Christopher Andrews set out on a 3,000 mile journey across America on foot to encourage people everywhere to practice the art of conversation. We spoke to Chris as he crossed the desert on his way to California. He is currently on the last leg of his journey. Follow along at www.lets talkusa.com.
Where did the idea for the “Let’s Talk” project come from?
I got the idea in my final year of university. I was so consumed by what was happening on social media during my final year of college that it was becoming ingrained in my routine., Whenever I had free time, or even when I was spending time with others, I was pulling my phone out and draining hours into it — I would just wake up, roll over, and browse. I found myself becoming so connected to my phone that I was disconnecting from the people around me.
My call to action came when I began to question the effect this was having on me. [Smart phones] are amazing tools — they allows us to communicate across countries and continents at the click of a button and I appreciate what they offer us. But I remember thinking there had to be another side to this issue. What happens when a child begins to replace face-to-face interactions with digital ones?
So I started to do research. I learned about Sheri Turkle’s research at MIT about the effects of phone usage on patience and empathy. From there, I did more research on conversation as a skill and an art.
In the midst of this digital boom, being able to hold a coherent conversation remains one of the most powerful skills.
I wanted to tell people, “You’ve got to practice and strike a balance in how you use your phone!” Our quality of life is at stake here.
How did that realization turn into the project you’re currently undertaking?
All of that was floating around my head and I thought, “How can I make a difference?” I thought maybe if I went on this crazy journey, I could grab people’s attention and then use that as a vehicle to spread my message. From there, I began the process of branding the trip and making [my message] powerful and clear. I talked to my classmates, I got sponsors — which was a long process but made it all possible. I ran a campaign to raise some money, and all of a sudden I was leaving on my journey from Washington DC.
How did you build a strategy for intentional conversation?
When I started, it was a long process. I was terrified, really. When you’re in a rural town, you rely wholly on the people around you. Along my trip, I have knocked on people’s doors maybe 90 percent of the time and asked to pitch my tent on their property. For the first couple months, my heart would race and I was nervous to talk to people.
But eventually, I began to let go of that uncertainty and rely on conversation. Almost everyone was willing to talk and say hello. If you put yourself out there and let go of that uncertainty, the whole world can open up to you. I’ve built friendships on this trip because I got used to addressing that fear.
As I became more comfortable, it became easier to get to know communitie,s get a feel for what life is like for these people, and what their perspective is.
That’s very much my message: you have to practice conversation. It’s scary. And it might not be the easiest way to send a message. Texting is easy, but what we gain when we put ourselves out there and get in the habit of facing that fear and knocking on doors, we get used to it. Our fears will calm. Our comfort and connections will skyrocket and that’s a beautiful thing. Now, when I knock on a door, I’m not as scared, and I really feel like I can connect with people a lot faster.
What were some of your goals and intentions for communication when you were planning this journey?
I think it depends on where I am in the country. If I’m going through a city, I set high standards for my interaction levels because there are a lot of people to talk to! When I go into a city, I make an effort to go into a populated cafe or square to interview people. For the last few days I’ve been walking through hundreds of miles of desert without a town, so I do the best I can. If I see someone on a bike, I’ll yell to them “Hey! Come on over!”
Let’s talk about your method. How do you start conversations?
The conversation usually starts with me explaining what I’m doing, but I like to open it up to get a feel for who they are and what they are doing. I try to ask a question that opens up a conversation. I want to hear about their life and how their experiences might connect to the “Let’s Talk” message.
I was just on Apache reservation land and came across a protest for a mine that was opening on the Apache land. I got to talk to a person who spent a lot of time there. One of the questions I asked was, “You can support these causes monetarily, but what drives you to put in all the effort to drive across the country to be here in person?” That question got him to think about what his physical presence means. His answer was beautiful, too. He talked about how, when you are in a place and really standing with people and seeing the land, everything matters so much more. When you are relying on and interacting with people, it’s strong.
What have you learned from traveling through such different parts of the United States?
There are a lot of things that surprise me. The levels of generosity are absolutely incredible — I was staying on people’s lawns every night. I was given food, shelter, money and I was overwhelmed by that generosity.
In a time when our country is very divided, it was very interesting to go to a part of the country that has a very specific argument. Most of the South voted in support of Trump. I think a big part of this trip for me has been experiencing true empathy from people in places I had never been before, the South especially. I was given so much by the people I met, and I really felt a deep connection with people there. Maybe I didn’t agree with their political views but, at the end of the day, this journey is not political. But, in a time when the US is very divided, I am feeling very connected to both sides. There’s a lot on social media that divides people on the Internet. For me, having the chance to connect with both sides and rely on the community as a whole was a very beautiful opportunity. It made me realize that we all have much more in common than we think we do.
When we go out and interact with people, rely on them, and get to know them, we can easily put ourselves in their shoes.
What did you learn about the physical space of the United States?
I learned that the desert is way bigger than I thought it was! Texas is way bigger than I thought it was, too. I went into Texas two weeks before Thanksgiving and left on February 1st. It’s a huge, huge part of the country.
I’m much more in tune with the seasons and my natural surroundings now. I’m sleeping outside almost every night, so I experience the seasons very directly. The beginning of my trip was hot as could be — I would wake up sweating in 100 degree weather in Virginia and eastern Tennessee. It was really hilly and my body hadn’t gotten in a rhythm yet. So I remember that part of the journey by how physically difficult it was. Then, it flattened out as I went down through the Mississippi Delta — there are a lot of hidden treasures in Mississippi. I stumbled across a Buddhist monastery and spent a couple days with Vietnamese monks, which was pretty amazing. I meditated with them in the middle of the night, slept with them, and learned about their lives.
Then I went into Arkansas just before the cold came in. I had a lot of luck with people helping me out with places to stay. Then came Texas and that was the entrance to the desert. Everything west of Dallas is dry and it’s like that until you hit the Pacific Ocean. I’m very in touch with sunlight and darkness, weather, temperature, moisture — all of that. I can paint a picture of different parts of the country based solely on those elements.
Have you altered your route according to tips and tricks you learned on the road?
Yeah! I trust local advice way more than my ability to Google something. So I always ask people I meet for advice about my route.
One good example was in Nashville. I was going to head straight across Tennessee through Memphis, but someone I met told me there’s a scenic road called the Natchez Trace. It’s unbelievably beautiful. No trucks allowed, perfectly paved roads through the hills of Tennessee, and it goes straight from Nashville all the way down to the corner of Alabama and into Mississippi. For me, it was a two week hiatus of camping in lawns and I could just camp in the woods. I was meeting bikers and didn’t have to worry about trucks and traffic. It really changed my whole trip because it rerouted me through Alabama and Mississippi, where I saw all those beautiful places — the monastery, the schools. I rely on local perspectives more often than not. Definitely more than my phone. My route is not a straight line on a map.
Have you found any hidden gems along your path?
Oxford, Mississippi, was a cool town. I spoke to a bunch of students from Ole Miss there and there was a buzzing energy. When I arrived I was like, “Wow! This is a super historic and lively place.” And there are tons of small towns I’ve fallen in love with. Baldwyn, Mississippi, is a super tiny town but within a few hours, I was invited to a birthday party. People were so welcoming. Nashville was also really memorable.
But I am really enjoying the desert right now. It’s stunning. A few days ago, I joined up with a support vehicle who will be driving behind me until Palm Springs. In a way, I’m experiencing the trip a bit differently because I can put all my energy into walking and talking instead of worrying about finding a place to sleep and food and water.
How can people put this project into practice to scale in their daily lives?
In a general sense, this project is about acting with intention.
I have some guidelines: no phone at dinner, and no phone right when you wake up. Those are times in which you can find a lot of peace. You can enjoy those moments of quiet and the presence of those around you. Ask yourself, “Do I really need my phone right now?” A practical tip is to put all your most distracting apps on the last page of your phone in a folder titled, “Do I really need this?” After you’ve done that, you automatically sift out the instinctual visits to social media. If you hide those apps and make them a bit harder to get to, you cut that instinct, and give yourself a moment to reconsider.
Another general rule of thumb is to ask yourself if you are using your phone as a tool or as a way of life. There’s a fine line. I like to use my phone as a tool to spread a positive message, reach out to a friend, or share something important. But sometimes we spend hours just scrolling mindlessly. The line between tool and lifestyle is a good line to keep in mind. The overarching idea of active intention is remembering how valuable time with others can be.
It requires practice, but building in-person relationships can bring so much value to our lives.