Guest Ken Johnston, started his Walk to Freedom project in late 2017 when he learned that the National Civil Rights Museum was planning remembrance ceremonies to mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. Recognizing the importance of movement in the civil rights movement, Johnston began researching and walking various routes his ancestors took toward freedom.
Since that first walk in 2017, Ken continues to balance a daytime desk job with his on-foot passion: experiencing, illuminating, and preserving the numerous Black Heritage Trails in the USA so others do not forget the many steps that have been taken.
(time codes are approximate)
11:50 - The Full Sensory Experience of Walking (Jump to section)
20:15- Protecting and Preserving Civil Rights (Jump to section) )
28:30 - Alone or with Others (Jump to section)
32:00 - The Characteristics of a Walk to Freedom Walk (Jump to section)
42:50 - Walking as Art (Jump to section)
55:00 - Learning More than Just The Boring Walking Part (Jump to section)
1:23:00 - Getting More People to See the Vision (Jump to section)
LINKS AND RESOURCES MENTIONED IN THE SHOW
This is the Your DNA podcast, a show where movement science meets your everyday life. I’m Katy Bowman - biomechanist, author, and long-distance walker. All bodies are welcome here. Let’s get moving
Friends, I love walking. You know I do. I often talk about the biomechanics of walking – the impact and benefits walking has on our physical structure – but also how the act of walking or not walking, for that matter, as a society, affects the larger societal structures. Walking represents different things to different people and for this episode I’m interviewing Ken Johnston, speaking to us from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who walks as a way of actively working to preserve civil rights
Ken’s project is called Walk to Freedom. It originated in late 2017 when he found out that the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee was planning remembrance ceremonies to mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. He recognized the importance of this moment and he wanted to contribute
“I asked myself what could I do to honor the legacy of Dr. King’s ideas?,” He wrote on his website OurWalkToFreedom.com . “What commitment of myself could I offer the Civil Rights movement today? How could I pay homage to our ancestors who sacrificed so much for our freedom?”
And the way Ken decided to pay homage, to demonstrate his commitment, was by walking. And so he walked, from Selma, Alabama to Memphis, Tennessee - nearly 400 miles
Since then, Ken has kept on walking - thousands of miles - in the name of freedom: in Maryland, New York, Delaware, Massachusetts. Most recently, Johnston and a supporter, Deborah Price, completed a 165-mile journey tracing a path that Harriet Tubman took from Cape May to Burlington, New Jersey
Not all of the walks have been in the United States. In the fall of 2019, Ken took part in two international walks: a solidarity and cultural exchange hike across Puerto Rico on the 2nd anniversary of Hurricane Maria, and a 114-mile peace walk across Northern Ireland commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Belfast to Derry Civil Rights March
Many of his walks have been solo efforts. Some, like the walk in Puerto Rico, have been collaboratively planned
Ken also is a self-described “walking artist.” We're gonna talk about that today. He is a member of the Walking Artists Network , founded 15 years ago in London by a group of artists interested in the idea of walking as a mode of art practice.
(walking in leaves sounds)
KATY: So I just want to say also thank you very much for coming, being on the show. Not only talking to me but talking to everyone who listens to this show. That's my intention - is I have the privilege of having many great conversations to have them not be private and share with others - it just why I do the podcast. So thank you for your time. And welcome. Welcome to the Move Your DNA podcast.
KEN: Thank you
KATY: Yeah. So I love walking and this show is gonna have a lot of threads about walking. So let's just start with the walking part of what you're doing right now. So how did you start long-distance walking? I guess that's just a great place to start.
KEN: Well, it goes back to the life of former senator Ted Kennedy. When he passed away I was living in Massachusetts at the time and all these people coming out and talking about how much he loved Massachusetts. And at that time I said to myself, "I'd love to discover what he loved about Massachusetts.” And that's when the first idea of walking across Massachusetts came to mind. And there it came to mind and then it passed and just kind of sat in the back of my mind for many years, and until 2017. That summer I had some time. I had no family obligations or anything like that and so I decided I was going to try. I didn't tell anyone. Because if I failed, I didn't want people to be like oh he tried and he failed and he didn't really give it a shot. And so I drove to the corner of Massachusetts Northwest and corner of Massachusetts which was Williamstown, right on the border of New York state. I parked my car and I thought I'll take a uber up to the corner of the state. Well, there were no Ubers in this corner of this state. And there were no buses in this corner of the state. So I said, well you're walking so I started walking and hitchhiking and this friendly boy scout leader finally stopped after seeing - after going up and down the mountain a few times and he said, "what are you doing?" And I was like, "Well I'm trying to get to the top of the mountain so I can turn around and walk back. And he had a question mark on his face and he said, "well, hop in, I'll give you a ride." And we started talking and I explained to him. He was like, "Ok, well good luck with that." And I got to the top of the mountain and I turned around and started walking back down the hill. My goal that day was to try to do 8-10 miles. When those first few miles I discovered everything I would encounter later on in all my walks. I encountered the difficulty of getting to the trailhead and figuring that out. And how you, when you get to the trail - how you're gonna get there and depending on where you park your car how you're gonna get back to your car. So all of those kinds of issues came up right away. Issues with bugs. And gnats, flying your faces and how you deal with that. Took a little while to where I became comfortable with it. And I began to recognize everyone moving in some direction. The bugs were moving in a direction. I was moving in a direction. The ants were moving in another direction. We were all moving somewhere. So connecting with earth in those initial few miles. And so that began my journey. And at the end of the day, I discovered my shoes weren't the proper shoes. I didn't have all the proper socks. I wasn't properly prepared. Fortunately, there was a hiking town, an outdoor activity store in town. I was able to buy proper socks. So that way I avoided blisters. And I successfully finished the day. And from there I kept going back to the last point that I had walked and continued this segment walk accomplishing, increasing the mileage from 8 miles to 10 miles. And finally 15 miles. Hitchhiking in between to get to and from my car. And next thing you know I crossed over the Berkshires - western Massachusetts and reached Northhampton which was near my home at the time. And upon reaching Amherst, another 10 miles away, I realized I could do it. That I could do this walk. And I continued doing it as a segment walk for the rest of the summer until I reached the very last bit of land mass in Massachusetts on the tip of the Cape - Cape Cod, where I was greeted by some seals. They were playing in the water
KATY: And the questions that are popping into my head on behalf of other listeners would be a couple of things. One, were you already a walker in general? Was that distance of let's say 8-10 miles and eventually up to 15 something that you would have thought you could have done? And then also, did you have to take time away from other responsibilities like work to be able to walk to that extent? Or did you just walk it around your obligations?
KEN: I was not a hiker. This was totally new. I was doing it to bring movement into my life. Not like going to the gym and working out before but more wholesome, nutritious movement. And I was doing it in segments on the weekends so Saturday and Sundays were the time that I was committing to it - 4 to 5 hours. I would drive back home after each walk because I was within one hour of home. So I would drive to and from home. As I got further away from home, towards the central and southeastern part of Massachusetts, I had friends that live out that way and I would stay at their house overnight and continue to walk that way. And then once I get out to Cape Cod, I would plan to stay out there. I camped out. Got a tent. Borrowed a tent from someone. And just started camping out as I got further away
KATY: How do you think walking occurred to you? Have you thought about it? I mean walking is such a huge part of what you're doing. There was a mention on TV or on the news that started it. But how do you think you came to walking?
KEN: Again it goes back to that Ted Kennedy story - wanting to see what he loved about Massachusetts and wanting to - I had a bicycle. I've done some long-distance bicycling but once I started walking I put that bicycle down and I haven't been back on it yet. And it's just the enjoyment, the slow movement of it. The whole body experience that I just really really enjoy. Just all the sensory experience of walking. And during that walk across Massachusetts, I was passing by all these Civil War statues, and all of a sudden this national story broke out about the statues across the deep south and people wanting to tear them down. They were part of the lost cause. And all of a sudden I found myself immersed in this story about the Civil War and all of these statues that were representing the heroes from the North helped to defeat slavery. And so I became more interested in that subject because I was also seeing the same statue at each and every little town. And many towns particularly rural and small towns, the only public art you see is this Civil War soldier. They call him the Silent Soldier or Silent Sentinal excuse me. And he was made by this company out of Bridgeport, Connecticut and they made them for - the Silent Sentinal - for both the Union and Confederate sides. So you would find the same statue in these little parks all across the North and the South. And the only thing that differentiated them was maybe they modified it so the pouch had a C on it that he was carrying. Maybe his hat was slouched a little bit. And so you would see this same Silent Sentinal all over these towns that I walked through. And it was just a really fascinating way of learning about the roles that these towns played in the Civil War and how they commemorated veterans and how the money for these statues was like $450. How the towns raised the monies for these white monuments
KATY: So it's about speed if I'm understanding correctly. I was thinking about the idea of walking. To me walking is always a sensory experience, but I hadn't thought about cycling also a sensory experience, but it's about the volume of detail that can sink in when you're going slower. You see more. There's less involved with dealing with other things at a higher pace and so you were able to see a pattern, essentially, because of just walking - not just walking the distance, it's about walking it over land through different communities and you see this pattern. And does this, I guess this becoming aware of these statues, does this launch you into the next layer of what you began walking for?
KEN: It definitely influenced me. It made me go back and look at - little bit more observe - what I was passing. Taking some of the history, I've always enjoyed history so I really started looking at some of the towns that I passed. What was their history? And then I started connecting some of that history. It was also in the town of Plymouth Massachusetts there was a cemetery that I passed - trying to think of the name of it - but it was dedicated to these American Revolution black soldiers. And the town gave them all this land and there they lived with their families until they all passed away. And so they had a homestead there in this part of the town. It was away from the white - the main white section of the town where we think of Plymouth Rock
KEN: But there they had their homestead and so I just started encountering the different cultures coming together. You had the European culture and followed by the African American culture and then the Native American culture which was always there
KEN: And you would encounter these cultures along the way. Or bits and pieces of what's remaining of those cultures. And then you'd be trying to figure out - always be trying to figure out how did they connect here? And once Africans were brought ashore they were immediately trying to escape. And then the cultures that they were running into were the Native Americans. And it's like, "Ok, you're here. We can help you a little bit. We understand what's going on." And so all the places that I walk, this is what I've been running into was these three cultures: the Europeans, the Africans, and Native Americans all coming together at different points and places. And so that story continues to fascinate to this day
KATY: So when did your walks become more purposeful in - or looking closer to what you're doing now? What was the journey?
KEN: After I completed the walk through Massachusetts, I wanted to do more. It's a little bug that bites you
KEN: And it's like, ok, I want to do more of this. And so I submitted a proposal to the National Civil Rights Museum. They were commemorating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination and I said to myself if I was going to give myself to the Civil Right movement, I would do it by walking. Because that's what it was - a walking movement
KEN: But we've lost that sense of the walking portion of it. And so they really knew what they were doing. It was helping people - they were getting them off the buses. They were walking. And not everyone wanted to walk. You know? There was - it was to bring equality and justice and so I wanted to walk so I did this 400-mile walk from Selma, Alabama to Memphis, Tennessee crossing over the Edmund Pettus bridge and just reliving the experience of the original marches from Selma to Montgomery. And it was during that walk that things just started taking on a lot of meaning. And where I first encountered ancestors - spiritual energies - call them what you like - that would come to me and I would feel sometimes their pain, their hardship, their joy. You know I was one never to feel spiritual energy but on some of these walks that I've taken, it's definitely there. And that's been a wonderful thing to experience. So I think it was a quote from Keith Plessy from 400 Souls: When you start looking for your ancestors you find they have been looking for you. That's what I discovered on that first walk. And getting to really experience more of the deep south and the people that live there presently. And meeting them. When I was in the cities it was the black community that would surround me and take care of me during that walk. And when I was in the rural, rural parts of Alabama, it was the white community that would come out. They read the story about me or I would sit down at a restaurant, "Hey kid, do you have any place to stay tonight?" It's like, "actually no, I don't." "Well come on - you can stay in our camper in the back yard or you can stay at our house." So it was really wonderful. I met some amazing people on that journey. And exploring the history of America... of the United States along the way
KATY: One of my favorite lines, and I've poured over your website, which I think is a blog but I think a landing place for I imagine there are plenty of people wherever you go who just want to read more by you and to hear your thoughts of your journey. And I'll point everyone listening to where they can do that as well. But my favorite line is something I think about a lot. I think about sedentary culture overall, but I really think about how activism itself has become so inactive when it used to be literally putting your body in a place. It was active in a sense. Very physical. And the line that you have is I wanted to put the movement back into the Civil Rights Movement. And so one of the things I was just wondering - what you think about - why do you think it's so essential that movement stay in the civil rights movement. Or that activism - not everyone has to be fully active all the time. But this idea that - for me - it has a lot to do with technology and social media as being the place for so much activism right now - posting things - but not as much about physically doing. And why do you think you thought it was so important to keep movement in it?
KEN: If you've looked over my website the banner is It's About Protecting and Preserving Our Civil Rights. And I felt that our civil rights were being watered down. And they still are. And I look back to 2017-2018 when I created that website, it was being signaled by decisions made by the supreme court on a national level. It was being signaled by state governments passing laws related to various topics: abortion being one. Voting rights being another. The state of Alabama had closed all of their motor vehicle centers so you couldn't go and vote or register to vote. And so they were having these mobile motor vehicle centers that would move around the state and you would have to catch up with them to get your license and to be able to register to vote. So there were these things that they fought so hard for during the 1950s and 60s that are being watered down. We continue to see that today. And all great movements in the United States started with walking. That's the kind of energy we have to get back to to make a difference. To allow our voices to be heard on multiple levels. Otherwise, they will just - these enactments will continue to be watered down. So that's one of the reasons. I think also you have the opportunity to connect with communities to their local history. To bring greater understanding and respect and vision for who we are today and who we can be tomorrow - that's another reason why walking. It's also to meet people where they are in their communities - one on one - to be able to have these conversations rather than trying to have them in a large group text or group chat. This way you can meet them one on one. And I had some amazing conversations with people on that walk across the south. People who read about me in the newspaper or saw me on television and they were just so inspired by what I was doing. I remember this one newspaper - this one television station - Massachusetts man quit his job to follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King. And I was like, that's the lead? That I quit my job?
KATY: That's the biggest part of what you're doing right there.
KEN: But I was making a commitment and that's what people saw. And I remember this one day this man in a wheelchair came up to me and was like "Are you that fellow that quit his job to walk ..." It was like, "Uh, yeah that's me." And he was like, "God bless you. God bless you." And so it started to take on meaning that it was so far beyond what I thought it would have in communities. Yeah, it continues to - sometimes I am - I'm just the vessel. And I don't know
KEN: I'm doing this because it's something I enjoy and I love. And I'm always amazed at how it - what it means to others. How it inspires them. And I'm still trying to understand that
KEN: People see things that I don't see in this walk yet. I'm just trying to make them aware of our history and the community that we had here and that we need to come together and remind all Americans that we are part of - Black History is American History. And that is where they live today, in many of these suburban communities that I passed through that are predominantly white, before they became these suburban white enclaves, they were black communities that had separated themselves for safety reasons away from the white community. Because frequently whites would bring violence to black communities. So a lot of the places that I've walked are near rivers and creeks where blacks could escape and you wouldn't be able to see them because they're just so well hidden. But there were whole communities in some of these places. Some of them still exist. A lot of them have since disappeared as the communities have moved on to different places. And more opportunities for living in places that they previously could not. So population and they moved for jobs as well. So it's been very interesting. I love doing it. Over the past couple years I've been following the footsteps of Harriet Tubman. Tracing the Harriet Tubman byway from Maryland to New York City. That's been really wonderful. I'm just in awe of what she accomplished. And the more I have followed her in her footsteps the more I've discovered just how well thought out her plans were. And how complex they were and how she still figuring out how she got from place to place over so many waterways. All the negotiations. And the people who helped her. She didn't do it alone. It was both black and white communities they were Methodists, they were Quakers. They were all a part of these communities that were opposed to slaveocracy. And the freedom seekers were doing their own bit in breaking down that slaveocracy and destroying it by running away and making it difficult for the enslavers to do business as usual. So it's been wonderful in discovering these stories, discovering the institutions that they created, the freedom seekers created. The communities of free blacks that were there to assist. They were family. And on my last walk that I just completed recently. It was 165-mile walk from Cape May, New Jersey to Burlington, New Jersey following the underground railroad through all those southern New Jersey counties and the creeks and the rivers. And how they assisted people with reaching freedom on that side of the river. So it's been a fascinating journey in discovering all these different places in history. Sorry I was long-winded there
KATY: No it's good. Be as long-winded as you like because it all needs to be heard. I can hear this thread of community. The importance of putting yourself in a physical place to interact with the people in the place now and also the people not in the place any longer but still having tangible and intangible interactions if you will. How often are you walking in community? Do you feel like - are you mostly doing these walks alone? Are there people who would like to come with you? Do you invite people to come with you? What's that like?
KEN: It's always great having someone to walk with, you know. It helps the miles kind of disappear under your feet because you get into conversations and you share about each other's lives and what's going on. And then you have these natural breaks where you're just alone walking, meditatively. And then you may come back together and talk some more. And so it's just a naturalness of communications. Sometimes I have people walking with and many times I have no one walking with me. When I walked across the south that was a solo walk that I did. This past walk across New Jersey I had two or three other principal walkers that accompanied me. And that was really lovely. We were all history buffs and so we were just filling in some of the detail and having the experience of walking both sides of the Delaware River. I was able to fill in details for them in terms of connections I had made on the western side of the river that Harriet Tubman is known to have traversed. On the eastern side of the river, people who live in these communities say she came there, but it's not written anywhere, that they know she's there, so it's the borrowed history aspect of it that we were listening to and trying to learn more of. So walking with people is something I always encourage people to do. For safety reasons also. But it just makes - people who complain "oh I can't do 8 miles" and the next thing you know you see them doing 8 miles. "Oh, it's over already? Wow, we were just having a good conversation." And so that's really wonderful. And when I walk with people I try to talk with them about preparing themselves for the walk. Wearing proper shoes. Hydrating themselves. I've encountered people who have gotten themselves in difficult situations because they didn't hydrate themselves properly. And I would tell them, bring plenty of water and drink drink drink. They would have 4 bottles of water in a bag and I'd say "How much did you drink?" and there would be like half of the 8 ounces. I'm like, "We've been walking for 4 hours - you need to drink more." So, yeah, it's nice having other people join you sometimes. And there was a wonderful group that I met out of the midAtlantic states out of Delaware, Maryland, and Washington DC., a group of ladies called "We Walk With Harriet". And I consulted with them on their journey from Cambridge Maryland to Kennett Square Pennsylvania which is one of the first places that Harriet Tubman crossed over into freedom land. And now they have their own separate groups now. There are two groups that came out of that one now which is really wonderful. Two African American women's walking groups. So that's been - I keep in touch with both of them and that's been a delightful outcome - walk to freedom in my project seeing other groups develop outside of our original walks. So it's been really good
KATY: What makes a route appropriate to be a Walk to Freedom. What are the characteristics?
KEN: I look for the history of the area that I'm covering. Is there any documentation that it was part of an underground railroad? What still exists there? And also why that may have been a potential route that freedom seekers traveled. Frequently it's a narrow corridor. Usually maybe 10 miles wide. There's a river or creeks in that corridor. Look at the number of churches - African American churches that might have been sprinkled there in that corridor. If there's any historical information about the communities - free African communities - that may have been along that route. And cemeteries. They're all connected right there. You find African American churches, African American cemeteries, you will find underground railroad routes, and creeks and rivers. Those are the elements I look for. You find those elements and you'll find an underground railroad route for sure
KATY: Do you have any special memories from any of your walks? Like just one or two moments that have really stood out?
KEN: From my last walk across southern New Jersey, there was this town called Greenwich. Greenwich, New Jersey. There's a river there called Cohansey and it connects to the Delaware River and Delaware Bay. It was a really special town to intersect with along this walk that I recently completed. There was a hamlet there called Springtown. There was, at one point, two churches in this little small section. And there was ... Quakers lived at the bottom of the hill and the African American community was sort of at the top. No more than a mile from the river. And the Quaker farmers also hired the free blacks that lived in that area. There were sturgeon - it was a sturgeon fish along the river and they would hunt the sturgeon and create - there was a company that took the eggs and made caviar. And so that provided more employment for people living in that area. And it was just a very - it was a town that I arrived in probably about let's say 90 miles - 90-mile mark. We arrived there on Easter Sunday. All that remains there of that black community is just this church. It's called the Bethel of Bell AME church - African Methodist Episcopal church. And when we arrived there that morning when we got to the doors it was just all of a sudden this flood of emotions. Reflecting on just what it would have been like for people escaping oppression arriving at this small hamlet late at night and then waking up on their first morning of freedom. And there was this church where they could go and pray. And it was just a very special Easter morning. I've never experienced before like that. Where it really felt the spirits of the ancestor that arrived and worshiped at this church. And that was special. That was one special moment. I think another special moment was on the southern Montgomery trail when I crossed from Lowndes county into Montgomery county which would have been on the third day of the 4 day march for Freedom there. I remember experiencing these spiritual energies that came to me and people were so happy they were delighted. They were overjoyed. They realized they were making it at that point. They had the assistance of the federal troops to protect them. But more than that, they were coming into Montgomery county, the state capital of Alabama. And the ranks of their march started to swell. People heard that they had just crossed into Montgomery county. They start arriving by busloads, carloads, you know. And to walk with the walkers. And that day was really tough. That third day was a really tough segment of the walk, you know. It was like 16-18 miles and it was all concrete, hard pavement to reach their final overnight camp. Camp Four - St. Jude. St. Jude City was the name of that camp. And that's where you had Joan Biaz and all these other stars perform who were the marchers that night. But that day, just, it was something special when I crossed that line into Montgomery. Just feeling this enthusiasm come to me. So some of these walks you do feel spiritual energies in certain places. And you have to be open. You have to welcome them. I at first didn't know how to speak to those spirits. I didn't know what to say. I was kind of frightened because I had never had that experience before. But after a while, you just listen. You're in the moment and try to be in the moment with them and listen to what they have to say. One time when I was walking in Ireland, the spiritual energy I had there was not good. It was not good. And you could feel they're still struggling - those spirits are still just traveling around filled with anger. It just - there's a lot to be worked out there in Northern Ireland. And I did that walk because I wanted to connect their fleeting civil rights movement with the United States Civil Rights Movement. Because they were inspired by - the Irish Catholics were inspired there in Northern Ireland by - what was happening in the southern United States. The protests that Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders were leading. And they looked at their own lives and said well we're discriminated against with housing and employment so they started their own civil rights movement there. And embracing the slogans and the songs of the American Civil Rights Movement. And on that walk there I was looking at how to connect these two bloody Sundays. You might remember the YouTube song Sunday but it's Sunday. And I was looking at how I could connect these two - symbolically connect these two Civil Rights Movements. And the Civil Rights walk that they had there was called Belfast to Derry Civil Rights Walk. It was a 75 miles long versus the sum of the Montgomery walk which was only 54 miles. And the difference was they didn't have any protection there in Northern Ireland like the Civil Rights Marches had here on their third attempt. And they were harassed and attacked from day one until they finished that 75 miles. And there was one famous incident there called Burntollet Bridge. Where the marchers were literally stoned by various protestant groups that were opposed to Catholic liberation or Catholics being free there in Northern Ireland. And there's a lot of information about that and crossing that bridge. I crossed it the summer before they tore the bridge down back in the spring of 2019. And just, you know, reliving that experience. Experiencing what those civil rights marchers there experienced. The hatred was the same. But somehow they were able to get across that bridge because there was a narrow ravine where the bridge was. So these protestant groups had pre-positioned fresh quarried stones on top of this ravine and as the marchers were coming through they would stone them. And then as they scattered the police would beat them back into the ravine. It was really awful. And this was probably about 8-10 miles outside of the city of Derry. The Irish Catholics call it Derry. The protestants call it London Derry. But they were somehow able to finish that walk that day where they were greeted in Derry by the Irish Catholic community there. It was really amazing to walk into that community even in 2019. There was a lot of tension. Brexit was a major issue at that time. The first Brexit deadline was coming up. And people didn't know what was going to happen if they were going to go back to having borders again between northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. There was a lot of there. A lot of tensions at the time. And the spirits in the air were just - there was a riot when I was there. There was sadly a journalist that was killed. And I said to my friend who came along with me, I said, "We gotta get out of here." We jumped on the bus and left Derry for the Republic of Ireland and finished another walk that we had planned there. So sometimes those spirits - those spiritual energies can still can be a lot lingering in some of these places. Not having resolved their past
KATY: I'd like to ask you some questions now about walking as art. So one of the other interesting concepts - it's interesting for me because I hadn't really thought about it before. You consider yourself a walking artist. There is a whole organization of people who use walking as a means to art. And could you explain that?
KEN: Sure. It's like performance art. And in my case, I'm walking these narrow corridors, maybe about 10 miles wide, and it could be upwards of 400 miles or more long. That's my canvas. And learning about the history and I'm filling in that canvas with the history and other details of it as I'm walking. The lives of these communities that were once there. The communities - the descendants that are still there now - how they interact with the past. So it's encompassing a variety of diverse interests and it might be about architecture, anthropology, archaeology, afro-futurism, and part of the art process as we've talked about it multi-sensory. It's physical. It encompasses me entirely. It's breathing. It's seeing. It's feeling. It's smelling. It's connecting living as a process. It's sort of like a creative dance that you're having all at the same time, figuring out the different parts and elements that you're most using at that time. I'm taking pictures along the way so there's an art element there. Sometimes I do a little video and I've had to purchase a new camera recently to try to figure that all out. I'm still trying to get that down because that's what more people are asking for: "you should shoot video". It's really fascinating to look at it as a performance art - walking across this large area and just, you know, documenting parts of it and talking about what you're sensing and feeling and how you interact with these places where there may have been good relationships with communities and it may not have been so good relationships. May have been hard on African Americans in certain places. Because they were hunted, you know? And that's the difficult aspect to recognize in some of these places - just that your collar would give you away. And tell people that you were probably a fugitive slave passing through there. So you had to be very careful in passing through some of these communities. A wrong turn could cost you your life. Other ways that I incorporate the art into what I'm doing here is I do a lot of lantern-making type of events and workshops. And when I say lanterns we use - right now I'm doing a lot of lantern workshops using round globe lanterns - white Chinese style lanterns. I have groups decorate them. And we make carrying sticks for them. And then we have a lantern parade afterward and people give them lights and people light up and see their designs and it's a very soft way of introducing the idea of lanterns as a major light source during the 19th century. That's what people used to see. And whenever you see an image reflecting the underground, there's always someone holding a lantern. You might see lawn jockeys holding a lantern. They were also part of the underground railroad. They provided direction. If it was pointing this way it meant going right. It might have been the shirt that they were wearing that also was an indicator of what direction it was safe or place to stop or someplace they needed to continue moving on. So it's - I'm sort of couching it as a way of introducing creativity and talking about the history of the underground railroad. And it seems to bring communities together. When people think they're just coming out to paint lanterns and then we'll have this soft conversation about the underground railroad. And kids love it. This last event I did for the Barns museum we had almost 300 people come through our tent. Families come through our tent over a 6-hour period. So it was really nice. So I love doing them. I love going anywhere where there's a lantern festival or parade going on and trying to inspire Philadelphians to have more lantern parades here. And so I've been putting some together. And during Covid, it was difficult because you couldn't bring people together so we did a lantern parade in the place where people created lanterns on the block that I live on using recycled materials like 2-liter soda bottles. You can cut off the funnels and strip the name of the particular soda company off the bottle, and then we take white paper and glue it around the soda bottle and then people could paint or collage that and then hang them off their porches. We also make pyramid-style lanterns out of bamboo sticks and then we'll paper the three sides and people will decorate those and so that would introduce to the community different methods of making the lanterns. And celebrating Juneteenth with them. Or the Christmas holidays
KATY: What else inspires you? Or who else inspires you artistically?
KEN: I think my brother. He's the one that inspires me the most. He's a professional artist. He's a muralist. He's always coming up with some really innovative murals. I didn't grow up with an art background at all so I'm coming into this as an adult and I'm just really following my interests. Back in 2012, I started a winter carnival in Holyoke, Massachusetts. It's called the Holyoke winter carnival. And one of our biggest events was a luminaria where we took these white paper lunch bags and we put some sand in them and popped in a tea light candle in them. And we decorated. We put 2000 of them out in this park in the middle of the winter. And we invited people to come and participate and they just loved it. So it was from that event that I just kept pursuing lanterns and just finding they bring so much joy to people's lives
KATY: I keep thinking of this word where I'm thinking of you and its illumination. There's lighting lanterns but also that walking itself seems to illuminate an area in the sense that you can see it better. You can see it more thoroughly.
KATY: You can pick up more detail. I'm not sure exactly what the entomology of illumination means but that's what I'm feeling right now is that the artistry that is illuminating - it seems to be what you're going to.
KEN: Yes. It is. And it's about lighting the way in our community so that people can see more clearly
KATY: Right. Right. Yeah.
KEN: And that's what I feel and try to incorporate in my walks and talks about lantern making. It's illuminating our lives looking at the past and the present. Remember, freedom seekers didn't use lanterns necessarily when they were escaping because it would have given them away.
KATY: Right. A beacon.
KEN: Exactly. But it was part of their lives. And this is just a way of helping people to look around their lives and the different corners of their lives and be able to illuminate them from their bedrooms to their community. And issues that they're currently facing. And just to help them see a little bit more. I encourage people to get out at night. I love parading with lanterns. It's such a beautiful moment and it's very life-affirming. For me too
KATY: I think of a parade as another type of walk. You know, it's got its own nuances of what the type of walking that it is, but it's a power - there is a power in going in a group. There's safety in going in a group. There's presence in going in a group. And I do think that the individual walking and illuminating history is important and necessary. And I also think groups of people doing it together also - it's a whole different thing that also needs to be happening more. And even if it's in an evening it's really important for community.
KEN: It's community building
KATY: It is.
KEN: Again, it's one of these things, I don't know why I do it, I just love doing it though. And it's the magic of the night with the lanterns floating through the sky, you know? The laughter and yeah, it's walking also. I haven't even thought about that - the walking part of it
KEN: I just do it. And but yeah
KATY: It's the invitation to be involved in something that I think ... there aren't enough invitations, or there could be more invitations for people to step out of their day-to-day life, even outside, you know to see what's going on that maybe modern life or certainly life right now is making it harder. It's harder to see some of the beautiful - and also not-so-beautiful things that still need to be witnessed that still need to be seen. We have to be able to see them.
KATY: Ok well what about just skipping to the actual, or jumping I guess, or walking... what about walking, the actual act of walking. Have you learned anything about just walking - just the boring walking part?
KEN: I'm so glad you brought that up because I never get that question when I'm being interviewed
KATY: Well of course it's gonna come from me. Let's talk about walking - the steps.
KEN: Yeah. It's... walking, the physical act of walking, is connecting to the earth. It's your roots connecting to the earth. And it's part of that sensory experience that I talked about that is just really amazing. Our life is very fast right now and it's a very slow mode of transportation. In that mode of transportation, in walking, you begin to feel everything around you. You hear your breath more. You feel your breathing. You feel the soles of your feet. And that's what this last walk across New Jersey was called Sole to Souls - s. o. l. e. to souls. Feeling the souls of the soles that had crossed this same path that we were following. And what I love about it is people start out walking and then after a number of miles that's the first thing they start to feel. Is some of those pressure points under their feet or in their knees. In their joints of their body. And I keep telling them, drink water. That's the oil. And give yourself a little time and that oil just begins to work through all the joints of your body. And I tell them if you have backaches you just keep walking and you'll notice those backaches will slowly start to disappear. And just keep moving. And it brings out - something about some of these walks it brings out other things going on in people's lives. So it's a way of releasing. And I've seen people cry on walks. I've cried on walks. And in this last walk, this one member of our team, she was relating a story and she just started crying. And then I told her to look up. And there was this beautiful tree with all these white flowers on it. And she looked up at the tree and it was the release and the peace that she needed at the same time. It helped soothe her and helped put a lot of things behind that she had been holding on. And I've had that same experience on my very first walk. I didn't realize it was - I was still carrying a lot of baggage from my divorce and also the death of my daughter - who had passed a number of years before that and on that walk, I just closed these chapters in my life. And it was just so therapeutic. And the answer to that was just to continue walking. I didn't realize it took - it was going to take 215 miles walking across Massachusetts to close all those doors in such a healthy way. But that's what it did for me. And when I got to the other side of the state there was no more anger. There was just peace in my life. And that's what I get out of each of these walks is just whatever is on my mind - the time of those walks it's like the clouds that come in - the idea is there, the clouds come in, and by the time I've covered 2-3 miles that cloud, that thought, is now out of the mind. The cloud has passed. And I'm looking at blue skies. And it's just that way of helping one to cleanse their thoughts and that's one of the beauties of walking
KATY: Do you think that somewhere in your body it knew, even if your mind fully hadn't grasped yet, that walking would be the way to process grief - those chapters.
KEN: No I wasn't aware that it would do that. It was only with the number of hours, the number of miles, the number of footsteps, the number of hills that I crossed over that the new realities were ahead of me. And they were very life-affirming. They were clear. I could see the other side. Sometimes you can't see the other side of the mountain until you get to the top and over that hilltop. And then it's like ... wow! I've made it. Cleared those thoughts out. It's just wonderful for doing that. It's very peaceful. Sometimes just meeting with yourself in solitude is what you need. You don't realize it. For instance, when I was walking across Puerto Rico in September of 2019, a walk that my brother encouraged me to do. I would do three walks that year. Ireland, Puerto Rico, and then Cambridge to New York. And I remember when we - Puerto Rico has these 3000-foot mountains. When we were crossing some of those 3000-foot mountains - Puerto Rico has had a history of violent imperialism. And in seeking independence there were a lot of people that were killed by the US government and troops that were sent there to quell some of those independent movements. In those mountains, you could sometimes feel those spirits come into the mountains to find peace. And I can remember having pictures of this experience along the way, passing by bamboo groves and just hearing the sound of the bamboos as I was walking and just tuning into that sound. Very rigid, thick, bamboo. But then you would hear the wind blowing through them and just a slight movement of them. And there was something about the spirit that was in them, I could feel that spirit - connecting with it on the walks. The more you connect with the spirit of the land while walking, the less physical aspects of your body that you feel. And I can remember another occasion where I was in Cape Cod, reaching Cape Cod, I remember I was telling you how I started that walk where I was connecting - trying to connect with all the bugs. And I had gotten to the place where I just started welcoming them into my life as visitors that were just curious about me. And I can remember on this one stretch in the road for maybe a quarter of a mile to a half mile, this grasshopper just kept staying ahead of me just a few feet. And as I kept walking it was following along with me. Just jumping. And we walked together for literally half a mile. And until he broke off the conversation and went off about his business. So you can have conversations, non-verbal conversations, all kinds of wildlife as you're passing through some of these areas. And so that non-verbal communication that you have is along the way. If you tune in when you're in the moment it can be really profound and very liberating. And connects yourselves to a wider world in that you're not alone
KATY: Are there any practical or emotional considerations that you would share with others who are going to join you on a walk - specifically a Walk to Freedom?
KEN: I think I would recommend just being in the moment. Feeling the journey. Listening to their body is very important. Stopping before it becomes painful. Allowing your thoughts to be unencumbered by things you may be experiencing. Just allow them to come. Don't edit. Don't censor them. Don't try to critique your thoughts. Just let them come. Like the clouds. And they will pass. But I think really just being in the moment is important. One of the things I've been doing of late is I've been starting my walks doing night walks so really people get the feeling. Our first day of walking for the New Jersey underground railroad was a 14-mile night walk from Cape May to Cape May courthouse.
KEN: Because I wanted the other 3 walkers to really be able to feel what it was like at night without lights, although I did say bring lights - you can wear lights. If you want to wear a safety vest you can but, the roads are still pretty much the same as they were 170 years ago. And we would do these really intense night walks where we were trying to duck traffic - instead of ducking slave catchers we were ducking traffic. What people were able to get out of this - difficulty. It's not exciting sometimes walking all at night particularly when there's no moon out and you can't really see below your waist it's so dark. You can't see roots that you may trip over or things like that. And they really experienced the difficulty of the journey that freedom seekers had to go through to reach freedom. My first night walk was from a place called Poplar Neck, Maryland to Denton. And this was in - I was replicating Harriet Tubman's 1854 rescue of her brothers. She had sent a message for them to meet her at this plantation where her parents were working. They had lived - they were both free at that point. This is about 10-15 miles north of Cambridge, Maryland. And it's right along the Choptank River. So she was going to meet her 3 brothers and it turned out to be 9 people there that all wanted to escape. It was Christmas day evening. Christmas evening. I did my walk on Christmas eve. It was a 20-mile walk so I started about 10 pm on Christmas Eve and walked all throughout Christmas morning arriving in Denton at about 8:00 in the morning. It was 24 degrees out that night. There was no moon but there was clear sky. And fortunately, there was no wind so it was cold but it wasn't bitterly cold. But I got to experience what it was like for her and her party escaping that night in that bitter cold winter. I don't know what exact direction I worked with the local historical society. This is the Caroline County Historical Society. And they helped me map out the route that they believe was their best guess in which way she went so I was walking along these rural roads at night. It was really kind of neat. Because in certain places could not see below your waist. So you felt like you were gliding through the night sky. Particularly along the tree lines. And passing all these farms. Unfortunately, a lot of the houses now have sensory lights outside so there would always be this white light that would turn on. And then all the houses were decorated with Christmas lights and things like that. So I was never really in completely dark but it was always some kind of light source beaming at me. I encourage people to go out and do night walks. It's a different kind of feeling. You don't need headlamps. Your eyes actually adjust to the night. And you can see quite well. Christmas holiday was high season for run-away slaves. I don't know if you know that. That was a day they were typically given a day off. So you could get 1-2 days ahead of any slave catchers coming after you - bounty hunters, etc. So that was - winter was a high season for runaways. Because of the longer nights. So you could get further. And so another one of those occasions - I've been doing that a little bit more often just to really kind of get that sensory experience of what it was like being on a trail and passing a farmhouse and seeing lights on the farmhouse and you have to slip through that night pass as you try and remain hidden. So it's been interesting experience
KATY: Where do you want your feet to take you next? Do you have another walk that you'd love to do?
KEN: I've got a few of them. I feel like all my walking will not really tell the story until I make it to Canada. So the next leg of my walk that I'm really trying to find time for is the walk from New York to St. Catherine, Ontario. That's where Harriet Tubman settled until she moved back to Auburn, New York.
KATY: How long is that walk?
KEN: That's another 400 miler. From Harlem to St. Catherine. So it's on the other side of Niagara Falls. So I'm trying to find time for that one. There's another walk that I'm very interested in. It's a 2000-mile walk. It's from Alexandria, Virginia to New Orleans. It's an old slave trading route and they would literally march these coffels of African Americans south from the upper south, in Maryland they had slave pens and in Baltimore, and Alexandria, and Richmond Virginia and they would march them across Virginia and into West Virginia, Kentucky, and southward to New Orleans. There's nothing really left of that route but we've all heard of the trail of tears and how the Indians were moved from their lands in the east to Oklahoma and those areas. Well, more slaves were moved across this route than Native Americans during the trail of tears. And I'm interested in exposing more about that walk. Exposing those communities to their history and what that walk was like. Some of those communities passed laws, you can't bring coffels through certain hours of the day because they didn't like seeing all these people chained and these men, women, and children. And they would just - people would die and they would just dispose of their bodies in ravines and along the creeks and things like that. And there's a book that talks about all of this: The Ledger and the Chain. So I think I need to find sponsorship to do that walk because of the length of time it would take. It'll take about 3-4 months to complete that walk But there's an incredible story there that just calls at me. So yeah, there's many walks. But my next one this year is going to be across - going back to Puerto Rico again. I started this book. It was messages to the next democratically elected governor of the island. And what people think and feel. So I collected about 85 to 100 different signatures who described what they want the next governor to do for the island. So I need to continue working on that. And so this walk is going to be a walk around the perimeter of the island. That's gonna take us a month to do that. So we've covered about a quarter of all the townships. This will help us reach maybe about 3/4 of the island - well not townships on the island. We'll start in San Juan and we'll walk all the way around all the beach communities across the island. So that's supposed to happen in December. We'll see if it happens. I've got to figure that out with my job and get that time off. I've left jobs - I've quit. I'm the guy who quit his job
KATY: Right. We saw that in the paper. That was the headline.
KEN: So I'm trying not to do that. I have a nice job now. I'm working at T--- College in their HR department. And so I'm hoping the college does close down for a little bit during that time period during the Christmas/New Year holiday. So I'm hoping that I can use up some vacation time for about a week and a half and then hopefully the college will close down and I'll be able to use that time to walk. So it's always been a little tricky with the job front. And when I'm going to do these walks
KATY: Yeah. Well, how do you get sponsorship? How can we sponsor you? How can listeners sponsor you?
KEN: One of the ways I've done this is up to this point I've done like a go fund me page that has supported me on some of the long walks. But I'm a little bit past that point now. I need to find some real sponsorships. I need to create a non-profit so I can also go after the grants and things like that, rather than try to depend on commercial sponsorship. And with grants, I can work them as an educational art grant. And be able to support myself during that time period. So it's not a loss of income also. But it would allow me - the difficulty about doing these walks is I come off the walks and I have to work right away. I'm broke. And I have to work right away. And so that time that I would have to be able to sit down and write is lost. So that's the importance of the picture. To help me remember during these walks. Unfortunately when you have to walk like this Puerto Rico walk and with some of the Montgomery walk, I was pressed for time and I had to cover 100 miles a week. So this walk around Puerto Rico, it's going to be covering 100 miles a week so you don't have a lot of time to stop and chit chat too much. But I hope that I will be able to do more of that in the future when I'll be actually able to sit down and have time to be able to write and document the walk. So that's the challenge of these long walks. I try to keep up with my web page. Sometimes I'm ok with it and sometimes I'm not ok. I don't get to it for a while. I gave away my computer recently to my sister so I just purchased a new one. So I've come back to the website and kind of updated what's happened since the end of the New Jersey walk and upload pictures and things like that and keep up with that. Websites are hungry, you know. They require a lot of data
KATY: Well I for one would love to read or listen to your adventures at some point and I appreciate you coming on today and just sharing them verbally with me today. Quite illuminating. And I wish you the best of success and I hope that we're hearing about Walks to Freedom for some time. I just feel like there's so many more walks for you still.
KEN: Oh yeah. There are. I just hope I can find the time to do them. It's a great way of meeting new people. Connecting with your community. And just discovering people's lives and how they live them
KATY: Well thanks much for coming and talking with me today.
KEN: Well thank you, Katy. I really appreciate it and I need to come back and do more work with Nutritious Movement. I get off these walks and then I sit for a long period of time. I'm trying to break that cycle
KATY: Oh your body will ... how does your body feel at the end of your first week back to work?
KEN: My body still feels very good. A lot of energy. A lot of memories - still just very excited about what I just completed. So yeah. Those memories just live in me for quite a long while. And it's hard finding people - hey you want to go for a 15-mile walk today? I tell them "look it's just a long morning walk and a short afternoon walk, you know? And after 8 hours you're done."
KATY: I tell people that too and I can't get a lot of takers. If we lived closer I would definitely walk with you regularly.
KEN: Yeah. Yeah. But it's really enjoyable and I think I'm gonna go walk Gettysburg next. It's about 2 hours from my house and there was an underground railroad route that ran through there and part of a walk I did last year was a 75-mile walk and was commemorating the 170th anniversary of the Christiana Resistance. And it's the story of these freedom seekers who traveled to this little small hamlet, Christiana, Pennsylvania. The slave owner came and tried to get them - this was in 1851 - and there ended up being a skirmish and the slavemaster was killed. Edward Gorsuch. Hear the last name Gorsuch? Sounds familiar. Yes, he's related to the supreme court justice. And the principal actors involved - the freedom seekers were able to escape to Canada with the help of Frederick Douglas, so it was a really wonderful walk across Amish country here in Pennsylvania and taking in a lot of history there. And it's just - and it was walking just east of Gettysburg. So I want to go back and experience walking across the lands of Gettysburg National Military Park and that was all about destroying slavery. There's lots of history out here. Lots of trails to walk out here in Pennsylvania connecting. It's all about connecting to the land
KATY: What site can people go check you out - even though I know it's not up to date. Can they still go check you out a little bit there and read some of your things?
KEN: Yes. They can go to my website: OurWalkToFreedom.com or they can just google me or Ken Johnston and Walk to Freedom
KATY: Yeah, you've done plenty of good media, too. There's lots of good articles out there. I'm sure any time you walk past or through a town they want to interview you because - they've got to know the story.
KEN: Yeah. I still don't feel the best at interviewing yet. I haven't found the conciseness that I need to have more media. I still don't have my 30-second elevator speech down yet
KATY: I don't have that either. I've been doing this a long time and I'm not concise or - and I'm not great at interviews but in the end, you can still get out your message.
KEN: Yeah. That's true
KATY: That's why I write 100,000-word books because brevity - I don't know if brevity is doing us a lot of good. I think sometimes the slower longer deeper versions might be where there's more answers anyway.
KEN: Yeah. Yeah. I was really overwhelmed with this last walk. We finished and they had this - I don't usually get a reception at the end of walks but this one was an amazing reception. One of the other walkers put it together. It was at the Burlington/Quaker meeting house. They had a choir. They had a descendant of Harriet Tubman that came to speak. She presented me with a lantern to continue carrying the light forward and we organized all the underground railroad churches and stations that we had passed to come together. And that was the first time that they all came together. They had been acting as silos in their own communities trying to continue the legacy of the underground railroad and brought them together and they just - they were sharing ideas and so we were trying to build a coalition with these groups. Where they come together a couple of times a year to look at how they can connect their stories. Because they were all part of the same underground railroad lines. Just separated by 10 to 20 miles but yet they've had difficulty keeping in touch. On our final walk, we had over 50 people that came out to walk 8 miles with us. Fraternities, sororities, community members, and it was just a really - we had catered lunch. It was really amazing. It was just the most incredible reception I've received at the end of a walk. And it made it that much more touching. And the community felt very touched that the walk brought them all together. So it was nice
KATY: Would you like to see more people walking these walks?
KEN: I'd love to see more people come out and walk so they can touch history. Particularly young people so they can experience the history of their communities. It's very important. And each community has a different history. When I arrived in Perth-Amboy New Jersey - Perth-Amboy started off as a - it was the capital of New Jersey at one point in time and it was a slave - there was a slave market there. The slave traders preferred to bring fresh slaves into Perth-Amboy because the taxes were cheaper in New Jersey than bringing them into New York City. So they would bring them there, they would sell them. Then they would be carried off to New York City. And then it later became an underground railroad station in its history. And when I arrived the city wanted to change its history. So they welcomed us. They provided a police boat to escort us across the Arthur Kill river to Tottenville, New York - Staten Island. That was really an amazing turnout of people from that community to walk amongst. They really were just very enthusiastic about what we were doing. It was me, my brother, and his dog, walking all the way across New Jersey. It was really following the underground railroad. It was a really incredible journey to Harlem, New York there.
KATY: Are you having to piece together a lot of these walks yourselves or are they clearly - like is there a walking guide? It's not marked anywhere, historically?
KEN: No. There's no markings for the underground railroad.
KATY: Would you like to see that change? Would you like there to be...
KEN: Yes. And we did - shortly after we finished our walk of New Jersey, the state of New Jersey passed the black heritage trail mall. I went to Trenton, New Jersey to the capital to see this law enacted. This bill. They attached a million dollars to it and so now there's a committee that's going to be establishing where to put markers around New Jersey to help people become acquainted with the black heritage trails - that's what they're called
KEN: So that was exciting that that happened within 3 weeks of finishing our walk there. So timing of all these things just came together. It was really wonderful. And the bill was introduced by the Harriet Tubman Museum in Cape May, New Jersey working with their local state representative who was republican - that helped to put this forward. So it was really good. I would love to see that because people don't know. They just don't know that the underground railroad - they think it was just Philadelphia or it was just New York but it spread out across all and many of these communities - near the mid-Atlantic. I think Ohio has the most underground railroad stations and routes north to the Canadian border. That's the place I'm still looking to go to again. But even on the west coast, there were underground railroad routes. And there's just no signage. It's really sad that if you want to walk the pacific coast trail, you'll find signs for that
KATY: And books. And many books probably.
KEN: And many books
KATY: To tell you all about it but not the other way around.
KEN: And I deliberately have decided I don't want to walk the Appalachian trail. I don't want to walk the PC trail. My interest is these cultural heritage trails that illuminate and highlight cultures and how they intersected here. That is my interest
KATY: And similarly I like to do long walks but not necessarily the big far travel away walks but the walks that illuminate the people where you live and the landscapes that you're on. I think we're quick to escape to this other big iconic walk and are just missing - it could be just the history. The importance of walking where you are. And that you can get the same benefit. There's a connection here. There's a deep connection.
KEN: And before automobiles, that's what people did. They walked.
KEN: With the aid of also horses and carriages - that was another mode of transportation. But they basically walked. And it's trying to get them to come back to doing more of that. We miss that. We miss that connection between towns. And my brother during the pandemic he started walking his kids - he has 4 kids, 5 to 13 now. Actually 6 to 13. The youngest - they would start out - they were just going stir crazy during the pandemic so he started taking them for walks. They started little 2-mile walks and then it became 5 miles. And then after a while, they were completing 10-mile walks. A 5-year-old completing a 10-mile walk in cowboy boots because she loved her boots. I finally bought - I said, look we've got to get her some real hiking shoes so I got the two youngest hiking shoes and they loved going on walks. They pranked their friends by saying "oh we're just going out for a walk. And after two miles the friends are like how much further are we going. And they're like, "we're just getting started." But it has taught them so much resilience within themselves that they can do these things. They can do a 10-mile walk. And a lot of people say "oh I can't do that" and here they're doing it. Look at these kids. They're doing it. You can do it
KATY: I mean you can walk to another state. You can. You can do this. Outside of disability. I just don't even think that we can even hold our capacity for movement in our head because we just haven't. You can. You do this. You walk across the country. All of our ancestors did. It's not a new-fangled idea. It's an old-fashioned idea.
KEN: Right. I know this one author, she said, that's what your bodies are designed for.
KATY: Yeah. And designed by.
KEN: You've just got to Move Your DNA. You know
KEN: That was one of my audiobooks on my walk across the south from Selma to Memphis. Move Your DNA
KATY: What are some of your others. Can you give me a list of... we'll end with your audiobook walking list. What are 5 great books that you listened to that you were just really glad that you were listening to while you were walking - while you were out and about.
KEN: Well a lot of them are about the underground railroad while I'm walking. So some good ones right now that I walk with is Imani Perry: South to America . It's about her travels across the deep south and looking at their history. The upper south and the lower south. That's a good one. There's one called Yellow Wife she's a Philadelphian author - she no longer lives in Philly but from here. Yellow Wife : Sadeqa Johnson is a good one. And that covers - that's the story about this light-skinned African American who is - she's enslaved and very talented. It's based on a true story and she's purchased by this slave trader who is based out of Richmond, Virginia. They end up having children together and how those children recognized their mother. And just that relationship. That dynamic being a slave and then being married to the person who is enslaving you. It's a book that just has you on the edge of your seat. It's just that good
KATY: I've got to go get it!
KEN: There's some difficult times in the book that you have to work through but then there's some - it always comes back to a lighter moment
KATY: Ok. I'm fine with that.
KEN: That's a favorite. She Came to Slay by Erica Armstrong Dunbar. That's about Harriet Tubman. That's really good. Unbound by Tarana Burke is another one. And she talks about her color - she's very dark-skinned and how society looks at her. And the individual abuses she experiences as a child and how she worked out of that to find a new life for herself. Here is a book, it's a Native American book called There There that's very good. I loved listening to that. That's by Tommy Orange. He talks about Native American youth connecting with him today, what their interests are, how they like life on the res. But the way he writes it and brings these - looks like very distinct individual stories how he brings them all together and how they all come crashing together at this pow wow. But it's a very contemporary story. Love that. When I was Puerto Rican is another one. By Esmeralda Santiago. It talks about her life growing up in Puerto Rico and then coming to the United States and living in New York City, growing up in New York City and how a teacher inspired her and how she went on to great academic success and was accepted at Harvard and graduated from Harvard. A really nice story. So just those are some that kind of jump out there. But it's really wonderful to walk and have a story to listen to and then when you get tired you can turn it off and just listen to the birds and life around you. Life energy around you
KATY: Well thanks for sharing your story with us. I hope to hear more from you.
KEN: Ok. All right. I'll get back on my website and try to create more stories for you to read
KATY: No pressure. No pressure.
(walking in leaves sounds)
Friends, I hope you enjoyed this conversation with Ken Johnston, freedom walker, as much as I did. I hope it gets you thinking and of course, as always, I hope it gets you moving. Be well, peeps
Hi. My name is Debbie from California. This has been Move Your DNA with Katy Bowman, a podcast about movement. Hopefully you find the general information in this podcast informative and helpful, but it's not intended to replace medical advice and should not be used as such. Our theme music was performed by Dan MacCormack. This podcast is produced by Brock Armstrong. And the transcripts are done by Annette Yen. Find out more about Katy and her books and her movement programs at NutritiousMovement.com