Graduating from college is filled with feelings of excitement and dread. Excitement for the freedom to do whatever your heart desires. Dread for the piles of responsibilities that are coming your way.
You only have as much freedom as you do responsibilities. The ability to be “free” is often masked by student loan debt, insurance, rent and a cell phone bill.
But what if you had the power to just say “screw it” and walk away. No cell phones. No Netflix. No bed. No BuzzFeed. A break from reality and the future that awaits you.
For one twenty something, that reckless abandonment was reality. He literally walked away from everything and walked 4,000 miles from his home in Philadelphia to the Pacific Ocean.
It sounds like something out of a history book or Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” But Andrew Forsthoefel is not a 1850s Mormon pioneer migrating across the continent to Utah or Sal Paradise experiencing the great American road trip. Andrew is an average twenty something, who after graduating from Middlebury College in 2011, found a job on a lobster boat and was fired shortly thereafter.
With nothing tying him down, walking across the country, something he had always thought about doing, seemed like a good idea.
“It just started to make sense, the more I thought about it,” he told me in a phone interview. “Like, there would be a lot of solitude involved. There would be strangers and people who were from different backgrounds that might be able to lend a different perspective to these questions I had about growing-up and just how to live life and there would be some challenge in there.”
It wouldn’t be to do something that might make the news, it would give him the opportunity to really think about his future and to experience new cultures and people, a walk to listen, as he says.
Six weeks after he was fired. He started walking.
“Everyone was totally supportive,” he said. “[My] Mom and Dad had a couple of questions to ask before I decided on it, but they were great and my friends were great too. This whole thing would have been a lot harder and maybe even impossible if I didn’t have the total support of my people.”
I first heard about Andrew’s walk on an episode of “This American Life” on NPR. For those of you who are unfamiliar, “This American Life” is a non-fiction radio show, often featuring first-person stories like Andrew’s.
During his walk, which took almost an entire year to complete, Andrew documented the journey on a blog and with a voice recorder. After he returned, he turned the recordings into a radio essay that was aired on “This American Life.” The radio piece documented his feelings, conversations, struggles, triumphs and fears.
Besides some basic camping gear, the only thing Andrew took with him was a netbook laptop, an audio recorder and a mandolin. Along the way he met dozens of strangers, many whom invited him into their home for a meal, conversation and a place to sleep.
“It was a totally charmed, blessed year,” he said. “I got very luck, very, very lucky. I think it’s also really doable. It’s maybe not as hard as it seems. Like people do get hit by cars, but I got lucky.”
During his senior year of college, Andrew completed a project on the subject of “Coming of age.” He was still left with questions and had hoped to go abroad and study coming of age in indigenous communities when he graduated. But, when he graduated he decided that going abroad may not be the right thing to do. The walk across America gave him the opportunity to think about that question more, he said.
“The big thing I got from that is, it’s an indigenous process without an end point,” he said. “I think in some way we are always coming of age and growing up. It’s the idea that someday you reach the point that all of a sudden you are the full-formed adult that you will always be. The thought that that exists is kind of a cool thing, but it’s also not really real.”
Andrew said that throughout his walk his sense of faith strengthened, he become more patient and less judgmental – especially since he was often judged by those he encountered along the way.
But above all he learned to listen to himself.
“I didn’t feel comfortable to start diving into a job, even a fulfilling one, before I really took a good look into these questions even though I had a large tuition debt,” he said. “The feeling was so important to me and I followed that feeling and slowly, but surely everything is working out. I feel very privileged to [have] experienced this. Don’t forget to listen to yourself and pay attention and act accordingly.”
After 11 months on the road and experiencing everything from prejudice to the harrowing heat of the desert, Andrew said he was ready to be done.
“I was tired and kind of sick of constantly leaving and saying goodbye and not having roots,” he said. “In that sense I was ready to be done and readjust, but I was definitely a little sad. It was a special year. It will never happen again and it never could. There’s a sadness to that, but it’s done.”
After his walk was finished, he moved to Woods Hole, Mass. and took a job at a coffee shop to support himself while producing the radio essay with Jay Allison of Transom.org. Currently he is writing a book which will be published by Houghton Mifflin.
And his thoughts on our generation?
“I’m hopeful,” he said. “I’m a part of it. I think there is always critiques of ones generation from others and I’m not worried. I think all generations are at a really bad standing point in time as we’re evolving with our technologies. I think the future will be hard. I don’t think the millennial generation will be the affected ones. I think it is enabling. These technologies can enable us too. I’m not afraid. I am hopeful.”
Listen to Andrew’s story here: