Sometimes, he ate at Five Guys Burgers and Fries. Other times, he ate with five guys, almost always complete strangers.
A Native American woman he met in a knickknack shop in northeastern Arizona gave him a bumper sticker: “Don’t Worry, Be Hopi.”
In rural Nevada, he walked off an interstate and into the desert night, encountering three-straight forks in a shrinking, lonely dirt trail.
Curse you, Google Maps, he thought during one of those moments when he most wished he had brought along a smartphone.
Memories such as those — too many to count, too precious to forget — are what Andrew Forsthoefel cherishes from his journey across America’s highways, streets and gravel roads.
An odyssey part “Forrest Gump,” part Charles Kuralt, and born of a desire for self-discovery, started Oct. 14, 2011, in Chadds Ford, near Philadelphia, wove south and then west, and ended Sept. 8 with Forsthoefel walking into the Pacific Ocean from a beach at California’s Half Moon Bay.
All told, he walked 4,000 miles in 11 months, through heat and cold, through towns and along empty country byways, at first carrying all he had on his back and later pushing it in a stroller he bought in Houston when, after a brief bout with dehydration, he discovered the water he needed to drink weighed too much for his pack.
“The cool thing about walking along a road is you’re going to meet somebody,” said Forsthoefel, 24, who lived in Erie as a child and whose father, Tom, is chairman of the religious- studies department at Mercyhurst University.
Forsthoefel’s trip was all about meeting those somebodies — Navajo elders, cattle ranchers, gator wranglers and plenty of Average Joes — shaking their hands as they reached out car windows, accepting their invitations to spend a night in their homes, breaking bread with them and letting them talk about their lives, their struggles, their triumphs, but mostly their families and friends.
“Walking to listen,” Forsthoefel called it, and he wrote from the road about the people he met and the things he saw on a blog using his laptop computer, the one now sporting the “Hopi” bumper sticker.
Born in Chicago, Forsthoefel lived in Erie from 1997 to 2003. He attended Villa Maria Elementary and Erie Day School, and then his parents moved to India, an experience that helped set him on the path that would lead him to take on America by foot.
“All the elements of my life up to that point kind of came together and became this walk,” Forsthoefel said. “It was about slowing down, finding a balance between being with people and being alone.”
And it tore up some shoes, including some nice Keen boots and a few pairs of walking sandals.
When he left Chadds Ford, where his mother lives, her landlord gave him a pocket knife and some advice: “You’re on your own now.”
His Uncle Kevin advised him to eat maggots, if necessary. And drink urine, too.
Yet Forsthoefel said there were few truly frightening moments, and even those were scattered between untold blessings and gestures of good will.
Outside Sulfur, La., a tiny backwater town nearly on the bayou, a car rolled up alongside him on a secondary road.
“Would you like to refresh yourself at our house?” Willie Verrett asked.
As Forsthoefel would discover, there are so many Willie Verretts out there.
The walk happened between Forsthoefel’s graduation in 2011 from Middlebury College — he earned a degree in environmental studies with a focus in nonfiction writing — and whatever comes next.
That could be journalism, teaching, or perhaps more school.
Whatever the case, he intends to turn his experiences into a book.
And he’s been working with a radio station in Woods Hole, Mass., in hopes of putting together an audio program based on his interviews. It would air on National Public Radio.
After spending a few days with his father and stepmother in Erie this past week, Forsthoefel headed back to Woods Hole, where he had worked on a lobster boat to raise money for his walk and where he will settle in for a while to write and plan his next moves.
When he set out from Chadds Ford nearly a year ago, Forsthoefel had no real itinerary, no carefully mapped route, and no prearranged places to stay. He carried some cash, a debit card, a not-so-smart phone and only what belongings he could fit in a backpack.
He came back with so much more.
“I feel like the luckiest man in the world,” Forsthoefel said. “I would recommend walking across the country to anyone. Do it. It’s incredible.”