Jonathon Stalls spent 242 days walking from the coast of Delaware to the Pacific Ocean. He is also the founder of Walk2Connect – Mile High Ramblers Chapter, a decade-old Meetup group that has linked more than 3,250 members through the spiritual and physical journey of walking. In his book, Walk, Jonathon recounts his adventure, sharing how he overcame the terror of the unknown, how the long walk became an important part of his coming out experience, and the lessons he learned about people and cities. He sits down with David to chat about the power of movement, the profound wisdom he gained from staying with 120 strangers on his journey, pedestrian advocacy, and more.
In this episode, we’re talking to Jonathon Stalls, the organizer of the Meetup group Walk2Connect, the author of WALK, and someone who has made a life of connecting through walking. Put your sneakers on and take a walk.
Jonathon Stalls, welcome.
Thank you. It’s good to be here.
Your story and you as a person are extraordinary. Several years ago, you spent 242 days walking across the US. You’re the real-life Forrest Gump. You’re a walking artist, building deep connections through walking. You came out with your book WALK, which is aptly named. I’m so excited to have you. I’ve got to start with this. From the very beginning, were you one of those kids that walked 10 miles uphill both ways to school and you were a crazy walker? Did you start walking at three months old and your parents were in shock about how you were able to walk? When did this all start?
I wish that was my background. I wish I could say I did that every day. It all started mostly with that long walk in 2010. When I was younger, I mostly was shuttled around in a car. I talk about that in the book too. I describe it as seeing the world go by with my cheek pressed up against the passenger side window and going by everything all the time. I had little glimpses of hiking on trails a little bit once in a while as a kid, but it was mostly by cars. It was 2010 when I decided to recalibrate it.
You decided to do it. Most people don’t decide on a 242-day walk. Was there nothing before that? Did you do a five-day walk prior to this or did you go from zero to 242?
It was pretty much zero. I did have a training walk 2 or 3 months before in a blizzard in Denver. I was like, “I got to do something. Can I even do this?” I walked from Denver to Greeley, which is a two-day walk, in a sense. It was about 18 miles a day. It was hard. I was limping on day two. I was barely making it. It was like, “Do you think you’re going to do this?”
Tell us why you did the walk. What was going on in your life? Why did feel walking was the answer? Talk to us.
For me, it was a very personal journey. I was going through hard stuff. I was going through things that were heavy and complicated. I couldn’t figure them out in the circumstances I was in, or even in my mind. This was part of my coming out experience. This was part of me accepting that I’m a sensitive artist and human being that struggles in more linear spaces and careers. All these things were crashing at once. It was a heavy season that was leading up to this discernment.
There was the movie, Into the Wild, that came out that rocked me, if anybody has seen it. I didn’t relate as much to the running away frame that’s in the movie. There were so many things that the movie was portraying in the midst of this storm where I knew I needed to recalibrate things or it was going to blow. That movie was an interesting opening to things.
A week after that, I was going to college at Metro State in Denver. I stumbled upon a book sale. There was A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins in front of this $0.20 book sale. It was staring right into my gut. I was like, “I don’t care about my classes. I don’t care about my tests. I don’t care about anything else. I’m going to sit on this leathery sticky chair in the library and I’m going to read this thing until the end of time.” I read it and canceled all my classes. I was crying. I was raging.
Your parents must have been so happy about this.
They were super happy, supportive, worried, and all the things. That book was helpful. It gave me some context. It was exactly what I felt I needed to do. Specific to the walking, I was like, “To go in some ways the terror of the unknown. Where am I going to sleep? What am I going to eat? Who am I going to meet?”
Did you plan it out? Did you plan out where you were going to sleep and eat or was it like, “Let’s see what life has in store for me?”
I was like, “Drop me off the Delaware Coast. I’m going to walk West and I’ll figure this out.” That was part of the draw even though I was terrified. I talk in frames a lot when I think about and reference those early days. “In the rite of passage,” you maybe heard that term. I had a lot of things inside of me that were like, “I don’t have what it takes to feel strong. I don’t have what it takes to feel that I could survive the unknowns day after day.”
That was hard for me. It was hard for me to carry. I hated myself related to my sexuality and sexual orientation. These were dark things that I was struggling with. I knew I wanted a slow, unhurried and raw experience that would move me into a place where I could at least try to finish and be like, “I have what it takes. I walked across the desert. I walked across the Rocky Mountains. I have what it takes.”
When you started in Delaware, where did you end the walk?
Walking has this humble nature to it because it’s moving around with your humble frame, whether it’s on foot or in a wheelchair.
I started in Lewes, Delaware, and then finished in San Francisco.
You did it. You completely walked across America. That is what Lewis and Clark did. I always like to find out about experiences relative to people’s expectations. What was one negative surprise where you expected this and it was worse than you expected? Not everything works out. Also, tell me something that was serendipitous where you couldn’t believe it and it was positive. I’m sure there are many of those. Share on both sides.
There are two things. I can’t choose one over the other, so I’m going to throw two out. One was the mental game. It was over and over not knowing where I’m going to stay and not knowing what is around the next corner or over the next horizon. It’s the journey of mental toughness and working through how you nurture your mind in an experience like this. Walking across the US is roads and towns. It’s not a trail where you have the turn-by-turn.
The logistics, figuring out where to go and how to go, and taking the next step presented a lot of challenges.
It was 18 miles in the humidity, sweating, and not sure where you were going to sleep day after day. There were seasons where the mind was like, “No more.” The second thing that I want to share that’s connected to this is I was walking a lot of roads or a lot of side roads and through towns because I wanted that. I wanted to connect with people in communities. This is a part of what a lot of my creative work became and it’s included in the book. It’s the harm of being a pedestrian alongside so much traffic and high-speed car orientation throughout our towns. I did not prepare for that at all. You have the mental toughness of like, “Can I get through this humidity? Where am I going to sleep? What’s going on?” You add the barrage of the constant physical cattle trucks spraying you. This is why a lot of people were like, “Get on the trail.”
That’s a different experience being on the trail versus meeting people and being in communities. I want to hit on communities, but let’s talk about some of the positive surprises. I would love to go into some of the people that you met in the communities you were a part of. We are all about keeping connected. Let’s hear about some of the positive sides too.
By far, the top of the top and what I was not at all prepared for is the literal hour-by-hour stumbling upon everyday people, strangers, and people from all walks of life. I knew I would meet interesting people. I knew I would make connections. I stayed with 120 strangers when I was on this journey. It blew me away to be approaching the community, intersections, gas stations, towns, and people stopping and checking on me.
Walking has this humble nature to it. It’s our humble frame moving around, whether it’s on foot or in a wheelchair. I had the time and the attention to stumble upon hundreds of people who were so curious about my journey. They would share things with me. They would move with me, host me, throw lasagnas out of the fire trucks, or throw food out the windows as they were passing by. I had people pull over and give me massages on the side of the highway.
Did you say to someone, “Is it okay for me to stay over?” Did people volunteer? How did the conversation come up to stay with 120 different people?
It was all the above. I knew I wanted something to help move me outside of getting deep all the time inside my own stuff. I raised awareness for an organization called Kiva, which helps with micro-lending. It’s an amazing socially responsible and awesome group. I was working with that. In some ways, I would reach out to some groups as I approached towns to do these talks for students or groups. Sometimes, that would lean into a host family. Most of the time, I call it the evolution of trust. It surfaces and grows over time.
You’re right. A lot of times, people would come up and they’d be like, “Do you need anything? Can we help you?” I’m like, “I’m looking for a place to stay.” I was very intentional. I’d be like, “Can I pitch my tent on your property? I’ll be out first thing in the morning.” It’s a low barrier. Nearly every time, as I’d be setting up or as we’d be talking, they would be like, “Come have dinner with us,” or “Forget the tents. Have our bedroom.” It so often would grow into that place of compassion and generosity. It happened everywhere from all backgrounds. It was profound.
I wouldn’t be surprised if many people who truly lacked means were sometimes even more generous than people that may have had significant means. That reality always blows my mind.
There were so many things related to class and even race stuff, thinking I’m a White man moving through these spaces. Would I be as welcome? I was being constructive and honest. Often, people who would host me join me the next morning for maybe the first hour. They walk with me into their community. They would be like, “Can I join you as you come into our town?” I was very intentional to bring things like that up in our conversations. I was on that journey that I want to grow into being comfortable talking about the uncomfortable in a way that can be nurtured. It’s not pushing us further away, but in a way that can be held by walking.
I wouldn’t have had all those words for it then, but that’s what was happening. I was so intentional that I’m on this. I’m very intentional. I’m walking to shed the bullshit. I want to be out. I want to love who I am. I want to lean into the hard things. I still want to try to lean into trust, love and connection. How can we do this?
If I may, while you were walking, was there an evolution in terms of you sharing with people, “I’m gay.” In the beginning, it was maybe less and as it went on. Is that what happened?
It happened. It was intentional because I’m just new. It was so much easier. It felt so much more spacious when we were moving and walking together. Our bodies are moving forward. I always frame it like we’re under this huge open sky. We’re moving. We’re in motion. We’re not in the stuckness inside of walls. We’re in this huge, unknown universe, in a sense. At least to me, it felt so much easier to go into complex and more honest things while we were moving. It happened all the time.
After 15 minutes of walking, your brain will create new neuropathways that break apart that feeling of stuckness.
I think so much better when I’m walking. I’m a better listener when I’m walking. My wife will sometimes say, “Let’s talk about something.” I’m like, “Can we go for a walk and talk?” I know if we go for a walk and talk, I am going to be more engaged. I’ll be able to be better at conversation and listening if we do that.
My wife and I take walks almost every evening. We were taking a walk and there was another couple taking a walk. We said, “It’s good to see you. We never see you walking.” They said, “We felt like we were you guys when we started walking. We see you walking everywhere in the mornings and evenings.” What is it about walking that is so healthy from a brain standpoint? It’s healthy physically. We know that, but how does it affect your brain, your chemistry, and everything else to such a great extent?
It’s endless. I love hearing that with you and your patterns. It’s the clarity that you’re describing, the lightness, and the capacity to be available to whoever you’re moving with in a way that maybe doesn’t show up in other spaces. It’s so important when I frame this stuff out or in the book too. It’s not just by chance. It’s not just like, “It so happens that walking helps me.” This is science. This is biology.
There’s another author and neuroscientist, Shane O’Mara. He has a great book called In Praise of Walking. It’s a full book on the neuroscience of how our brains and our bodies are shaped to move the way we’re made to. We think about evolution. We think about being upright. Even if you’re on a wheelchair-powered scooter, there is motion and bilateral movement. Your eyes are scanning left to right. Some people will reference EMDR treatment. It’s a therapy very specific to trauma and things that are heavy inside of our hearts and bodies where we store stress and heaviness consciously and subconsciously.
The thing that I’ll name without getting too nerdy here is the thing that I love to share. After about 15 to 20 minutes, your brain actively starts to create new neuro-pathways. After 15 to 20 minutes, you’re moving and breaking apart things that are stuck, thoughts and things that feel heavy. I always describe it as a shedding of skin or shedding of things that feel heavy and aren’t moving. Those can be thoughts, fears, or complex things you’re trying to discern in a relationship or at work. It’s not instant solving things but it breaks them up. Physiologically, you’re shedding it. Your brain is actively creating new neuro-pathways at the same time after 15 to 20 minutes.
That’s what you’re feeling when all of a sudden, you have more space to listen and be available to what your partner is trying to communicate or say. You get to be available to sunset or the birds, and even your own aches, dreams, and tensions within. It is what we’re made to be doing. It reveals itself in those ways all the time.
It’s completely biological. COVID was beyond tragedy in this world for so many people, but there are bright spots that come from crisis and tragedy. One of them is we’re walking more during COVID and continue to walk more during COVID. When COVID hit, because I’m such a walker, I created a WhatsApp group with my ten closest friends. It was called Six Feet from David. It was when people couldn’t walk next to each other in the early days because they were afraid.
I would send a post on the WhatsApp group and be like, “Who wants to walk now?” I would go on walks with random people all the time. We continue that. I still have a friend who reached out to me. He’s like, “When are we going to go for a walk?” We never would have done that prior to COVID. The world is finding positive ways of doing what you have known to do for so long.
That’s so good to hear in friendship, relationships and colleagues. Many people have informally enforced walking or rolling. It’s not just by foot. It’s on a wheelchair as well. We have movement meetings or walking meetings. We’re trying to enforce that as an actual tool kit so you’re maximizing creativity, connection, and all these things.
I saw a conference room with six treadmills where people were having meetings. They would be walking on the treadmills during the meeting and they will be able to be more creative. You started a Meetup group after the major walk called Walk2Connect. You continued the group for ten years. You’ve had so many different events. Tell us about the group. Tell us about the type of events you have. This is the Meetup show, so I would love to hear more.
I’m so grateful. Back to that initial question of what was so surprising in a positive way, the connections I was making with people were profound on all levels. They were not just quick connections. I had people join me, walk with me, and move with me for hours, sometimes days at a time. People who I stayed with and moved with flew out to San Francisco to finish with me as I reached the beach.
The detail that was tangible for me though, and this is after my long walk, I was like, “I have to keep moving for my own health and well-being.” It’s moving in this way. I start the book with walking as my greatest teacher. I want to continue to learn from nature and landscapes in the outside world and what comes up on the inside or what can move between another being or a group of people. I want to continue learning this way. I need to commit to this, but how do I help try and experiment with bringing others into this?
Previous to the long walk, I’ve worked in some community organizing stuff and some nonprofit stuff. I was working in refugee resettlement for a little bit. I’m an artist. That’s my home. I had all this energy that was at least already starting to hold space for connections and creative expression. I put all that together. I knew I wanted a container for how to make connecting between people easier and for people to find events. The frame of Meetup from the beginning was a literal connection. You feel connected to be a part of a connection. You feel connected to a community. You feel seen by people. It is a no-brainer that I’m just experimenting with this tool. I called the Meetup, Walk2Connect because I want to focus it on human-to-human. It was very simple.
It’s not like Walk2Exercise. It’s Walk2Connect.
This is about connection. We’re going to nurture the connection. Meetup does a great job of reaching out to these different local ZIP codes and then drawing in an initial audience of people who are interested, which was great. My first Meetup after the long walk was a 26-mile walk. Nobody showed up. Let’s be real. I’m like, “Let’s do 24 for the next time. Clearly, 26 is a marathon. Let’s bring it down a little bit.” Nobody showed up for the 24, so I’m like, “I’m going to do 18.” I did post an event for 18 and I had three people show up.
Eighteen is a lot of miles. What’s the sweet spot? Is it 5 miles or 3 miles?
Walking is your greatest teacher. You can learn a lot from nature and landscapes in the outside world.
It ranges. After I started working it all out and testing and teasing things out, more people started joining. More people were like, “Can we do less mileage? Can we do something a little more frequent?” I was like, “I learned so much on my long walk. I’m learning so much right now hosting all these events. How can I experiment with training people?”
We then started doing training where we would call them Walking Movement Leaders. It was all about maximizing connection and training people to use Meetup in the events. It became an organization and then it became a co-op. It was hundreds of events and hundreds of leaders hosting events all over the place. Our training and our ethos were maximizing connection through unhurried movement.
You can imagine. We had to close as an organization with the pandemic, but we’re still a community. We’re still hosting events. We’re still doing things. We had these categories of fitness and exploratory if you’re stopping and going, and doing some education or a theme. We had gentle for unhurried pace where you can take your time. Our main was conversational, which was 2 miles an hour. We’re moving and we’re centering the health and connection of everybody in the group.
It was amazing and it is amazing. We’re still doing it. I’m so grateful for all the relationships and what happens. Everything you and I talked about as we started this conversation is related to feeling more freed up to be with people and to be available for a more genuine connection. The first weekly event on Meetup was every Tuesday morning. We call it our Park Hills Sunrise Walk in East Denver. We’ve been doing this since 2011. The people who are on this walk are in each other’s will. They are like a part of marriage ceremonies. They are house-sitting and doing the things that the community could and should be doing as we think about.
These are not casual relationships. These are lifelong relationships. That’s amazing. Can you share some best practices for someone who’s going to lead a Meetup group or any group around walking? What’s some advice you would give? I’ve read about a couple of things that you’ve suggested. Why don’t you share them? If you don’t share a couple of things that I’m thinking of, then I could add them on. What are 2, 3, 4 or 5 different suggestions you would give?
I’ll say three that come up right away. We always start and finish our events in a circle. It seems basic and simple, but it’s knowing that we’re a moving ecosystem of people. We don’t leave people behind. There are plenty of Meetups and events where you’re like, “Good luck. We’re going.” For this to hone in on connection and help build trust and build community within your collective and what you’re inviting, we’re starting and finishing in what we call introduction circles. If there is time, it’s not just names. It’s a little bit about, “Why are you here?” It’s a repeating and recurring event. If it’s just the regulars, then you may not need that much time in the beginning. If you have just one new person, then you do that whole thing. You care for that one person who took a big risk to move into a regular group.
I went on a Meetup hike. This is so true for hikers as well. We started off in a circle. Each person introduced themselves and talked a little bit about their background. It made the entire hike more enjoyable because we could then relate different things that we had heard to different people that we are potentially walking with. Go into the second one.
The second one has been so helpful to learn over time. It’s always imperfect. It’s never going to come across clean as you experiment with doing it. It’s experimenting with how you break up the pairings of people in a movement journey. Sometimes, you get stuck and you don’t want to maybe move with the same person the whole time. That’s not a negative thing. It doesn’t need to be seen as a negative.
I always find to maximize the connection with a collective. How can you break it up a little bit as a host? For example, on a lot of these walks, we might be 15, 20 or 30 minutes into the event. We’re at an intersection. We’re all waiting to cross the street, but have a couple of points where everybody can catch up, in general, for health and pace. You’re helping people feel connected. They don’t have to just accommodate constantly at the fastest pace. Have rest points and breakpoints.
At those break points, encourage people to change it up. Let’s mix up who you’re moving with if you want to. There is no pressure. It’s okay if you need a break from being talky and chatty on a walk if you want to chill and know that you’re moving with the group. That leads to the third thing that I was going to share. It’s the permissions at the beginning. I find that giving permission at the beginning is so helpful.
We all range in the introvert-extrovert spectrum. Sometimes, those ranges change in a day. Sometimes, we’ve had a hard day, so we want to connect with our group. That may not be in talking form. You’re giving permission as a host to say, “Welcome to our space. Don’t feel any pressure to be overly social. If you want to pull back, hang back, walk with our group, and take it in but be in a shared space, that’s cool. If you need to back out of a conversation or choose into one, do it.” Those permissions are huge. You’re weaving connections.
Many groups, not just walking groups or hiking groups, can benefit from those three suggestions. I hope our many Meetup audiences are taking note of how that could apply to their groups. You made a decision when you were in college. I’m sure your parents were like, “What is Jonathon doing?” Your friends said the same thing, but I can imagine that the people that you love in life and the people who love you are so deeply proud of what you have been doing.
I read about some of the focus that you’ve had on the elderly, the handicapped, and refugees. I’m blown away and amazed by how you’re taking this passion of yours. You’re doing so much good. Please share a little bit more about any of those groups or all of those groups if we have time. With the elderly and handicapped, share a little bit more about each, please.
Thank you for that question. The first chapter in the book is called Walking as Human Dignity. When I started my long walk in 2010, I had come from working in refugee resettlement. I had this huge education. I was working in both development and helping to fundraise, but I was also working in intake. I was often the first person a lot of the families would see as they were relocating here to the US from all over the world. There were all the things that come with that, just the shock of our culture and the differences.
As I did the long walk, my radar around transportation was so heightened because of what I had experienced and what I was trying to help the families with as they would relocate before I did this walk. I was always thinking about their experience. What would it be like? How would they get around? That is always on my radar.
I haven’t owned a car since. I had a car for a year and a half when I was caring for my grandfather, but I’m primarily a pedestrian. I use the term harm a lot, but it’s an opportunity too. It’s an invitation around how unsafe and inaccessible so many of our communities are for people who have no choice but to be walking. I’m always weaving this into the training that we do with Meetup events and leaders. As you’re out moving for recreation, connection or health, be an advocate. Be of the mind. Filter this pedestrian safety framework. How are people, in general, able to move safely the way they’re made to with dignity and care?
Move the way you’re made to alongside people who have radically different experiences than you do.
I think about bus stop benches and shelters, and safe intersections that have plenty of time for elders and anyone in a wheelchair to move safely to the other side of the road, get to the park or get to the grocery store. What is it like to get to the grocery store? Where is low-mixed income housing in your community? What is it like to get to bus routes and practical destinations if you don’t have a car? There are millions of people that don’t drive for legal, financial, and medical reasons. It is hard.
I have a project called Pedestrian Dignity. It’s a very raw story-telling project around the vantage point of what it’s like to move through practical spaces as a pedestrian. The beginning of that chapter, Walking as Human Dignity, is weaving in this. In a lot of my work, it’s not car shaming. It’s not saying, “Get rid of all cars.” It’s taking an honest humble look at something. When we think about Meetup, we think about the connection. It’s something that is separating us in so many ways from each other.
We were more naturally moving the way we’re made to alongside people who have radically different experiences than we do, I was thinking specifically about your question on refugees potentially. We’re able to maximize our capacity to listen to their stories and hear their truths and what they’ve gone through. It’s all these things if our built environments would make that more of a priority so that we can more naturally stumble upon this universe of lived experience.
The beauty of it is listening to the stories and you’re not distracted. When you’re sitting, you can pull out that phone. When you’re walking, it’s a lot harder. When I walk, I leave my phone at home. I don’t want to take my phone with me. I never know what time it is. It’s terrible. I purposely try not to take my phone with me when I’m taking a walk because I don’t want that distraction. You created a movement around movement. It’s exceptional. I need to move to the rapid-fire questions. It’s going to be a quick question and I need a quick answer. You can have a five-second answer for each one. Here we are moving based on the movement on movement. When was the first time you saw yourself as a leader?
It’s probably throughout, during, and certainly after that long walk. That’s where it felt honest and genuine.
When you’re doing something connected to who you are and what you’re passionate about, that’s when leadership can happen. If you could access a time machine and go anywhere you want in the world at any point in time, where are you going?
I have an amazing UFO story in the book. It’s in the high desert of Nevada, walking across Highway 50. They call it The Loneliest Highway. Those early mornings where the wild horses would be within sight and the mist would float over the blue sage, I would go there. I would go there all the time.
I have got to go there. I’m putting it on my bucket list to hit Nevada’s Lonely Highway. Speaking of the bucket list, what is on your bucket list? Name one thing that’s left on the bucket list.
It’s walking-related. I don’t know where or how, but I would love to spend months moving along near and in constant proximity to a beach or a coast. I would love to have uninterrupted walking time for months on a coast or near a coast somewhere. That feels important in a bucket list space.
I’ve heard Italy has some nice coasts and some nice coastal towns so perhaps one day. I imagine that could be quite stunning. This is the last question. You have so many years ahead of you. You’re doing so much good. I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen in the decades ahead. What do you most want to be remembered by?
The thousands of people that I’ve moved with at 1 to 3 miles an hour and the stories that they’ve shared with me are so precious. To be known as someone who has so genuinely or tried imperfectly to witness what’s going on inside of another is an important thing for me.
They say fast is slow and slow is sometimes the fastest. Helping people to slow down can be the fastest way to drive learning. Unfortunately, this episode went very fast for me. I wanted to thank you so much for being an incredible Meetup organizer and an incredible person for driving connections between people. I can’t wait to read the book that came out. I’m going to go out and buy it. Thank you so much again.
Thank you so much. I’m honored to be here. I’m grateful for your questions and time. This was so good.
In case you couldn’t tell, I enjoyed that conversation. I’m excited about taking a walk. Hopefully, you are too. Here are some of the takeaways. In 15 to 20 minutes, our brain neuro-transmitters start growing and building. It’s biologically valuable. Some of his best practices were around finding other people to walk with, and giving people permission to walk, talk or take some time for themselves. Finally, being comfortable with being uncomfortable and how all of us can grow from that experience. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and leave a review. Check out my book, Decide and Conquer. Remember, let’s keep connected because life is better together.
- Jonathon Stalls
- A Walk Across America
- In Praise of Walking
- Pedestrian Dignity
- Decide and Conquer
Last modified on September 16, 2022