Footloose in America: A Conversation with Neil King Jr.

By Michele WillensApril 12, 2023

Footloose in America: A Conversation with Neil King Jr.

American Ramble: A Walk of Memory and Renewal by Neil King Jr.

THE BAD NEWS was a serious cancer scare. The good news was that, when Neil King Jr. was in remission, he had a wild, ultimately brilliant, idea. The former Wall Street Journal reporter felt a sudden urge to walk from his home in Washington, DC, to New York City—and to use the 330-mile journey as a history lesson for himself and readers of his remarkable new memoir, American Ramble: A Walk of Memory and Renewal.

It is difficult not to be moved and educated by this project, which Ken Burns (among other notable blurbers) calls “a near-perfect book.” Always a curious fellow, King opens up early in the book about his goals: “My aim now was to be as footloose at sixty-one as many of us are at twenty, but minus the angst of figuring out who I was to become.” He wrote in his notes during the journey, “I can’t squander what time I have on pettiness […] unless it is the pettiness of forests and the tedium of rivers and streams.”

His 25-day walk—without music, audiobooks, or podcasts for company—began with “mounting excitement for the sight of the first farm, first grain silo, first whiff of manure.” He found all that and more. Readers will enjoy rambling along with him.


MICHELE WILLENS: It is hard to know where to begin, so how about from the beginning? Your trek had a rather ironic and moving departure, including the song that symbolizes our country, and the building that does so as well.

NEIL KING JR: Because I live near the Marine Corps Barracks, every morning at eight, for however many decades, they play this tape rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” So, when I walked down my street, I could hear that playing. And yes, I did pass the Capitol that first day, pondering the fact that they essentially completed it in the middle of the Civil War. They put the crown on the top of the Statue of Freedom in the midst of all those horrors. And now I am seeing it surrounded by high fencing and razor wire and patrolled by troops. So that was a confluence of history appropriately starting my journey.

Most of us can’t even plan our own days, and we certainly can’t get anywhere without Google Maps or GPS. How much did you plan, and how much was left to happenstance?

Well, I planned where I was going to spend the nights because I decided I was not going to be camping. And I put a lot of thought into the territory I would cross and what I would likely encounter there. There was time built into every day that I would leave up to chance, but I wanted there to be a main focus—whether it be the Underground Railroad theme on the way out of Maryland, or the Mason–Dixon Line, or the tracks where Lincoln passed on the way to his funeral. Human time had changed because of the railroad, and so I saw that as the spine of one day.

In almost all of my travels, I end up at a cemetery to read peoples’ stories, to find memorable epitaphs (“I told you I was sick”; “Finally, a plot!”), to learn of families taken down by various wars, to wonder and weep. Some of the most poignant parts of your book are such graveyard visits. And I am not talking about well-known ones like Gettysburg, which you shed refreshed light on. I believe there was one called Lebanon Cemetery. Talk about how you learned that entire histories were buried along with the bodies.

I hope readers will pick up on this, as the book is very much a meditation on time and how we, as humans, measure it. One of the measurements is how buildings, if left untended, decay, how fences topple over, and even how memorials, if not tended, will fall apart. One of the things that is so fascinating about cemeteries is that there’s this effort and desire to seize and codify things in stone. And to say that the beloved here buried will not be forgotten. Yes, Lebanon came into existence after the Civil War, a testament both to remembering and to a community having forgotten. I write about this one woman who found out much later that all these eminent Blacks had been buried there, including, she discovered, her own descendants. It was story upon story like that.

Right now, we are involved in a big debate over our history and who’s telling the right story. I just think walking through almost any part of our country, but particularly a densely meaningful part, such as where I walked, it’s just telling you constantly, yes, the things we are trying to remember, but also reminding you of all the things we just so easily forget.

Possibly the only good thing to come out of the pandemic was getting so many people outside and back to walking. Okay, not as far as you did, but I would say we have become a country of at least strollers. You reference—and remind us—of other folks who have famously created while relying on nothing but their own feet, a sensitive pair of ears, and a pad of paper. Some are literary lions of very different eras who, for starters, shared “the unexplainable joy” you felt at times throughout your journey.

So many of the great thinkers, philosophers, and artists—including Charles Dickens and some great composers—have testified over the centuries that, if it weren’t for walking, their thoughts would have been impoverished. Nobody knew this better than Henry David Thoreau, who wrote an absolutely fantastic essay called “Walking” (1862). There are people like Bruce Chatwin, who wrote a book about rambling in Southern Argentina called In Patagonia (1977). Rebecca Solnit penned Wanderlust (2000), basically a literary history of walking from the Western point of view. All these texts are about seeing things slowly and really giving places their due, whether it be a cathedral or a village or a cemetery.

I thought I knew my history pretty well, including the life of a revolutionary who gave this forming country a little tablet called Common Sense. But who knew about a town called Coventry? Not me. You tell us it was the “humble” place that hosted “the first flickers of America’s might, Ben Franklin’s famous stove, the Battle of the Clouds, George Washington marching through with his bedraggled troops. […] [I]t all merged right here.”

One of the things that jumped out at me was how we were really in many ways saved as a country by this whole contingent of new arrivals. They brought a fresh vantage point on our travails and conflicts. Thomas Paine, freshly arrived from England, was not committed to any one state. He saw the United States that could come into existence. Hamilton also brought that kind of spirit. Lafayette never became an American but came as a young man and was incredibly important in bringing the French into the war. Yes, many have forgotten that Paine became entangled in the French Revolution, was thrown into prison, had a falling out with George Washington, and died semi-anonymously.

Are you prepared to be called today’s version of a famous visitor named de Tocqueville? The comparisons are starting as we speak.

Well, I would be flattered. Again, he was part of a whole contingent of Europeans who came to America in the 1820s, ’30s, and ’40s, who believed in taking it slow, and who tried to make some assessment of this young country at that time. I said to myself that I would go out my door and, like them, look at my country with a fresh and open mind.

While you were visiting with gun owners and hanging out with Mennonites, did they ask you about your life and politics? Clearly, these are not conversations you would have at Washington and New York dinner parties.

We had political conversations, and I met a lot of people I didn’t align with. On the other hand, you know, there are other aspects of these people, and I found other ways to relate to them. It’s what any foreign traveler does, right? I was kind of entering into more foreign nooks and crannies of the United States, in a way.

You ask yourself some pretty engaging and provocative questions on your journey. Like “what makes a good person”?

That was a question I asked myself throughout the walk. We’ve come to view hospitality as this thing we’d give our friends, but the real sign is, are you hospitable to one you don’t know? How others interacted with me as a passing stranger was a real experiment. There’s nothing so fundamental, going back to the Old Testament, as how a stranger is received on the road. There’s a kind of atrophying going on today of the basic virtues of kindness and respect. Too many are segregating themselves in tribes, into the cliques we follow on Twitter or Facebook. This walk was an experience in belonging, and how any of us can feel we belong in places that aren’t native to us or in settings that aren’t natural to us.

I love the word “belonging” because it’s something that you do, but it’s also something that you carry. It’s a state of mind. The ultimate privilege in my mind is the sense that you belong in the place where you are, and particularly when you’re moving and being greeted well by strangers. But the most durable form of belonging starts, oddly, with solitude.

And we’ve all had a kind of enforced solitude these last few years. This remains a scary and uncertain time for so many, with ugly news stories coming at us daily. You took yourself outside a comfortable home for all those weeks, which clearly gave you a new perspective on who we are as a country.

I did. And one of the questions I found myself asking was, are we, from the very beginning, a deeply racist country? Or is it all about dominance? These are hugely important debates to have. But I myself would hesitate before I came to some ironclad judgment about our nature. I cannot argue that I found the key to our national story, because it’s just not that simple. As I say at the end of the book, it’s all about approaching these things with humility. The more you understand the complexity of our past and the more you have respect for it, the less likely you are, I think, to come to some simplistic version of it.

So many of your words are, frankly, elegant and rapturous. You even find a way of quoting Proust. There you are lying on the ground with a group of Quakers, looking at the sky changing colors. And you’re talking about impermanence and transience. Not to mention reflecting on some of our true artisans, like Rothko and others.

Well, those who have gone out of their way to see James Turrell’s works, which he’s done all over the world and which have to do with light, space, and perspective, will certainly relate. He says very fundamental things about how we view the world.

My husband thinks I should write a book called American Bar-Amble, since I am well known as a barfly who makes friends and gets great stories that way. Do you feel that someone like me could do a trip like yours, or would natural fear about being alone, among strangers, kick in?

I never really had any sense of fear, but I might have been received differently if I had not been an older white male. The only thing I outright feared was some stupid driver looking at his or her phone and swerving into me.

The book has had wonderful notices. You seem to be catching a moment here. I can’t think of any other guest asked to appear on Morning Joe three days in a row. Has anything about this whole experience surprised you?

What gratifies me the most is that I’ve heard so many say they were deeply moved to the point of tears, which is not generally the experience you have reading a nonfiction book. This is a book of both head and heart, because there was a lot of both in the walk itself.

Finally, I have to ask: is there anything you feel you missed, or that you would have done differently? Any regrets?

I should have jumped into the Susquehanna River. And I love cold-water plunging.


Michele Willens is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles and New York. She reports on the theater world for NPR-owned Robin Hood Radio. She co-wrote the play Don’t Blame Me. I Voted for Helen Gahagan Douglas, and is the author of From Mouseketeers to Menopause (2021), a book of essays.

LARB Contributor

Michele Willens is a bi-coastal journalist and the author of From Mouseketeers to Menopause (2021), a book of essays.


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