3,506 miles: man who walked America in 1979 tells story through new book

Steve Foust travels America in 1979
Posted at 6:15 PM, Mar 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-11 06:52:27-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Some people are born storytellers. Steve Foust is one of them. There's one story that's taken him more than 40 years to finally tell.

"For literally decades, people would come up to me and say, 'you're a storyteller, and all you do is tell stories, and you haven't told this one,'" Foust said.

It was the late 1970s. Foust was teaching at a junior high in Indiana.

"I was showing a film in class one day about early colonial pioneers," Foust said. "Some kid sitting in the back made the crack, 'well, if you think it's so cool, why don't you go do it?' I looked at him quite seriously and said, 'you know, it's really not a bad idea.'"

Foust decided he was going to walk across America. What did his friends think?

"You're nuts," he laughed. "Quit my job, sold my car, moved out of my house, headed down to North Carolina and walked west."

That began a journey by foot across states, glimpses of America. Everywhere was another chance to collect a story to one day tell.

"I really felt that the American people were giving and good and generous and helpful," Foust said. "In my mind, I wanted to prove that."

Foust found that helpful spirit as soon as he made it to Tennessee, through a political operative.

"He essentially said, 'hey, we’ve got the whole network set up all the way across the state, we’ll give you any kind of help or assistance you need,'" he said.

The candidate? A flannel-clad Lamar Alexander.

"I basically followed the same route that Lamar Alexander did when he walked across the state during his campaign effort," Foust said.

It only made sense when Foust made it to Nashville, he'd end up at the capitol building.

By this point, Alexander had been sworn in as governor and invited Foust to a lunch on the hill. He expected a quick photo op. Instead, they connected in a way only these two could.

"You know, a lot of days, a lot of nights, it was lonely," Foust said. "Whether it was wet, snowy, rainy, hot, cold, we obviously knew what the other was going through so we had a lot to talk about in that way."

The walk continued.

"I was walking in eastern Colorado, and what do I see? A wagon train," Foust said. "Did I fall asleep in one era of time and wake up in another? Oh my goodness. It turned out to be the taping of a show called The Chisholms about a pioneer family."

A picture of Foust on the set shows him with actors Mitchell Ryan, Rosemary Harris and Delta Burke. Burke was just a few years from her breakout role in "Designing Women." Then came the bet. Two actors told Burke she'd never keep up walking with Foust for a full day, ending at a bar in La Junta.

"If I walked in alone, Delta would have to pick up the bar tab for the entire cast and crew," Foust said.

All those grueling miles on the road, would she make it? At that bar in La Junta, in walked Delta Burke.

"Ta da," Foust smiled. "She did it. She pulled it off. Pranced in ahead of me to the bar. They loved it. They just thought this was the greatest thing in the world."

After 18 long months, the walk came to an end — 3,506 miles.

Years later, Foust became a broadcast journalism teacher at Middle Tennessee State University where several of his students went on to NewsChannel 5. He was the teacher of reporters Forrest Sanders and Chris Davis, photojournalist Jordan Powell, associate producer Logan Foley, and former producer and current spokesperson for the Tennessee Performing Arts Center Danielle Allen.

When Foust sat down to be interviewed, he had no idea the people asking the questions would be a group of his former students.

"Oh my God," he smiled, as the students turned a corner into view. "It's a house party."

Foust has just published the story of his walk titled "A Leaf in the Stream."

"I spent all these years teaching, 'write tight, write tight,'" he said. "Then, I turn around and write a 780-page book. There's an irony to this."

Today a museum in Washington, Indiana, carries the things Foust took with him on his walk: his boots, a cane, a large green backpack, journals, books, a compass and more.

"This story is clearly decades in the making," former student Logan Foley said. "What makes now the right time to release it?"

"I think we're at a critical point in our nation's history," Foust answered. "The focus seems to be more on what divides us instead of what unites us. That troubles me. What I experienced walking from one coast to the other was generosity, kindness, and openness. We really, really are a wonderful country with wonderful people."

"How do you feel sitting in front of your storytelling legacy?" asked former student Jordan Powell.

"My life has been an abundance of riches," Foust answered. "They're right here in front of me. What more could anybody ask for?"