At the ripe old age of 22, and already married at just 19 years of age, Peter Jenkins was lost. Metaphorically, at least.
Having grown up in a nice middle class family, in a nice middle class neighbourhood, and having been groomed and prepared for entry into a nice middle class college, his life seemed to be going in exactly the same direction as that of thousands of other young Americans.
As 1969’s ‘summer of love’ slowly but surely turned into the long winter of disillusionment that was the early 1970s, Peter did what many others have done before – he went looking for America.
There is a history of searching in America. Searching for new lands. Searching for wealth. Searching for minerals and resources – in particular, gold and oil. And then there is the search for Self. The search for meaning.
These themes have been at the heart of many great songs, novels and films, and no doubt will continue to be. Paul Simon’s song America, is one example. John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, and Jack Kerouac’s classic novel of the beat generation, On The Road are two novels that examine this thesis. Numerous movies have also explored this subject matter, in particular, Easy Rider, the 1969 classic starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson, for which the tag line read: A man went looking for America – and couldn’t find it anywhere…
Ten years later, Peter Jenkins was able to write: "I started out searching for myself and my country, and found both." While Peter’s 1979 book, A Walk Across America describes that quest, his personal ‘search for meaning’ had in fact begun over five years earlier, when, on the morning of October 15, 1973, he began his walk from the small upper New York state college town of Alfred, to New Orleans, Louisiana, where he arrived 18 months later in April, 1975.
In some ways this is a frustrating book. I suspect that if it was being written today, we would learn a lot more about the background to Peter’s disillusionment with America, and the reasons for his anger and sense of alienation. Unfortunately, we learn little of the great social upheavals taking place in America during the 1960s and early 1970s: the race riots, the 1968 assassinations of Senator Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the growing protests against the war in Vietnam which resulted in the deaths of four students at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, and so much more.
So when Jenkins heads out on a cool autumn day towards New Orleans, his only goal appears to be to walk across the United States with the aim of deciding if he should stay and live in America, or whether he should move elsewhere.
Along the way he finds his answer.
Towards the end of the book Jenkins writes: “I had started out with a sense of bitterness about what my country appeared to be. But with every step I had learned otherwise. I had been turned on by America and its people in a thousand fantastic ways.”
His only companion for most of the journey was a huge Alaskan Malamute dog called, Cooper. Together they encounter a hermit mountain man; are run out of town in Robinsville, North Carolina, but a little further down the road they are ‘adopted’ by an African American family in Smokey Hollow, North Carolina. Due to lack of finances Jenkins had to stop and work during his long walk, and here too he encounters the ‘real’ America he is looking for. He shovels horse manure on an Alabama ranch, works for two months in a North Carolina sawmill, and spends a month or so on a hippy commune in Tennessee.
As you would expect, Peter Jenkins meets and greets (and sometimes has to run and hide from) a huge array of characters that make up 1970s America. Police officers, poor southern black families, rich southern white families, rednecks and moonshiners, Friday night boozers, and Saturday night losers, and countless strangers along the way who either threaten him, offer him food or invite him in to their homes for a night or two before continuing on his way. He even gets to meet the then Governor of Alabama, George Wallace.
But of all the experiences Peter Jenkins encounters, none are as profound as his encounters with God and religion. By his own admission, neither he or his family where regular churchgoers, but when he moves in with a poor African American family in Smokey Hollow, headed by matriarch Mary Elizabeth, his attendance at the small Mount Zion Baptist church every Sunday is non-negotiable. Here he is moved in ways he never expected. And later again, in New Orleans, his attendance at a revivalist gathering becomes life changing.
You have to admire Jenkins’ desire and determination to not just embark on a journey of this magnitude, but the fortitude and strength of character he shows – often despite great challenges – to complete it.
A Walk Across America ends with Jenkins meeting Barbara, his future wife in New Orleans.
Eventually, they would head west together, and continue the walk from Louisiana, through Texas and New Mexico, across Colorado before finally completing this monumental journey in California. Jenkins would go on to write about this part of the walk in his next book, The Walk West: A Walk Across America 2.
A Walk Across America is not a travelogue in the sense that a Bill Bryson book is. This is a journey into the self. The journey of one young man trying to find himself, and his desire to rediscover his country. During this journey, Jenkins' faith and pride in his country -- and himself -- were tested to the limit, and ultimately restored.
Peter Jenkins has written numerous books since undertaking his first walk across America. Click these links to purchase