I was recently telling a friend that I’m not a big memoir reader (though I make exceptions for book club picks and funny women), when I looked over at my bookcase and saw A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins. It is one of the books that has impacted me the most in my young adult years. It’s also a memoir. Oops. I should probably take back the disparaging comments I’ve made about the genre over the years. This is the grandparent of the all-too-common-these-days books about the authors’ year doing such and such. Originally published in 1979, A Walk Across America details the miles Jenkins and his dog Cooper walked across the country in an effort to understand America and find focus for his life.
Peter Jenkins was a recent college graduate disillusioned with his life and grieving a failed marriage when he ran into Stu, the old security guard from his college. After ranting to Stu about the state of affairs (this was 1973), Peter said that he planned to simply leave the country and move somewhere better. Stu sat him down and gave him a talking to that I’ve thought about regularly in the decade since I first read the book. “If all you college kids want to leave this country or burn it down, you better be mighty sure you know what’s you’re doing.” Stu encouraged Peter to learn the country and its people for himself, rather than make blanket statements about the country based only on what he heard on the news. This conversation is the impetus for Peter’s idea to take his dog Cooper and walk across the country.
The rest of the book follows Jenkins from New York down through the Southeast to Louisiana (he has a second book detailing his trip from Louisiana to Oregon). It’s not high brow literature, and some of the language and experiences seem lightyears away from the here and now, but I love this book anyway. Jenkins paints a picture of the America (and Americans) he discovers along his journey that rings true to what I’ve found in the four states and two countries I’ve lived in as an adult.
Each time I move across the country, find myself perpetually disgusted, or feel our divisions in politics and opinion are too great to reconcile, I think about this book. I reread Jenkins experiences in Tennessee, the time he forgot his own race, and his descriptions of the people he met: generous, violent, crazy, kind, hardworking, misunderstood. “It had happened again. I had met another American whose generosity, it began to seem to me, gushed out of the spirit of this land.”
My high school English teacher recommended A Walk Across America to a group of us when we graduated high school. (If I recall correctly, he even gave us some extra copies he had lying around. Having known many teachers since then, I realize that most “extras lying around” are really things teachers have purchased with their own cash to improve the lives of their students. Thanks, Brodsky!) I’ve returned the favor by giving it to high school and college graduates ever since. I recommend it when discussions turn to absolutes or when I feel like I have to defend my love of the South. I’m not afraid of looking the problems of my community or country in the eye, but I appreciate Stu’s (and Jenkins’s) point that it deserves to be looked at completely–with all its flaws and beauty side by side.