A few months after recent Middlebury College grad Andrew Forsthoefel left Vermont, the 23-year-old came up with a plan: He'd start walking. Along the way, he'd listen to whoever he happened to meet on the journey. Simple as that.
And, sure enough, Forsthoefel stepped out the door of his family's home in Chadds Ford, Penn., on October 14, and since then he's walked, and he's listened. And, incredibly, those two straightforward ingredients are bringing some amazing results.
Forsthoefel typically spends anywhere from five to eight hours a day walking, which translates into between 15 and 20 miles. He sticks to state highways and county roads. He headed south and west, with the eventual goal of hitting California.
He writes on his blog: "Every one of us has an extraordinary story worth hearing, and I’m walking the country to listen. There’s no such thing as the Average Joe, no such thing as a boring, uninteresting, unexceptional life. ... This walk is to honor that. Life is fast, and I’ve found it’s easy to confuse the miraculous for the mundane, so I’m slowing down, way down."
The schedule's flexible. He walks with a sign tacked to his backpack that spells it out — "Walking to Listen" — and in response, people talk. They talk at diners and truck stops. They pull over on the side of the road. Some invite him into their homes. He's chronicling the trip online, and many of those he's met along the way are following avidly. (Cue the heartwarming theme song when you scroll through their comments; it's hard not to feel at least a little inspired.)
At Middlebury, Forsthoefel majored in environmental studies and minored in Chinese. He also made something of a specialty of interviewing Addison County residents for a column in the Middlebury Campus called "The Interface." He'd talk to anyone, he says, he wouldn't normally come across as a student: Jamaican apple pickers, Mormon missionaries, homeless people.
Edited out of this transcript is Forsthoefel's perhaps unconscious attempt to hijack the interview. After many weeks of being on the road, directing his questions at those he meets, he aimed a few my way. This time, though, we'll let Forsthoefel do most of the talking.
Seven Days: So first, where are you right now?
Andrew Forsthoefel: I'm in Biloxi, Mississippi. I'm right on the beach, sitting on a little piling behind a palm bush — I'm not sure what this thing is. I like taking breaks out of sight, you know, because the whole day I'm on the road. It's nice to run into people, but it gets a little exhausting being seen. So I kind of sneak away.
SD: What made you decide to set out on this walking and listening tour?
AF: It was something I wanted to do for a long time. For years, I've felt the need to be in a situation where I'm testing myself and learning new things, and in conditions that make me think or feel or get the juices going. ... I wanted it to be walking, specifically, and I wanted it to be focused on other people's stories. And now's the time. I guess that the biggest factor is that at this time I'm as free as I'll ever be.
SD: How did your time in Vermont shape the trip you're on now, and your approach to storytelling?
AF: The land and the people there served me in so many ways. I just think back to those gentle mountains, and it's home. Doing interviews as a student for different projects, it's just so authentic. I love that there are no billboards in Vermont [laughs]. Being in that environment for four years, it really tuned me in to what I want to be seeking out, how I want to be, where I want to be. And I'm getting a lot of that on this walk. Yeah, there are plenty of days where I'm walking through very commercial, corporate sprawled-out nastiness, but probably the majority of the time, I'm on some back road or going through a little tiny town. I just love that, and I don't think I'd be getting that if I wasn't walking. Vermont pushed me forward in that direction.
SD: How do you decide on your itinerary?
AF: I've been kind of amazed, actually, at the way I've been taken care of. I remember leaving D.C. into kind of the middle-of-nowhere Virginia and being like, all right, well, I hope I'm good till Charlottesville, and from there it will be a long stretch to Roanoke, and then North Carolina, hell, South Carolina, I don't know anybody there, let alone Georgia and Alabama. But people know people. It's been amazing. It's kind of like the leap-frog effect. It's been very cool to experience that.
SD: What are some of the experiences that stick with you?
AF: I had a great one just a couple of days ago. This is a good example of something that happens pretty often, actually. I was having a tough day. Crossed into Mississippi, and that was exciting, but it was a tough day. Some days are tough and some days are easy; I don't know how to explain it. It's a lot of mind games. It was a hard day.
I was going into this long stretch before Pascagoula. It was super swampy, and I was a little worried I wouldn't find a dry place to set up the tent. And I came across this alligator ranch [laughing], and I'm like, "Oh, man, this is too good to be true." It was a place where they give swamp tours, and they have alligators in captivity as well as in the wild.
I went in there and told them what I was doing. So I asked if I could set up the tent, and they said, "Yeah, no problem." When Alan (the owner) got back from hunting, eventually they said, "Why don't you just sleep in the guest room?" We ended up staying up until 10 or 11 just chatting. ... It's amazing. It's moments like that when I could not be happier doing this.
SD: When you offer someone that open-ended invitation to talk, when you say, "I'm here to listen," what kind of stories are you getting?
AF: I've been amazed. People want someone to listen. That's not revolutionary. We need to be listened to, and we need someone there, and a lot of people don't have that. When you present yourself as a listener, and when you're doing something strange like this, this walk, you're able to cut through the bullshit pretty quickly and get down to the real stuff. When you're exchanging vulnerable stories, I've found that these relationships are formed over just a matter of hours that are so deep. It's just very powerful. People have shared incredibly painful stories. People have shared hilarious stories. There was one story that I always think back to about these two best friends, two 25-, 26-year-old Alabama boys, who told me a story about how they played Russian roulette when they were both seven years old.
SD: Oh, my God...
AF: He would always bully the other kid. He said, "Hey, I've found this fun new game I found out about," and he brought his dad's pistol into the shed. "It's called Russian roulette." He explained the game and he said, "OK, Russell, you go first."
SD: Oh, my God!
AF: And Russell, he's a loyal friend. Russell pulled the trigger. And thank God it was blank. He handed it to Jason, and Jason said, "No, I don't want to play this game anymore." [laughing] It's stories like that. There's a lot of pain, too. But it's amazing. With every story, I learn more about human beings, the person I'm talking to, and myself, too.
SD: Do you run into any negative reactions, or hecklers?
AF: The only bad thing I've received from somebody was someone who tossed a little McDonald's paper cup at me as they were driving by. But they missed, so it was all right. That aside, I've not received a single bad word. I've not had any problems. It's so interesting, going up to somebody who has a tough guy façade, or doesn't look welcoming, and then asking them a question or asking for directions and telling them about what I'm doing. It's almost like the walk is so bizarre, and so crazy, they loosen up. That interaction might not end in a lifelong friendship, but it oftentimes becomes a pleasant chat.
Some people are into it, and some people roll up their windows and lock their doors when I come up to ask directions. There was one hilarious time when I was just about to cross into North Carolina, and I wasn't sure if I was about to turn onto the right road. You're sort of in the middle of nowhere. This one older man and his wife were pulling off the road, and driving by me, so I kind of like waved my arms at them. I had a walking stick, and I was waving, and he saw me and his eyes widened and he sped up and drove away. I realized I probably looked like a crazy man, waving my stick at him. I don't take it personally when that happens. It can be hard not to, actually, but it's not about me. It's about the situation.
Photos courtesy Andrew Forsthoefel.