A Walk Across Steinbeck

“No more distractions. The elation of finally being alone was total. We walked straight west. I had everything I needed in the world resting comfortably on my shoulders, and the entire country waiting to be discovered.”
-Peter Jenkins, from A Walk Across America

When I was doing some background research on Travels With Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck, which I wrote about here, I continually saw A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins referenced as a companion piece. So I bought it and just finished reading it last night, and aside from 2 dudes exploring the United States, the two books couldn’t be more different.

For starters, Jenkins is no writer, and he’s only, like, 23 when he starts walking. It’s a compelling origin: the young, disillusioned, wealthy, liberal college grad decides to walk across the United States to see it all before he decides whether or not it’s worth saving before he moves across the pond. He’s disgusted by the racism, Vietnam, and what he feels is the populace’s general animosity and unkind behavior toward each other. In other words, he just can’t understand why people in this country can’t just be nice to each other. But in practice, the book is a glorified travel diary, filled with trite cliches and mundane observations. Yes, he has some neato adventures, and gets in some riff-raff, and almost dies a few times (from the elements and from hostile southerners who don’t take too kindly to Yankee outsiders), but in the end, Jenkins is so desperate to find the goodness in people, he ends up overlooking reality because someone was nice to him once.

For instance, he decides to walk all the way to Alabama and actually schedules a meeting with George Wallace so that he can tell him face-to-face what a rotten human being he is (and rightfully so), but once he’s in his office, he’s seduced by a smooth talker who shows a little interest in why Jenkins is walking across America. George Wallace really cares, you see, and he thinks it’s just far out that Jenkins wants to see how great this country is firsthand, and even offers to fund the rest of Jenkins’s trip (an offer he rightly refuses), so Jenkins leaves his office not only enamored by Wallace, but totally willing to forget all that nasty racism, race-baiting and segregation stuff, because, well, he’s just such a nice guy. Jenkins must have misjudged him. I kept wondering what the poor black family in North Carolina, with whom Jenkins lived for several months, and who treated him like their own son and brother, would think of this revelation of his.

Moved by his reaction to me, which was the opposite of any I had imagined, I reached out my Yankee hand, and we shook hands hard. As I walked out of his office, prouder to be an American than when I had come in, the governor rolled alongside me, confined forever to his wheelchair, and said, “God bless ya, Son!”

Barf. Compare that to Steinbeck’s reaction to traveling through the south, and, facing the harsh and vile segregation and treatment of blacks in New Orleans, decided to cut his trip short because his spirit was crushed. I think you can see where my own sensitivities would probably lie. To be fair, Steinbeck took his journey in the 60’s, and Jenkins took his journey in the mid-70’s, but the sentiment remains the same. Perhaps if Jenkins was bit more articulate, and could author a more insightful glimpse into why his opinion shifted so radically, it would make more sense, but I don’t buy it as is. But when you consider that in the next chapter he stumbles upon a Christian revival in downtown Mobile (when he was headed to a wild party to meet girls and possibly do drugs), and is inexplicably saved, and, sobbing before thousands, gives himself over to Jesus, perhaps it makes more sense. People don’t do that unless they’re terribly lost, and terribly susceptible to suggestion. It shouldn’t really surprise me then that Jenkins would instantly forgive one of the most vile politicians in American history upon meeting him for about 20 seconds.

I was, however, really enjoying the book up to this point (especially the aforementioned months-long interlude in North Carolina with the black family), and it’s possible I’m either reading way too much into this one incident, or simply making too much of it. It really struck me, though, and I felt betrayed by Jenkins, and he instantly became an unreliable narrator for me. A dear friend once said to me that if you sat down with every single person in the world and talked to them for 10 minutes, nearly everybody is “nice.” That doesn’t mean they’re good people. Which is something I’ve pretty carried with me ever since. So, it’s fortunate at least that this occurred later on in the book after I’d already enjoyed most of it.

A Walk Across America is an interesting time-capsule, but I never really felt like I got to know Jenkins very much. At the end, he seemed like an empty vessel, simply taking in everything and everyone around him blindly and without much filtering (though he was quite turned off by the messianic vibe at the weird Christian hippy commune he stayed at briefly in Tennessee), which, again, to be fair, is kind of what your twenties are for I guess. But there’s no analysis, no insight, no real wisdom that he imparts, other than, well, as it turns out, people in the South are nice after all, and cultish hippies are creepy. He seems like a nice enough guy, I guess, and I’m sort of curious as to what he’s up to now. A Google search doesn’t turn up much, and, judging by the last few chapters of A Walk, his other books are probably just all about God and going to church. A rather disappointing climax for such a pregnant journey of ideals.

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