’re kind of freaking out but you don’t have to, you know. And if I can hold on to that sort of idea as I continue walking my life, I think that will make things a little bit easier.
Alastair: What’s next for you, then? Any more big walks?
Andrew: Maybe. I miss walking, I do. I hesitate too. I don’t want to try to recreate the past. I’m aware of that dynamic and not wanting to feel like I’m trying to resurrect something that’s over.
Alastair: Your glory days…
Andrew: Yeah. Exactly, But I’m also aware that walking, you know, it allows you access to some things, to certain parts of yourself and of the human experience that just aren’t accessible otherwise. So, if I’m an old man and I look back and I haven’t done another little or long walk maybe I’ll regret that.
Alastair: The aim of this Adventure1000 thing is to persuade people to stop looking at adventure as some sort of vicarious thing that other people do and to stop looking at it as something they wish they could do if only… And to actually commit to a plan and get out that front door and go. What would your advice be to someone who is perhaps dreaming of an adventure like you, but is too scared or too tied down with life to actually make it happen?
Andrew: Well, as you’ve said before in this conversation, and in other forums, it’s all about the first step. And I think believing in yourself, even if you don’t – which is sort of counter-intuitive – but forcing yourself to believe in yourself. And to take the first step and then realize that you’ve done it. And that everything after that is a success. Even if you’re miserable, it’s happening.
Alastair: Walking across American is really not much harder than just going for a walk for the weekend.
Andrew: Yes. Yeah, I mean that’s another thing I would say to anyone who’s aspiring to do something like this. People would often say to me, “I can’t believe you’re doing this.” They’d just express their disbelief and I would almost feel guilty in that moment because in many ways, walking across America was the easiest thing in the world. These people who are supporting families and working these jobs, whatever the job may be, you know, it’s so much harder. So that, I would imagine, could be a catalyst, realizing that it’s actually the easiest thing ever.
Alastair: The other thing I think is important, I don’t know if you’d agree with me, is that, what you did sounds like this enormous trip and that’s quite daunting when you’re thinking about it. But it’s important to realize that once you set off, if you walk for a hundred miles, two hundred miles, then realize you absolutely hate it, you can just get a bus back home and get back to normal life again. An adventure is not the end of the world, an irreversible one-way ticket.
Andrew: Yeah, absolutely. And that type of perspective, I think, is the one I tried to set off with. Okay, I can walk a hundred miles and that’ll be a success, I can walk a thousand miles and that’ll be a success, you know? So going into it with that sort of openness, to adapt and be flexible sets you up for inevitable success. You’re going to get something out of it.
But also, not thinking too much about it, when you embark on something like this, it’s not really useful to dwell on the enormity of it because it is daunting. And if you really think too hard about it, you won’t do it, because it is ridiculous and impossible but then it’s not after you have done it.
Alastair: Brilliant. And one final question for you: if I was to give you a thousand dollars right now to go do some sort of big adventure, discounting what you would have already done for that sum, what would you do?
Andrew: I think I’d try to get old people involved somehow, I don’t know how. Maybe another walk, I think I’ll probably have a hard time not focusing some larger adventure around walking. To sort of have that conversation over the decades would be something I’d be interested in exploring and I might not even need a thousand dollars to do that.
Alastair: A friend of mine, called Dom Gill, cycled the length of South America, North American on a tandem, but him on his own and it’s called “Take a Seat.” The idea was just to pick people up along the way and share their stories.
Andrew: Very nice.
Alastair: I thought it was great. He did that and then he got quite hooked, and he did it again. He started taking fat people, old people and then he set off to cycle across America with an old man who had terminal cancer trying to give him one big adventure before the end. [I’ll send you to his link as well].
Andrew: That’s great. Yeah, cool.
Alastair: Thank you very much Andrew.
Andrew’s website has information about his trip and links to his radio piece.
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