Ken Ilgunas, who is 29 years old, arrived at the Gulf Coast town of Port Arthur, Texas, last month after hiking 1,700 miles from Alberta, Canada, crossing through the American heartland. On his arrival, he met a big-hearted Texan who knew of him from reading his blog and generously offered him dinner at his home and a place to stay for the night. “To walk across this country is to fall in love with mankind,” Ilgunas said.
He’s one of a growing number of pilgrims who are lacing up boots and sneakers to walk across America. While their treks may not have the religious underpinnings of pilgrimages to Spain’s Santiago de Compostela, Mecca, Jerusalem or the current Kumbh Mela gathering in India, which ends March 10, they are nevertheless acts of faith and quests for existential meaning.
Ilgunas had just finished his master’s in liberal studies at Duke University and was living at a classmate’s farm in Stokes County, N.C., working in exchange for lodging, when he decided to hit the road. He had read the 1979 memoir by Peter Jenkins, “A Walk Across America,” and hoped for a similarly transformative journey. So he stocked up on granola and dehydrated meals at Whole Foods and Sam’s Club and had a friend mail them in parcels to various post offices along his route.
But it was the kindness of strangers he encountered along the way that really sustained him. “In most every town, some complete stranger would offer me a ride, a meal, a handful of money or their home for me to sleep in,” Ilgunas said. “This trip had made me proud to be an American.”
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Jonathon Stalls, 30, of Denver, walked 3,030 miles, along the America Discovery Trail from Lewes, Del., to San Francisco, with his dog in 2010. He decided to take off because he was burned out from the demands of attending design school, working as a waiter and playing semiprofessional volleyball. “I wanted to slow down and live life at a pace we were built to travel,” he said. “I wanted to trust and depend on the land and on myself.”
During the 242 days he spent on the road, he stayed with 120 strangers whom he met when they idled their cars beside him or struck up conversations with him at libraries, convenience stores or parks. “I am forever marked by the openness of people, sharing meals with them and exchanging stories,” he said.
Since 2010 there has been a proliferation of blogs describing cross-country walks, often in excruciating detail. Judging from the numerous posts about bleeding blisters, muscle strains, stinging insects, inclement weather, bear scares, lack of food and leaky tents, many were woefully unprepared for the task.
“The arduousness is what makes it an act of devotion,” said Rebecca Solnit, author of “Wanderlust: A History of Walking.” “Part of the desire to do it is to accept that the world is unpredictable and you will trust what the world sends your way and you will cope with it.”
Rather than walking to demonstrate religious commitment, many dedicate their cross-country walks to a cause recalling Peace Pilgrim (aka Mildred Norman Ryder), who walked more than 25,000 miles across America from 1953 to 1981 for world peace. Stalls, for example, walked to benefit the microlending organization Kiva, while Ilgunas walked the length of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to draw attention to its impact on the environment.
“It’s a selfish thing to take a pilgrimage just for yourself,” said John Seyal, 26, of Louisville, Ky., who with his wife, Kait, 27, spent nine months last year walking coast-to-coast with their two dogs to raise awareness of pet therapy. “I don’t think that kind of selfishness or soul-searching is a bad thing, but we recognized a way we could do something good with it.”
The Seyals said they embarked on their journey because they didn’t like the way their lives were going. Working at uninspiring factory and restaurant jobs, they felt they were conforming to society’s values rather than following their hearts, and were losing faith in people.
Anthropologists have long argued that pilgrims occupy a liminal realm outside of, yet proximal to, society. “In this space you can achieve a direct human interaction that doesn’t take into account hierarchies, so people become intimate very quickly,” said Ellen Badone, author of “Intersecting Journeys: The Anthropology of Pilgrimage and Tourism” and professor of anthropology and religious studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. “Stepping into this extraordinary sphere leads to extraordinary interactions where you very quickly become close and find that people are willing to go out of their way to be helpful.”
Arthur Werner, 58, who left a financial services sales job in Bellevue, Wash., last June to walk across the country after a series of emotional blows, figures he’s talked to hundreds of people along his route. “We are so insulated and sterilized by all our electronic forms of communication and our inane posts on Facebook that we just don’t sit down and have heart-to-hearts with people,” he said. “It’s been very touching and self-actualizing for me.”
He plans to complete his walk in April at the southernmost tip of the continental United States, Key West, Fla. But he said the final destination was beside the point: “It really is all about the journey.”