When Andrew Forsthoefel enrolled at Middlebury College a decade ago, he felt like a blunt pencil, he wrote in an application for a historiography course that he had heard “would change you forever” — or perhaps at least sharpen him into a well-honed man.
But Forsthoefel didn’t win entrance into the class or a post-school fellowship in which he wanted to explore the concept of “coming of age.” And so, graduating in the spring of 2011, he took a job on a fishing boat in hopes of gaining some money and sense of direction, only to be fired by autumn.
That’s when the now 29-year-old decided to walk away from it all. Squeezing 50 pounds of camping and cooking supplies (and a mandolin) into a backpack, he stepped out of his mother’s back door in Pennsylvania and headed southwest with a sign that read “Walking to Listen.”
“I figured it would be a good conversation starter,” he recalls.
Five years after reaching the California coast the following summer, Forsthoefel is talking up a new book, “Walking to Listen: 4,000 Miles Across America, One Story at a Time.”
“The walk would be like a graduate program in the human experience,” he writes in the prologue. “I’d brought along an audio recorder to capture whatever it was people had to say. Over and over again I asked, ‘What would you tell your 23-year-old self?’ I figured if I walked well and listened close, there was a chance I’d find out what I needed to know.”
Forsthoefel set a few rules. He’d travel on foot — as many as 30 or more sole-blistering miles a day — rather than hitchhike. He’d hear out anyone and everyone. And eschewing a smartphone and directional apps, he’d turn to three poets for guidance.
In the words of Kahlil Gibran: “Was it I who spoke? Was I not also a listener?”
And Rainer Maria Rilke: “You, yesterday’s boy, to whom confusion came: Listen, lest you forget who you are.”
And Walt Whitman: “I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen, And accrue what I hear into myself … and let sounds contribute toward me.”
“Listening has become an endangered skill — too few of us know what it actually is,” Forsthoefel says today. “I wanted to slow down and see the miraculous in the mundane, the extraordinary in what we call the ordinary.”
That proved challenging when the traveler encountered a dead deer hit by a vehicle in Virginia, live alligators and wild boars lurking in Louisiana, a breakfast of deep-fried squirrel served up in Alabama and, even harder to stomach, people expressing racial, social or political prejudice.
But Forsthoefel also found himself in the storied civil rights city of Selma, Alabama, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in jazzed New Orleans on Mardi Gras, in Houston on a day a friend introduced him to former President George H.W. Bush, and at an RV park near the Gulf of Mexico when a young Iraq war widow explained how her husband, seared by an amputation and addiction, lost his will to live.
“I don’t know what the big life lesson is,” she said into the recorder. “But I definitely know to think before I speak. And when I talk to people, keep in mind that I might not talk to them again. And is that what I want to leave them with or them to leave me with?”
From cold mountaintops to hot desert valleys, Forsthoefel saw and heard it all: “The walk was miraculous,” he recalls, “and damn lonely and filled with doubt and confusing and heartbreaking.”
“Andrew did the thing that shouldn’t work at all as a radio story,” host Ira Glass said upon introducing the latter show. “He took a recorder with him just in case, and ended up recording 85 hours of stuff.”
But the resulting 30 minutes were so engaging, Forsthoefel received an offer from a publisher.
“Turns out writing a book about walking across America is more difficult than walking across America,” he says only half-jokingly after some three years of effort.
The 400-page Bloomsbury hardcover is debuting as the nation is torn by political polarization. At Forsthoefel’s first reading in Manchester (another is set for Wednesday at the Norwich Bookstore), an attendee asked if he would be appearing at his college alma mater.
“I hope to,” the graduate said.
“Without controversy?” she replied.
Unsaid but understood was Middlebury’s recent ruckus over a visit by another author, the political scientist Charles Murray, who wrote “Coming Apart” and “The Bell Curve.” But Forsthoefel, now living in Northampton, Massachusetts, is more interested in teaching “the practice of listening as a catalyst for connective presence, personal transformation and peacemaking.”
“There’s an irony that I’m here talking about listening, but listening doesn’t speak up for itself, so I have to,” he says. “I was preparing for people to be suspicious, hostile, skeptical or afraid. What I found was they felt my sincere desire to really see, know and understand. I hope this book becomes a testament to what’s possible. At this time in our country’s history, it’s more important than ever.”