I few months ago I went through a phase of fascination with the Appalachian Trail. The idea of walking 2,181 miles with nothing but your backpack and resilience was (and still is) kind of romantic in an incredibly awful sort of way. Reading and listening to the stories of individuals who had the initiative to undertake this grueling walk became my favorite pass time; but, I always wondered what motivated people to walk or hike. Why did they want to put their bodies through such torture or leave behind six months of salary?
For Andrew Forsthoefel, the initiative came from a place of needing. At 23, Forsthoefel had graduated from Middlebury College but he still didn’t feel as if he had crossed into adulthood. Afterall, how does a young man with virtually no male role models understand what it means to be a “man”. Forsthoefel’s quest then is not one of accomplishment, but one to understand what it means to “come of age”. Carrying a sign with “Walking to Listen” upon it, a tape recorder, and a backpack, Forsthoefel set out from his mother’s home to walk across the United States hoping to gather the collective wisdom of the nation.
As he walks, he converses with an interesting cast of characters. These people, their life stories and wise (or not so wise) advise, are what makes up the majority of the memoir. Every chapter even ends with the transcript of a conversation he had one the road. Walking to Listen is about Forsthoefel and his journey, but that story is told through the voices of the people Forsthoefel was impacted by the most. By doing so, Forsthoefel recognizes and admits the inexperience of his youth and his own lostness and insecurity. This is what makes him a fascinating and humble author of this story. He is not arrogant as he talks or rather listens. He holds his tape recorder out with hopeful necessity, desperately needing guidance.
But we do not loose Forsthoefel in all of the stories of others. We see him grow. At the beginning of the memoir, Forsthoefel almost exclusively retells his conversations and interpersonal encounters. As the book progresses, we see more and more of Forsthoefel. We see his struggle with resentment towards his father and his eventual forgiveness. We see him struggle to complete his walk, desperately wishing to experience a consistence and committed romantic relationship. By the end, he is no longer revealing himself to us through the stories of others but instead through his own thoughts which are told in beautifully searing details.
It is the ending that is most interesting to me. By the time he reaches the Pacific, I was expecting a major breakthrough. I was expecting something melodramatic and slightly pretentious from a book which, frankly by its nature is melodramatic and pretentious. This is not what we get. Instead, it is a quiet and happy reunion between a son and his parents, a traveler and those who have helped him, and friends. Honestly, I was initially slightly let down by the ending but I had to remind myself that this is a memoir and not a novel. Forsthoefel isn’t at the end of his life looking back on knowledge gained; instead, he is at the beginning of his life looking at the future with hope. He has found answers to some questions, but he has many questions in his lifetime still left to ask.
Bottom Line: Walking to Listen is an incredibly interesting memoir about coming of age and personal discovery.
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