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CARPE LIBRUM: Hitting the road with Peter and Barbara Jenkins in ‘The Walk West’

The thing with Barbara and Peter Jenkins’ story is it is so compelling, readers will want to keep going back to see what they are up to.

Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

The Walk WEstThe Walk West: A Walk Across America 2
By Peter and Barbara Jenkins
Fawcett Crest, 1981, pgs. 430
When I left the farm for my great adventure in Europe, just before I turned 18, one of my friends handed me a copy of Peter Jenkins’ “A Walk Across America.” It is really an incredible travel memoir detailing the experiences of a young man who finishes college and commences to walk from New York to New Orleans in the 1970s. During the course of his travels, National Geographic ran two pieces on him.

A few years ago, while unpacking boxes at the bookstore, I found a battered, tapped-together mass-market paperback: “The Walk West: A Walk Across America 2.” The cover had a beautiful full-color picture of two people walking on a heat-streaked highway with golf umbrellas strapped to their backpacks.

“Wait, there’s a sequel?” I said aloud.

Yes, during the first book, Peter met and fell in love with Barbara Jo Pennell. The second book is the story of the two of them continuing the walk together—from New Orleans to the Pacific Ocean. Barbara writes parts of the book, and as a woman it is interesting to get her perspective in the story, which does differ from Peter’s. She has to adjust to the rigors of the walk. She hasn’t waked from New York to New Orleans, so she doesn’t quite know what she is getting herself into.

I am usually reading multiple books at any given time. Right now I’ve got Wavy Gravy’s memoir and the memoir of the real-life Christopher Robin from “Winnie the Pooh” going, as well as four books that have been sent to me for encore reviews: the Kinky Friedman book I start each day with; a Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman book, “Good Omens” (which I read about once a week); one of Sharyn McCrumb’s “Ballad” novels; and “Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas” by Tom Robbins.

“The Walk West” moved through three different iterations of my “to read” stack for the last few years, as I made time to get around to it. When I did start it, I fell in love (I knew I would). But it took a long time to read—not that it is a hard or particularly difficult book. Right now I am doing a lot of physical labor, and there were many days when I would come home and be far too exhausted to read about two people walking 25 miles a day in the scorching Texas summer. I needed a bath to relax in and a book set somewhere cold that involved people sitting down and conversing while holding iced beverages.

The thing with Barbara and Peter’s story, is it is so compelling, readers will want to keep going back to see what they are up to. They face down a Voodoo Queen at one point. Another time Barbara and Peter’s sister (who has joined them for part of the walk) get hit by a car, and Barbara is knocked through the air and lands on the steps of a Mormon funeral home. (I would have called it quits right then, personally.) They get harassed by a gang on a desolate, lonely stretch of highway.

There are amazing surprises, like when their parents show up on the walk, and claim they got a post card from them and figured if they drove around in circles within 100 miles of the post card’s origin, they’d find the two people walking across America.

The Jenkins were advised to go visit a rancher in Colorado, who lived in the prettiest place on earth. Upon arrival, the rancher and his wife informed them several friends had telephoned ahead and asked them to take care of Peter and Barbara.

A cabin was ready for them to spend the winter in—if they would consent to stay instead of trying to cross the Rockies in a blizzard.

So it goes time and again, they stop when they run out of money and work for a bit while getting to know people and discovering far more about themselves than they do about the country.

Perhaps the part of the book that sticks  the most is the end. Without giving away too much, they do make it to the Pacific in Oregon. They are joined by family and friends for the last part of the walk  and it is beautiful. Barbara is also pregnant for the end of the walk. Now, given the demands of pregnancy on the human body, adding demands of walking to the Pacific Ocean seems like a lot to ask of a person. Indeed, she was ill with morning sickness and the strain, but she pushed through. The description of walking the last mile with her grandmother between her and Peter, each holding hands and singing “The Last Mile of the Way” was so powerful I had tears running down my face.

The writing is clear and compelling. The story is powerful, raw and honest. Without the sensational moments so many people use as audience shortcuts, the Jenkins take their readers on a journey to touch their hearts and convince them want to hit the road and go meet the people who make up this country.

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