After 21 months on the road, walking east to west across the United States, it seemed difficult for Annie Keithline – now back in her hometown of East Greenwich – to sum up just what prompted her to do it.
"Imagine all the things that might lead you to making a major change coming together," she said in a recent interview. Each thing on its own might seems inconsequential, but taken as a whole it's as if "everything in your life is pointing to it."
She was 23 when she started the walk, in March 2012, and living on a farm in Amherst, Mass. A member of the East Greenwich High School Class of 2007, Keithline spent a couple of years studying at UMass Amherst before taking a job at the farm. She started thinking about walking across country about a year before she set out.
"It just came into my head," she said. "It seemed ridiculous at first but I started to do more planning and the pieces fell into place. Two months before, I started thinking, I really need to take a practice walk."
A flyer on the ground at her feet one day solved that problem. "Do you want to walk?" it read. The Buddhist monks from the New England Peace Pagoda in Leverett – big walkers, as it happens – were organizing a 250-mile walk from New Hampshire to Rhode Island, then back to western Massachusetts.
Keithline ended up walking with the monks for about 200 miles.
"We slept in different churches and community centers," she said. The monks, she learned, meditate by walking and chanting and drumming. "If you walk eight hours, you're going to be chanting for eight hours."
The process builds group cohesion, she said.
"It allows you to discern people's moods and how they are keeping up on the trek. It helps maintain group balance. … They taught me how to interact with people. Through them, I met a lot of people who walk long ways. They were just so chill about it – it made me confident that I could do it."
Keithline said the idea of walking across the country appealed to her partly because, before that "practice" walk anyway, she didn't know anyone who'd undertaken such a trip.
"I needed to do something that was outside the judgment of people I knew. 'Judgment' may not be the right word," she said. "I needed a path that was not familiar to anyone in my life."
And she liked that there was no application process, no one she needed to check in with, no real set path. It would be her walk.
Keithline tells of her departure, walking down the drive at the farm with many well wishers in attendance to see her off. She was off!
Within a hundred yards, however, she stopped at a school parking lot, realizing she was bringing way too much stuff. She started downsizing. By the end of the first day, she had "jettisoned" 75 pounds of stuff.
And so began the first part of her walking adventure, which found her getting rid of more and more things, almost as if having to get to the very bare bones of what it was to walk. Many walkers use strollers to carry their things. Keithline had started with one but traded it for a backpack instead.
"By Washington D.C., I got rid of everything," she said, including the backpack. "This whole time, I didn't have a tent. I left everything behind, except my cell phone, my toothbrush and my wallet."
She carried very little or no cash.
"I walked 200 miles like that," she said. "People were always giving me food and money and stuff. It's not a really comfortable way of living. I just wanted to experience how it was."
Carrying nothing, she could make it really far each day but then there was the matter of the night.
"I would start scouring the road before sunset for insulation" to sleep under. It was early summer but the nights were still chilly. "One time I found this piece of linoleum and I was really happy."
The minimal approach started to reverse course in the middle of Virginia.
"A friend gave me a sleeping bag and that was really great. So I started collecting things again," Keithline recalled. "After that, I was really confident to do it the way I wanted to and by then I'd walked 1,000 miles."
It was around then she realized, "Wow, I couldn't mess this up if I tried. It's so easy! Anybody who long-distance walks will tell you the same thing: it's not hard, as long as you keep moving forward."
Of course, there were those who worried, both people back home and those she met on the road. After all, she was young! She was a woman! She was not packing heat!
"I was scared at the beginning," she admitted, "a young woman out by myself – I'm really sticking my neck out."
But within a couple of days, she realized either people wanted to connect with her in a positive way or they ignored her.
Still, she acknowledged, "I didn't have very many times where I felt totally secure on the trip."
In Florida, Keithline was ready to use a stroller again. That cheapo Walmart stroller she bought? It made it 1,500 miles.
"I started being able to have books again," she said. "And water and blankets."
She slept out most nights. "Little League dugouts were really good." And sleeping behind churches was a favorite spot too.
Throughout the trip, Keithline would meet people and "suddenly, you're everybody's family member. They want to see you succeed."
It made her realize her goodbyes in Amherst at the beginning of her trip where just the beginning of the goodbyes.
"You don't just leave once, you leave all the time. I'd meet people and stay with them a couple of days and you don't want to interrupt that but I had to go."
Keithline loved the South. "I loved the weather, I loved the landscapes," she said. "Arkansas is one of the most beautiful states I've ever been to and the people were so friendly, outgoing and caring."
She'd picked up a guitalele – a guitar-ukulele hybrid – which led to different interactions.
"In the Carolinas, I started meeting people who had a different relationship to music – it's more cerebral up here, more gut down there."
And she ate a lot of new and great food during the trip.
"In Shelby, North Carolina, this wonderful woman made me this food called liver mush," she recalled. It was good. There was catfish in Louisiana and rabbit in Georgia, shot, skinned and put in soup. There were fresh oysters in Florida and a memorable waffle house in Amarillo, Texas.
Along the way, Keithline met other walkers – young men, older men, older women – but not a lot of young women. One man she met was 78 years old and had walked over 16,000 miles in three years. She also met Steve Fugate, who has walked tens of thousands of miles, in part as a response to his son's suicide. Fugate's slogan: Love Life.
Keithline had read his blog and saw his "Love Life" sign while walking in Arizona. "It was a really cool experience to meet someone who's such a pro," she said.
On the Oklahoma-Texas border, she met up with some French tourists on motorcycles who were riding from Chicago to Los Angeles in honor of Jack Kerouac.
Keithline was aiming to finish her walk on the coast in Southern California. She ended up on a beach in Dana Point, south of Los Angeles, alone, but surrounded by "people camping and hanging out and surfing as the sun was setting. It's a great beach."
She was back in Rhode Island with her family by Christmas, that particular adventure behind her.
"When I say it to myself – 'I walked across America,' – it feels good. Not as some monumental thing … I'm not very impressed by it," she said. Still, "I think I did it the best I could and that's what counts."
As for what she'll do next, Keithline said simply, "Whatever I want."