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Thursday, December 3, 2015

Book Review: A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins

I love to walk. I've walked an entire marathon. I also like to read books about walks although most of them have been written by women. This book was recommended to me as a walking book by a man that was a modern classic, and I recommended it to my book club.

In 1973, Peter sets off from upstate New York heading south with his trusty Malmute Cooper. He first decided to walk to D.C. and meet up with family there, just to see if it was reasonable and if he could do it. He and Cooper did train some before they left (which is why the left in the late fall I presume. I'd have left in the spring, personally.) I found it hilarious that initially he's wearing Converse sneakers (he later does change to running shoes and boots, depending on the terrain.) He has a backpack with a tent etc. He does not have enough food or money to get him all the way, so he plans every once in a while to stop and settle somewhere for a bit, get a job, and save enough for the next leg of the trip. After the trauma of the Vietnam War, Peter, a young recent college grad, is disillusioned with America and he wants to regain his love for the country, and more specifically, the people. So along the way, he wants to meet people. Which he does. Some eccentric, some unusually nice, some unusually mean.

The book is dated. Mostly in a way that is funny, and occasionally baffling. Because he has a beard everyone assumes he's a hippie and therefore a drug pusher. I found that line of logic bizarre. In fact, he's run out of one town in Virginia due to this assumption (luckily on his first night in town he befriended a deputy which is probably why he wasn't killed.) Race relations were certainly eye-opening although it was the whites he usually had trouble with, even though he himself is white. The bit about the commune was somewhat amusing (The Farm in Tennessee which still exists) until you figured out that it's basically a cult. I was nearly as apprehensive about him going into Alabama as he was but that turned out okay. He ends up in New Orleans (going south was the main point in this book. Going west is his second book.) The end I didn't much like but it's nonfiction so that's what happened and I don't have to like it. Overall, I like the bulk of the book when he was walking. I didn't like the stationary parts nearly as much and those were close to half of the book. I found Peter naive and sweet, but also likely to get himself into potentially dangerous situations (even if none of them actually turned out dangerous yet.)

I felt the writing tone to be overly casual, the timeframe to be confusing, and the people he met to be off-kilter for the most part. But I still mostly liked the book. It was easy to read and gives a real snapshot of what the 1970s in America was like off the beaten path. DO NOT flip ahead and look at the photo insert as it reveals a major spoiler. (The trip was partly funded by National Geographic which gave Peter a camera.) Overall, I did enjoy it, but it wasn't great. I am still not sure why but I'm sticking to my earlier theory that women write about these long-distance walks better than men do.

I bought this original hardcover book from 1979 at the used bookstore Bookman Bookwoman in Nashville, TN.

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