Few people will ever see America as Jennifer E. Cooper sees it.
Of course, few people have the gumption to walk across the U.S., but that’s exactly what Cooper is doing. Yes, Cooper is walking cross country.
She started on July 4, 2009, from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Cooper has broken her trek into sections.
In 2009, she walked 700 miles from Washington D.C. to Chicago. In 2010, she traveled 600 miles from Chicago to Kansas City.
In October, she covered 300 miles from Kansas City to Wichita, Kan.
She walked through Stillwater on the Fourth of July and will spend the next 17 days treking through Oklahoma en route to Santa Monica, Calif., and the end of her 3,000 mile walk across the United States.
Along the way, Cooper talks with the backbone of the country — its people. She will turn those conversations into a book, entitled “Talk To Strangers.”
Cooper draws inspiration from British rower and environmental campaigner Roz Savage, who is the first women to row three oceans — the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian.
Wednesday, she took a 30-minute break from the walk to talk about her eye-level view of America.
How did you begin this journey?
“It’s hard to say exactly. I don’t remember the exact glimmer of the very first time I thought of doing this. I had lived in Brussels and was moving back to the U.S. ... I hadn’t really ever seen the country. It would be great to take it slow. Then I met Roz Savage ... and I just started thinking about walking across country. I did a Google map search and it said 35 days. They mean 24 hours a day for 35 days, but I started thinking about it. I mentioned it to people and no one told me it was a bad idea. The more I told people about it more I thought ‘Well, I guess I have to do it.’”
Did you walk a lot before starting your trip?
“I had never owned a backpack. I’d never really thought about walking more than 5 miles. Exactly three years ago today, I started at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.”
How do you approach a 3,000 mile walk?
“In the beginning, I wouldn’t say I’m walking to California. I started out by saying I’m walking to Pittsburgh. Then, I’m walking to Cleveland. Then, I’m walking to Detroit. I took it in little steps because the big chunk was too overwhelming and intimidating. Now, I can actually see walking to L.A. That’s kind of exciting.”
What have you learned during this adventure?
“Everytime I think I have a handle on people they never cease to amaze me. I have my phone, but it was running out of battery. So this guy said “You should never run out of battery” and he pulled out his battery backup charger and gave it to me because he didn’t want me to be without a phone.
“People see me like this and they think it’s a dangerous world out there and I need to be protected. I think they are much kinder to me than they would be ordinarily or maybe people don’t give themselves credit for being as kind as they are.”
What have you seen that has surprised you?
“I’ve found a lot more people are struggling than I ever really knew.”
How are the faces of poverty different in Washington, D.C., than they are in the Midwest?
“I started through the Rust Belt. I found that people were very willing to share their personal lives with me. They were open. I found it a little bit depressing because steel has been gone for a generation and nothing has happened. I wanted to say, ‘Look, it’s not coming back. You have to do something. ... You can’t just live like this.’
“As I walked through the Midwest people were friendly, but a little more reserved. And now as I walk (through Oklahoma), I am finding people are just amazingly open. I just want to sit and listen to their stories. I don’t have to ask people.”
How do you handle the summer heat?
“I find myself walking really early in the morning and really late at night.”
What will you do when you get to California?
“The plan is to write a book. It will be part journalism, part travel and part memoir. I don’t know if I can say that after I complete this walk and I write this book that there won’t be more walks. I have this kind of love-hate relationship with it. I hate miles in the hot sun, but I love the people that I am meeting.
“There are definitely some times when I am out in the middle of nowhere and I look around and think ‘Wow, I can’t believe that I have the opportunity to do this. It’s not right that I am able to do something so amazing. I pretty sure there will be more walking.
“I just have to follow where the path takes me. I can’t control the path. It is its own lifeform and I need to trust where it’s going.”
Few people will ever see America as Jennifer E. Cooper sees it.
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