We may receive an affiliate commission from anything you buy from this article.
In March 2021 former Wall Street Journal reporter writer Neil King Jr. stepped out of his Washington, D.C., home and walked 26 days on back roads to New York City. Along the way he found America, past and present, and contemplated his own life after having survived esophageal cancer.
He documented his trek in his new book, “American Ramble: A Walk of Memory and Renewal” (Mariner Books).
Read an excerpt below, and don’t miss Martha Teichner’s interview with Neil King Jr., during which they retrace the steps of his journey, on “CBS News Sunday Morning” July 9!
Prefer to listen? Audible has a 30-day free trial available right now.
Friends asked what I had learned after I returned home, and I tried to explain. If you go out your front door with an eye for all that baffles, amazes, enchants, and keep at it day after day, giving in to the landscape and letting the rhythm of your steps guide you, it’s astonishing what can ensue. Within days you understand why the holy books have whole sections built around the stories, the one-off encounters, of men and women out walking. Very particular things—a sermon by a man out getting his trash can; the hand-forged hinges on an old barn; how the maples flower, then leaf—acquire very particular meanings. They tell stories that weave together into a riddle that is long and flowing and difficult to explain, should you feel the compulsion to explain. You bring meaning with you when you go looking for meaning, and the more of it you bring, the more you get in return.
What you find is often fragmentary and slippery. Our histories—personal, tribal, national—are mosaics of broken pieces and shards of tile and stone. They contain within them, perhaps in equal measure, order and disorder, reason and randomness. Some sections are bright and shimmery, others grimy, unsettling, hard to decipher. Shame and love can mingle. The love you feel for your country can deepen along with the knowledge of the shameful things we’ve done. There is ugliness, but also beauty in the ugliness. What we remember of an era may reflect more than anything our desire to give it the best gloss.
You see these great disparities when out walking our national landscape. You see what has collapsed, gone to seed, been buried, torn down, plowed under. And you see what human hands have polished, preserved, put atop a pedestal high on a granite horse.
The microhistories you stroll through say a lot about the greater whole. The forgotten cemeteries for the Black dead, where the earth is gobbling up even the few stone markers, along with the memory of their achievements and struggles. The constant reminders—along the canals, beside rock walls that line the fields, under the bridges—of entire generations of lives given over to silent labor. Digging, hauling, blasting, leveling, assembling plank by plank, spike by spike. Labor, by our measure now, beyond all imagining.
You see how one Pennsylvania town rode out to greet the Confederate troops and helped supply them, while another just a few hours’ walk away diminished its fortunes for a decade by torching the bridge to keep those same troops from crossing the Susquehanna. You see how we hold up and honor the unworthy while neglecting and forgetting the ones whose moral clarity made us squirm. You see how, for centuries now, a small but solid chunk of the country has built astonishingly orderly and prosperous lives while shunning the cars and gadgetry and waste that the rest of us hold so dear. You see the many experiments, most of them dead and forgotten, others ongoing. And you ask yourself, who is doing it right?
Excerpted from the book “American Ramble: A Walk of Memory and Renewal” by Neil King Jr. Copyright © 2023 by Neil King Jr. From Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.
Get the book here:
Buy locally from Bookshop.org
For more info: