In August 1979, a young couple landed on the cover of National Geographic for walking 3,000 miles across America. I was half of that couple.
It all started when I met a man who had walked from New York to New Orleans, the same place where I was working on a master’s degree. He was on a quest to discover himself and understand the country after Vietnam had ripped the nation apart. We dated for several months, fell in love, got married and left New Orleans in July 1976, headed to Oregon. On foot.
We walked across Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Oregon. We walked 15 to 20 miles per day, carried 35 to 75 pounds on our backs and slept in a tent at night. We experienced dramatic adventures like trapping alligators in Louisiana and being attacked by outlaws in southeastern Colorado. I fell off a glacier at 13,000 feet and was hit by a car in Utah. We also walked across the Cascades of Oregon in the coldest winter since 1919.
While on the road, we met and stayed with farmers, ranchers, homemakers, teachers, secretaries, and other working men and women of America. We photographed them and told their stories, eventually publishing three bestselling books: “A Walk Across America,” “The Walk West” and “The Road Unseen.”
“The Walk West” sold millions of copies and was listed as one of the most influential bestsellers on American culture in 100 years. The “Walk” books became part of the permanent White House Library.
Long before the internet and cellphones, we were featured in outlets across the country like The New York Times, The Times-Picayune, The Dallas Times Herald, Gunnison Country Times, Borger News-Herald, and Family Weekly, as well as dozens and dozens of small town newspapers. Television reporters interviewed us on the road for the lead stories on their nightly newscasts.
To the world, we were a fascinating couple, sweethearts of American adventure. Inside, I felt like a fraud.
I grew up poor in the Ozarks, on a gravel street lined with shacks where my neighbors could not read or write. As a kid, I bathed in an aluminum washtub, hung clothes on the line, walked over a mile to school, and slept in a lean-to bedroom on a rollaway bed. Being raised without conveniences or fancy things taught me grit, forced me to be resourceful, and prepared me to undertake the wild and epic journey of walking across America. Because I had grown up without — we didn’t even have an indoor toilet until I was 12 years old — sleeping in a tent and not knowing where my next meal would come from were not a stretch for me.
But I was also a newlywed in very abnormal circumstances. There were no intimate dinners where my new husband and I could linger over chilled wine, or soft beds we could crawl into for lovemaking. Nothing about what we were doing was sexy.
Instead, we walked through burning 100-degree temperatures and bone-cold blizzards. Both of us were tired, hungry, irritable and sweaty, and we smelled. My husband expected me to keep up, to walk faster and farther, and told me I could win the Best Actress award for limping and dragging behind. We argued and were impatient with each other. At times, we were mean.
A part of me loved the adventure, the wildness and the unknown that came with each new day. But often, I hated walking across America. Most of the time, I put on a smile for reporters and never mentioned how my feet and back hurt, or how every part of my body felt like hammered meat. I pretended I was having the time of my life because ours was a great and unique adventure. We were discovering America like the pioneers did, and people loved reading about us. It would damage our image and story if I aired personal or marital grievances, so I didn’t.
I remembered my granny who traveled to Arkansas as a child in a covered wagon, and then spent her whole life scratching a living out of the rocky hills of the Ozarks. She didn’t have more than a cotton dress and a tattered apron, but I never heard her whine about being poor, cooking on a hot wood stove or making 100 biscuits each morning for her large family. Between my new husband insisting I shape up and memories of her endurance, I walked on and kept my mouth shut.
After three years, we finally made it beyond the whiteouts, blizzards and freezing winds in the Oregon Cascades. It was Jan. 18, 1979, when we walked the last mile. A large group of family, friends and strangers gathered to walk it with us. The crowd spread along the beach cheering as news reporters followed us into the cold Pacific. We had walked across America, and a new life waited beyond this day. I was two months pregnant.
We were already scheduled to write books, speak and travel (by plane). After we were chosen for the cover of National Geographic, the world became our oyster. Opportunities and money fell out of the sky.
Our family grew — we had three children and bought a picturesque farm in Tennessee. On the outside, we had everything money could buy, but my charismatic husband traveled and stayed gone most of the time. Invitations for interviews, speaking engagements and public appearances flooded our office. I was busy with the children, managing our farm and keeping the home fires burning while my husband appeared on “Good Morning America,” “Larry King Live” and many other national programs.