Carrying a backpack half her own weight, petite North Westerner, Hilary Leonard took a little Southern walk — from Savannah, Georgia to New Orleans, Louisiana. In January 2015, the Seattle, Washington resident traveled via Greyhound bus across the country to Savannah, where she began the walk of a lifetime, a journey that would not only give her some insight into the culture of the South, but would reveal even more awareness about herself. Through a series of questions from me she responds with candor and perceptiveness about the reason for the journey and how it impacted her……DFC
What prompted you to make the journey, and why did you choose that particular route?
I was first inspired to travel the South on foot while listening to an episode of This American Life in which Andrew Forsthofel presented his radio essay about walking across the United States. I was drawn in by the adventure and the way he connected with people. His time spent in the South was particularly intriguing because I had never been. I felt there was a hole in my picture of the country. Also, when considering the walk I couldn’t come up with a good reason to not do it outside of my own inhibition. I didn’t want fear to dictate my life choices. In an email to a friend prior to my trip I explained my motivation as such: “I just know that I have to do this because saying no to the opportunity out of fear is far worse than anything that could come from saying yes. To be the person I believe myself to be, the person I want to be in life, I need to say yes.”
The route itself changed throughout the walk. I started in Savannah because it made sense for my two month timeline in order to end in New Orleans, a city I’d always wanted to visit. I stuck to highways and adjusted my course occasionally as people made suggestions. I wanted to stay away from cities as much as possible because it’s harder to connect with people and find a place to camp. In the last few years I’ve done some solo bike tours — along the Washington coast and one through Europe — and even on a bike it’s easy to skip things. Walking appealed to me because it would make me slow and enable me to talk with people.
What intrigued you about the South before you arrived?
I had a romanticized view of the South. I wanted to walk beneath the cypress trees, listen to blues music, and drink sweet tea on porches every evening. I only knew the South by the stereotypes — both flattering and otherwise — and I wanted to experience firsthand what was truly behind Southern life. While planning my walk I realized how little my friends and I knew about the Southeast. I was naively under the impression that the South is always warm. Escaping a cold, gray Seattle winter for a sunny southern one seemed like a great trade.
Were any of your previous notions about the South solidified, and were any dispelled?
Prior to leaving I was petrified an alligator would attack me in my sleep. Or a snake. I’d been advised by a friend to run in a zigzag if a gator attacks; it confuses them. Luckily I never had the chance to test what people have since informed me is nuts. It was too cold for gators or snakes to show up, even when I wanted to see them.
Southern hospitality was well and alive. I was blown away by how often people were taking me in, offering me food, giving me cash, introducing me to their friends and family, and stopping to chat. I expected to camp on the side of the road a lot more often than I did.
I was surprised by how many small business owners and entrepreneurs I encountered. The mass media focuses on big corporations, and I assumed given the rural parts of my route I’d meet farmers, but I didn’t anticipate the thriving small shops, restaurants, and businesses tucked into even the most remote corners.
Were there people who were unkind to you?
Traveling with my giant backpack, people often looked at me sideways with suspicion. As soon as I would talk with them it usually put them at ease. I’d hear things like “I just thought you were homeless” which would make my stomach turn. I’d think, “what if I was JUST homeless? Would you not be kind to me?” It was incredible how quickly I would internalize people’s negative perception of me. I believed in what I was doing, but even so, being treated like a criminal affected me. It zapped the skip in my step.
I didn’t have any encounters in which I felt personally threatened. A couple of times the police stopped me and treated walking like a subversive activity. On one occasion this was an issue. My last day crossing through Louisiana a cop stopped me and would not let me continue because he claimed I was not on a designated walking path. He forced me to take a ride into New Orleans. I returned a few days later and finished walking those last few miles to the city limit.
Of the kindnesses shown you, what were the most surprising?
I was humbled by how hard people worked in contacting friends and family along my route to find me a place to stay. Leaving Georgia, I had a small army of southern mothers who would come running if I came into any trouble. They checked in with me every day, making sure I was doing okay, staying warm, and keeping dry. I’d never felt more supported.
How did you prepare yourself physically and emotionally for the trip?
Preparing myself emotionally was the toughest part because the unknown terrified me. I didn’t sleep the weeks prior to leaving Seattle. I went through periods of self-doubt and anxiety. I had no idea how people would receive me — if they would be condescending, if I’d be harmed. I read books and blogs by people who had walked across America and took comfort in their stories of humanity. Andrew Forstoefel’s blog, Walking to Listen helped me immeasurably.
I could have done a better job preparing physically because I simply didn’t train. I ordered my backpack from Ebay, and it arrived three weeks late; a mere two days before I left. When I started walking I completed about 15 miles per day with my 40-50 pound bag. The blisters were agonizing for the first few weeks and my hips and feet ached through the night. It was trial by fire. By the end of my journey I was up to an average of 20 miles a day, and the blisters were gone.
Did you ever want to say, “This is insane, I’m going home?”
Never. The first night was trying because I didn’t yet know how to talk to people about what I was doing. I had conviction, but no confidence. I called a friend back home in a moment of doubt and she advised me that I would know when it was time to go home. I felt I owed it to myself to push past fear, and by the second day, I never looked back. I learned to let go of control and to deal with issues as they came. It was difficult to trust the unknown, yet every time I did I found what I needed. Some days were harder than others, but I was enamored with walking. Walking is a simple act. Not easy, but uncomplicated relative to settled life. Being successful day-to-day merely entailed getting from point A to point B. Finding success back home is a messy process of navigating relationships, work, school, goals, chores, etc. I reveled in the freedom walking gave me to be present and live at 3 miles per hour.
What was your impression of Savannah, of New Orleans, of the Gulf Coast, and of the countryside and the small towns in between?
Savannah enchanted me. I loved how small it felt for a city. I loved the Spanish moss webbed oak trees and the orange glow at sunset. Even the paper mill smell that clung to the air had a subtle vanilla quality. I spent a few days visiting with SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) students and I enjoyed the energy of being within so much creativity. Everyone was in the middle of an interesting project.
New Orleans was more of a conundrum. I stayed with a handful of different people throughout the city to get a feel for the different neighborhoods. The decay was both alluring and concerning. I worry about the future of the city and its residents, yet there was an indomitable spirit like no other place I’ve ever visited. I spent hours talking with strangers about the city — its infrastructure, services, renovations, and perpetual jubilance. It was difficult leaving New Orleans because I felt there was so much more to discover.
Parts of the Florida coast were isolating due to the amount of development. At times I was completely encircled by condos and vacation rentals that were devoid of community. People came and went quickly with no accountability for the area. I would traverse 10 miles — a short drive by car, but 3 hours on foot — without coming across any restaurants, businesses, or gas stations. I learned to take advantage of convenience store bathrooms where available.
The small towns were some of my favorite places because of the intimate connection with everyone and everything. I could sit in a place for a few hours and talk with four generations of family members. The history of these places is brought to life through the retelling of stories. I’d venture into town taking it at face value, but in talking with people, I’d begin to reimagine the empty lot across the way as a bustling schoolyard and the Dollar General as a lost family restaurant. I was told time and time again that in my next day’s stretch “there’s nothing there.” I never came to know what nothing looks like because I always saw something.
Do you feel like you got a good sense of Savannah and New Orleans?
I feel I only scratched the surface. I only had three days in Savannah and six in New Orleans. They were also my first and last southern cities, respectively, which affected my sentimentality towards them. I had talked about getting to New Orleans for so long, that when I did finally arrive it was like reaching Ithaca. I’d love to explore both cities more in the future.
Do you feel like you saw an accurate picture of the South?
I think my journey is better described as a study of people than a study of the South. Granted, I learned a lot about Southern culture through walking and talking with people, but there is still so much I didn’t experience. The way in which I found places to stay limited the diversity of people I encountered. On my own, I met people in coffee shops and museums, which are frequented most often by a certain demographic. When people began passing me through their social networks, it further narrowed the type of people I met — namely white, working to upper class families. The diversity of people I talked with on the road was broad, but the people I stayed with had the most impact on my understanding of the Southeast. I anticipated greater diversity, but I think the pattern that developed is telling of social organization trends. People tend to associate with others of similar backgrounds — socioeconomic, education level, race, religious beliefs. Also, many parts of the South are still racially segregated, and unintentionally, I would end up in parts that were largely white.
I also had immense privilege traveling as a young, educated, white female with a physical presence few would consider threatening. People looked at me and feared for my safety rather than the other way around. I was offered more knives than I had pockets to hold, and “be careful” was the default goodbye.
Was the experience as emotionally challenging as I imagine it would be, and do you feel like you grew emotionally from it?
I expected the journey to grow lonely given that I was traveling by myself, but the interactions I had with people made me feel unbelievably supported and connected. Rarely did a day pass without me receiving emotional support from strangers. In one instance, I was walking against a line of traffic in the panhandle of Florida when a man rolled down his window to inquire if I was on a long hike. I told him my route, and he earnestly stated “I’m proud of you.” Hearing that immediately warmed my heart. The next day I met a man sweeping outside the Blountstown McDonalds, James Cooper. He saw me and my pack, and asked where I was going. When I told him, he responded, “You’re someone special.”
The more positive interactions I had with people, the more I felt I had to keep going, and the more I wanted to keep going. I felt compelled to succeed for the people who believed in me. I’m incredibly grateful for the support I was shown. It was an immense gift and I hope to pay it forward.
Do you feel any differently about your life, people in general, or the people who are closest to you as a result of this experience?
In more ways than I could possibly write. For two full months I spent every day in a new environment. This pushed me to critically consider the limitations of my perspective and what I take for granted as normal or axiomatic. Whether I was with people or alone, I didn’t have a routine or task list to distract me. I didn’t have a closet of clothes to supplement my public identity. I got to consciously chose over and over again how to represent my identity to people through relating my personal history. This helped me discover the parts of myself I wanted to grow and the parts I could let go.
I experienced how little time it takes to make a connection with someone. I’d stay with a family less than 24 hours, but in leaving, I felt I’d known them for years. It’s exciting how many stories are out there and the diversity of life in this country. Everyone I met had interesting insights. I didn’t always agree with their beliefs, but I could at least begin to understand where they were coming from in hearing them out. I feel I gained a lot in sitting back and letting people share with me what was important to them.
You said you would possibly do a performance piece based on your journey. Can you elaborate on that a little? Are you a dancer, a singer an actor?
I’m a dancer and my goal is to choreograph a performance piece that combines dance with the recordings I collected throughout the journey using my Tascam DR100.I conducted personal interviews, recorded environmental backdrop, and also kept an audio diary. It was my first time using an audio recorder. In New Orleans I happened to meet a documentary filmmaker, Jay Miller, and we’re talking about making the performance into a dance film.
I understand that you’re in school. Where? What is your focus?
I’m currently studying at the University of Washington in the Integrated Social Science program. It’s a broad degree that incorporates courses in economics, communication, sociology, psychology, geography, political science, anthropology, ethnic studies, and international relations. I deferred for a quarter in order to do the walk.
Is there anything you’d like to say to sum up the experience?
I’m eternally grateful to the people who helped me along my way. Every small act made a difference. I’ll never be able to say thank you enough for the kindness I was shown, both by people I met and people back home.
Hilary Leonard documented her entire journey, beginning with the bus ride from Seattle to Savannah on her own blog:
For more detail on the courageous journey this incredible young woman traveled for the sake of social awareness and self-awareness, please take the time to check it out!
All photos courtesy Hilary Leonard
Please visit the October 10, 2014 article, “South by Southwest,” about southerner Mark Hainds, who made a similar walk across the southwest, following alongside the Rio Grande River.