“Hope and kindness, redemption and respect”: A Conversation with Tommy Zurhellen, curated by Virginia Konchan

Tommy Zurhellen is the author of the award-winning Messiah Trilogy of novels that reimagine the life of Jesus in modern-day North Dakota: Nazareth, North Dakota (2011), Apostle Islands (2012) and Armageddon, Texas (2014), all from Atticus Books. His short fiction and essays have appeared widely in literary magazines such as Carolina Quarterly, Quarterly West, Passages North, The MacGuffin, Appalachee Review, South Dakota Review, River Oak Review, Crab Creek Review, Iconoclast, Red Mountain Review, Coal City Review, and elsewhere. Tommy is also co-host of the popular writing podcast, FICTION SCHOOL.

Virginia Konchan: Early into The Low Road, you write about a campus panic attack you had in your office at Marist College that set your path in motion to use your sabbatical year not to work on your fourth novel but to walk across America to raise awareness about veteran homelessness and suicide.  Do you think every writer comes to a point in their career where they face a similar reckoning, between writing and lived experience (or theory and praxis)?  What were some of the outside influences or inspirations for this decision?

Tommy Zurhellen: Reckoning is a good word for it. I think if you write long enough, you come to a point in your craft where you inevitably come to face-to-face with the writer you wanted to be — and for me, it wasn’t pretty. I know I wasn’t prepared for it. There comes a time when you start asking honest questions about yourself. As we get older, the questions get more honest. I believe our writing is always an extension of our experiences in some way, and when those experiences never change, it affects our writing.

VK: You mention in the book that writing the book was just as formidable a challenge as walking 2,866 miles (if not harder!).  How much of the book was written “on the road” versus through recollection and reconstruction after you completed your journey?  What about writing your memoir differed from your writing about fictional worlds (pacing, characters, compression)?  What are some of your favorite memoirs or autobiographies?

TZ: I kept a journal on the road, and I put a lot of effort into my social media posts along the way, as well. But I really didn’t find the story until the year after I returned home. It was during the pandemic in 2020, and with all the free time afforded by social distancing I did not have any excuses not to write. Telling this story was always going to be more than lining up all my experiences on the road and telling those stories, one by one. That’s the easy part, paint-by-numbers stuff. I still didn’t know what this story was about until I had started writing the draft of the book itself. This being my first memoir after three novels, I found it hard to write about myself. I felt a glare from the lens pointed at me. So I turned that unwillingness into part of the book, and voila, the story shifted from a book about a guy walking across the country, to a story about the people that guy meets along the way, In this case, some amazing veterans and their loved ones, all across America. Once I hit that groove, the actual writing felt very similar to writing my previous fiction projects, as far as storytelling goes. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild was a big inspiration for me as I wrote this book.

VK: The Low Road is organized into 131 “micro-chapters” representing the individual days of your walk.  Therein, you describe with enthralling detail, dialogue, and scenes the minutiae of your walk, while reflecting about literature and film, the writing process, your life, and the lives of the people and veterans you meet along the way.  You describe your book as an “anti-memoir”:  could you speak a little more to that and the idea of a memoir that is just as much about the lives of others as yourself, perhaps in relation to your decision to end your memoir with the words of others (After/Words)?  What aspects of the traditional memoir genre were you seeking to deconstruct or reinvent?

TZ: I knew I didn’t want to write myself as a hero in this story. I read a great deal of memoirs while tackling this project, and each journey seemed to begin and end with the person writing it. When I got back from the walk, everyone asked, “How did you walk that whole way by yourself?” The truth is, I didn’t. I might have walked across America alone, but I certainly wouldn’t have made it without a lot of help. I felt this was just as much their story as it was mine. So that’s where the idea of an “anti-memoir” began, challenging the idea that a memoir is a journey into the unknown — it really is a thousand journeys, if you think about it. All different. All worthy of their own book. And I think the book reflects that populist mentality, especially with the After/Words section at the end. That’s my favorite part of the book, honestly, getting to hear from everyone who took part in the journey, in their own words.

VK: Relatedly, who is your ideal reader, and what do you hope they might take from your story?

TZ: In the Prologue, I tell the reader what this book is not. It’s definitely not a trendy self-help book, filled with advice or aphorisms, and it’s not Eat, Pray, Love either. This book was written for anyone who, like me, finds themselves faced with the question of, Can one person really make a difference in the world? This book is meant for anyone wondering if they have the ability to create their own adventure and raise awareness on a cause dear to their own heart. (Spoiler alert: you do have the ability.)

VK: One of many incredible parts of your journey and book is the genuine surprise you convey at the outpouring of generosity and kindness you experienced on the road.  What did those positive experiences do to your preconceptions, or the preconceptions of America and Americans that were prevalent during the Trump era?

TZ: I was completely surprised at the reactions I received while walking alone as a homeless veteran across America. We are told we live in a cynical world, consumed by fear, but I didn’t see hardly any of that. In the book, the worst thing that happens to me is having my walking stick stolen outside a Dunkin in Ithaca, New York. But whether I was walking through tiny towns, farmland, or big cities like Flint, Michigan, the reactions I got all started with kindness, and love, and curiosity. Of course, I have to recognize I am a very large white male in his 50s when I say that. But the outpouring of helpfulness I received totally blindsided me, and I will never forget it.

VK: The Low Road contains many wonderful anecdotes about meeting veterans along the walk, listening to their stories, and writing about them in a way that honored both their privacy as well as their struggles in returning to civilian life after the experience of war.  Obviously, many of these and other veterans suffer from PTSD and physical injuries, to say nothing of the 40,000 veterans who go homeless each night or end their own lives (22 veterans every day).  Along with the bonds of solidarity and trust you forged, what did you learn about the arts of listening and holding space for others?  Many think our times are characterized by narcissism, disidentification, and compassion fatigue—what you call “empathy problems” in your book, in your discussion of the title— exacerbated by social media and the mirage of internet “connectivity”:  do you agree?  What are some ways we can begin to listen more deeply and hold space for others in our lives and communities, on and off the internet, especially with those who are in pain?

TZ: When I stopped talking and started listening, that’s when the real walk began. Lucky for me, that happened early in the journey, on Day 8, when I met a Vietnam veteran in the high desert of central Oregon. When he told me his story of his service in the Vietnam War, I suddenly realized why I was out here walking in the first place. It wasn’t to walk across the country. My goal became meeting as many veterans as possible, the veterans who are forgotten, the ones who live in out of the way places where you have to walk. After that day in Oregon, the walk became an exercise in listening, and it changed everything. When I finally returned to my previous life at the end of the walk, I had an abrupt and downright frightening transition to a world defined by connectivity. I had spent five months or so disconnected, and now I suddenly felt overwhelmed.

VK: You mention several of your former shipmates in your book, including Paul, who began the journey with you in Oregon.  Can you tell us a little bit about your experience in the Navy working as an engineer on nuclear submarines?  Is there an element of loyalty to friendships made while serving in the military that made your journey possible?

TZ: I think one of the most prominent themes displayed in the book is the strong bond shared by all veterans. There’s no such thing as a stranger when it comes to veterans. I approached my old shipmate Paul about the walk, and even though we hadn’t seen each other in twenty years, it was like we were back in the Navy again. When you share that common language, it’s easy to find common ground. I relied on several of my former Navy shipmates on the journey, and many more new veteran friends I met along the way. Stories are really important to veterans, because they define who you are now, and not just who you were back in the days of your military service. There’s always something to talk about. That made a lot of the walking easy.

VK: Famously, you walked across the country with virtually no gear (windbreaker, mailbag, walking stick, cell phone) nor entourage.  What was the most memorable “detour” or path less traveled you took, when Google Maps wasn’t working or redirected you?  Did your intuitive sense of cardinal directions kick in?  Have you always traveled light?

TZ: On Day 24, my buddy Baker dropped me off on the outskirts of Boise, Idaho where Google Maps was telling me there was a side road running along the interstate that led all the way to the next town. Problem was, there was no road. Just a maze of cow pastures separated by barbed wire and arroyos. What could go wrong? Everything, of course. But I made it to a blacktop highway ten miles later and limped into Mountain Home, Idaho, cut up by barbed wire but smiling. Traveling light definitely helped that day.

VK: The idea for your walk was borne out of a growing realization of veterans’ needs while serving as the Commander for the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Poughkeepsie, and you donated the proceeds from your walk to serve veterans in Poughkeepsie.  What are you doing now with the VFW and Hudson River Housing, and how can readers support your mission to help improve and save the lives of veterans?

TZ: The day I got back from the walk I said, “The walk ends today, but the journey has just begun.” Boy, was I right. I’m more busy now than I was back then! VetZero has partnered with Hudson River Housing in Poughkeepsie to create important programs like the VetZero Heroes Ride, which offers free rides to area veterans, and a brand new program called VetZero Heroes Making Heroes. It’s literally heroes making heroes — hero-style sandwiches, that is! This new program will offer veterans meaningful employment and job skills while helping our community with food insecurity. We can also use support to keep these programs going! You can visit www.hudsonriverhousing.org and click on the VetZero link to find out more on donating your time or funds to our mission. Thank you!

VK: You received significant media attention toward the end of your walk from major news stations including NBC Nightly News, Fox News, the New York Post, and dozens of local TV stations and newspapers across the country, and continue to now, yet your humility and desire to shine the spotlight on the cause of veterans, not yourself, is remarkable.  Do you think the American public has a hunger for more redeeming news stories?

TZ: I sure hope so, Virginia. When I walked across America I saw all the positive things going on, things that don’t make the news because they’re not particularly good for ratings. Stories of hope and kindness, redemption and respect. Especially during these trying times, we’re ready for more stories like that. We always pull for the underdog, the person who tries to do what’s right even though they will probably fail. When enough people connect to a story like that, well, there’s no chance the person will fail. That’s what happened to me, on my walk. 

VK: You walked the final stretch back home with a security officer from Marist and several friends, only to receive a hero’s welcome at Marist College by President Dennis Murray and many others, including the media and veterans, complete with a marching band.  It is impossible to read this part of your book and not choke up with emotion (joy, pride, relief, catharsis).  What do you remember best about that day?  Was it overwhelming?

TZ: I still think of that amazing return to Marist College almost every day. Christa and I often wax poetic about standing on that dais surrounded by five thousand cheering people, bands, singers, a Civil War cannon, bagpipers — the list goes on and on. Honestly much of the day was a blur because I was so tired, and it was such a shock, that I have to rely on other people who were actually there, for the details. Luckily many friends and family members were there, and Christa, of course. I will never forget the kindness from President Dennis Murray and his team at Marist.

VK: No man is an island, John Donne memorably said.  What living person or people could you not have completed your journey without, and what kind of support did they offer? 

TZ: When you read the book, you learn that I was lucky to have one person along the way — that person is Christa Hines, Executive Director of Hudson River Housing here in Poughkeepsie. She took a leap just as big as mine, by coming out to places like Flint and Buffalo to help share the VetZero story. We’ve become great friends as a result. Christa will often refer to The Low Road as “your book,” but really it belongs as much to her as it does to me. I wouldn’t have made it home without her energy and support, and I’ll always be grateful for that.

VK: Like running a marathon, many people who accomplish such epic feats as you continue to come back for more.  What’s next, in your life, teaching, activism, and writing?  

TZ: That’s a great question! I feel like the passion I found for helping veterans has only increased since the walk ended, so I know that will always be a part of me in the future. I also still have a love for teaching. Currently my physical injuries incurred on the walk prohibit me from making any plans for The Low Road 2. But who knows! Never say never, I guess.

VK: If a veteran is reading this, particularly a veteran who is struggling with housing or mental health issues, what would you most like them to know or remember?  

TZ: It’s difficult for veterans to ask for help. And it’s even more difficult for veterans to talk to someone else who is not a veteran, because veterans speak the same language. There’s a large stigma for veterans associated with asking for help, particularly when it comes to mental health. So if you are a veteran who is struggling, please know there are people out there who speak the same language as you, who want to help. It’s not going to happen overnight, but in communities all over America, we’re slowly trying to raise awareness on the issues that matter most to our heroes. Heroes like you! Reaching out to another veteran is the hard part — once you do, everything else will seem easy. You’ll find that folks really want to help. I know, because I work with them every day!