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4,000 mile walk teaches the value of listening

  • Andrew Forsthoefel Contributed photos—

  • Contributed photos—

  • Anddrew Forsthoefel, on his journey. Contributed photo—



Recorder Staff
Sunday, March 04, 2018

ASHFIELD — Many youths come of age through some odyssey of self-discovery; Andrew Forsthoefel did it by walking.

On Oct. 14, 2011, the recent college graduate left his Pennsylvania home with a 50-pound backpack, mandolin and a sign that read “Walking to Listen.” He headed south into Delaware and through the deep South, west to the Pacific Ocean.

Because he was 23, he decided to ask those he met: If you were able, what advice would you give your 23-year-old self, knowing what you know now? His one rule on the road was this: “don’t accept rides.”

Whomever he met and whatever stories and advice they gave give him over the next 4,000 miles filled about 85 hours worth of digital recording. Some of his recordings became part of a “This American Life” radio show episode: “Hit the Road.”

After that, the recordings and Forsthoefel’s reminiscences also became the basis for his book, “Walking to Listen: 4,000 Miles Across America, One Story at a Time.”

On Saturday, March 10, Forsthoefel will be at Elmer’s, describing his journey and those he met — literally from all “walks of life.” He will be interviewed by Elmer’s owner Nan Parati, a storyteller in her own right. Dinner at Elmer’s starts at 5 p.m., but Forsthoefel’s interview, free and open to the public, starts at 7 p.m.

Forsthoefel, now 29, makes his home in Williamsburg with his partner Hannah Jacobson Hardy.

Forsthoefel said the book took three years to write, and since then, he has become a speaker as well as a writer. “I try to take what I’ve learned about listening and connection from my walk,” he said. “I try to deepen our understanding of what listening is and what it is to be a trustworthy listener. I think — for whatever reason, it has become an endangered discipline: ‘Why don’t I listen’ is the question to explore,” said Forsthoefel. “If we expect to evolve and heal together, we have to start listening to ourselves — to our own hearts — and to each other. Or continue to live in violence and apathy.”

Three months before the walk, Forsthoefel graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont. His walk through the South and up to the Pacific Ocean took about five pairs of shoes and close to a year to complete.

When asked how many times now he’s told this story, Forsthoefel says he’s lost track. “But, in some ways, each telling is a first. The more I tell it, the more I learn about it. One of the gifts for me, of telling the story, is I get to understand it more and more. It isn’t just about understanding what happened to me on the road, but about bringing some of the tools I’ve learned from the people I met. ...The whole point was to recognize that every single individual has an extraordinary story worth listening to. Each person had something to teach.”

As Forsthoefel started out, one man told him: “All you’re doing is reading a book — just with your feet.”

At one junction in Alabama, a white woman warned him not to go through a predominately black community that had a tough reputation. Forsthoefel said he wished the people who warned him “could experience what I did. These people they warned me about were the people who took me in and fed me,” he said in one of his audio programs.

When asked if he was ever afraid of people he met along the way, Forsthoefel answered: “Oh yeah.”

“In some ways, one of the biggest teachings was to see the many, many ways my mind makes assumptions about everybody. I wanted to challenge those assumptions by walking up to everyone and asking who they were. But constantly, my mind was challenging me.”

Forsthoefel said he doesn’t know how many people he talked to on that trip — “hundreds, maybe thousands,” he said. But the trip was a “great harvest” of sharing truths. He recalled an old man in Alabama talking to him about getting old and about losing his brothers and sisters. “I asked him, ‘How do you survive?’ and he said: ‘You grieve. You will know. You’ve got lots of grieving to do.’”

“The medicine in that is the realization that there’s something right in that. Grieving is not something I should avoid. The gift of receiving that as a young person, and believing that, is that now I won’t exert a lot of energy in trying to avoid (grief). Seeing this old man so calmly and wisely living within that grief — it invited me into the truth of my life.”

Boswell’s Books of Shelburne Falls will have Forsthoefel’s book for sale that night at Elmers.

Also, Forsthoefel’s mother, Therese Jornlin, will speak at Elmer’s about what it was like to let her son go into the unknown with nothing but a backpack and a pocket knife. “His story is fascinating,” said Parati, the owner of Elmer’s. “And so is hers.”

Parati asks that those who plan to come for the evening call ahead, so organizers know how many to expect.

Forsthoefel’s website contains links to his writings and audio interviews: walkingtolisten.com