Updated: Dec 18, 2021
by Erik Kershner
Me, 2005. Photo by Lizz
The last time I was this close to walking across America it was April, 2005. I was twenty-five years old and had been separated from the Air Force since September of 2004. Walking cross-country had been a primary factor in my decision to leave the military after my first six-year enlistment, but I had been delayed by the start of a new relationship.
Lizz and I lived in Anchorage, Alaska. And we were broke. When we found one another, we were stuck in desperate places in our lives. I had just come out of a homeless winter and she had an untenable family situation going on. A month after we met, we’d already bounced through three living situations, had one emergency room visit each, and hated our jobs. But we were pretty sure we loved each other, so we decided to uproot. We left Alaska with nothing but our tax returns in our pockets, and drove to the Lower 48 to start a new life together. We really had no destination in mind, we just aimed south.
I’ll spare you the details here of that failed attempt and jump straight to the spoiler: Starting over is not that easy.
After a revelatory trip to the Midwest, we decided to return to Alaska where we each had unfinished business. One night on the Alaska-Canada Highway, we parked in a Yukon rock quarry for some overnight car-camping. We had nothing but a bag of bagels, a few packs of cigarettes, and a six-pack of Kokanee beer.
We weren’t even sure we had enough gas money to get back to Anchorage. We were feeling pretty low. Then, for some damn reason, my lizard brain decided THAT was the right time to tell my new girlfriend I planned on leaving her to walk across America.
I told her walking across America had been my life’s dream since I was seventeen and I wasn’t living that dream because of her. I told her that because April was almost over, I’d be getting a late start on the walking season. I should have started in March, but I didn’t because I’d started dating her. I probably couldn’t have been a bigger asshole if I tried.
Lizz has always been a pretty tough woman, but that night, my selfishness reduced her to tears. I realize now that it’s typical of men in their twenties not to notice how much someone cares about him until he hurts them. But at least I finally saw what I was doing to Lizz. And because I cared about her too, I decided that night that I would put the walk off for another year. I could walk across America in 2006 instead. I needed to save money anyway. I promised to get her back to Alaska and spend the next year building a life with her. By the time spring came around, we’d be more established and our relationship could bear a six-to-ten month separation. Easy as that…
But by spring of 2006, Lizz was pregnant. I was overjoyed at the prospect of becoming a father and we did everything in our power to provide a stable life for our new family.
I joined the Air National Guard, we bought a house, got married, and I happily set aside my plans to walk, indefinitely. But I never stopped thinking about walking across America.
I tried not to talk about it too much. I didn't want to be that guy who always talks about his dreams and never lives them. Only my very closest friends knew I held on to this dream. And they knew the whole story.
When I was sixteen or seventeen years old living in small-town Iowa, I grappled with anger and depression. One of the few coping skills I taught myself, was walking. I’d walk for hours late into the night to rest my racing thoughts.
When you live in a town fourteen city blocks across, it doesn’t take long to cross it, even on foot. I often walked out into the country. Flanked by cornfields and blanketed by the wide-open sky. My thoughts naturally grew oversized and my ambitions expanded to walking to the next town over, across the county, into the next state, and what if I just walked all the way across the country!?
I surprised my parents one day with this new plan of mine. They demurred: where will you live? How will you afford it?
You’re still in high school!
But they also supported the spirit of the dream. My mother found a book she remembered reading when I was a baby, A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins. The book was actually published the year I was born, I took it as a sign. I read it cover to cover and the dream only grew.
In the year 2000, I was stationed with the Air Force in Anchorage, Alaska. I took a second job at a camera store in the mall. (I was chasing after a girl who worked there. I’ll call her ‘Christie’ here. I thought being Christie's coworker was a great way to spend more time with her. Please feel free to roll your eyes, but don’t strain yourself.) While working the counter one day, a man came in with a camera problem. He was in a rush he said, he needed to catch a plane to the Interior of Alaska within the hour and his UV filter was stuck on one of his camera lenses. As I went to work trying to fix the problem, I struck up conversation. I was twenty-one years old and very conversational with strangers then. The man told me he was writing a book about Alaska and would be using his photos in the book. I was intrigued, and as I continued to pry the dented filter off his lens, I asked him if he’d written anything else. He told he wrote a fairly popular book called A Walk Across America a few decades back. I almost dropped his lens.
“You’re Peter Jenkins?”
The man smiled the smile of a man familiar with recognition, but he seemed surprised to find it in such a young dude in the mall.
For my part, I gushed. I told him all about cornfields and walking in Iowa and how I always dreamed of walking across America. I told him I’d read his book a dozen times. (In truth, I had read it three times, but why not pour it on?)
When I finally shut up, Mr. Jenkins, still smiling, told me, “You should do it. If you feel this strongly about walking and you don’t do it, you’ll live to regret it.”
I made that quote up. It was over twenty years ago and I never wrote down what he said! But I remember that he encouraged me. And that he was in a hurry. I fixed his camera, sold him a new UV filter, and he was off to catch his plane. I asked Christie if she could believe that Peter Jenkins had just been in the store.
“Who?” she asked.
Peter Jenkins published Looking for Alaska a year or two later. I bought the book in hardcover and treated it like a talisman. I carried the book in my backpack and read it on all my Alaskan hiking, biking, and camping trips. I told everyone that I met Peter Jenkins! Nobody cared! Except my mother. I could always count on my mom to understand.
Five years later in a rock quarry, Lizz did not understand... even when I told her I’d actually met Peter Jenkins. It was a sign from God! My destiny was written in the universe! All Lizz heard that night was I wanted to leave her to go for a long walk. She couldn’t understand how I could possibly be serious. She didn’t understand why. And to this day, making myself understood is a challenge.
One person who did understand was a woman I’ll call ‘Rae.’ Rae and I dated for a few years after Lizz and I split. She was a wonderful companion. We ran marathons together, we climbed mountains, and hiked with her dog. She gave me Tyler Coulson’s book How to Walk Across America and Not Be an Asshole for my 35th birthday. Rae and I have since fallen out of touch, but I credit her with revitalizing my dream. I came close to giving up on the idea. I was getting too old, I thought. Too much time had passed.
I’m 42 now. I can no longer run marathons. In recent years since retiring from military service, I’ve felt lost. Outside of raising my son, I’ve felt a profound lack of purpose in my life.
My son, Caleb, is now fifteen years old. Last year, I asked him and his mother how they’d feel if I finally picked up stakes and walked across America. Caleb and Lizz are the only people in the world whose opinion truly matters; after all, I’d be absent from their lives for many months. My son will be without his father, and Lizz will be without a co-parent for back up for the whole time I’m on the road. To my delight and surprise, both enthusiastically supported me. That was the Green Light I needed. I started preparing for the walk.
Yesterday, as I spoke with Lizz about my plans, she recounted to me her memory of the Yukon rock quarry when I first told her sixteen years ago that I wanted to walk across America. She remembers that “The World At Large” by Modest Mouse played in the car as we drank Kokanee and she cried in the cold night. I wondered how she could remember that. Maybe it was the lyrics germane to the subject at hand, maybe it’s traumatic sense memory. We played the song on her phone and one line late in the song hit me like it never had before: "I know that starting over's not what life's about."
What I remember about that Yukon night in my shitty little Saturn, was how immature I was, how incredibly naïve.
I had just survived an Alaskan winter living in my car, so I thought I knew a thing or two about life. Wanderlust was strong in my bones. I thought myself the next iteration of Peter Jenkins. I thought myself the spiritual successor to Jack Kerouac. I wonder what would have happened to me if I had tried to start my life over by walking across America in 2005 or 2006. Would I have made it? What would the walk have meant to me? I’m not sure. All I know, now that I'm older, is that you can never start over. We are all either doing nothing with our lives, or we are adding to our life résumé... there is no editing. There is no second draft.
I feel like I’m in a better frame of mind than that gushing kid in the camera store, I’m more mature than the jerk in the rock quarry. I won’t go so far as to say I’m finally “READY” for a walk across America; I don’t believe that’s possible. But I believe I’m finally capable of receiving what this walk has in store for me.
As I write this, a box of gear and a backpack full of camp supplies sits behind me ready to be field tested. Of note, preconceived notions are not on my gear list. I’m not Peter Jenkins. I’m not Jack Kerouac. I’m Erik Kershner. My walk will be my own and it will be a wildly exciting addition to my life, not a restart of it.