Anthony walks America
story by michael prochaska | photos by michael prochaska and courtesy of anthonywalksamerica.com
On a journey from Charleston to San Diego, Anthony Lambing finds southern charm and true hospitality
If Anthony Lambing’s journey across the United States doesn’t strike a comparison to Forrest Gump, then surely his philosophy on life does. He’s learned – through walking rural America – that he never knows what he’s going to get. Sometimes it’s a pair of shoes, a radio, a bottle of Gatorade or a friendly smile. It’s usually not a box of chocolates, but life is like that.
On a journey from Charleston to San Diego, Anthony Lambing, 26, stopped by Madison last week for only a few hours, most of which he spent entertaining morning customers at Perk Avenue. As he took a bite of his first slice of strawberry cake, the patrons of the coffeehouse took note of his week-grown beard, blonde and matching the hair on his arm that flared up and curled with sweat and grime; his American flag bandana tied across his forehead in a way that flaunts the stars but conceals the stripes; a 40-plus-pound backpack draped with canteens, camping equipment, and a white poster board that reads AnthonyWalksAmerica.com in black and red letters; and his animated, bluish eyes, spanning the room for a new friend to talk to. It turns out people are just as eager to talk to him.
Lambing, who is traveling across America on foot, has seen many small towns in the few weeks he began his journey, but though he said they never blend together, sometimes they do hearken to places once traveled.
“Without the coloration of palm trees, it felt like a little piece of Charleston,” Lambing said of Madison, then added “almost like a northeastern feel to it, actually.”
Originally from St. Louis with no experience in Boy Scouts, backpacking, or Southern culture, Lambing got a crash course in Southern hospitality while in Madison.
“Back home, people tell me I’m too nice, and down here I’m not even the nicest one,” Lambing said. “Before 'Southern hospitality' was just a term that I thought nothing of. In my experience, it is real; I have felt Southern hospitality.”
Amazed that people in the South hold doors for strangers, Lambing said of people in St. Louis, “If you’re not one step behind them, the doors close.”
So when he met Perk Avenue owner Jolene Bush, he wasn’t expecting the doors to open. Actually, he considers expectations futile. “I’m learning not to worry when I’m walking and it's 6:30 or 7 at night and I don’t know where I’m going to sleep yet. It’s going to figure itself out.”
Many nights, Lambing relies on the help of strangers, though always refraining from begging or soliciting. What is given to him is usually the result from the curiosity of bystanders and the kindness of their heart.
So when Bush gave him directions to the back entrance of Hard Labor Creek State Park near the lake and a swimming spot, it changed his plan for sleeping arrangements and prompted Lambing to stay near Rutledge for another day.
For 26 year-old Lambing, Southern hospitality is easier to believe in than religion, and he considers that a blessing. He describes his trip as an elaborate sociological experiment more than a physical challenge. “This is just a big learning experience – learning about yourself, learning about other people, learning about the country. I don’t consider it a physical thing at all,” he said.
Lambing planned his journey for three years, writing down several lines from a Web site of adventure quotes. One of his favorite is by French novelist and author Marcel Proust. It reads, “The real voyage of discovery is not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes.” He often shares it with the people he meets.
“Other than dying or having some huge, traumatic experience, there’s basically nothing bad that can come of this,” said Lambing, who only fears the weather and stomachaches brought on by eating too much pizza at local restaurants. “I can’t come out of it a weaker person, that’s basically impossible. I’m not going to end up on the other side being more confused about what I want to do.”
Lambing has only met one critic on his journey, an elderly man who said with a shrug from his car, “Sounds like a waste of time to me.”
The overwhelmingly positive feedback could be a product of Lambing's trust of strangers, extroverted nature, and a self-proclaimed naïvety.
“I guess I have what they call ‘delayed adolescence,'” he said. “I’m more the level of a 22 year old, mentally and financially. I basically want something very simple. I see someone working at a fish market, I see someone with a family produce stand, those are the type of things that jump out at me and would make me happy. I don’t like a lot of responsibility, not out of sheer laziness either, it’s just sort of not my thing. It’s like how a person doesn’t like a certain food.”
Sherry Lambing, Anthony’s mother, equates the experience to sending a child off to college. Though Lambing calls and texts his mother multiple times a day with his iPhone, which he also uses to blog and post pictures, Sherry still worries about her son’s safety. Lambing constantly reminds her that he knows what he’s doing, even when he doesn’t.
If he runs out of water, he’ll hold an empty water bottle up as cars pass by and shake it until someone pulls over. In fact, several people in Madison offered him water and snacks without him having to ask. He relies, very literally, on street smarts to survive, and it has yet to fail him.
“'Joe the local the hobo’ is not going to trick me into drinking some moonshine with him under the bridge, and I’m not going to not wake up and have all my stuff stolen. That’s not going to happen,” Lambing said. “I’ll talk to Joe the hobo though. I’ll have a conversation with him.”
Lambing has found connections through some of the most candid conversations. He’s met mayors, ministers, who later sermonized about him, and swapped stories with other adventurers like Ronnie Becknell. Becknell, an employee of Yesterday’s Café in Rutledge, treated Lambing to a complimentary meal and shared his experience hiking Yellowstone National Park. At Perk Avenue, Lambing met a man who walked the entire Appalachian Trail. The list of contacts, business cards and blog posts Lambing has accumulated through less than a month of walking is just the tip of the iceberg to what lies in the miles and months ahead. Several months ago, he was still living with his parents in the same suburbs of St. Louis where he grew up. The South was completely foreign to him, but now he says it feels like a good place to call home when he finishes his journey.
He’s not the only one that would be pleased if he decided to settle down in a quaint Southern town like Madison.
“There’s not that many kids that have the courage to do what he’s doing,” Bush said. “And we’re richer because he was here. It’s like I say, ‘Enter a customer, leave a friend.'"
Printed in the September 22, 2011 edition