Andrew Forsthoefel '07 has written a memoir. What, you ask, can a 28 year old man possibly have to write a memoir about? Well, when you're Andrew, it's simply this: after graduating from Middlebury College in 2011, he spent eleven months walking—yes, walking—clear across the country, from his home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, to Half Moon Bay on the coast of California. His memoir of this cross-country trek, titled Walking to Listen: 4,000 Miles Across America, One Story at a Time was published by Bloomsbury this March. We talked recently with Andrew about his journey and how his experiences at St. Andrew's influenced his decision to embark on this real-life bildungsroman.
First, tell us how you originally conceived of this idea to walk across the country.
In my senior year at Middlebury, I was thinking about what to do, where to go after graduation and I decided I would apply for a Watson Fellowship [a one-year grant that funds a year of independent study outside of the U.S., awarded to around 40 graduating college seniors each year]. It was a great exercise in really taking seriously the question, "If I had all the resources I needed at my disposal, what would I actually do with myself?" And the short version of the story is that I realized: I've supposedly "come of age" but I've been left with all these questions about how to be a man, what does it mean to be a human, what does it mean to be me? What even is "coming of age"? What does it mean to transform and become the adult that's going to carry me through this life? So I had this sense of uncertainty and wondering and longing for clarity, and I wanted to throw myself into these questions. That was what my Watson project was going to be about; I was going to study coming of age in indigenous communities around the world. I didn't end up getting the fellowship, but I still had this sort of inspiring sense of uncertainty urging me toward something, and it wasn't going to be this coming of age project, so what could it be? And that was when the idea of walking came up. I had heard of people doing cross-country walks before, and it seemed like it could be an affordable, relatively easy way to dive into some of these questions. By easy, I mean, I could literally just walk out my back door and start. I wouldn't have to make any contacts with anyone, or get permission, or score a grant or fellowship. I wouldn't even have to buy a plane ticket. I could literally just start walking.
Did anything you did or experienced at St. Andrew's influence your drive to do this, or was this mostly an outgrowth of your Middlebury experience?
Oh my God, St. Andrew's had a huge impact on this. Every time I come back to that School, I'm struck by how special it is. The land, the buildings, and what's happening in the community there. To be part of that for even just a blink—I feel a lot of gratitude. When I was at St. Andrew's, I was given so much, and then the community sent me out into the world. To have grown up with a large community of adults believing in me, supporting me, asking me questions without assuming they have exclusive rights to the answer, treating me not like a kid but like an adult-in-training—to have adults see me in this way, in the classroom, in sports, in their on-campus homes, was a profound offering. It cultivated a confidence in me that I don't know would have blossomed otherwise. At such a tender age, it was very powerful to me to have these adults saying, "I believe in you. I see you." For those of us who do receive that and know what it's like, I think it's our duty to dish it out to others as generously and as widely as possible.
Didn't you come back to campus this fall to do a "listening walk" with students?
I did, and I was so impressed by the students, and where they were willing to go. Mr. Robinson dropped us off in Middletown, and we ended up spending two hours with these two twins who looked like they were maybe 80, but they turned out to be in their late 50s. They had lived a hard life. When we left them, we met this young Black man who had spent two years in prison, and he was telling us his stories of what that was like, and being a father, and the challenges of being black in Middletown. For three or four hours, we had this beautiful little peek into the world that is possible, the world that we could all be living in if we actually understood what listening was and were committed practitioners of it. Then, Mr. Hutchinson and Mr. DeSalvo coordinated a "welcome home" Chapel for the walkers, and the whole School was there on the Front Lawn waiting for them and they sort of cheered them home. The kids then shared what they had experienced, and they did it extemporaneously. I was so inspired by their courage to just go for it.
The St. Andrew's walk in particular validated for me this idea that it's possible to take some of what I had experienced on my walk and put it into practice in any environment. You don't have to walk across America to test this stuff. It's all right here under our noses. You don't even have to go into Middletown; you could stay at St. Andrew's and look at people with those eyes. Are you really seeing the people you're living with? Are you really listening to them? Are you really slowing down to care for each other?
Let's talking about your idea of a "listening walk." The book is titled Walking to Listen because you not only walked across the country—you also sought out conversation with as many strangers as you could meet on your journey. Can you tell me a little bit about how you got people to talk to you? Because, to put it bluntly, I think there's this kind of natural inclination for us to not be good Samaritans, you know? In America, the itinerant person, the roadside walker, is someone we typically want to avoid.
Right, and that's why it felt important to me to wear a little sign that was just a little bit of an invitation to passerby, to sort of pique their curiosity. I was like, "If I were to distill this project into a pithy little phrase, what would it be?" And that's how "walking to listen" arose. But I would say that the main dynamic or force that allowed for so many conversations to happen was my own openness and authentic interest in connecting with people. You've got to remember, I was spending so much time alone on the road that by the time I got in the same shared space with another human body, I was just thrilled to be there. Because man, it can get lonely out there. To be blessed with human company is no small gift at all.
I would get to a town, and I would be in need. I would need water, or shelter, or directions, or a safe place to camp out, so I'd go into a gas station, or a fire station, or a church, or a bar, or whatever happened to be there. I'd go in and I'd be wearing this big backpack with an American flag sticking out of one side, and an earth flag sticking out of the other, and a Walking to Listen sign in the middle. I would just look totally ridiculous, you know? And it was the world's best conversation starter. People would say, "What are you doing?" and I would say, "Well, I'm walking across America to listen to you. I've walked 2,000 miles to be here with you. No joke."
My authentic interest in what people had to say wasn't just happening spontaneously in that moment; it was being built and primed in all of those long hours alone, and I think people really responded to the earnest care I had for them and for their lives. It was powerful. It was astonishing what that sincerity invited out of people and opened up in people, and what they were willing to entrust me with and share with me. Private stories, deep connection. I very often would feel love for these people after just a couple of hours. If someone happened to take me in that night, and we ended up spending a little more time together, it was really hard to say goodbye to many of these folks. Even the folks that I found I disagreed with, or who shared opinions that I found reprehensible or abhorrent—racist, homophobic, whatever the intolerance or hatred might have been—even those people, having gotten time in this tender, open, human-heart space with them, I couldn't hate them. It doesn't mean I agreed with or condoned their opinions, but I couldn't write them off as two-dimensional hateful people. This racist or homophobic or Islamophobic person is more than just the hatred that is fueling those delusions. They also have seeds of generosity within them, which only came to blossom with me, a white man, but the fact that generosity was exhibited shows that generosity's in there.
Can you speak at all to the fact that, because you're a white man, walking across the country was more safe for you that it would be for me, as a woman, or for any person of color? I'm just wondering if you got any insights into your own privilege and way of appearing to other people.
Absolutely yes. It was something that I was vaguely aware of at the beginning, but it became painfully clear by the time I got to, well, Virginia. Which was not at all far into my walk. Race became... it was impossible to pretend that my white male appearance wasn't having a huge influence on the kinds of interactions I was having with people. A lot of the people who took me in and put me up were really hardcore racists who just simply would not have—I mean, you can never know what someone will do, but I think there would be no way that they would have taken in a black man who was walking across the country. And, who knows, there are people out there who might have been threatening to me if I had been a woman.
I think it's really important that I speak clearly to this. The America that I walked across would not have been as supportive and validating of a person of color who was walking, or of a woman who was walking. At the same time, people of color have walked across America. One of my heroes is this guy John Francis. He's a Black environmentalist, and he walked across America and South America for 17 years. There was a gay man named Richard Noble who was walking across America while I was doing it, and he was walking for gay rights, and he had a big rainbow flag, and he did it. And there have been some women who have done it, too. But, yeah, my own white male privilege is just a sad truth.
When you stayed with people you disagreed with, as their guest and completely at their mercy, how did you respond to what you saw or heard that was racist? Did you say anything, or did you kind of sit on your hands?
A lot of the time, especially in the earlier parts of the walk, I didn't say anything. I experienced shame about this, and guilt, and anger, and confusion. I'd been blessed with some of the best educational experiences a person could ask for in this country, between St. Andrew's and Middlebury—and all the reading I've done and the social justice work I've been involved in—but when the rubber met the road, I didn't say anything. Martin Luther King, Jr. has this line about "the appalling silence of the good people," and I realized, "Oh my God! I just did that! That's what he's talking about." It was just months of coming to terms with my own incompetence and my own fear and my own inability. I felt like I didn't know how to speak up, or what to say, or if I did know what to say, I was too afraid to say it. I was really standing in the fire of that.
But eventually I learned to ask people: why? Why do you believe this or that? The moment you begin to attack or judge is the moment the conversation becomes a competition or a fight, and their defenses go up, and it's over. I learned to stay in connection and say, "Tell me more about why you believe that and what it's like to believe that. What does it feel like, to feel such hatred inside of you? I still care about you. I'm still here. You're a part of this too. There's no getting rid of you. We're all in this thing together whether we like it or not."
It was also humbling, really humbling, to be received as a white man in the way that I was by communities of color and by a lot of marginalized groups. I spent the night in a little town called Vredenburgh, Alabama, which is more than 80% black. I was staying in the community center in the part of town where most of the people of color lived, and they gave me a tour around home, and even took me to the mayor's home. She asked me, "What's your name?" and I said "It's Andrew Forsthoefel." She said, "What's that [heritage]?" and I said "It's German." Her last name sounded French, and I asked her what [the heritage of] her last name was, and she said, "Oh, I don't know—it was the slave master's name." So here I was with a woman directly descended from an enslaved person, who was talking to me, a man who looked liked the people who'd enslaved her ancestors, and feeding me this heaping plate of Boston butt and pork chops and collard greens in her trailer.
Another example is the Navajo. By the time I got out to Arizona, I'd been walking for I think nine months. It wasn't that my fear was eliminated, but I was a little more uncomfortable in the uncertainty, trusting of the unknown. But I got to the northeastern corner of Arizona, and I was approaching the Navajo reservation, and some of my fear started to come back, because I didn't know how tribal law worked, and I didn't know if outsiders like me were even allowed to walk through, let alone camp out on the side of the road. Then, of course, there's the dynamic of, I'm the white man, and how is the tragic and painful history of white people and native people going to come to bear in this present moment? Are the Navajo people going to cast me out? What the hell's going to happen?
The very first day walking into the Navajo Nation, this car pulled over on the side of the road and two men got out and started walking toward me. They had this big grocery bag full of Snickers bars, and a Gatorade or two, and they said, "We thought you might like this." They ended up inviting me into their home that night. They began what became a flood of generosity and kindness from the Navajo people. They got it out on the Navajo radio station that this kid was walking through the reservation pushing a baby stroller filled with his backpack—
Can I pause you for a second? You were pushing a baby stroller at this point with your backpack in it?
Yeah, halfway across Texas I bought a baby stroller and started pushing my stuff in it; the heat and the lengthening distance between towns inspired that. Carrying 50 pounds on my back was just too oppressive for me to bear. It was ridiculous, though. People would stop me on the side of the road and say, "What are you doing pushing your baby on the highway?" Police would stop—"Hey, we got a call about a young father pushing his child on the highway."
Anyway, so they put this out on the Navajo radio, and said, "He's walking to listen, and if you stop and see him, say hey." So more people stopped and I was given more food and water than I could carry in this pretty big baby stroller.
One day, I was at this gas station, and this old Navajo woman comes up to me with her granddaughter, and asks if I was the young man she heard about on the radio. Her granddaughter's translating for us because she is speaking Diné [the native Navajo language]. She said, "If you're heading in our direction, when you make it to our little down, I want to cook for you." But this little town was miles and miles off the highway in this sort of off-the-grid settlement. So rather than make me walk miles off the road to get food, she said she would come to me on the main highway. We coordinate the distances, and I was about a two-day walk away, and we decide I'm to be at this certain crossroads at noon in two days. Two days went by, and I'm late, and feeling bad about that, and wondering if maybe they left, or maybe they never came at all, or maybe they're still waiting. I'm coming down these mountains into this wide, vast desert valley, all rocky and golden, and I see in the distance a little winking, a little shining. As I get closer and closer, I see that it's a ton of cars. Then I get a little closer, and I see this big white thing, and I realize there's a huge party tent that they set up. I get closer, and by the time I can see human faces, there's this big party, maybe 20 people there, and this one woman says, "We've been waiting for you! It's about time." I think she was referring to the fact that I was so late. But she was also saying, "Here we are. We have come for you. We've been waiting for you." It was a crowd of perfect strangers who had gone out of their way to prepare this feast of Navajo fry bread and blue corn buns and mutton stew and lemonade and sweet tea, for this person they didn't even know.
It was so radically humbling to have a feast thrown for me by strangers—and by a group of people who have experienced tremendous amounts of oppression from white men who look like me—and to be the guest of honor at this celebration. They received me completely, treated me with deep respect, and compassion, and generosity. It made me wonder: what would my community, my world look like if everyone had, at one point or another, been the guest of honor at a feast thrown for them by strangers, all of whom were saying, "We don't really know you, but we support you, and we love what you're doing, and thank you for what you're doing."
The fact that I was walking across America was no more important or extraordinary than any of the walks that any of us are on. What if a group of people did that for you in Middletown, Liz? And said, "Thank you so much for being the Director of Communications, and for all the interviews you do and all the emails that you receive. Just, thank you." To me, this is the path of healing—not just individual healing, but collective healing. We have to be willing to say to each other, "This tired old game of violence and retribution stops here. We're going to practice compassion and forgiveness."
It also makes me think, conversely: what if we all threw parties for other people? What if for every person I saw walking on I-95, I stopped twenty miles ahead and set up a tent and offered them food?
It would be radically different. And it would be a revolution. It would revolutionize how we are with each other. To put it in its simplest terms, it would be a shift from fear toward love. "Love" is too intimidating a word for some of us. Maybe "inclusion" is better.
Fear was a huge part of the experience: I saw the many ways that fear moved through me and was driving the show. I learned not to run away from it or let it direct me. I learned to walk right into it and say to myself, "Listen, I don't know what's going to happen, but I refuse to shut down because of all of the assumptions that my mind is churning out right now about what might happen if I approach this person." Then, in actually approaching the person, I saw what's possible when something like love, or at least the desire to realize love, is driving the show, and how that action then begets itself in others. For us to drop the mask for a second, and to show each other our fears, our fragilities—there's power in that. That's where love becomes possible. There's solidarity in that. There's potential for connection and wisdom.
We're at a fascinating point in history. In today's America, there are millions and millions of Americans who are operating within a framework of hatred, or intolerance or some manifestation of bigotry, whatever it may be. And it's in all of us. This is not "other people". This is not "people who voted for Trump" or "people who live in Alabama". This is you and me. The seeds of hatred and delusion and greed are in my mind as well as yours. This is the challenging and critical practice of learning how to relate with our the uglier, shadow side of our nature. How am I dealing with those parts of myself? Am I going to begin hating those who hate? If so, are we not the very same thing?
What I got to taste on my walk across the country is this practice of listening. I'm still learning how to integrate this into my non-walking-across-America life. I think it's something that could be a real tool for us as we move forward together as a country.
Walking to Listen is now available in bookstores everywhere.