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Peter Jenkins: Discovering America on Foot - 2002-07-05


When Peter Jenkins graduated from college in 1973, he decided to travel a bit before settling down to family and career. The young adventurer set a goal of walking across America, expecting to walk from New York to New Orleans in just five months.

Five years later he returned home very much surprised by what he'd discovered about his fellow Americans. Mr. Jenkins wrote a book about his journey, simply titled "Walk Across America." The nation surprised him again by making the book a best seller. VOA's Mike Osborne recently had a chance to visit with Peter Jenkins on his farm just outside Nashville, and learned that the author is still traveling, still finding fresh surprises along the American Highway.

Two decades after first appearing in The New York Times top ten book list, Peter Jenkin's Walk Across America continues to sell well. But neither the author's pen nor his feet have been idle in the years since. In 1982, Mr. Jenkins continued his journey, walking from New Orleans to the Pacific Coast. The resulting book, The Walk West, was also a best seller. He then indulged a passion for East Asia, walking across China and writing about that experience as well. His 1997 work Along the Edge of America chronicled a sailboat adventure along the Gulf coast, from Florida to Texas.

What keeps Mr. Jenkin's readers coming back for each new journey is his uncanny ability to capture in print the life stories of ordinary people he meets along the way.

"I realized that, in order to understand a place, you had to talk to its people, and a lot of people can't describe who they are, and what they do, and where they fit in in the world. They just can't. They don't have that self-awareness, or they haven't been around enough, or they just can't verbalize it. And I realize that in many ways, to understand people, you have to live with them. You have to work with them. I mean, if they work on an oilrig, you gotta go work on an oilrig. If they till the soil, you gotta go out there with them and till the soil, and really understand where their heart and soul lies. And so, I learned that I had to do that, and I've been doing that ever since," Mr. Jenkins said.

Another aspect of Mr. Jenkin's writing that many readers find appealing is his unapologetically upbeat view of American life. He admits it's surprising, when you remember that his first walk across the country spanned the early to mid 1970s, a time of bitter social debate and deep introspection following the Vietnam War.

"There was a lot of turmoil, there was a lot of change, there was a lot of conflict," he recalled. "And I found it very confusing and kind of troubling, perplexing time. And so I just wanted to kind of sort out what this country was all about, and what it was like, and if it was really as bad as some of my professors and some of the people in the media and the people that were making the music were saying that it was, and the protestors. So I decided I'd walk across the United States, so I figured I'd take, maybe, five months. Anyway, to make a long story short, I ended up taking five years, and I discovered an incredible country, totally disconnected from what the headlines were saying! As an example, the South. I found the South to be a completely different sort of place than I expected; a much more positive place, a much less hostile place, a much less prejudice place than I would have expected, based on what I read in The New York Times and things like that."

In a way, it seems natural, almost inevitable, that Mr. Jenkin's travels would eventually take him to America's last frontier. His most recent book is titled Looking For Alaska. As always, he sees the landscape he travels through the eyes and lives of the people he meets along the way. In this book, some of his most compelling moments are enjoyed with Alaska's native people, including an elder of the Inupiat people of Alaska's far north. Mr. Jenkins captured his adventure in a series of recordings he made for Alaska Public Radio.

"I sat for several days on warm caribou skins, in the camp of whaling captain Oliver Levit, waiting for the whales. One day we saw 100, one day we saw none," he said. "He [Oliver Levit, the Inupiat elder] represents, in many ways, the complexity of the Alaskan in that, here he is, he's a whaler. He's a subsistence hunter, which is a very big thing to many Alaskans, because many of them still get much of their food, especially their meat and their protein, from fish and meat, like caribou. But Oliver, not only is he a whaler and a subsistence hunter, but he also heads up some of the largest native corporations in the world. So he might be walking down the halls of senators' offices in Washington, DC, lobbying for some native issue, and then, two weeks later, he might be sitting out on the ice on caribou skins like his ancestors have done for thousands of years. Even though he might have a cell phone with him, he's doing essentially the exact same thing," Mr. Jenkins said.

As with his earlier adventures, Mr. Jenkins finds much to admire about the people of Alaska. In fact, readers of Looking For Alaska may sense that in America's last frontier, Mr. Jenkins has found some kindred spirits.

"More than any other place in the United States that I have ever been, Alaskans are a very individualistic, very outspoken; they're doers," he said. "They call everything that is not Alaska 'the outside.' They come to the outside, say a woman gets transferred to a job, and they meet these guys who can't do anything! They can't even change their tire! They can't even change their oil, much less build a boat, or build a house on some island with a generator. And I think that in many ways, that's something that our country needs a lot more of. That kind of attitude, I think, is what built this country strong, strong individuals."

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