To the Golden West on foot; The Walk West: A Walk Across America 2, by Peter and Barbara Jenkins. New York: William Morrow & Co. 350 pp. $14.95.
Eight years ago Peter Jenkins had had it with America. Twenty-two years old and just finishing college, he thought his country was selfish, spoiled, and generally not much good. He decided to take one more good look before leaving.
This last look was to be a close one. With his dog, Cooper, he would walk across the country and see if there was anything he'd missed. He figured the walk ought to take about eight months. The first long leg was from New York to New Orleans. Along the way he lost something very precious; Cooper was hit by a car. But he found things even more precious; in Mobile, Ala., he found God, in New Orleans his wife-to-be, and all along the road people who took him into their homes and hearts. Knowing much of this before beginning this new volume, ''The Walk West'' (the story of the first half of Peter's walk was told in ''A Walk Across America,'' William Morrow & Co., 1979), I was afraid the book might be a sticky, saccharine story. It isn't.
The Jenkinses, now walking together from New Orleans to Oregon's coast, do see beautiful sunsets and make friends with the local wildlife, but on the flip side are clouds of mosquitoes so thick they clog the nose, rattlesnakes, practitioners of voodoo, numbing extremes of heat and cold, near disastrous slides down a mountain, and automobile accidents.
Most memorable, however, are not the incidents of the road, but the people whose lives the Jenkinses share for amounts of time varying from just a few moments to many months. These people make the walk the revelation it was for the Jenkinses and to a degree for us.
Peter and Barbara began walking out of New Orleans in the wee hours of the morning, after the US Bicentennial Celebration, July 4, 1976. Before they reached the outskirts of the French Quarter, they saw a man with ''what looked like a gun case.'' Peter tried not to stop, remembering newspaper stories about quiet-voiced killers, but he did tell the man where they were walking, figuring it would throw him off guard.
'' 'Tell me,' the stranger said, 'are you walking cross country just to see if you can do it, or are you getting to know the folks?' He acted as if he knew.
'' 'We're walking so that we can meet people that we'd never meet otherwise. Walking makes us open to them, and them to us.' ''
It turned out the man's case, in fact, held a violin, and the Juilliard-trained street musician gave them a pre-sunrise concert the likes of which they'd never heard. ''I could never have dreamed this,'' wrote Peter. ''It was too perfect.''
When they were outside of Dallas, down to their last $1.87, hungry, and knowing no one, Barbara suggested they say a prayer. Tired and skeptical, Peter remembered the verse from Isaiah they had taken as their motto for the walk: ''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.''
'' 'OK, God,' said Peter under his breath. 'Forget about soaring with the eagles. How about some food.' ''
Before long a father and daughter rode up on bicycles. They struck up a conversation and invited Peter and Barbara for lunch. Wrote Peter, ''I glanced at the sky that moments before had felt overwhelming and too big. 'Thanks for the food.' ''
As Peter says, their beginning was almost ''too perfect,'' so too is the end. Two and a half years later, surrounded by dozens of supporters, Peter and Barbara, now expecting their first child, walk into the water of the Pacific Ocean. Their story is one that could not have been written as a novel; it just wouldn't be believable as fiction. However, it is a true story of the best type, one we can all live in our own small ways.