Rebecca Solnit, in her excellent history of walking Wanderlust, describes how extremely long walks are begun for three reasons: to comprehend a place’s natural or social make up; to comprehend oneself; or to set a record (1). My recent attempt to cross the United States on foot was initially undertaken to explore the first two categories alone, although it is quite possible that myself and my travelling companion, David Toolan, have unwittingly begun setting a record for the most burgers eaten during a crossing of any continent on foot.
We set out on the 3rd June 2006, to walk from Cape Henlopen on the Atlantic coast of the USA to Point Reyes, some 5000 miles away on the other side of the country. Both of us quit our jobs, mine as a researcher for IFLA’s FAIFE Committee and Dave as an accounts manager for a cleaning company he detested. It was a big decision for the both of us, and one that was taken with no small regard to the practical, psychological or financial implications of such a great undertaking.
For nearly five years I had worked with IFLA as a researcher for the FAIFE Office. My favourite area of interest was how governmental reactions to the events of September 11th 2001 had created new laws and developments with far reaching implications for the way we access and disseminate information in the 21st century. After five years of research I was still fit to burst with questions, most of them about America and its role in the world. While I had visited the US before, I realised that I had little idea of who the people were that lived outside of the great liberal cities on America’s east coast. Who, I wondered, had voted George W. Bush into power in 2000, and returned him to the White House in 2004? What was it like to visit with the people who lived in the more conservative areas of the United States, where people possessed strong opinions on gun control, abortion and homosexuality?
I realised that in order to find the answers to these questions I had to visit America itself and immerse myself in the country in a far more personal way than just reading the latest books. I began preparing for my walk at the end of 2005; by April 2006 Dave and I had assembled equipment sponsors (covering clothing, tents, footwear), bought far too much technical equipment (one lightweight laptop, one camcorder, two digital cameras, iPod and speakers, one child’s guitar for Dave) and were ready to quit our jobs and catch the next flight to Washington DC.
This might sound like a well-planned academic mission to the heart of the American Dream but it was not the case. Sure, I had a clear idea of the things I wanted to find out how had America changed since September 11th, and how did Americans’ see their role in the world? and I had a reasonably clear idea of how I would do this by walking from one coast to the other, talking to people and digesting as much of the available media as possible but in reality as much of my adventure was left to chance as it was to purpose. I was opting for an ethnographic approach to my questions at best, a non-rigorous and semi-academic effort that was the most I could hope for when travelling light. Dave would photograph our exploits and we would both keep video diaries of our impressions. We could participate and we could observe, and I could invite interaction through a regular journal on our website, www.walkingthestates.com. Despite this, I wondered if what we were doing was more akin to gonzo journalism than anything else. Especially in light of the number of bars we found ourselves going into
Anyway, despite these academic misgivings we began. June 3rd 2006, Dave and myself finding ourselves up to our shins in the cold water of the Atlantic Ocean on a chilly and overcast day. We had been up until 4.30am in the morning packing and Dave had managed to lose his wallet and all of his credit cards. We were tired, our bags were too heavy and it looked like rain coming in. Our plan was to walk halfway across the country, to Kansas City, and then stop for the winter as we would not be able to cross the Rocky Mountains once the snows came. The whole walk would take, we estimated, 11 months, half in 2006 and half in 2007. When we started walking on that cold day, the idea that we could get to the other side of the country seemed incredibly foolish.
The USA, 2006
So what sort of country had we arrived in? In June 2006 George W. Bush and the Republican Party had been in power for over five years. It was almost five years since 9/11. The United States army had been involved in combat operations in Afghanistan since 2002 and Iraq since 2003. 2473 US soldiers had been killed in Iraq since the invasion started. Abroad, the United States image had taken quite a beating since Le Monde declared ‘We are all Americans now’ in September 2001. By November 2006, opinion polls in America’s neighbouring countries were showing that 62% of Canadians and 57% of Mexicans believed the world had become more dangerous because of US policies. The same poll showed that English respondents believed the US President to pose more of a threat to world peace than the President of Iran, the leader of North Korea, or the leader of Hezbollah (2).
Polls of friends and colleagues taken before I left told me to expect people ignorant of America’s role in the world, uninterested in foreign cultures and instead inward looking and quite possibly obese. Perhaps when a country projects its image abroad almost entirely through television, movies and aggressive foreign policy, it is not a surprise that snap judgements are offered on the nature of its citizens. In reality, of course, the real United States is a far more nuanced and complex country than the one that gave us the Axis of Evil or the 48oz soft drink. Yet, while allowances can be made for the distorting images of television and cinema, is it really possible for a non-American to understand America, a country of over 300 million people which is two and a half times the size of the European Union?
Life in Splendid Isolation
If you drove from Cape Henlopen to Point Reyes you would cover nearly 3000 miles. Our route takes us 5000 miles, through 13 states from Delaware to California. We are purposefully going to walk straight through the middle of the country, avoiding the south and the more isolated north. By travelling nearly 2000 miles in our 2006 leg we have been able to begin to understand what it means to live in America away from the eastern seaboard, and we have begun to get to grips with the tremendous size of the country and the isolation found outside of urban areas.
Over time it became clear that my previous efforts at trying to understand the American mindset from across the Atlantic had led me to a dead end. There was, for example, no way to allow for the effects on people of living in isolated communities with little or no interest in how people do things even in New York. There was also no way of understanding how important religion and national narrative is to the people we met either, how the cumulative experience of thousands of religious refugees of all denominations had led to a countryside literally overflowing with all sorts of churches and places of worship. In ‘God’s Country’ (a phrase we heard a number of times) American citizens had, until recently, lived in a land acknowledged as the world’s greatest superpower, one that spent over $400 Billion dollars per year on military spending and had not been attacked on its own soil since December 1945. From a distance I had formed the impression that Americans had grown used to a narrative existence, almost a Hollywood plot that was led inexorably to a succession of peaks the land of the free and the American dream where those who desired it could buy what they wanted when they wanted, where God would protect his chosen people and where failure and disgrace could be forgotten about by a collective will that was constantly looking forward.
But through the cumulative experiences of moving through a country over six months, speaking to its people and watching its TV a different picture of America came to the fore. By progressing slowly in one direction and throwing ourselves on the mercy of strangers I was able to gain a far subtler impression of what America is about, and discover that many of my preconceptions needed adjusting.
So who did we stay with and what did we talk about? From the very first day of the walk we constantly encountered curious and friendly people, and there was no way of generalising about their backgrounds. In Delaware we camped in the garden of a religious Republican voter who eagerly questioned us about England and whether or not we had Christmas. This was our first encounter with the type of person who thought nothing of two men turning up and asking to camp on their land; the ease with which we were accepted into the evening’s activities would be reproduced across the next 2000 miles.
Every day produced something different. In West Virginia, for example, we stayed one night with a very rich retired conservative surgeon who brewed his own beer and designed his own house and the next night we stayed with self-described rednecks in rundown accommodation, watching six year olds fetch mum a beer while the man of the house showed us how to use a hunting bow in the back garden. In Ohio we met very religious people, including one man who had walked around his county with a full-size cross on his back (after ten miles he realised it was too heavy, and called a friend with a chainsaw to come and chop the bottom off of it. The following year he did the same thing with a polystyrene cross with a wood laminate finish).
Indiana, Illinois and Missouri – as we came through towards the Mid-west we experienced more and more of the same amazing hospitality. Our days normally began in our tents in someone’s back garden or possibly inside a house in a kindly lent bed. Following a 15-20 mile walk we would identify a likely dwelling and knock on the door in the hope of finding somewhere to stay. Amazingly, in nearly 2000 miles there was only one night where this tactic stalled when a gentleman comes to the door with a shotgun you know you should be further down the road.
People would cook for us; or they would give us food and water to take away. In restaurants we would go to pay the bill and find that a stranger had taken care of it. On occasion people would pay for us to spend a night in a motel, or take us for dinner somewhere. We would tell our story and they would tell theirs, everybody keen to hear about Europe but also interested to find out what we thought of America. When we were walking along the road cars would beep at us and drivers wave, and from the smiles on people’s faces it was clear that what we were doing resonated with a lot of people. We were regularly told that by walking across the country we would “see far more of America than I ever will”.
On other occasions we were treated more quizzically stopped and surrounded by five police cars and 8 cops in Cincinnati when a member of the public reported us as suspicious after seeing us walking. Another time we were stopped in connection with rural burglaries, although our heavy rucksacks and 3mph pace surely made us the world’s slowest/most stupid thieves.
It’s difficult to describe all the topics that we discussed with our hosts over the six months, but there were some themes that repeatedly recurred around the dinner table or at the bar. Often, when in public places, people would hear our accents and come over with the express purpose of engaging us in debate about some of the subjects I had wondered might be taboo – such as 9/11 or religion. Of course, once it became apparent that people felt extremely comfortable exercising the First Amendment, and that they were as interested in American politics as we were, we began to bring several issues up as a matter of course.
It was clear that everyone we met had strong opinions on George W. Bush. Generally speaking, people were tired of their President, disappointed in the way he was viewed abroad, embarrassed at his perceived lack of intelligence or let down by his inability to produce a true conservative agenda for America. It surprised us to hear continued annoyance at the ‘stolen’ election of 2000 and, especially in a state like Ohio, anger at supposed irregularities in 2004. While we did meet many Republican sympathisers we only met one person who thought George Bush knew exactly what he was doing, an extremely intelligent man who kept us up until 2am drinking wine and arguing forcefully for the Republican case. This evening alone was worth going to the US for, showing me a human side of Republican voters that was difficult to understand from the other side of the Atlantic.
The President and his staff were also blamed for the mess in Iraq. The war was unavoidable during our stay it was generally the only foreign news shown on television or in the local newspapers, and it affected even the smallest communities. Sometimes, upon entering a town we would walk past public notice boards announcing which of the town’s residents were serving overseas, along with mention of any who had died or who were returning home soon. Many cars and trucks carried bumper stickers supporting the troops; they far outnumbered the stickers urging that the troops be brought home soon.
We arrived in the US at a time when public opinion about the war was turning. As I write this I note that 58% of the American public believe sending troops to Iraq was a mistake, and it was an almost tangible feeling during our walk that more and more people were becoming disgruntled with the way the war was being handled (3). What was surprising to hear was the extent to which people, Republicans and Democrats alike, had trusted their leaders in the run up to the Iraq invasion, and how they had, at one point at least, clearly accepted that an attack on Iraq a necessary consequence of the response to 9/11. It was odd to find out through various polls on television and in the newspapers that even last year people still believed that Saddam had clear links to 9/11 or that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq (4).
When we probed a little deeper about the so called ‘Clash of Civilisations’ that 9/11 had apparently provoked, we became aware that the Muslim community, both inside and outside of the US, was unreal to the people we were speaking to. As far as we could tell, the size of America, and the concentration of religions other than Christianity inside cities alone, meant that the only exposure Americans received to Muslims was through television and this coverage we soon found was mostly negative, especially on a channel like Fox News. America is a very Christian country, and with only 1% of the population being Muslim we believed the words of a West Virginia preacher who told us that he personally had never met a Muslim and he doubted many of his colleagues had either. It is not too far fetched to suggest that the geographical isolation of the United States contributes to a feeling that the War in Iraq, for example, might as well be being fought on Mars. If it were not for the increasing death toll of US soldiers, and the obvious marking of this in some of the small communities we passed through, it might be coldly noted that the scenes of war being played out on TV screens nightly could as well have been filmed in Hollywood.
Instead of looking outwards, Americans almost seem to have become more inward looking, something which was contributed to an odd feeling of fear inside communities. This came as something of a surprise to me, but over time we began to realise that as well as not reaching out to countries abroad, people were not reaching out within their own counties, or states. When asking for directions to the next town on, for example, we would sometimes be met with ignorance regarding a place ten miles away, or even a warning that we should avoid that place altogether. This was often much worse when we approached a larger town or city, especially one with a significant African-American population. Sometimes we found ourselves being warned off areas from 100 miles away. It amazes me to write that America appears to be as racially segregated as it was before the Civil Rights movement, but on the back of our experiences, it would appear so. Our journey was an almost totally White experience, and rarely did we meet Blacks or Hispanics. Of course, we were walking through rural areas of the centre of the country, which certainly explains a few things, but nevertheless I came away with an impression that in places there exists a great suspicion of the ‘other’ that has led to some clearly defined lines based on religion or race.
After the Mid-terms
It seems strange to finish with a discussion of fear when we were overwhelmed with the locals’ hospitality, curiosity and kindness to strangers which in many ways are the best antidote to fear. In fact, we never once felt fearful during our stay in the US (despite the guy with the shotgun). Instead, the anxiety we sensed came to our consciousness as a result of an accumulated weight of conversations, after we had walked hundreds of miles discussing the talks we had had with the locals and noting recurrent themes.
Everything we heard in these conversations seemed to manifest itself in the Mid-term elections held in November 2006. After two months on the road we predicted the results and got them right. Everywhere we went we could feel that most people wanted a change from the diet of politics they had been served since 2001 and not only on a foreign policy level. The nearer we got to Election Day the more convinced we were that the Republicans would face a backlash, not just from organised Democratic voters but also as a result of disillusioned Republicans who had not received the government they wanted.
Next we year we return to a country where the Democrats now hold the reins in the Senate and the House of Representatives. We will walk across Kansas and then go over the Rockies, through the deserts of Utah and Nevada and eventually we’ll reach the liberal enclave of San Francisco. We’re already looking forward to it we’ll get to talk to more people about the 2008 Presidential elections, eat more burgers (diner menus are all the same wherever you go in America) and watch more Fox News with a mixture of horror and fascination. All we need to do now is regain some of the fitness we’ve lost by sitting down for six months
Stuart and Dave are looking for publishers for the book they are currently writing about their trip, and will be returning to the United States at the end of April 2007 to finish the journey by walking from Kansas City to San Francisco. To read more about the journey, or to look at some of the amazing photographs of America, visit: www.walkingthestates.com
Stuart Hamilton Biographical Note
Stuart Hamilton is a 32 year old librarian documentary explorer. At least that’s what it says on his US medical records. He completed his doctoral research at the Royal School of Library and Information Science in Copenhagen, Denmark in November 2004. His research, which was co-sponsored by the Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression (FAIFE) committee of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), investigated libraries, censorship and barriers to accessing information on the Internet on a global scale. He has spoken on his research at conferences in Africa, Europe, Latin America and the United States, and has been published in various library journals in the last five years. Before moving to Copenhagen, Stuart worked for five years in the English library service, most notably at Brighton Public Library on the south coast where he specialised in the provision of online services. His Masters thesis explored the controversy surrounding the ‘Independent librarians of Cuba’ through fieldwork and interviews in Havana, and he received his Masters degree in Library and Information Science from University College London in 2001.