2.23.2009

A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins

I just finished reading this book. It is the true story of Peter's journey from Alfred, New York to New Orleans, Louisiana. As a young man, Peter had become very disillusioned with his country and with himself. Before he gave up hope in himself and in this land of the free, he wanted to really give it a chance - to really get to know it.

In the autumn of 1973, with his loyal half-malamute dog, Cooper, Peter began walking. Near the end of this section of his journey (the rest is retold in the next book, A Walk West) Peter reflects this way:
"From my first searching journey out of Alfred, I had lived a life of extremes, I had starved my way through the Smokies and stuffed myself Southern style. I had frozen my feet in West Virginia and boiled my brains in Alabama. I had shared outer and inner spaces with a hermit mountain man and been nicknamed Albino by a loving black family. I had almost died in a storm-pounded shelter on the Appalachian Trail and had shoveled horse manure on an Alabama ranch. I had loved and lost my forever friend, Cooper Half Malamute. I had been elevated by a nameless man who gave me five red apples on a Virginia mountaintop and befriended by a gutsy, generous governor named George. I had strained my back in a North Carolina sawmill and lived leisurely in a Montgomery mansion. I had lived on a long-haired commune in Tennessee and had learned how to pray at a far-out revival in Mobile. I had started out searching for myself and my country and found both. I had come face to face with God and accepted Him as my own."

I found myself continually pulled into Peter's story, not only because of the adventure in journeying through unknown places with just a pack on your back and dog by your side, but also because Peter seemed accessible. He was not a writer. He did this for himself - the book was an afterthought. He had a deal set up with National Geographic, where he would take photos of his travels, but he never intended to write an extensive retelling of the story. But he did, and in his imperfect description, and elementary word choice, I am able to throw myself in the middle of it. I can be there. I know where that is.

Of course, my favorite part of the story is how important his dog was to him. He would not have been able to survive without Cooper - both physically and emotionally. Cooper saved his life more than once. My favorite quote from the book comes during Peter's time living with a poor black family in Murphy, North Carolina. A young boy he met playing basketball has invited him home to eat with his family and the mother (Mary Elizabeth) reluctantly decides that she wants Peter to live with them for a while because she believes God has sent Peter there to test her faith.

"Weeks after I'd become one of her sons, Mary Elizabeth told me how she had been kind of scared the first time her boys brought me home for dinner with my sun-bleached long hair and untamed red beard. But when she saw how Cooper loved me and I loved him, she knew I was alright. 'Dawgs don't lie,' she said."

But this book is extra special because it was given to me by my Dad this past Christmas. He read this book years ago when he was at a "crossroad" in his life. Peter's journey itself was taken as a decision at a crossroad, as is most every turn he makes along the way. My Dad knows that I am at a place in my life where I am at a crossroad. My struggle is, and always will be, to figure out where to go when there are so many different roads to take.

I do know that when I "settle down" someday, that I will always have a quiet place with some shelves of special books. Thanks Dad.

3 comments:

max. said...

that's awesome man. i'm excited to hear about your trip in person.

Anonymous said...

Peter actually left on October 15 of 1973. Not in the Spring.

benjamin said...

You are correct. It has been changed.