Peter Jenkins was of the Watergate generation, a cynic who picked up his college diploma and a 75-pound backpack and set off, as he puts it, “to give this country one last chance.” Now more than five years and 4,750 miles later, he is a believer. “I have America in every cell of my body,” he exults, “and I could feel God everywhere.” During his transcontinental hike he encountered enough twists of fortune to fill a picaresque novel, but he’s settled for nonfiction. His journal, A Walk Across America, has just been published, and while it only chronicles Jenkins’ progress from his college town of Alfred, N.Y. to New Orleans, a second volume will carry the reader the rest of the way.
Southern cops suspected that Jenkins was a drug dealer. Moonshiners tabbed him an undercover Treasury agent. He was comforted by a North Carolina black family and discomfited by a cult-like commune in Tennessee. He worked in a sawmill, as a tree surgeon, and on an offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
By the time Jenkins reached the Mississippi he was no longer a vegetarian. A poor mountain man in Virginia, who offered Jenkins a lamb chop, had made him feel foolish about his no-meat diet. Once a “hyper environmentalist” he now is pro-oil. “It’s that activity that makes the country strong,” he explains. “America would shut down without it.”
Paradoxically, just as Jenkins’ self-reliance peaked, he walked into a revival meeting in Mobile, Ala. and found himself “humbled before God.” Peter had parted from his first wife, an Alfred classmate, on their graduation day. Now he was to meet his second, Barbara Jo Pennell, a seminary student from Poplar Bluff, Mo. Only after receiving what they felt was “a sign from God” did they marry and continue on together.
“It was no dream idyll,” says Jenkins, now 27. “The walk almost ended every day of the week. I used to think there wasn’t much difference between men and women. I had this macho thing to tough it out. After a while I realized I was torturing Barbara. Women just aren’t as suited to this as men.” Feminists might disagree but not Barbara, 30. “The physical pain was always with me,” she winces. “My feet were covered with blisters that wouldn’t heal and each step was agony.” She became pregnant and their progress slowed further. “There can be plenty of tension,” admits Peter. “You’re together 24 hours a day with no one else to talk to.” Sometimes it was six days between towns and baths, so, as Peter puts it, “We had to have our fights by the side of the road.”
The couple earned the money they needed along the way—they deveined shrimp and cleaned fishing nets in Louisiana, punched cattle in Idaho and he waited tables in a Mexican restaurant in Texas. Their expenses were surprisingly small. “People seeing us walk under an umbrella in the heat would offer food and shelter,” notes Barbara.
Many of their newfound friends, whom Jenkins refers to as “my American heroes,” flew to Oregon for the couple’s final day on the road. They included ranchers, housewives and an Oregon preacher who had guided the Jenkinses over the Cascades in 30-below-zero weather. (Barbara had survived worse. In front of a Provo, Utah mortuary she was hit by a car and thrown 40 feet. Her heavy pack, which was painted with a cross, probably saved her.)
But that last day in Florence, Oreg. danger and pain were forgotten. With their Good Samaritans cheering, the couple stormed the dunes and rushed into the churning Pacific surf.
Peter’s roadside renaissance had cost him five years (he had expected to complete the trek in eight months), three tents, three sleeping bags and 40 pairs of shoes (Barbara logged her 2,900 miles in the same boots). But the payoff was great. “There’s nothing like walking to resolve your life,” Peter proclaims. “My values are straightened out. Now I find myself thinking about walking across Russia.” But turning toward Barbara, four months pregnant, he adds, “I do have limitations. We’ll have to take the kids with us next time.”