Midd grad Andrew Forsthoefel learns big lessons during epic walk

MIDDLEBURY — On the same day that students across the nation quit their classrooms to protest gun violence, prompting debates among their supporters over “walking out” vs. “walking up,” the Residence at Otter Creek in Middlebury welcomed a walker of epic accomplishment.
Andrew Forsthoefel walked from Pennsylvania to California after he graduated from Middlebury College in 2011. Last year he published a book about the experience, “Walking to Listen: 4,000 Miles Across America, One Story at a Time.”
As heavy wet snow fell outside on March 14, Forsthoefel spoke to a gathering of residents in the residence’s Founders Room. His photographs spoke when he couldn’t, and long pauses felt weighted with meaning. His hands spoke, too, with the language of orchestra conductors, shaping ideas and words and feelings.
“I did everything you’re supposed to do in college,” he said, “but I still felt a great void about who I was and what I was meant to do.”
What does it mean to come of age? he wanted to know. From whom should he seek guidance?
The answer, he decided, was “Everyone.”
After careful planning, Forsthoefel donned a 50-pound pack and walked out the backdoor of his mother’s house near Philadelphia. He would walk until he reached the Pacific Ocean or ran out of money — whichever came first. Everyone he met along the way would be his teacher.
This wasn’t exactly the sort of quest his college studies had prepared him for, he acknowledged. He did, however recall one experience with clarity and gratitude: a narrative journalism project he completed under the guidance of local writer Sue Halpern.
The Ripton resident and Middlebury College scholar remembers well her former student:
“He approaches people with openness and trust, and they respond in kind,” she said. “Even now, many years later, I use his work as an example of how the person holding the microphone has the opportunity to reveal and amplify voices we might not otherwise hear.”
Over 375 pages, those voices form an American chorus of teachers, intentional or not, supportive or not. To their words Forsthoefel adds lines from the poetry he carries in his pack until the wisdom of strangers is indistinguishable from the wisdom of sages. A bounty hunter. Walt Whitman. Big George, a bar owner 20 miles west of New Orleans, who says, “You know, all you’re really doing is reading a book, just with your feet.”
That Forsthoefel’s question “Who am I?” evolved on the road into “Who are we?” suggests the then-23-year-old was indeed listening. That he came to view the feeling of exposure as a gift suggests he was learning.
“To listen is to make yourself vulnerable to transformation,” he said, “to know that I am going to be changed by what I hear.”
Sometimes, though, the words were hateful, harmful, destructive. “How to listen to that?” he asked. And when to speak out?
He found one answer in Selma, Ala., where he spent more time than anyplace else. Former mayor James Perkins, the first African American to hold that position, spoke of healing:
“There is a tremendous amount of focus on knowledge, but I go back to the fact that human beings are also equipped with feelings. That’s why words mean something to us, because they make us feel a certain way. And until we’re willing to sit down and really address how these things make us feel, then we’re going to come up short on the healing process.”
After the journey, writing about what he had learned presented Forsthoefel with a new set of challenges. What had taken him nearly a year on foot required roughly three years to organize into a book.
His first editor, Courtney Young, read an early draft and wanted to know where Forsthoefel’s own voice was. Young insisted the author should put himself in the book and the author took her advice.
The final product, rather than cataloguing the answers to fundamental questions, progresses page by page toward a deeper understanding of the questions, themselves.
When asked “What’s next?” Forsthoefel said he he’s thinking about becoming a chaplain. Whatever he does, wherever he goes, he said, he’ll be listening.
“The listening space, where we can hear the stories of human hearts, is where communion happens,” he said. “It’s what makes being alive worth it.”
Contact Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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