A: My walk across Europe in 2011 went so well that I wanted to follow it with a second chapter. I’d never walked across a desert before, and the American West looked like the safest desert to begin with, so I did some research, found a project to work on while traveling, and went for it.
Q: Had you traveled in any of these places before?
A: I lived in Seattle from 2009 to early 2011, and I’d been to Austin before when I was too young to remember it; but otherwise, I was seeing every place on this trip for the first time.
Q: Did you do this for a cause?
A: I wanted to learn about the ways globalization is affecting local communities, and from the research I’d done before the trip, it looked like the American West was a historical epicenter of this process. I also wanted to learn about the work it takes to keep transportation and telecommunication networks functioning, because the idea that the world is getting smaller all the time seems to ignore the enormous amount of work that these networks require. I wanted to help people see how complicated, pervasive, and fragile these networks are, and to help people think about the extent to which their own lives depend on them.
Q: Was this a journey of personal discovery?
A: Not by intent. It confirmed for me that I enjoy doing things that are immersive and arduous, and it changed the way I write, but this trip was not an uncharacteristic thing for me to do.
Q: Did you walk the whole way alone?
A: No one did the trip with me, but it wasn’t a very solitary experience. I traveled on two-lane highways almost the entire time, and the highways of the American West never sleep. There’s continual traffic even in the middle of nowhere. I also stayed with people frequently and was in regular contact with family. Socially, the strangest aspect of this trip was being in touch with so many people without being a functional part of their lives.
Q: Why didn’t you do the Pacific Crest Trail or the Continental Divide Trail instead?
A: As much as I love being in the mountains, I wanted to see a more representative cross-section of the West, one that included places where people live. I also wanted to find a new story to tell, and the experience of through-hiking one of the established trails seems increasingly standardized.
Q: Do you drink coffee?
A: No. I didn’t carry a stove, either. When I walked across Europe, people didn’t talk to me about coffee much, so I was surprised at how often people asked me about it in the United States.
Q: Where did you sleep?
A: Most of the time, I slept indoors, under hospitable roofs. Sometimes I used the Couchsurfing or Warm Showers cycling networks; sometimes people I’d met referred me to friends and family down the road; and sometimes, chance acquaintances turned into hosts and friends. When I camped, I did my best to pitch my tent somewhere unobtrusive. The tops of roadcuts worked particularly well. Much to my surprise, the only state along my route where stealth camping was consistently awkward was Washington. In Louisiana, highway junctions often provided a patch of dry ground in the midst of the general swamp.
Q: How far in advance did you plan?
A: I spent the year leading up the walk obsessing over the route, the cart, and the historical background to my research project. Despite this, I ran into unexpected route problems several times along the way, because the sources I was using in my planning weren’t compiled from a pedestrian point of view. It turns out, for example, that I-25 is the only legal way to walk through one section of central New Mexico, because the other roads along that stretch of the Rio Grande are either fenced off by ranchers or controlled by the White Sands Missile Range. I didn’t realize this until I got there. Likewise, I had to smell the oil and gas fields of the Permian Basin first-hand in order to learn that walking through southeastern New Mexico and northwestern Texas wasn’t the best idea. Sometimes, though, things went the other way. I was worried that walking through the Idaho National Laboratory would turn out to be illegal, but that stretch of the trip went off without a hitch.
Q: Did you see any cool animals?
A: Yes. To mention only living animals, I saw one black bear, a few herds of elk, some pronghorn antelope, one coyote (in addition to the packs I heard at night), some armadillos, a couple of eagles, huge numbers of hawks and vultures, lots of deer, an owl, some wild pigs, a few jackrabbits, occasional flocks of what might have been starlings, and, of course, one desert moose.
Q: Did you carry a gun?
A: No. Particularly up around the Idaho-Wyoming border, people were surprised to ask this question and receive this answer. I was never attacked by a grizzly or a pack of wolves, either.