Growing up outside a small coal-mining town in central Pennsylvania, poet Crystal Hoffman heard a lot of tall tales from her family of storytellers. “They were not the kind of stories you should tell a kid,” she says. The most popular included her uncles’ lively descriptions of all-night benders, military pranks, and “lots of good prison stories.” Once, she recalls, her grandfather told her a particularly tall tale about the time he won an elephant in a poker game. “And,” Hoffman says, “I believed him.” Their questionable commitment to the truth aside, these stories from Hoffman’s childhood instilled in her a deep respect for the power of narrative.
In search of more stories, Hoffman set out in late March on an ambitious pilgrimage across the country to write a collection of poetry and essays based on the narratives of people she meets along the way. And she’s doing it all on foot.
The roughly three-thousand-mile journey, which Hoffman refers to as the Poetry Pilgrim Project, is dedicated to the idea of “remythologizing” American culture, something she claims has been co-opted by television and advertising. For each person she spends time with on her five-month journey, which will stretch almost from coast to coast, Hoffman will write a poem, she says, to help discover and rewrite the myths of the regions she passes through.
“We have a lot of distractions in the stories that we’re given now,” she says, citing sitcoms and commercials as a basis for comparisons that people feel they need to live up to. It’s the job of the artist to help break down those flawed archetypes, Hoffman says, but many artists, including writers, are caught up in academia or in selling their latest project. “This is my attempt to help others see what their journey could look like,” she says, “to listen to their dreams and hear their stories and help them construct their ideal self.”
Hoffman began her trek in West Virginia on the American Discovery Trail, a series of connected paths and roadways that passes through a number of state parks and forests. She plans to veer off the trail in the Midwest and head toward the Pacific Northwest. Instead of carrying a backpack, she’s pushing her belongings in a modified Runabout stroller, large enough to carry a tent, clothes, and a small cooler for food. For the first few weeks of the trip she also hauled a vintage Olivetti Lettera typewriter, on which she composed her poems; subsequently she decided it was too heavy to keep on the trail. Sometimes Hoffman arranges to stay with friends or with someone she’s met on the road, but most often she pitches her tent in a state park or in someone’s yard (she gets permission first). Sometimes she’s even invited to stay inside the homes of people she meets.
So far, the trip has had its difficulties. Hoffman had planned to set out in mid-March, but was forced to delay her departure for almost ten days because of snow. When she finally did get on the road, the smartphone she’d brought along was without service for days, and several of the maps she’d packed as backup led her down nonexistent roads. She also had to contend with a week of freezing temperatures and one rainy night spent sleeping on what she thought was a baseball diamond but turned out to be a fracking pad. (For Hoffman, who has been outspoken against the coal industry since seeing her hometown woods ravaged by strip mines, this felt like a particularly cruel joke.)
But, she says, the affirmation she’s received from the people she’s met so far has made it all worthwhile. “People have expressed appreciation for the journey. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback that what I’m doing is uplifting.”
Hoffman estimates that she’s composed a poem a day, including pieces for a bluegrass band in Cairo, West Virginia; a woman who runs a food pantry in Little Hocking, Ohio; and a field botanist who sent Hoffman to stay with his family and friends at Ohio’s famed Serpent Mound crater. One poem was written after a young woman Hoffman met outside of Batavia, Ohio, twenty-one-year-old Ariel Saleen Knoechelman, was struck and killed by a car while walking a part of the trail that Hoffman had covered just days earlier. The poem was read at Knoechelman’s memorial service in early May. In general, Hoffman says, the poems she’s writing on the road “are supposed to be understood and appreciated by one person” since they often contain symbols or imagery specific to the person for whom they’re written. Their aim, she says, is to be healing for people, and to bring a sense of connection.
Hoffman is keeping a blog of her pilgrimage (poetrypilgrimproject.wordpress.com), which she updates whenever she can find Internet access. While she originally attempted to fund the project through Kickstarter, her campaign wasn’t successful; she’s now inviting people to donate through a crowdfunding site called Gittip. (A similar literary pilgrimage—the project of New York City blogger Ed Champion, who planned to walk from Brooklyn to San Francisco while writing essays—was recently canceled after its Indiegogo campaign failed to meet its fund-raising goal.) Funding issues aside, Hoffman is pressing on. As of this writing, she’s somewhere in Indiana and heading toward Chicago, with plans to reach the Northwest coast in August. Of the many challenges she’s faced, Hoffman says, one of the most surprising things about the trip has been the connections she’s made with strangers.
“I’ve stayed in the homes of landmen and coal miners, and ended up hearing their stories and empathizing with them,” she says. “I never really thought that possible before.”
Carrie Neill is a writer living in Chicago.
Credit: Shannon Zahnle
Crystal Hoffman, with her modified stroller, stops in Bloomington, Indiana.