Anyone who has ever studied literature or who is an avid prose reader knows that a compelling character or narrator has the ability to take us out of our own minds and lives, and transport us to a land beyond the narrow confines of our consciousness and subjectivity. This isn’t escapism: it’s one of the many celebrated powers of the written word, along with its ability to cultivate attributional complexity and complex schemas in the mind and heart of the engaged reader.
But what happens when, as readers, we come to identify with, root for, and yearn to emulate a character who is actually a real-life person, telling us about his epic walk across America to raise awareness about veteran suicide and homelessness, in a book he refers to as an “anti-memoir”?
Then you would find yourself in the joyful and enthralling situation of reading The Low Road, Thomas Zurhellen’s first non-fiction book after his successful Messiah Trilogy of novels: Nazareth, North Dakota, Apostle Islands, and Armageddon, Texas.
Already a master of end-times narratives (but never of the doomsday sort), Biblical revisionism (in the reverent, literary sense), and antic, sprawling, deadpan and hilarious writing, Zurhellen’s The Low Road picks up where his trilogy of novels ends: in an uncertain time of almost unthinkable polarity in the West, America in particular, marked by human rights uprisings (#BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo), technocapitalism, posthumanism, and late capitalist malaise.
What would Jesus Do, devout Christians might ask at this juncture, but who better to ask than a novelist who has imagined and invented wild, contemporary worlds of Messianic reckoning?
In the memoir’s highly-entertaining and visceral prologue “Warning Signs,” we get a glimpse of the author’s genuine existential crisis, piqued by a panic attack on the last day of spring semester at Marist College, in his 16th year of university teaching, mere months before his hard-won sabbatical was to begin, Coldplay inopportunely streaming through his Pandora queue of music. Sweating profusely, unable to breathe or see, he writes: “Honestly, I thought I was about to die. I remember thinking, please God, don’t let my students see me like this. I also remember thinking, please God, don’t let the last words I hear in this life be written by fucking Coldplay.”
Having planned to write his fourth novel during his sabbatical and take a mental rest from teaching, life intervened by way of being told he’d been elected the Commander of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars in Poughkeepsie, New York, a post he reluctantly accepts in an anecdote for the ages: “‘You being a college professor, too, we figured you probably know all about accounts and numbers and stuff,’ said his VFW friend Mickey, in announcing his election.
‘I teach English.’
‘Exactly,’ Mickey said. Then he hung up.”
Within a few weeks of his appointment as VFW Commander, Zurhellen organized, with the help of Christa, Executive Director of Hudson River Housing, several community events, including a monthly picnic for the local homeless population, a backpack program donating 500 bags of essentials to local residents, and various partnerships to distribute socks to those in need.
But then he received a call about a local Navy veteran: a single mom with five kids from 5 to 15 and the two youngest with special needs, who, suffering from severe PTSD from her service in the Navy, was on 100% disability. She needed help with a down payment for a minivan, and Zurhellen made it happen, while beginning to feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of veterans in need of support in his local region, as a small sampling of the national population of struggling veterans. Wanting to serve, he immersed himself in reading about effective altruism while doing whatever he could to assist in bettering the lives of veterans and other vulnerable populations around him, and came across a statistic from a VA study stating that 22 veterans take their own lives every day in America, which is double the suicide rate for civilians, and triple, for female veterans. And 40,000 veterans, enough to fill Yankee Stadium, are without stable housing.
Marshalling his moral and physical courage, Zurhellen decided to not only abandon his dreamed-of sabbatical plans, but temporarily abandon the Ivory Tower altogether, in a concerted choice to walk across America to raise awareness about veterans, in a journey he created called VetZero Walk Across America: he aimed to walk 22 miles a day to symbolize the number of veteran lives lost daily to suicide and donate all funds raised to support veterans in his community.
The Low Road is the bowed but never broken result of that 2,866 mile journey from Portland to Poughkeepsie, a whip-smart, self-aware, deeply funny tale of one man’s effort to “walk the talk,” and make a difference in the lives of those who have been failed by the very system they served.
Lest this epic journey sound romanticized, Zurhellen is quick to remind us where and how it began, that chilly day in April, 2019, with only Google Maps on his cell phone as his guide. “No support vehicles. No marked trail. No media entourage (at least, not at the start). Really all I had with me that first day was a mailbag, my VFW windbreaker, a phone, and my sense of humor. Even after several months of training and planning for this grand adventure, I was still woefully out of shape, and even more woefully unprepared.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, everything, of course. And while it’s true I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, that was kind of the point. Colin Powell once said, ‘Don’t step on enthusiasm.’ In other words, don’t sweat the small stuff. Sometimes you go with what you’ve got. At some point, you realize you don’t need a map because you are the map. Sometimes you have to let life write on you. You have to step out of your comfort zone. You have to take a risk.”
This game-changing “anti-memoir” (so-called because Zurhellen realized during his journey that this story belongs to the veterans for whom he walked) is prefaced by a moving epigraph from The Odyssey (“Tell me, O Muse, of that crafty veteran who traveled far and wide! Many cities did he visit . . . and much did he suffer while trying to save his own life and bring his brothers safely home”), and officially begins with the company of his friend and former shipmate Paul in a Portland suburb, who happily walks the first 22-mile day with him. And true to Zurhellen’s community-based spirit, or perhaps as a reflection of his incredible karma, he is similarly accompanied throughout his journey by other acts of camaraderie, support, and even life-saving grace, such as the day his Sawyer water filter broke in Alcova Reservoir, Wyoming, leaving him high and dry in the desert, hardly able to move, muscles cramping. Tim, a fellow veteran from the 10th Mountain Division who had spent three years homeless on the streets after his discharge, happened to drive by the road, and seeing Zurhellen, stopped to inquire. Tim drove to the next gas station and then back to him 30 minutes later with three water bottles, so that Zurhellen could continue his walk without perishing of thirst or risking death from drinking contaminated water.
Coincidence? Maybe. But by this point in the book (day 56), you might be a believer too.
Artfully organized into 131 micro-chapters based on the days of his four-month journey, the narrative is followed by an “After/Words” section written by 22 participants on his journey, who stories of their hero, “the big guy in the funny hat,” in memorable homages from veterans, new and old friends who gave him shelter, family, VFW comrades, media personnel, and supporters from Marist College, including his social media intern Nora, his personal security guard from New Paltz to the Marist College campus Ryan, and Marist’s president, Dr. Dennis Murray, all of whom are humbled and awed by his commitment, and avow his book’s burning question: “Can one man make a difference?” with a resounding yes. From Carl: “Be like Tommy, the maniac who walked across the country with next to nothing.” And from Christa: I am still simply in awe of his commitment and dedication to doing what he believes in—no fear, just faith.”
Yet these micro-chapters don’t just contain narrative exposition about Zurhellen’s encounters, they provide a framework for him to telescope out into profound meditations on veterans, self, nation, suffering, and, most importantly, the people he meets: veterans, caring strangers, and friends, as well as his friends back home, including Doris (“ninety-seven years young”), who consults her atlas during Zurhellen’s journey, reminding him of where he is, geographically and in spirit. “Now and again, I’ll call Doris now from the road. She’s got this giant hardbound atlas next to the easy chair in her living room, and whenever I call, she’ll ask me where I am today. Burns, Oregon; Nampa, Idaho; Valentine, Nebraska. I tell her the name of the nearest town and she looks it up in her big atlas. I can hear her licking her finger each time she turns a page. Then, when she finds it on the map, she tells me exactly where I am. ‘Oh, I see you,’ she will say into the phone. ‘There you are.’ That might sound silly and small, but when you’re alone out here on the low road, that tiny sense of connection can really lift you up. We probably only spoke for a few minutes each time, but calling Doris was my favorite part of my day, by far. When I get back home, I will still probably call her so she can tell me where I am, and where I stand.”
To observe the post-9/11 landscape of 21th century America during the Trump administration through the perspective of a novelist and academic, one who humbly acknowledges the many people who have made a similar epic journey in America or the Amazon (e.g. the first recorded human to walk across America in 1907, Edward Payson Weston, and Ed Stafford), albeit often as a challenge rather than a form of service, is fascinating. Whatever possessed him to take on and accomplish this physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual odyssey is partly revealed by the book’s title, which he refers to as a journey or process-based orientation rather than a focus on the destination: a means of engaging, listening, looking people in the eye, and “getting your hands dirty,” versus the “high road” of abstraction, moral superiority and anesthetized theory.
This empirical approach to empathy and true understanding has guided both Western and Eastern philosophy and the social sciences for centuries—until, unprecedentedly, this century, wherein a dependency on digital life and a collective paralysis regarding local and global catastrophes often results either in a doubling-down on navel gazing and personality cults (fueled by social media), or depressive stances such as cynicism, defeatism, bystander apathy, or compassion fatigue.
Zurhellen is bracingly clear about his choice of the low road of conflict, struggle, and wonder: “Too often we choose the express lanes in life, automatically bypassing the problems affecting other people, problems often way more serious than our own. When we only walk the high road, we develop empathy problems. We forget how to understand the lives of others, even when they live right next door. We get lazy.” And is filled with characteristic good humor regarding his choice to take the low road: “When you walk that lonely road, along with your good intentions I guarantee you’ll find plenty of loose gravel, soft shoulder, no shoulder, mud, muck, roadkill, mosquitoes, biting flies, more roadkill, sinkholes, potholes, puddles, puddles that turn out to be sinkholes when you step in them, even more roadkill, rattlesnakes, bull snakes and red anthills the size of sandcastles . . . You will find chain gangs, motorcycle gangs, actual gang gangs, abandoned vehicles, abandoned gas stations, entire abandoned towns, roadside motels full-up and roadside churches burnt down. You will find closed sidewalks, crushed beer cans, construction vehicles, confused construction workers wondering what in hell you’re doing on foot way out here in the middle of nowhere, confused state troopers and sheriffs wondering the same thing, old cigarette butts, old keys, used needles, used pipes, a used car seat with a stuffed animal strapped in, used condoms, half-eaten French fries mixed with more roadkill . . . wrong turns, several good Samaritans, bad directions, bad drivers, bad weather, broken glass, lost cattle, lost tourists, one lost tooth (it’s in Nebraska) along with a few ghosts and plenty of wildflowers.”
Zurhellen’s narrated journey from Rhododendron, Oregon back to Poughkeepsie is full of laugh out loud passages such as these (made funnier by his ability to laugh at himself), cut by searing reflections on contemporary America, the plight of the underserved veterans he meets along the way, his own life story and difficulties (in relation to his childhood, education, time spent in the Navy working as an engineer on a nuclear submarine, and emotions, as well as the agony and glory he encounters along the way, including a romantic relationship ending while on the road), and especially the many chapters that contain dialogic scenes between him and the veterans and people he meets, randomly or planned, all of whom are largely overawed by his adventure and courage, and eager to help in any way they can by walking with him, offering shelter or food (to avoid another meal of Nutter Butters) sending mail, care packages, and donations, all of which he re-donates to a senior center after receiving his mail drop bounty in Kemmerer, Wyoming.
While you may not be able to guess the pop song that haunts Zurhellen, transcontinentally (Pinkfong’s “Baby Shark”), you can probably guess what he says offered a ride: no thanks.
Zurhellen’s arduous, peripatetic journey, the windfalls of help he received, as well as his humor, converge on Day 39, in Bear Lake, Utah: “Tonight I will sleep in a caretaker’s cabin next to a cemetery in the next town over. There’s no plumbing but there’s some old paperbacks on a shelf next to the wood stove, so I’ll re-read The Hobbit for about the hundredth time, to help me fall asleep. I’m resigned to another dinner of energy bars and Chips Ahoy but right around sundown, a nice couple who live down the road knock on the cabin door, carrying a fantastic turkey dinner with all the trimmings. ‘Word gets around fast here,’ the guy says. ‘We really love what you’re doing.’ I’ll eat enough for three people, grateful again for the kindness of complete strangers. And right before bed, I’ll make a quick call to Doris back in Poughkeepsie so she can find Bear Lake on her giant coffee-table atlas, and tell me where I am. She’ll tell me it sounds like I’m coming down with something. She says she can hear it in my voice.
‘Bear Lake, okay,’ she will say, finding it on the Utah page. ‘There you are.’
‘People out here call it the Caribbean of the Rockies,’ I say, shivering.
‘Oh, honey,’ she says. ‘People are lying to you.’”
Among the many moving encounters Zurhellen has with veterans include his Day 12 visit with Army veterans Rusty and his adult son, living in a trailer in Harney County, Oregon (onion capital of the world), both of whom were discharged on disability (for Rusty, for a back injury, and his son, for PTSD). Rusty offers him water, respite, and meaningful conversation, as does Bob, a veteran in Burley, Idaho on a Harley motorcycle, and Arizona Mike, a homeless veteran in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Talking to Arizona Mike, Zurhellen realizes that because of his walk (being exposed to the elements, often unsure of where he’ll sleep or what he’ll eat), he can now speak to a homeless veteran from a place of understanding, not pity: “But this is the first time I actually feel like a homeless veteran, instead of merely pretending to live like one. There’s a huge difference between the two; it’s the same wide distance between sympathy and empathy.”
Zurhellen also sleeps overnight (freezing, and fearful of nearby screaming mountain lions) at a campsite near the Airstream trailer of a veteran named Windhorse, who cooks him beef braciole and shares stories with him about Vietnam, particularly surviving the Tet Offensive attacks by the Viet Cong: “I realize I am literally sitting next to history in this Suburban,” Zurhellen writes. With Windhorse, Zurhellen undergoes one of several epiphanies on his journey, causing him to philosophically question his motives, prompted by Windhorse’s salvo: “The way I see it, amigo, you’ve got two choices: you do it for the journey, or you do it for the destination . . . So here’s my question for you: which one are you going to choose?” Zurhellen felt, he says, “exposed.” “I couldn’t give him an answer on why I was doing this walk in the first place. Sure, I could talk his ear off on the how of walking this far, and how it made my body feel. But I felt embarrassed because I was eight days into this thing and I had never really thought about the why.”
A master of witty dialogue and narrative restraint, Zurhellen’s encounters with Americans from all walks of life (as foreign to him and his version of America is to them) provides comic relief, such as when he treks to a working ranch on the Utah-Wyoming border (the latter, a state that gets “a foot of snow one day, and then a hundred degree heat the next”) for a visit with ranchers Josiah and Melody and their children, attempting to help with sheep herding on his way to their ranch, strewn with sagebrush and jackrabbits. “‘Why do you have that stick?’ the girl asks.
‘It’s good for bears,’ I say. ‘Oh, and sheep, too.’ I make a big deal out of telling them my shepherding story from the day before. At least, I use a lot of hand gestures. I figure they’ll be impressed with my newfound herding skills.
‘Yee-haw?’ the little boy says with a sour face. Both kids laugh. ‘That’s not what you say to a sheep. That’s what you say to a cow.’
‘Duh,’ the girl says. ‘Where do you come from?’
‘Poughkeepsie,’ I say, but to them it might as well be Mars. ‘It’s in New York.’”
Zurhellen’s diagnosis, after encountering the kindness of strangers on the road for months? Don’t judge a nation by its political or social landscapes, as an aggregated judgement on 328 million people. According to Zurhellen (pioneer, field guide, and astute observer of humanity, nature, and culture), it’s not American citizens who have turned their back on each other, or on ideals: rather, it’s the governing institutions that keep us isolated, lacking solidarity, dependent on the 24/7 media circus with its emphasis on negativity and sensationalism, and, for many, that foster neoliberal systems of economic exploitation and impoverishment that can lead to despair.
While some readers might be curious to know Zurhellen’s thoughts on contemporary politics, the military industrial complex, or the war and culture machines, he’s also quite clear that this is not a political book—if it were, or if Zurhellen made it about himself and his “issues” (following the genre convention of many tell-all memoirs shaped around addiction or comeback themes), it wouldn’t be the story he wanted to tell, which is decidedly about, and for, hurting veterans.
But the book is manifestly literary, modeled after the traditional epic adventures of the Greeks, and including touches of the comedic and absurd (Cervantes, Twain, Beckett, O’Toole), the transcendental (Emerson, Thoreau), and the travel narrative (Melville, Kerouac, Nabokov). The drama surrounding Zurhellen’s walking sticks, including a hand-crafted walking stick (“the Cadillac of walking sticks,” adorned with a rope handle, a rubber cap, and decorated with all the different service branches in red, white and blue paint) gifted to him by a veteran named Richard in Beloit, Wisconsin, and another made by his father, later stolen at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Ithaca, New York, finds resonant echoes with the wooden, six-foot Odyssean winnowing oar gifted to Zurhellen in 2002 by his MFA professor and mentor at the University of Alabama, fiction writer Michael Martone. The oar serves as a grail symbol that represents his time spent both at sea, serving in the Navy, as well as on land, walking across America by foot with barely any supplies but a walking stick.
Constantly engaged in self-examination reminiscent of the Ignatian spiritual exercises (soul searching, ethical inventories, transparency), and never self-aggrandizing, the tale Zurhellen slowly weaves for this reader is ultimately a neo-epic that will engage readers interested in forms of modern tactical activism as well those who appreciate the return of sincerity in contemporary writing and quest-based narratives that are outward-looking and agitate for social change, unlike the bourgeois romantic adventures of Eat, Pray, Love, a memoir Zurhellen positions his against.
Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z—those among us who have served in the military and not—have been undergoing a series of culture and economic shocks for decades, engineering exhaustion. And American citizens, along with the rest of the world, have been experiencing a deep crisis not only of “values,” but meaning, as individualized to each life, path, and person, for decades as well, caught up in a Darwinian, survivalist, race to the top of the “high road” that would provide immunity from the existential fears that plague us all, be it precarity (food or housing crises), unemployment, lack of access to health and medical care, addiction, loneliness, or mortality.
“You’ve gotta serve somebody,” as Bob Dylan said: there’s no time like the present for a writer such as Zurhellen to emerge, with the rarest of first-person experiences and a kinetic prose style all his own, not with the trending “look at me” story du jour but with a message of devotion to a cause. From Day 1 (after throwing his bloody socks in a motel garbage can and soaking his blistered feet in ice), Zurhellen tackles with genuineness, perseverance, and humility the timeless burning questions of “when can I come home,” and “when will I know I’ve arrived” that haunt any conscious soul and literary character both on the road and in the riveting memoir he wrote.
The narratives he excerpts from his conversations with veterans and citizens on the road remind us that everyone has a story to tell, and that sometimes, by deeply listening to someone (and often as is in the case with veterans, their experiences of war and the trauma that results from combat), you validate their experiences, and help them find a voice and a reason to go on. The Low Road offers its reader an object lesson in compassion, self-sacrifice, and redemption, and a first-person account of the wounded yet hopeful state of America and the urgent need to better care for our veterans beyond the platitudinous stock phrase “Thank you for your service.”
The final chapter where he walks the last few miles home, accompanied by a news team from NBC Nightly News (after reaching over 12 million Americans with coverage from Fox News, the New York Post, and dozens of local TV stations and newspapers across the country), aching but triumphant, having raised over $60,000, and encounters a hero’s welcome at Marist College, where he’s been a beloved English professor for almost two decades, will wring tears from even the most stoic reader. Zurhellen is a writer to champion and an activist to watch and support: every page of this book is wrest from the paradox of a solitary journey surrounded by supporters, and the low road’s crucible of soul, the most enduring and universal theme connecting us all.