Peter Jenkins: back on the road again

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The picture on the book cover captures a desolate moment during a challenging trek: two figures carrying backpacks down a long desert road, shaded by umbrellas from the blistering Texas sun.

The seemingly endless stretch through west Texas was one of the more demanding regions Peter and Barbara Jenkins encountered during their walk across America, which they completed in 1979. Along the way, the couple braved dizzying heat, raging mountain blizzards, rattlesnakes, scorpions, and outlaws before completing their final mile to the sea in Florence, Ore. But they also gained inspiration from a wide variety of people whose lives they shared with the rest of the country through two books chronicling the experience.

Now, four years later, Peter Jenkins is back on the road again.

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This time, however, he is making a quick sweep of several cities across the country to introduce the paperback edition of the second book, ''The Walk West'' (Fawcett Crest-Ballantine, New York, $3.95) and to lay the groundwork for a third book.

Although Mr. Jenkins is now traveling in a more conventional manner, he still encounters challenging situations. In New York City, he says, he took one step outside his hotel and was almost overcome by the stream of people walking down the sidewalk. ''It was like kayaking in a river. I decided to just get in there and go for it,'' he says.

Mr. Jenkins has written an open letter to America that has been published in newspapers and read over radio stations, inviting people to tell about themselves, friends, relatives, their hometowns, or anything else they'd like to share. In the wake of the first half of his tour, the Jenkinses are receiving between 150 and 200 letters a day at their farm in Spring Hill, Tenn., where Barbara Jenkins is at home with three-year-old Rebekah and Jed, who was born last December.

Despite his strong home ties, Mr. Jenkins is eager to learn more about his country.

''People keep telling me how much of the country I missed, and they're right, '' he says. ''After I've had this experience (the walk) I couldn't have a nine-to-five job. I have an insatiable desire to know more about America for myself and for others.''

Sitting back in his chair, he wears a well-worn cowboy hat over his sandy-red hair and a button-down shirt, which is open at the collar. There is an engaging friendliness about him that proves how far he's come from the disgruntled, cynical college graduate who decided eight years ago to take one more look at America before leaving it.

''I used to be very judgmental, snobbish, and opinionated without really knowing anything,'' he says. ''Now, after living with and appreciating all sorts of people, I've learned to accept myself for what I am - and realize I'm not better or worse than anyone else.''

Peter Jenkins originally started out on the walk with his dog, Cooper, heading south from New York to New Orleans. On that first leg of the trip, he lost Cooper in a car accident, but further along in New Orleans he met, and later married, Barbara Pennell.

On the second part of the trip, he and Barbara set off from New Orleans and walked together through Louisiana, Texas, a corner of New Mexico, and up through Colorado, Utah, Idaho, and Oregon. They stopped to get jobs when they needed money, or to stay with people they met along the way.

Although the Jenkinses enjoyed the hospitality of many strangers who soon became close friends, meeting people wasn't always easy. ''It's hard to walk up to a person and admit you have a need, or that you'd like to talk with them and are interested in their lives,'' Mr. Jenkins says.

More than once the Jenkinses turned to the verse in Isaiah they'd chosen for the motto of their trip: ''They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.''

Looking back, Peter Jenkins says one of the things he discovered from the walk is ''the amazing diversity of the country.'' He is impressed with how dramatically different people are in various parts of the United States in terms of their attitudes and beliefs, how the climate and geography affect people's life styles, and the tremendous pride people have in their home territory.

Although Mr. Jenkins shys away from generalizations, he does sense that people in America today are more satisfied with what they have and that the desire to accumulate more and more things has lessened somewhat compared to a few years ago.

In Detroit, for example, he says the workers seem to have a more positive attitude toward their jobs than when he was there two years ago. ''They used to care less. They knew if they were fired they could always get another job. Now people are appreciating their jobs more.''

He says some of the people who were most inspiring to him during his travels were not particularly issue-oriented or quick to swallow the bleak national picture often painted by the media.

''I think this country is always going to go through cycles. We have to all go through it together. No one wants to go through them, but the hardest times have been the times I've learned the most.''

With a big chunk of adventure already under his hand-tooled leather belt, Peter Jenkins is looking forward to gathering material for the third book. Since they now have children, the Jenkinses can't travel continuously as they did during their walk. Instead, he explains, they are going to approach it from a ''wheel concept,'' with Sweet Springs Farm as the center. They will take one trip at a time to some region of the country for a few weeks or months, come back to resume their life at home again, and then go out to visit another area.

He says: ''If the experience meant something to us, we will bring a part of it home with us. After our walk, if anyone can appreciate home, we can.''

Barbara and Peter Jenkins welcome letters at PO Box 20, Franklin, Tenn. 37064 .

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