Effingham Daily News, Effingham, IL

September 14, 2011

Walking to Learn

Retired anthropologist turns open road into personal classroom

Cathy Thoele
Effingham Daily News

STEWARDSON — Bill Fairbanks is on a long walk to find out more about America’s inhabitants and what drives them.

    “America is an interesting place,” said the retired anthropologist, who walked along Illinois 32 earlier this week as he makes his way cross-country.

    Although Fairbanks is a long way from his home in Los Osos, Calif., he’s still a long way from his final destination in Boston.

    Fairbanks is not in a hurry, though, having started his walk in 2009. The reason for the extended trip? He takes the winters off. But Fairbanks isn’t concerned if he reaches the East Coast city next year or the year after.

    “I’m retired,” he said.

    Neither is he walking for a cause or has an agenda.

    “I needed a challenge. So, I figured I would just walk across the country and study it as I go,” he explained.

    Having taught anthropology for 41 years at Cuesta College, Fairbanks has now put himself in the student’s seat, and one way he studies is by stopping at community meetings, such as school board meetings, along the way.

    Fairbanks has been partly mapping out his trip as he goes after becoming frustrated with a more detailed plan.

    “I tried to figure out everything in too much detail,” he said, adding detours have led him to family and spots with familial significance.

    As he walks by day, Fairbanks has worn out two pairs of shoes and overcome blistery feet, but by night he rests at a hotel with his wife, who picks him up at an agreed-upon location.

    Fairbanks prefers to walk, because it relaxes him.

    “I have time to think when I walk, and you’re in better health when you stop than when you start.” And, the 74-year-old says he is in good health. “I haven’t gotten sore.”

    He’s careful to stay in good health even though he walks along busy roadways, narrow bridges and through tunnels.

    “I walk on the side of the road facing traffic,” he said.

    It’s a lesson Fairbanks learned while growing up on a farm east of Santa Rosa, Calif., where he attended a one-room school.

    Fairbanks also doesn’t listen to music.

    “I have to watch traffic, so I’m in tune to it,” he said.

    To document his trip, Fairbanks jots down his thoughts and e-mails them in daily updates via his laptop to anyone who requests them. But Fairbanks isn’t sure what he is going to do with the information gathered once he is finished. He has been told he should publish the e-mails in a book, but he said he would have to find a publisher first.

    Fairbanks, who is occasionally joined by relatives and friends, sustains himself during the day with water, Gatorade and food he keeps in his backpack, but admitted he does make convenience store stops from time to time. He also is offered the occasional beverage and even money by passers-by.

    “It was raining, and one woman stopped, gave me $10 and told me to get a dry pair of socks, coffee and a piece of pie,” said Fairbanks, adding he isn’t bothered too much by the weather.

    Fairbanks said while people continue to move forward, he has discovered on his journey one ideal has not changed.

    “We have a frontier mentality as Americans. It’s the land of opportunity,” he said.

    But the way citizens are striving to achieve that dream has changed.

    “I increasingly see no one can make it on one job. Motel maids, for example, also work at Wal-Mart or McDonald’s,” he said.

    Another trend Fairbanks has noticed is the domination of pop culture, from economics to symbols, such as the flag.

    “Everyone displays it, but not everyone knows the proper etiquette on how to display it,” he noticed. “It’s amazing the extent pop culture has come to dominate America.”

    Fairbanks said pop culture has even influenced decision-makers. In attending school board meetings across the country, he has come to observe how concerns vary between the state and local levels.

    “The state is concerned with pop-level stuff like teachers’ evaluations where at the local meetings, they’re just concerned with how to keep the lights on,” he said.