This summer, I attended a conference of spiritually-minded writers and artists at a convent near Baltimore, organized by the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States.
Among the things we talked, wrote and prayed about: Where do the worlds of spiritual contemplation, deep thought, and writing, converge?
Once we dug in, by doing exercises like staring at a tree for 15 minutes and journaling about it, the answer was clear: Paying close attention. That’s the practice shared by the monk and the reporter.
In his new book out next year, American Ramble (HarperCollins, 352 pages), Neil King, Jr. has crafted a travelogue fit for a reporter and a monk, built on paying close attention during a 26-day walk he took to New York City from Washington, DC in the spring of 2021. (Disclosure: King is a former Wall Street Journal colleague, and a friend, and I’ve written about his walk before.)
Since leaving the Journal, King has been studying American history to try to understand where we are today, especially the prelude centuries before the founding of the modern United States in 1789, which itself followed over 10,000 years of human settlement and nations and trade and war in North America.
Increasingly, especially after surviving cancer, King found himself possessed of a curiosity that cried out for, as he put it, a long, slow walk through the fast lane, and the foundational places he’d been reading about. “I wanted to see what the inner edges of the American wilderness looked like in 1694,” he writes.
King also began to sense a mystical dimension to his walk, one that would be healing for himself, and for readers in an anxious, conflicted country. He quotes Japanese-American theologian Kosuke Koyama who called the walker’s pace “the speed of God.” Love, he wrote, moves at three miles an hour. “It is an inner speed. It is a spiritual speed.”
The result is a meditative monologue, a profound theology of walking, a survey of walking travelogue literature, and a rich shoe-leather history of the Northeast when the colonies belonged to England and the Western frontier meant the Susquehanna river.
In planning the stroll through Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, King had to reckon with a history of the land far older that most Americans usually think about.
I had obsessed for months over so much that seemed relevant to this walk. The remaining traces of the earliest people, the Algonquin and Lenape and all the others. The first mapping of the land. The flow here and there of the Dutch, the Swedes, the English, Germans, Scots Irish. The fleeing streams of men and women escaping slavery, and later Jim Crow. The battlefields I would pass through and the routes the soldiers took coursing this way and that. the felling of the trees, the tilling of the land and the killing of its wildlife to where barely a bird remained. How brawny men made the steel and laid the tracks for the trains. to run. How the Indian trails turned into cart tracks, stage routes, toll roads and finally the highways I would skirt as I made my way north.
Once he got going, King found himself communing with pre-19th century Americans, simply by going as slow as they did.
In late spring of 1791, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, “two middle-aged founders of a nation and both slaveholders” journeyed north to Vermont on a trip by coach, horse, ferry and foot to “inspect the north country and a nasty infestation of Hessian flies that was decimating wheat crops.”
It wasn’t that they had nothing else to do. Instead, they had found nothing better to do than a long, slow journey of discovery. In one journal entry, Jefferson wrote: “Still water. Polypod. Saratoga. Ground oak. Fort Edward. The small red squirrel.”
Ramble spends time with formidable characters like the fierce Quaker abolitionist Benjamin Lay, the gay revolutionary war general Baron Van Steuben, 19th century collector of tools and artifacts Henry Chapman Mercer, historical figures like George Washington, and ancestors of people King meets along the way.
There are many of the latter, because King at heart is a reporter who manages the reporter’s trick of walking into brilliant scenes; Mennonite kids playing softball, the top of a trash mound in New Jersey (analogous to Native mounds like the Adena site in West Virginia portrayed in our PBS film Moundsville), and a bedroom where FDR spent the night.
Along the way, he finds “a rhythm, a stillness, that can transfigure whole days and elongate time. A buried beauty that resides right there on the surface, for all to see.”
Walking frees us from enslavement to a disconnected digital world. “All I came to care about was what I saw around me, the people I met, the little shifts in culture or barn design, the texture of the land I crossed, the nuances of the forests or the farms,” King writes.
In the end, he arrives in New York City, entry to America for millions and millions, its inimitable magic amplified by the quiet of so many country roads.
Friends asked what I had learned, 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 into the landscape and letting the rhythm of our 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 walking.
Four decades after Jefferson and Madison’s trip came trains, and the world, quickly, collapsed on itself in explosions of noise, smoke and cities.
The Anthropocene’s been fun, especially for the privileged, but technology and money can’t conquer our eternal anxieties about existence, our knowledge that every life is in the end little and short and won’t end well, our fears around death and change, and our yearning for the love of others and peace in our hearts.
We’ve been living through a time of national panic and anxiety, suffering from a lack of perspective. “Everything changes but change itself,” wrote the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. “Everything flows and nothing remains the same.”
The world just passed eight billion in human population. China is asserting itself. The U.S. endured an attempted coup. Not surprisingly, it’s all been hard for most Americans to process, and the result has been bitter polarization, declining mental health, and a national crisis of confidence.
To process what Heraclitus noted 2,500 years ago, we don’t need more apps. We need wisdom and religion and literature and travel and time to contemplate and pray.
And, as King has masterfully and beautifully demonstrated, one of those prayers is walking while paying close attention to what’s around you. It needn’t be cathedrals or canyons. Here’s his description of marching through familiar strip-mall territory.
Then those houses peter out into what was once countryside but is now a dreary expanse of the familiar outlets providing donuts, sandwiches, gasoline, coffee, burritos, quick lubes, new tires, all provided by corporate America for the fleeting needs of the people. Those then cede the onetime pastures to the goliaths, the grey and white boxes, the stores that attempt to contain everything within their walls. Not just Bed, not just Bath, but also Beyond. The land of Walmart, Kmart, Target. You can feel small as a walker passing these structures, or you can feel proud, and tall, like an aboriginal passing a tent encampment of invaders who will soon be gone.
Reality is, still and always, the treasure we all share. And looking carefully at it is, as King concludes, a way of stepping “out of time, however briefly.”
John W. Miller
Pictures by Neil King, Jr.