Jonathon Stalls, author, artist and advocate, on shedding painful life stories, learning to love himself, and advocating for connection through unhurried movement
(Publication Date: 2.21..23)
In this episode of the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast, host Adam Williams talks with Jonathon Stalls, author of the book, “Walk: Slow Down, Wake Up and Connect at 1-3 Miles Per Hour.”
They talk about Jonathon’s 242-day walk across the United States as a pivotal experience for him, and the deeply painful buildup, including a suicide attempt, that led him to that mental and emotional space where a cross-country walk made sense to him, even if he had no idea what he was doing when he started it.
What Jonathon learned while walking from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, fuels his personal life practices, and advocacy and community organizing today.
SHOW NOTES, LINKS, CREDITS & TRANSCRIPT
The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Departments of Public Health and Housing, and is supported by the Colorado Public Health & Environment: Office of Health Disparities.
Along with being distributed on popular podcast listening platforms (e.g. Spotify, Apple), Looking Upstream is broadcast weekly at 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, on KHEN 106.9 community radio in Salida, Colo., and can be listened to on-demand via khen.org.
Pedestrian Dignity: intrinsicpaths.com/pedestrian-dignity
Chaffee Walks Facebook Group: facebook.com/groups/531198338977864
We Are Chaffee
Looking Upstream Host & Photographer: Adam Williams
Looking Upstream Engineer & Producer: Jon Pray
Producer & We Are Chaffee Community Advocacy Coordinator: Lisa Martin
We Are Chaffee Graphic and Web Design: Heather Gorby
Director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment: Andrea Carlstrom
Director of Chaffee Housing Authority: Becky Gray
Note: Transcripts are produced using a transcription service. Although it is largely accurate, minor errors inevitably exist.
[Intro music, guitar instrumental]
Adam Williams: Welcome to We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream, a conversational podcast of humanness based in Chaffee County, Colorado. I'm Adam Williams. Today, I'm talking with Jonathon Stalls, author of the book WALK: Slow Down, Wake Up, and Connect at 1-3 Miles Per Hour. Jonathon describes himself as a walking artist. He is a poet and writer and an incumbent artist, as well as a community organizer and advocate for unhurried movement in the world.
(00:34): In this conversation, we get into Jonathon's 242 day walk across the United States as a hugely pivotal experience for him, especially given the fact that he had never done anything remotely like it before. Jonathon shares the deeply painful buildup of experiences that led him to that mental and emotional space where a cross-country walk made sense to him, even if he had no idea what he was doing when he started it.
That includes his sharing a story of standing at the edge of a suicide attempt long ago while in Ireland, a few years before that walk across America, and how he came to that moment of thinking that he would rather be dead than be who he truly was and is, and then what fatefully drew him back from that edge.
(01:18): What Jonathon learned while walking from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific fuels his personal life practices today, and his advocacy and community organizing. It was on that walk that he was able to let go of so many of those unhelpful, painful stories that he had been carrying and start to rewrite them and to shape a new way forward.
He shares walking his medicine and an opportunity to connect with nature and others through organized walking experiences through an organization called Walk2Connect, and through his advocacy for pedestrian dignity.
(01:51): As you already can tell, this conversation does get deep and emotional at times, but there's also plenty of laughter and optimism along the way. As always, websites relevant to today's conversation will be posted in the show notes at wearechaffee.org. You can learn more there after listening. Now, here's my conversation with Jonathon Stalls.
[Transition music, guitar instrumental]
(02:19): Jonathon, welcome to Looking Upstream.
Jonathon Stalls (02:21): Thank you. Honored to be here.
Adam Williams (02:23): We have a lot to talk about, and I want to start with letting people know about your book. The title is WALK, with the subtitle Slow Down, Wake Up, and Connect at 1-3 Miles Per Hour. Now, I've read this book. I thank you for gifting a copy to me so that I could. And I want to tell you that what I have seen in this, I see the book as weaving many things together. It's not necessarily memoir in the sense of what you might think of conventionally for that, yet there are memoiristic kinds of anecdotes in it. It's not necessarily a self-help book either, I would say.
Jonathon Stalls (03:02): Right.
Adam Williams (03:03): Yet there's abundant invitation to all kinds of opportunities to engage with wellbeing and so on. So I could go on. I see many things in this. But I want to ask you, how do you describe this book? How do you think of it in your own mind? How do you describe it to somebody who is just encountering it on the shelf, no idea what's in it?
Jonathon Stalls (03:26): Yeah. Oh, thank you for that question. So the frame I give it, and it fits into this budding genre, is creative nonfiction. As a self-described walking artist, there's a lot of little things. So to your point, people see the title WALK and they might have a fitness connection or a health connection. It's like, well, there's some of that. And then others might see some of my work, and they might say, "Oh, it's like maybe pedestrian safety focused and there's tips on that." Well, there's a little bit of that. Someone might see memoir, and it's got a little bit of that.
So it's a little bit of a lot of things, but the thread for me is so intentional, this creative invitation to moving in an unhurried way for self, for others, for community. So a lot of it's just that, coming up with creative ways to tell story, to create practice, to use some of my pen and ink artwork to inspire some different things, and just raw personal experience as a way to ground it around something that has literally... One of the first frames in the book is, walking is my primary form of medicine. And so tapping into that through creative text.
Adam Williams (04:43): When I have looked up information about the book, I think that part of what was used to, well, I'll say promote it, but it's a key facet of this, I think. And that is a 242 day walk across America. And so I'd have to say that when I opened it up, I think I expected it was a memoir entirely on that. And the funny thing to add to what you were just saying is, "Well, it's got a little bit of that."
Jonathon Stalls (05:14): It's a little bit of that. Yeah.
Adam Williams (05:14): We're going to get to that, I suspect, later in the conversation in huge experience.
Jonathon Stalls (05:14): Yeah.
Adam Williams (05:19): I want to start with when, where, how did walking come into your life as something that was that medicine, something meaningful, a daily practice?
Jonathon Stalls (05:30): Yeah. And you hit it. The cross-country walk is a huge starting point for me, very intentionally, a very raw experience, eight and a half months across the US. It was a very personal experience. I had no idea what I was doing leading up to it. I was working through some hard things. I'm sensitive. I'm an artist. I moved every two years as a kid growing up.
Parents split when I was six. And so there was a lot of chaos growing up and going to 12 different schools, constantly starting over was a lot, being a sensitive person, being an artist, but also being gay and queer. So I'm LGBTQ. And coming out was really difficult in all of that stacked transition, trying to fit in, trying to be liked. And so all these things were growing on the inside for years.
(06:24): And so in my early mid-twenties when I started to face some of these things or try and let some of it out, I haven't talked about it, just kind of poking the balloon or poking the thing to let some of this stuff spill out the sides, I realized I needed something to heal, to connect, to recalibrate.
And so this was a series of things that led me to this long walk. I saw the book Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins, which was just this amazing story of this young man's experience. And I found myself just completely gutted by this freedom or this ache of the unknown to just walk and be strengthened by community and by landscapes and by slow movement.
(07:09): And I felt like this could be something I don't know, but it could be something that might heal some things that I don't even fully have words for. And so that's what it was. I had friends drop me off at the Atlantic Ocean on March 1st in 2010. And I just started walking because I just felt I needed to walk some things out, and I wanted a whole new menu of teachers via the land, via people.
I stumble upon time to just be with the real stuff that goes on inside, the grief, the anger, the sadness, but also dreaming and joy. And I describe it often as just a, it's a brand new canvas for how I wanted to learn and love about who I am and the world around me. And so that's where this relationship to moving in an unhurried way started. It was on that walk.
Adam Williams (08:06): That is a tremendously huge undertaking.
Jonathon Stalls (08:10): Yeah.
Adam Williams (08:11): Just mentally, spiritually, all the things, that that's your starting point.
Jonathon Stalls (08:16): Yeah.
Adam Williams (08:18): I know the book that you're talking about, Walk Across America. How do you come to that idea in your mind at that time and say, "This is how I'm going to start this healing, connecting, learning experience. I'm going to walk across Delaware."
Jonathon Stalls (08:37): Yeah.
Adam Williams (08:37): Right? It's, "I'm going to walk across thousands of miles, several months."
Jonathon Stalls (08:42): Yeah.
Adam Williams (08:43): Do you recall the process of how you wrapped your head around that? And how did your friends and family respond to, "You're going to do what now?"
Jonathon Stalls (08:51): Yeah. Yeah. That's a great question. I think it was a mix of things. I was looking at Peace Corps. I had just seen the movie Into the Wild because it had just come out. So that was tapping into some stuff too, just around just getting away from these defaults. I just wanted to be seen and to move through things at a different frequency. I didn't trust a lot of the systems I was brought up in. I didn't trust a lot of the structures that were brought from whether it's family or friends or peers or politics or social systems. I just was like, "Ah, it's not authentic. It doesn't feel real to me."
(09:29): And I wouldn't have had words for it back then. I wouldn't have had those words for it, but there was just stuff that was growing. And so I think, I got a lot of my stress out through athletics, and I played sports growing up. And so the structure of this... Okay, there's a little bit of structure. There's a starting point, and there's this loose goal of reaching the Pacific Ocean.
So I felt like having this structure of like, "All right, I'm going to start here, and I'm trying to get to this other side of the country, a country that I did grow up in, and how do I learn from it?" So there was this structure piece, this goal orientation of getting to the coast that was really important to me. And I think it helped put some motivation. It helped me motivate myself as I thought about the unknowns and the fears of this.
(10:20): My family, my dad was just rolling his eyes. He's just like, "Okay, cool. Cool idea, Jonathon." You could tell he just didn't have a lot of time to sit with me in it, because I've had a lot of those, not that idea, but I had ideas similar. As an artist, I would put things out there all the time and wouldn't necessarily follow through. And my mom was just like, "I don't want to hear about it. Don't talk to me about it. I don't want to hear about it. Don't even talk to me about it. This is scaring me, and I don't want to..."
(10:51): So they really were in this place of shock and not believing me. Two weeks into the walk, once I reached the Potomac River, they were both like, "Okay." Once I got a little further into Missouri, they're like, "He's doing it. This is happening." And they were so supportive. They were checking in all the time. My mom would constantly call and cry and making sure I'm okay. And it was beautiful. My dad ended up joining me in the high desert of Nevada for three or four days to support me, and we had a really, really special time out there. So they ended up being amazing supports, but doubted for sure at the beginning.
Adam Williams (11:31): Yeah. You have some anecdotes from that experience within your book WALK, as I had mentioned. And there's so much color and detail to that, which makes me wonder, were you writing with an intention that there be some kind of book come out of it? Or how did you come to that place that ultimately... This was in 2010, by the way, right?
Jonathon Stalls (11:56): Yeah.
Adam Williams (11:56): When you started this walk and did this walk. So we're talking about a dozen years before the book that we are also talking about did come out.
Jonathon Stalls (12:05): Yeah.
Adam Williams (12:06): How did all that fit together? How did the creative aspects of that, the intentions, come together?
Jonathon Stalls (12:14): Yeah. It was a mess of things. I mean, on the cross-country walk, I had a dedicated journal, a journal entry every day. I was also raising awareness for this amazing organization called Kiva that helped support just micro loans for people starting small businesses all over the US and around the world. Awesome organization. And I was working with them. So I was updating an audience every day in some fashion on a website and on a blog, which gave me a lot of life, and another part of having a little bit of structure that helped me vision this thing.
(12:49): And so I had these little notes. Sometimes, I didn't have a lot of service, and it was three sentences, "28 miles today. Great food. Fell in a ditch." Because I was standing on top of a mountain or a fence to try and get service. Or I had longer updates because I had a break or I got to stop at a library. And so there was this journal entry relationship to writing on the walk itself that I just had files and files after.
But there was just something in me that was like, "It's not ready to be a book. I don't know if it will be. It may be." And then as I started just getting into more of what became my creative work around walking and moving in an unhurried way as medicine, as connection, the other stories of moving with other people and hosting events and these patterns and these themes that I just kept seeing surface through this creative work were just, they got louder and louder.
(13:49): And then ultimately, as I started to even further identify as a walking artist, just with my artwork and my poetry, and I was like, "Ah, this, I could see, as a really unique book." Interlacing the stories of that long walk, walking with other people, weaving in my art. Then it started to surface as a tangible project, something that felt genuine. I heard there was a great... Cheryl Strayed wrote some great books and stories from her walks and personal life. Her book Wild, it talks about her journey on the PCT, the Pacific Crest Trail.
(14:29): And I saw her at an event, and she was speaking about... Because someone asked her that question from the audience, and they were just like, "Why did it take 20 plus years for you to write this book after this event?" And she just, very calmly and in a very grounded way, just said, "It wasn't ready. I wasn't ready for it. It just needed to be its own organic thing. And it finally felt ready. And that's how this unfolded." But I threw the writing in the shelf, I threw it out, I walked away from it, came back to it over and over again.
Adam Williams (14:59): Yeah. Okay.
Jonathon Stalls (15:01): Yeah.
Adam Williams (15:02): It sounds like the soul-searching, if I can use that word, that all of these things that had accumulated the things you were trying to explore within yourself. That was the purpose, it sounds like, is when you discovered the medicine aspect of walking.
Jonathon Stalls (15:21): Yeah.
Adam Williams (15:22): Can you speak to maybe some of that, what you're willing to share of what that story is? What had built up there? What was it you were looking to truly, deeply understand about yourself? And then how that medicine came along and, it sounds like, had healing properties that truly manifested?
Jonathon Stalls (15:46): Absolutely. Yeah. Thank you for asking. So I have a complicated lineage in my family with suicide. There was several people in my family, my uncles and my grandmother, who took their own life in their thirties. And that had never been on my radar as a strategy or as an out of the hard things. But when things got really tough in 2006, four years before doing this walk, I felt it kind of like a rise from the ground up where, "Okay, this is really hard, trying to come out, trying to be comfortable with whatever the things are that are crawling and growing and banging on the inside. So this is how I'm going to handle this."
(16:32): And this was in Ireland when I was really struggling with some of this stuff. And I describe it at the beginning of the book, just a little bit around how the wind in the trees and the birds and the sky at the time that I was attempting my process and path was to walk in front of traffic. So I was outside of a high speed road, and the wind in the trees pushed me away from falling into that place fully. And so I was walking with these trees not knowing or making the connection at that point at all, that it was nature in trees and movement that were guiding me perhaps out of this.
(17:15): And so that theme, as I started skipping over a couple of years deciding to do this walk, I wouldn't have had words for all these things. But these are the things that I started to trust. And so as I walked, literally, I always describe walking and moving in a patient way, there's just this constant relationship to shedding, whether it's the breeze just blowing things off the shoulder. I think about dead skin. I share this in the book, just related to being seated and inside of walls, we collect dead skin.
(17:52): And I just think of, to be out and to move through space, I'm letting go of these unhelpful stories mile by mile, day by day. By the time I get to the Delaware and Maryland border, by the time I get to Cincinnati, Ohio, by the time I get to these different benchmarks, my capacity to love who I am is increasing, I'm making more room to rewrite these stories, I'm talking with and learning and moving with hundreds of people from all different backgrounds, politics, social, race, class, you name it, LGBTQ, moving with people for miles and miles and miles, listening to their stories.
And as I've learned over the years, the neuroscience of what happens when we walk, the way our brains and our hearts just open, the way central brain is engaged to actually allow the real things to fumble out in a way that's not as transactional, but they just exist with us as we move and as we share with other people. And that's what happened.
(19:01): By the time I got to the High Desert, I was like, "I am learning to love who I am. I'm weird. I get angry and loud sometimes. I love deeply. I'm super sensitive. I cry all the time. I love to draw. Yes, I hug trees and I take naps under them. I love flowing water. I love birds. I love the unique particular details of the people I'm meeting across all these lines. And this is part of my story."
It's messy, but I had this confidence that I could create a new path. And I often describe, there were hours I would spend walking in the High Desert of Nevada on what they call the loneliest highway in America, which goes right through the center of the state.
And I'd be out there for hours without clothes, just walking on this rural highway. No cars, no people, screaming, singing. I'd wake up in the morning with wild horses. Those encounters, those experiences, they're testaments to shedding a lot of things in a way that felt really tangible because of walking. Yeah.
Adam Williams (20:18): You've said a couple of times you didn't have the language for something. And I can completely relate to that. And that, I think, goes with what you're talking about this time between the walk, the development of the book, the setting it aside, the coming back to it. Eventually, it's published. It takes us time to sit with everything for the language to come to us, for us to find it.
Jonathon Stalls (20:43): Yeah. Yeah.
Adam Williams (20:45): And so I think that completely makes sense. I feel like it sounds like... And I thought this when reading your book, not to oversimplify your life by any means, but if we take... It's almost like this pivotal experience of the walk across America and everything that you were describing, there was everything before it, there's this incredible life-changing experience that is this walk, and then there's everything that has come after and is continuing to develop and to grow.
Jonathon Stalls (21:19): Yeah.
Adam Williams (21:20): Does that sound fair to you?
Jonathon Stalls (21:20): Oh, yeah.
Adam Williams (21:22): Sounds like a reasonable assessment without taking away the nuance?
Jonathon Stalls (21:26): Yeah. Absolutely.
Adam Williams (21:28): So if we can go back to Ireland for a moment.
Jonathon Stalls (21:31): Yeah.
Adam Williams (21:32): And I'm curious, if it's not going too deeply here, in the experience that you described, you had come to what sounds like the absolute low, and considering the lineage of concerning suicide in your family, what had taken you to Ireland and what added up to that moment perhaps before you felt that release and relief and ability to step back from that edge?
Jonathon Stalls (22:09): Yeah. There's so many things and it's so limited with words. I think there's something about being teased a lot as a kid, and that's the situation I was in a lot when I was growing up. I mean, you're a new student every two years. You're going into... I mean, kids are great and kids are cruel. New students get... So there was a lot of that. But I was also, I think, I always referenced just being so sensitive. I always was really feeling things. There was a lot of conflict in my parents in the household as well, between my parents both prior and after their divorce.
(22:51): And my coping was to absorb it, was to suppress it. I buried it. I buried things. And I played on the outside, "Don't be the reason, Jonathon, that you cause conflict." So as long as you can maintain harmony with your being in presence, then you can get through, get by. Because if you are also causing conflict... So everything would just get buried under this coping. That's just how it operated over time. So leaning into Ireland, there's a lot of layers that landed me there. I was a part of this church plant of sorts out there that was really complicated. Nondenominational.
(23:38): It was a journey through connecting to a church community when I lived in California. This was all alongside of some really difficult things that my mom was going through at the time. And I needed help and support. At that time, I was on a path of more discipline. "Well, pray the gay away. Pray the gay away. I got to get rid of this. I got to get rid of the gay. The gay is bad. The gay is sin. The gay is this."
And I, at the time, thought that more discipline would be it. And everyone's on their journey. But for me, it was again, suppressing, letting other people tell me, projecting their ideas of who God is or isn't, what is right and what is wrong, and absorbing my own truths, burying them, and just playing peaceful peacekeeper, just hold the... Like, all right.
(24:36): So this group can help me maybe process my mom. This is what I grew up with, knowing church is a place where you can seek help. And so that's what I leaned into in California. And that tumbled into this really problematic, lots of beautiful things in Ireland. Met some amazing people. It was a profound, maybe a first start at giving me a little bit of confidence to do something like the cross-country walk, kind of leaving uprooting from the US, going to a different country, learning different things from different people.
(25:08): But the other thing that Ireland in a way was, it was banging at the door around, "You better start paying attention to these things you're burying because you are a ticking time bomb. It's going to be really ugly." Literally, I was constantly on edge. I was constantly starting to feel the pressure of really just lying to everybody, everybody, at all times. There were times when I would just have to leave meetings or leave gatherings that we would have and just leave because I was just like, "This is so fake. I'm a fake. I'm literally lying with my energy." And because I'm so sensitive, I'm feeling all of that false energy. Right?
(25:54): So I just knew something had to... And then as I started to peer in and listen, that's when the twisted stories started to turn in on themselves and say, "Oh, well, then you should probably just end it because you actually being a little more truthful about what's really going on is going to cause some conflict, like serious conflict. Your family won't accept you. Your friends won't accept you. The world won't accept you. And ultimately, your salvation and God won't accept you. The church won't accept you. All these things. Your worthiness is on the..." So the attempt in Ireland was this stacked, like, "All right. The simple thing to do is to end it. I'd rather be dead than be gay." And so all the thing...
(26:51): And even in all that, I think, being an artist, being a creative person, being somebody that... I now do a lot of pen and ink artwork as one of my primary forms of work and creative work, but I would always get lost in sketchbooks as a kid kind of escape. And so in these worlds that I would create through sketching, I had visions of, there's other ways. Some of the people I met in Ireland that were not a part of the church, these glimpses of other people living and moving with a different vibration, however they're experimenting with their life and their art, I would notice and witness these things and they would land. And I was always so curious about nature as a teacher.
(27:37): So I think that's maybe why when I heard the wind in those trees, that it drew me off of that. And that's where... I consider myself a very spiritual person. Somewhere in the spaces between whatever words you use or don't use, but I trust, I love the term nature as the first sacred text. I just feel like I relate to that a lot. And so I trust that there was energy bringing me off of that ledge essentially in Ireland and giving me some permission to really start over in a lot of ways.
Adam Williams (28:18): I'm trying to process the immense burden and weight of feeling, not only when you were a child, the balance, the calm with your parents, but then taking that to this place, this recognition of who you are as queer, as gay in a world that you feel like no one accepts this. Not the groups I'm in, the friends, the family, whoever of these new kids at school, in the church, society. The weight of everything you just explained and sounding like-
Jonathon Stalls (28:58): Yeah.
Adam Williams (28:59): ... it's better off to not be. That almost has me speechless as I try to feel that.
Jonathon Stalls (29:11): Yeah. Yeah. The isolation is, it's a trembling isolation. And the real harm when you're associating that isolation and that lack of worthiness with something like God, it's such a dangerous, yeah, it's a really difficult place. And the environments, to what you were sharing, it's like, that's exactly. I didn't have peers that were queer, gay. I didn't have access.
I mean, grew up in these more siloed environments. And I just didn't have the support or any access for what that could look like in a way that was more liberating and honest and open and even to be on a journey. That's the piece too. It's like, we want so much. And I get it. This isn't a judgment. We're all on this funky, messy, imperfect path. But there's such a quickness to need a binary or to need clarity.
(30:21): So even to be in process and to have people that can just be in process with you when you're trying to figure these things out, rather than shutting it off, telling you you're wrong or telling you this is flawed and this is what it is and you need to do this. So the book is such... I try to put writing an invitation through walking practice or movement practice around these concepts or invitations of the unknown, just to be in process, dot, dot, dot. We are always in process, all of us.
Adam Williams (31:03): That's the scary thing for so many of us.
Jonathon Stalls (31:05): Yeah.
Adam Williams (31:05): Right?
Jonathon Stalls (31:06): Yes.
Adam Williams (31:06): And I feel like I'm coming to understand this more and more and more as I view... well, as I have been able to find some teachers and mentors and friends on the spiritual level who have introduced me to practices for myself. And it's therapeutic things, which would include walking, all kinds of methods. And what I am seeing, you mentioned binary, there's this black and white, "I need the comfort of labels and boxes and everything to be very crisply defined or else my whole understanding of the world falls apart."
(31:43): And I think that's where we are suffering on the big scale here, societally. We're doing it with socially, with politics, in all the ways, religion. In every way that we have it, we need things to be this crystal clear thing. And I love that we can talk about this, and I hope that if there's anybody else out there who needs to hear, this gray area is actually where life is.
Jonathon Stalls (32:08): Yeah.
Adam Williams (32:08): This is where we need to find our comfort is within that discomfort. And that's where the work is.
Jonathon Stalls (32:13): Yeah. Yeah. It's why the chapter titles are so intentional. The first chapter being Walking as Human Dignity. Just this grounding first, and that do you either... leaning into believing that we are all worthy of breath and life and our stories and just our messiness. We're all a mess. Let's stop playing around. And we have really beautiful things to offer.
But then the second chapter, Walking as Humility, this invitation of humbly. And I have a story in there where it's like we're all sitting on that toilet. We're leaking. Our fluids are constantly coming out of our face. Like, "Stop. We don't need to...." I get it. We don't want to always be playing with our stuff.
(32:57): But there's something so fundamentally messy about the human journey. And I just find that without getting even too conceptual about it. It's why I have a lot of practices in the book, because I don't want to overthink it. Just lean into movement, experience it for yourself, move with that person who may be causes some discomfort or causes some tension, or maybe just you don't understand, or whatever it is.
And to move with, to be alongside, shoulder to shoulder, right next to each other in an unhurried way, under an open sky with the trees and the birds and the river and all the things in nature that communicate to us, that it is so far from a binary, that the branches twist and bend.
(33:44): And sometimes, you got to break the biggest branch so you can grow a little more towards the sun. This is the tree. Looking at how trees adapt and how the wounds slowly heal. And I mean, I can go on and on.
Adam Williams (33:59): Hearing you say it like that, now it occurs to me that it's almost strange that we have even developed this system of whatever it is, psychology and expectation that is binary. Why isn't the gray area? Why isn't the fluidity of it all are norm? Yeah. I want to step back from some of these heavier things for a moment maybe, and let's go back to what you said about how you describe yourself as a walking artist. What do you mean by that? What does that look like in your life?
Jonathon Stalls (34:33): Yeah, thank you. It's fun, it's playful, it's experimentive. I think it's more owning walking or moving in an unhurried way through a space with someone else, with all the things bubbling up on the inside, the thoughts, the feelings, even the things in the gut. Walking is my medicine. It's my main medicine. It's one of my main teachers. Just moving through the world that way. And that being inclusive to on a wheelchair and powered scooter, moving in an unhurried way.
(35:09): So just trusting that medicine so much in my own, knowing it's not going to land for every person the same way it does for me, but just trusting it so much. And then just being an artist, have always been an artist, escaping as a kid into creating worlds with drawing and pencil and all the things. Art class was always the place I would thrive through school, but also in my college studies. And so, for years after the cross-country walk, I dove pretty quickly into hosting walking events and training walking leaders, because I just was like, "Y'all, we got to move. We got to move our bodies. We got to talk to each other in a way that's a little more healthy. We got to lean into each other's stories."
(35:48): I just felt we got to connect with these rivers and streams. I just felt so strongly almost from an organizing framework after the cross-country walk. And that's what ignited Walk2Connect, which became an organization at one point in a movement, if you will, with a lot of really beautiful people. But then even after through that, I just was like, "Oh, I'm still neglecting this artist. I'm leaving the drawing being child, person that I want to reconnect with, on the side, and I just didn't want to do that anymore."
(36:21): So Intrinsic Paths is the framework of my creative work. And it's everything from... To be a walking artist, for me at least, is sometimes I'm under a tree, drawing and making sketches and making pieces as fine art for prints and for sale and for trade and for gifts, but also writing and poetry. And then there's another part of my work called Pedestrian Dignity, where I do a lot of storytelling on pedestrian safety and accessibility from the built environment perspective, so the injustices of how we think about our public spaces and places from a vantage point of pedestrian access.
So how are people safely getting to the grocery store, home or older populations, children, people with mobility devices, various disabilities, and just broad, big, public health related to all the benefits of moving this way. How can I story tell and be an artist there? So I play there a lot.
(37:21): So in one hour, I'm drawing a picture under a tree. The next hour, I might be cussing at an intersection, making a Pedestrian Dignity, like "Nobody can get through here. What are we doing? Let's do something." Trying to play as an artist there. And then I'm writing. And then I'm hosting a walking group event. So it touches a lot of different spaces, and that gives me joy that I can access these different places of expression centered on a theme of walking.
Adam Williams (37:53): Walking with groups. You mentioned Walk2Connect, and I do want to come back around to that. But before we do, you've kind of alluded to this idea of walking shoulder to shoulder, walking with people and what that connection is about. You now lead groups of strangers doing this, but you have also cited in this book the relationships, your closest relationships and walks with them.
This has become part of the life experience in sharing and poignant moments with your father, your mother, and with your partner, your husband, who incidentally you met in Ireland while you were there during that period. And in the book, you reference... Well, let's start with the one with your mom.
Jonathon Stalls (38:43): Yeah.
Adam Williams (38:44): That was so, I think, critical to your relationship. And I think you know which one I'm referring to, if you'd care to share that story and just how that has now influenced your relationship from that moment forward on a walk.
Jonathon Stalls (38:58): Yeah. So this is the chapter titled Walking as Vulnerability. It was a hard word for me to choose to even put in the book like that because it's so loaded. But I just felt so strongly specifically to walking as a practice, as a tool for how we go into those what I imperfectly just describe as these trembling realms when we're really upset or we're really angry or we're feeling threatened or we're feeling like maybe even joy, we want to celebrate, but we don't know how to move our body and do it, whatever it is.
And for me, coming out was one of those huge trembling seasons of I'm choosing to live and try this life after those really hard things in Ireland and the wind in the trees and choosing to start over. So I want to invite my family into this.
(39:57): And because of that movement in Ireland, as I was trying to process, I was like, "All right. Something in me just trusts that this is going to be easier if I'm moving with my mother under the trees, with the breeze, under the sky, as I share, and fumble with these..." And so the story is a line by line invitation and inviting my mom into some really hard things that I didn't have a lot of words for, into honest, raw process. I didn't, at the time, know or would say that I'm gay. I just was like, "I'm on a journey. I know I am not straight, as we call it, but I don't know what I am, and I just want to invite you into this process."
(40:44): And one of the things that I was discerning at the beginning of that was just inviting her, "If we could just move for a little bit at the beginning, just to let the body, let the blood flow a little bit, let the brain open, let the heart feel things." I didn't have had those words fully back then, but I trusted that, "Can we just move for a little bit?" And she was nervous and she's like, "No. No. What's going on, honey? What do you mean? I don't want to just..." She was pushing in. I invited her to move. And then I started inviting her in. But...
Adam Williams (41:18): Did that seem strange to her at that time? "What do you mean you want to go for a walk?"
Jonathon Stalls (41:23): Yes.
Adam Williams (41:23): "What is this about? Where are we headed?"
Jonathon Stalls (41:24): Of course. She was just thrown off. She wanted to know. It felt scary for her. There was fear, which all makes sense. And I couldn't be more grateful for how it unfolded in terms of just... And I really trust that because we were moving, we could let these things fumble out. And this is what happens when you're walking next to someone and you're sharing difficult things. You're not across the table. And I believe this so much. I often share it now more frequently around artificial walls.
(42:00): We think about 90 degree walls that are artificially made mostly. So the material energy that we're next to or near when we're having difficult conversations. And if our bodies are across from each other, a table, or there's eye contact and there can be intimacy, but there is also so much that plays in this, maybe not all the way into combat, but there's a little bit.
You're not as naturally and organically flowing and moving together as you are on a walk. Our bodies are still moving next to each other as I'm sharing some of these things with my mom. She's still physically next to me as she doesn't quite understand what's going on and as she's trying to process.
(42:48): Those things might seem really simple, but they're not when we think about it as an actual practice or tool. And so for my mom and I, it was eventually getting to the place where she was just sharing very, very openly and in a very messy, tear filled way that she loved me no matter what, doesn't understand this journey, doesn't know any gay people, doesn't know how to support, is scared, is terrified. She got to share her process. That was a part of it. But I also got to really experiment in a very messy way with how do I begin to invite people all the way in, or at least a little more than I would have for the 24 years previous.
Adam Williams (43:33): And this was two, two and a half years before the big walk that really would cement walking as that medicine in your life.
Jonathon Stalls (43:44): Yeah.
Adam Williams (43:45): So I want to go from that very deep and meaningful personal experience with you and your mother to now what you do with things like Walk2Connect, this very public, open, inviting experience with people who've never met each other before. Describe what's going on there and what kinds of connections you see and hear and participate in happening through experiences like that.
Jonathon Stalls (44:10): Yeah. It just became so. And it stemmed the cross-country walk. There would be families or kids or people that would join me for hours and hours. They'd just see me and, "Hey, can I join you for a little bit?" "Hey, can my fa-..." I shared this in the book a little bit, I had homeschool parents drop their kids off. Y'all, that is trusting. And at the beginning, I didn't take their phone number, which was stupid. So I'm an hour in and I'm like, "Y'all better be coming back to get these kids." So I figured out some tools when people would do that.
(44:44): Anyway. So that would happen. And it was literally, it was clockwork, it was consistent. The stats. If I could research it, I would. The data behind 15, 20, 30 minutes of movement with a complete stranger, the things that would start to show up in our conversations, the things they would share with me, the things they felt comfortable sharing or asking, or the things I would share with them.
And by the time an hour or a couple of hours would pass, it's not that it's everything and it's not always going into the deep things, but there was a comfort and a flow around listening and offering and even being okay with moments of silence in between the talking.
(45:30): So there's all these other forms of connecting that are happening in the heart and in the body. So all of that was just so dialed in for me by the end of that walk. Yeah. So with Walk2Connect, it's just been constantly experimenting with hosting. And we describe it as connection focused walks or rolling events, if you're on mobility devices. And it's meant to just encourage with a little bit of structure and a little bit of guidance, moving next to each other, let that blood flow, open the mind, you're not across the table, you're not inside of a room at a networking event trying to just come up with stuff, which is great. Those have places.
(46:12): But there's just something, it's more open to me, it's more spacious. It's more forgiving. So a lot of the walks that I host that are... When I'm just starting with a community or with a group of people, we'll go 10, 15 minutes, you're walking with someone. And then at the intersection or at the end of a loop around a park, it's just being guided by me or by a walk leader to switch it up. Now talk with someone else. High five that person you just moved. It sounds a little like we're doing some stuff maybe we did in kindergarten. All right? Adults, we're going to be all right.
(46:49): But this is stuff that... It's medicine to move with... I mean, I've gotten to know so many people here in Salida and Buena Vista already just through the stuff we've been doing here, but in other places, so many people across all these different divides and lines, thinking about different experiences via race, via political stuff, via class, and to just move with someone who has such a unique experience in a way that's more open and flowing and not as the terms I use that are limited but not as transactional. Sometimes when you're meeting with people and you're getting to know them, there can feel like there's a transaction taking place of some kind, or maybe it's dictating the connection.
(47:32): When you're moving with people, it's a lot more open. And so the last note I'll just share on that related to it, the relationships that form because it's more flowing and open, the trust that forms, is so profound. I mean, we have people from our recurring walks, especially that we've done where it's a weekly Tuesday morning thing or a weekly Friday thing or Saturday thing. I mean, there's people who become... They're written in each other's wills, they're marrying each other if they... And I love this quote, one of my favorite authors, Adrienne Maree Brown, who wrote this book called Emergent Strategy, but one of my favorite quotes from her book is, "Moving at the speed of trust."
(48:16): It's like, "Yes, that's it. That's what it is." And it's not a gimmick. It's not an app. This is something we're made to be doing, engineered to be doing.
Adam Williams (48:26): Yeah. When you have been describing not only this right here, but also that experience with your mother, and what I'm picturing is how we actually, we do flow together, we are with each other. There is a motion and action in common. It's like a stream flowing. We're moving in the same direction together. And where we have those conversations with, say, a table in between us, there is that physical, it becomes a barrier. There is that opposition you were describing there. Yes, you can look each other in the eyes, but we're already putting in the physical and maybe the subconscious barriers to this connection.
(49:13): And like you're saying, you come to a conversation with someone who you don't know, there can be a guard up, there can be a, "Well, what's in it for me? Or what is it you're after?"
Jonathon Stalls (49:23): Yeah.
Adam Williams (49:23): So this movement with someone who might be from a different philosophy, religion-
Jonathon Stalls (49:29): Yes.
Adam Williams (49:30): ... politics, class, whatever all the categories can be, when we're moving together, we are starting from a place of this is something we have in common, now what flows out of us as we flow together?
Jonathon Stalls (49:43): Yes. And just even adding yes to all of it, like this kinetic connection. You think about just even sitting inside. So there's a physical stuckness around sedentary. Right? So you're sitting in your positions whether you know it or not, consciously or not. And your body is actually not at all even willing because you're sitting, sometimes inside of walls, or if it's in a cafe, you can't actually move all that far. So movement is irrelevant unless you're maybe doing connection while stretching or something, which is an option.
(50:29): But you think about the actual human bodies, humble human bodies exposed to the elements. So there's just this, you're out in the world and you're actually moving together. So your bodies are communicating without even the positions in the mind and what it does to position us. Your bodies are communicating. Yeah, we're in process, we're moving, we're shedding skin, we're growing, our joints are recalibrating as they connect to the gravity of the earth to keep our bodies... All this stuff is happening in the body when you're moving with someone. So there's movement. Movement.
(51:07): And it could work walking backwards, but you're typically moving forward. These are simple things, but they're actually really profound when we think about, are we going to evolve? Or are we going to remain giving over so much time and energy to stuckness, to being seated, to being inside of artificial walls, to being across tables and across these divides when really none of that is actually real and it's just... I shouldn't say that, that dismisses. What I mean by that though is I don't trust, at least personally, that it's inherent, that it's intrinsic, that it's something we're... It's not natural for us to just be in a place of stuckness so much, in so many ways, where we find ourselves so often.
Adam Williams (51:57): The simple things are often so difficult.
Jonathon Stalls (52:00): Yes.
Adam Williams (52:01): And I think, in art, especially with things like what we're talking about here, is because that's what gets overlooked. These seem like such simple ideas. "Yeah, let's go for a walking conversation."
Jonathon Stalls (52:14): Yes.
Adam Williams (52:14): You and I met a week or two ago for an initial conversation. It did not even occur to me, knowing you had written a book called WALK, to Say, "Hey, how about we go for a walk in this first conversation that we're not recording and get to know each other." Instead, I offered the conventional, the pat, "Hey, you want to meet for coffee somewhere?"
Jonathon Stalls (52:35): Yeah.
Adam Williams (52:35): And when you responded with, "Well, how about we go for a walk?" I just thought, it's palmed the forehead, "Of course."
Jonathon Stalls (52:42): Yeah, totally.
Adam Williams (52:43): "Why not?"
Jonathon Stalls (52:44): Yeah.
Adam Williams (52:44): So those simple things become difficult when we don't take that slow speed, pause, take a breath and actually think about it. I want to hear about Chaffee Walks. This is a version that is local to where we are here in Chaffee County, Colorado, I think. I don't know the details yet. What is going on? What are you starting up with that?
Jonathon Stalls (53:07): Yeah. It's so exciting. So alongside Walk2Connect for so many years, one of our primary invitations just has been to train what we call walking movement leaders. And from this training, we've just hosted so many different communities related to this connection focused movement with whether it's based on region or themes. And so I've been coming into Chaffee County and Salida for many years. I do and have done a lot of work in the San Luis Valley and Alamosa. I now have a small art studio here in Salida. And some dear wonderful people, so Marilyn Bouldin, who's an amazing community advocate here and dear friend who loves to walk, shout out to Marilyn. She's so amazing.
(53:56): And she is the one who ignited a lot of the interest and passion to have more walking in her community for health, for connection. Her and I got connected through a lot of different things, specifically her work with this group called America Walks, where she was doing some stuff related to pedestrian safety, but also in planting seeds to help her community get out and just move more with each other for health and connection. And so she invited me to, like, "Hey, can you come to a training with the public health department so we can get some more leaders and start this chapter?" Because she had learned about my work with Walk2Connect, through our connecting over all these things.
(54:32): And so Public Health was in as a partner, and we hosted our first training two weeks ago. I think it was two weeks ago, whenever. And it was amazing. 19 people from Buena Vista and Salida showed up to this training, just planting the seeds. It's very grassroots. And there's no one organization, at least at this point, that owns this community.
When we do these trainings, sometimes it's just community wanting some support to organize themselves. And then sometimes, there's an organization that really helps to fund and sponsor and nurture some of the needs to really form a chapter. And we're starting here just in a very grassroots way with a group of amazing volunteer leaders.
(55:18): And so it's a community of trained leaders who are going to start hosting community walks based on their interest as leaders. So we've got some different walking submissions that have already come in related to a couple weekly events that are going to happen. Maryland is already leading a weekly walk on Tuesdays on the Monarch Trail at 9:00 AM which is about an hour loop. And with our training, we really encourage leaders to be as specific as they can around pace, around ability, around how long, terrain, safety. So with the training comes some tools to help people really choose if this is for me or this isn't for me.
Adam Williams (55:56): Okay.
Jonathon Stalls (55:57): So helping people see themselves. But we have 19 new training leaders that are going to hopefully start submitting more events all over the county. So it's exciting. So you can go to Chaffee Walks on Facebook, which is a Facebook group at this stage. And then, we literally just met this week to plant some seeds for some next steps, and we're hoping to have a website and an event calendar-
Adam Williams (56:20): Okay.
Jonathon Stalls (56:21): ... coming soon too.
Adam Williams (56:23): I am going to include links in show notes at wearechaffee.org. I will have that for your Intrinsic Paths, for Pedestrian Dignity, for Walk2Connect.
Jonathon Stalls (56:31): Love it.
Adam Williams (56:32): All the things. Real quick before our time runs out, where can people find your book WALK?
Jonathon Stalls (56:39): Check your local bookstores first. Supporting local bookstores is the best. I know Salida Books has carried it, Once Upon a Trapeze has carried it. But then independent booksellers too, online. North Atlantic Books, which is my publisher. And check out the audiobook. Had a lot of fun making that too.
Adam Williams (56:58): That's great.
Jonathon Stalls (56:58): And anywhere books can be sold.
Adam Williams (57:00): Great. Thank you Jonathon so much. It's been an honor talking with you. I've loved this conversation.
Jonathon Stalls (57:06): Likewise. Honored to be here. Thank you.
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Adam Williams (57:14): Okay. That was my conversation with Jonathon Stalls, artist, poet, and author of WALK: Slow Down, Wake Up, and Connect at 1-3 Miles Per Hour. If what Jonathon shared here today sparked curiosity and ideas for you, you can learn more on this episode show notes at wearechaffee.org. You also can email comments to Lisa Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(57:36): Once again, I'm your host, Adam Williams. Jon Pray is engineer and producer. Thank you also to KHEN Radio, where we recorded today's conversation in Salida, Colorado. To Heather Gorby for graphic and web design. To Lisa Martin, producer and community advocacy coordinator for the We Are Chaffee Storytelling initiative. To Andrea Carlstrom, director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment. And to Becky Gray, director of the Chaffee Housing Authority.
(58:00): The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Department of Public Health and the Chaffee Housing Authority, and it's supported by the Colorado Public Health and Environment Office of Health Disparities. You can learn more about the Looking Upstream podcast and related storytelling initiatives at wearechaffee.org and on Instagram and Facebook @WeAreChaffee.
(58:19): Lastly, thank you for listening. Until next time, as we say here at We Are Chaffee, be human, share stories.
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