My Husband And I Were Front-Page News For Our Walk Across America. Inside, I Felt Like A Fraud.

"In August 1979, a young couple landed on the cover of National Geographic for walking 3,000 miles across America. I was half of that couple."
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In August 1979, a young couple landed on the cover of National Geographic for walking 3,000 miles across America. I was half of that couple.

It all started when I met a man who had walked from New York to New Orleans, the same place where I was working on a master’s degree. He was on a quest to discover himself and understand the country after Vietnam had ripped the nation apart. We dated for several months, fell in love, got married and left New Orleans in July 1976, headed to Oregon. On foot.

We walked across Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Oregon. We walked 15 to 20 miles per day, carried 35 to 75 pounds on our backs and slept in a tent at night. We experienced dramatic adventures like trapping alligators in Louisiana and being attacked by outlaws in southeastern Colorado. I fell off a glacier at 13,000 feet and was hit by a car in Utah. We also walked across the Cascades of Oregon in the coldest winter since 1919.

While on the road, we met and stayed with farmers, ranchers, homemakers, teachers, secretaries, and other working men and women of America. We photographed them and told their stories, eventually publishing three bestselling books: “A Walk Across America,” “The Walk West” and “The Road Unseen.”

The Walk West” sold millions of copies and was listed as one of the most influential bestsellers on American culture in 100 years. The “Walk” books became part of the permanent White House Library.

Long before the internet and cellphones, we were featured in outlets across the country like The New York Times, The Times-Picayune, The Dallas Times Herald, Gunnison Country Times, Borger News-Herald, and Family Weekly, as well as dozens and dozens of small town newspapers. Television reporters interviewed us on the road for the lead stories on their nightly newscasts.

To the world, we were a fascinating couple, sweethearts of American adventure. Inside, I felt like a fraud.

I grew up poor in the Ozarks, on a gravel street lined with shacks where my neighbours could not read or write. As a kid, I bathed in an aluminium washtub, hung clothes on the line, walked over a mile to school, and slept in a lean-to bedroom on a rollaway bed. Being raised without conveniences or fancy things taught me grit, forced me to be resourceful, and prepared me to undertake the wild and epic journey of walking across America. Because I had grown up without — we didn’t even have an indoor toilet until I was 12 years old — sleeping in a tent and not knowing where my next meal would come from were not a stretch for me.

But I was also a newlywed in very abnormal circumstances. There were no intimate dinners where my new husband and I could linger over chilled wine, or soft beds we could crawl into for lovemaking. Nothing about what we were doing was sexy.

Instead, we walked through burning 100-degree temperatures and bone-cold blizzards. Both of us were tired, hungry, irritable and sweaty, and we smelled. My husband expected me to keep up, to walk faster and farther, and told me I could win the Best Actress award for limping and dragging behind. We argued and were impatient with each other. At times, we were mean.

A part of me loved the adventure, the wildness and the unknown that came with each new day. But often, I hated walking across America. Most of the time, I put on a smile for reporters and never mentioned how my feet and back hurt, or how every part of my body felt like hammered meat. I pretended I was having the time of my life because ours was a great and unique adventure. We were discovering America like the pioneers did, and people loved reading about us. It would damage our image and story if I aired personal or marital grievances, so I didn’t.

I remembered my granny who traveled to Arkansas as a child in a covered wagon, and then spent her whole life scratching a living out of the rocky hills of the Ozarks. She didn’t have more than a cotton dress and a tattered apron, but I never heard her whine about being poor, cooking on a hot wood stove or making 100 biscuits each morning for her large family. Between my new husband insisting I shape up and memories of her endurance, I walked on and kept my mouth shut.

The author is breaking her silence in a new book.
Smith Publicity
The author is breaking her silence in a new book.

After three years, we finally made it beyond the whiteouts, blizzards and freezing winds in the Oregon Cascades. It was Jan. 18, 1979, when we walked the last mile. A large group of family, friends and strangers gathered to walk it with us. The crowd spread along the beach cheering as news reporters followed us into the cold Pacific. We had walked across America, and a new life waited beyond this day. I was two months pregnant.

We were already scheduled to write books, speak and travel (by plane). After we were chosen for the cover of National Geographic, the world became our oyster. Opportunities and money fell out of the sky.

Our family grew — we had three children and bought a picturesque farm in Tennessee. On the outside, we had everything money could buy, but my charismatic husband traveled and stayed gone most of the time. Invitations for interviews, speaking engagements and public appearances flooded our office. I was busy with the children, managing our farm and keeping the home fires burning while my husband appeared on “Good Morning America,” “Larry King Live” and many other national programs.

Although my husband told me he loved me, I started to doubt it. Maybe he didn’t want to be married or stay in one place. Maybe he simply couldn’t settle down because he was a wayfarer at heart. He argued that he had to stay on the road to support us and the affluent lifestyle I wanted.

As a woman of faith, I told myself I needed to be patient and long-suffering. So I pushed aside my feelings and kept my mouth shut, like I usually did, but this time I knew I didn’t like it. I felt alone and trapped while sensational full-page ads for “The Walk West” ran in The New York Times and other papers across America.

I was crushed when my marriage began to crumble. Although we were bestselling authors, we became strangers in the same house who happened to be married and have three kids. The adventure and romance were gone. When I discovered that there had been other women, a resolve from deep within began to surface, like a smouldering ember. It must have been an inheritance from my fiery mother. A switch flipped. I had to get my rear end in gear because the kingdom we built together from scratch was about to come crashing down. I couldn’t raise our children in a veiled relationship or pretend things were perfect. With a broken heart, I filed for divorce.

Instead of walking behind an adventurous man, I would be walking alone. And this time I needed to speak up and quit pretending everything was perfect. When we walked across America, I had lived through all kinds of danger, but I feared what lay ahead would be far worse.

News of our breakup traveled faster than a shotgun blast. Readers from New York to Los Angeles wanted details. They wanted dirt. They wanted gossip. I was heartbroken, embarrassed, ashamed and scared. I had been living a lie and had to take a radical inventory of myself. I was an Ozarks hillbilly who had achieved more than I ever imagined, but as quickly as fame and fortune appeared, they were going down the drain.

During the long, expensive and public divorce trial, my husband’s lawyers wanted me to agree that I contributed to the downfall of the marriage.

“Yes sir,” I answered. “I contributed to the downfall of my marriage because I should have kicked him in the ass a long time ago!” My mother would have been proud.

The experience of walking across America brought money and national publicity, but it was losing everything and rebuilding my life that brought revelations and profound insights. Now after 40 years of silence, I am telling my thrilling, messy and heart-wrenching story, and how I came out stronger — and more authentic — on the other side. And today, I no longer feel like a fraud.

Barbara Jenkins is the author of “So Long as It’s Wild: Standing Strong After My Famous Walk Across America.” She also co-authored “The Walk West” (an international bestseller and part of the permanent White House Library), “The Road Unseen” (a mass paperback bestseller and winner of The Gold Medallion Book Award), “I Once Knew a Woman” and “Wit and Wisdom for Women.” Jenkins will be the subject of “Mother, Nature,” to be released in fall 2023 by her son Jedidiah Jenkins, a New York Times bestselling author.