Sunday, February 25, 2018

Peter Jenkins, A Walk Across America

It was a lazy weekend.  Cold weather kept me indoors reading.  I'm trying hard to get my Amazon reviews done.  My Alaska road trip created a backlog from which I've yet to recover.  I have 100 reviews of items to review, and 50 of them are books.

Somewhere in all this online Googling and reminiscing, I read an old review I had written about Peter Jenkins' "A Walk Across America."  The book was published in 1977 but I didn't read it until 2009.  I first saw the book "A Walk Across America" in the PX in Kaiserslautern and wanted to read the book in 1977.  Even as a 17-year-old I was fascinated with the idea of walking long distance and didn't know many who also had such ideas.  I finally read that first Jenkins book while in New Jersey in the early 2000s.  I had borrowed a copy from the post library. 

Jenkin's book was one of several books that inspired me to hike and travel once I retired from the army.  John Steinbeck's "Travels with Charlie" got me interested in wanting to see Montana and William Least Heat-Moon's "Blue Highways" inspired me to explore more of our backroads and experience the Lewis-and-Clark trail.  It's been ten years since I took off my uniform (no regrets there!) and I'm still traveling and hiking.

Jenkins was a new college graduate in his first book, disillusioned with the country, and decided to walk from New York City with his malamute dog Cooper.  Cooper was killed in a truck accident in Tennessee.  In New Orleans he meets Barbara Jo Pennell, a Christian woman whom he falls in love with and marries.  Together they continue their walking journey and co-write "The Walk West," their adventure walking from Louisiana to Oregon.

I read both books.  The first one is still the classic which shot Jenkins to fame as a travel writer, even though Barbara did most of the writing.  In the second book Jenkins is honest about his impatience with Barbara's slower pace, especially once she's pregnant and crossing the Cascades.  I didn't like how he treated her, so it was no surprise to find out that the 1976 marriage ended in a bitter divorce in 1987.

The problem with having that first big hit being the first book out of seven is that subsequent books don't quite measure up.  Jenkins since then has written about sailing around the Gulf of Mexico, walking across China and exploring Alaska, but the reviews to those books don't measure up to his Walk Across America book.  He's now married to third wife Rita Jorgensen and they live in Spring Hill, TN.  He has six kids.  His older kids with Barbara, Luke, Julianna and Jedidiah, are now adults.  Jedidiah took time off as a lawyer to ride a bicycle from Oregon to Patagoniain 2014 and is an active social media poster.  He seems close to his mom and mentions her occasionally on his Instagram account.

What is Peter doing now? Peter Jenkins has a Facebook page but most of his posts seem to talk about his earlier years, when Walk Across America made him the country's first travel writer.  Even the photos of himself go back to the 1970s when he was young and blond. He doesn't engage with his 6800+ followers.  He doesn't sound like a happy man.  He mentions his 1957 Chevy Station Wagon.  His latest book is due out this year and talks about his road trips in the Chevy reliving old memories and seeing people he met years ago who are still alive. I'm interested in reading that.

So why am I so interested in Peter Jenkins?  He was one of the first travel writers and I liked his first book.  I was disappointed to read about his second divorce.  His later books all seemed forced on him as subjects by his editor and were never the hits like his first book.  I should have read "Looking for Alaska" before heading out on my road trip last summer, but a synopsis on Amazon tells me he went up there to live in Seward with wife #3 so he can get paid to do crazy things around the state and write about it all.   There are other more engaging books about Alaska since his 2001 book about Alaska. Forced travel for the sake of getting paid never sound as honest as spontaneous walks across a vast country.  I found this to be true for Bill Bryson's books as well.

Barbara Jo Pennell is the one I admire.  She helped edit and write the first two books.  She gets no credit for the first book.  She mentions in an interview that that was Peter's journey alone.  She is credited for writing the second book.  Another joint book published in 1985 talks about their Christian life together, but that didn't sell well.  The divorce was a bitter one and she was left to raise the kids while Peter went off with wife #3 on new adventures.

I got carried away Googling the Jenkins.  Reading about his life brought me back to my own wanderlust. At 5pm I finally took the dogs out to walk a 4-mile loop around the southern portion of Ranchos San Pedro's dirt paths.  It was a bit warmer today than yesterday, but it only reached 58F.  Another two-day storm is due our way mid-week. (Interview starts at 2:39 minutes)


  1. any idea about the newest book..???

    1. I agree with your opinion of his second divorce. Barbars Jo gave up so much to go on this walk.
      What happened to Rebeka? I, too, read both books and feel his first book was the best.

    2. I was wondering about Rebekah, also.

    3. I THINK Rebeka is trying to become a writer in her own right. She might have some things published locally where she lives but nothing nationwide. I also think she just got married within the last year or two. Her brother, Jedidiah, came out with a book and it is as honest as you will find. He talks about his dad, Peter, being more or less a horndog and how Peter's adultery was the main reason of his divorce from Barbara and Rita. Peter is now getting married to his 4th wife who he claims is his "soul mate" which is giving at least his son major stress as he wondered what that made his own mother to him which is a good point. I am also VERY anxious to see his new book as I have kind of wondered over the years what has happened to the people he met on the walk. I know many of them have probably passed away before he even left for this book since I believe they were pretty old when he first met them in the 70's and that 40 plus years ago! Hope it comes out soon

  2. I'm still waiting for the release of Peter's latest book, too. The thing is, it's a journey he went on six or seven years ago. I'm still looking forward to being able to read it, though.

    Peter's fans seem to feel connected to him in some way. It's either his style of writing or the editor's work in his books. Either way, there seems to be some kind of connection, or bond, with this ordinary guy living in middle Tennessee.

    I've enjoyed rereading his first works, A Walk Across America and The Walk West, but I also really enjoyed Along The Edge of America. Perhaps it is because I have my own love of the Gulf shore, especially in the National Park Service's Padre Island National Seashore near Corpus Christ. My wife and I visit the island every year, tent camping in the park's campground.

  3. Thanks for sharing this synopsis on Peter Jenkins and his wife Barbara. I agree with you and admire her as well. She should get more credit than she does. Thanks again for sharing, this was an informative read. =]

  4. It is as if we, followers and readers of Peter Jenkins' books, have been ghosted by Peter. He has not posted on his Facebook page in over two years. The last we read, he was working on his latest book. Then...nada. Zilch. We wonder if he is ill? Did he decide to give up writing? I was so looking forward to his latest book. I find this very strange and worrisome. We are hoping if he is ill or injured, some member of his family would post a quick update of sorts.

  5. There's very little background info available about this whole family besides their writing. Very "control the narrative" feel to it. I tripped over your blog trying to learn more about the people behind the writing--thank you for your synopsis.

  6. Peter came through my city when he was promoting a book, he was married to Rita at the time. He is a complete "horndog"as one of the comments here mentioned. Peter is a storyteller, the best kind, one who could sell ice to Eskimos – which he may have also tried. I feel for his kids and everyone who has ever tried to love him. He's a feather, blowing in the wind.

  7. Is anyone aware of any sexually oriented criminal activity or charges against him?