One of the most inspirational “travel” books I’ve ever read is Peter Jenkins’ A Walk Across America (Harper Collins, 1979).
Disillusioned and cynical about society, newly minted college graduate Jenkins decides to hit the road with his faithful half Alaskan Malamute and “forever friend,” Cooper. (The book is even dedicated to Peter’s “forever friends: Cooper Half Malamute and Barbara Jo.”)
Together, Peter and Coop discover America. The resulting tome, A Walk Across America, is the compelling, uplifting account of the reawakening of Jenkins’ faith in himself and his country. It topped the New York Times Bestseller list for months and remains a beloved classic.
Weary of plowing through a mountain of mawkish drivel posing as “hiking memoir,” I recently decided to return to the Real Deal. The “Grand Daddy” of the genre and its trail-blazing author, Peter Jenkins.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
I read all of Jenkins’ books through the 1990s. Looking for something new, I picked up the latest Jenkins volume I could find: Looking for Alaska (2001).
What it’s About
Looking for Alaska is supposedly about the author’s eighteen months “spent traveling over 20,000 miles in tiny bush planes, on snow machines and snowshoes, in fishing boats and kayaks, on the Alaska Marine Highway and the Haul Road, searching for what defines Alaska.“
But something’s missing. Like a common thread connecting chapters. A unifying theme propelling the narrative forward. Alaska is basically a loose collection of random stories about life in Alaska. It reads like a loose collection of random stories about life in Alaska:
Bears. Snow. Kayaking. Snow. Fishing and hunting. Snow. Salmon runs. Snow. Seward.
Cordova. Snow. Glaciers, mountains and snow.
Did I mention snow?
By the Word?
The writing is good overall, with lyrical prose and colorful word pictures. But after awhile, we’re kinda wondering if the author got paid by the word. Cuz the narrative runs out of gas after about 200 pages or so. Still sputtering, it keeps putt-putting along. For another 200+ pages.
Years ago, I read A Walk Across America cover-to-cover in one sitting. But Looking for Alaska was a struggle. Like towing a logging truck with your teeth.
Gone was the easy conversational style of A Walk, gliding easily between descriptions of tent sites, snowstorms, mountain hermits, killer tornadoes, the kindness of strangers or Cooper playing with woodchucks or chasing deer.
Alaska feels heavy. Canned. Like a carton of milk that’s been left out too long.
Alaska was just off. It doesn’t have the same umph, the same heart as A Walk. So I picked up a copy of A Walk Across America and started reading.
The difference is night and day.
Turning pages, I realized what’s “off” about Alaska. What made A Walk such a lively, engaging read for me and is missing from Alaska? In one word:
Peter’s beloved dog was killed in a road accident with a water truck in Tennessee in 1974. (Described in Chapter 22, The Water Truck. It still has me reaching for tissue.) So Coop is definitely not in Alaska.
I didn’t finish Alaska. But like I said, I recently re-read A Walk Across America. Cover-to-cover. In one sitting. Again. Then I looked around for more Peter Jenkins.
It’s like he just vanished. Poof!
Did Jenkins take up Homer’s offer to come back and live in his mountaintop cabin as a recluse? Did Peter return to his adopted black family in North Carolina? Walk into an Alaskan blizzard and not come back? There are few clues and less answers.
Googling, I found that Jenkins and his wife and A Walk Across America co-author, Barbara, divorced in 1987. He also divorced wife #3, Rita, and was reportedly planning on marrying wife #4 thereafter. But this is some years back.
It seems that Jenkins has (had?) a couple of Facebook pages, Peter Jenkins Walks:
Most of his posts to both pages are about memories or moments from years past. He doesn’t really engage with his followers. Doesn’t respond to comments. Meanwhile, followers keep pleading for some word about where Peter is, what he’s doing, and mostly, how he’s doing.
Peter’s last post in Peter Jenkins Walks is dated April 2016:
A New Book?
A little over a month later, Jenkins posts in Walks 2 about a new book he’s working on. It’s about driving all over America in a blue Chevy.
Then, suddenly, the posts stop. Jenkins’ last post (Walks 2) is dated January 12, 2017.
And then, nothing.
Lots of comments from friends and fans expressing surprise, frustration, dismay, concern. Maybe a touch of anger and/or a sense of betrayal. Questions. But not a single word of response. That Poof! thing again.
So, Peter. Where are you?
Humpback whale image credit: Public domain, CC0 license.