Saturday, January 19, 2008

intro and FAQ

[UPDATE, June 9, 2009: Ever since my mother was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, an incurable type of brain tumor (the most famous GBM victim is Ted Kennedy), the walk has been cancelled. Feel free to browse the blog and read about the walk, my convalescence in Walla Walla and northern Virginia, my random thoughts on movies, TV, life, the universe, and everything, etc. But skip to the April 16, 2009 post titled "Mom in hospital" to learn more about our family's current struggle, or if you want a super-quick summary, read this post. My apologies if you had been hoping to read about a 3000-mile adventure. I did, however, cross 600 miles. Alas, 600 miles doesn't look all that big when plotted out on Google Maps.]

Welcome to Kevin's Walk! If you're peeping at this blog before May of 2008, you'll likely be disappointed, as the walk won't have started yet. Most of the pre-walk blogging will be devoted to general planning and self-improvement.

Of course, if this is your first visit, you'll be wanting to know what the heck this is all about, and that's the function of this "intro/FAQ" post. Without further ado, then, let's plunge right into it.


[UPDATE, 9/12/08: If you've got a short attention span and don't want the details of my recent years, here's the 25-word summary of who I am: A dude interested in religious questions who has left a cushy job in Seoul and is walking across the US to see the religious landscape. Now skip everything that follows and move on to Question 2, realize you didn't learn very much from the above, and go back and read the lengthier write-up!]

Kevin is Your Humble Narrator, Kevin Kim. I'm 38 years old as of this writing, and have been living in Seoul, South Korea, for a total of about seven years. I'm very interested in questions of interreligious dialogue, philosophy of religion, philosophy of mind, and so on, and have even put together a book of scattered thoughts on the subject titled Water from a Skull, an image that comes from Korean Buddhism. You can find the book here if you're interested.

I graduated from Georgetown University in 1991 with a BSLA in French and a minor in what was termed "theology," but was actually religious studies. I tend to think that people who study or "do" theology have a vested personal interest in the subject; it's hard to imagine an atheist approaching the field with any gusto. Religious studies, on the other hand, is a field of inquiry open to anyone of any metaphysical conviction, be that person atheist or agnostic or "spiritual, not religious" or a member of a specific tradition.

From 1991 to 1992, I was a substitute teacher in the Fairfax County Public Schools system, a job that rapidly wore on me as I realized just how little respect young teachers get from their students, and how little patience I had for said students. From 1992 to 1994, I taught French and English at Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia, and while I enjoyed certain aspects of teaching-- my colleagues, plus the better students-- I found that teaching teens simply didn't agree with me. So instead of torturing myself and my students any further, I took the cosmic hint and left the profession after two years in the game.

But teaching was something I liked doing, a fact I realized when I went to South Korea in the summer of 1994. I had simply been teaching the wrong age group; college students and adults, people who paid for their lessons and generally wanted to be there, turned out to be a much better crowd to teach to. I taught English conversation in Korea for two years (1994-1996) before returning to the States. While my time teaching Korean students had been more than pleasant (I also made some good friends while in Seoul), I did experience the ass-end of expat life in Korea. My first boss tried to stiff me for a month's pay, plus the so-called "retirement allowance" given to all foreign teachers at the end of their contract. I sued my boss; he counter-sued me; I ended up winning both suits. The experience, while bitter, was nevertheless instructive: I learned a lot about myself, and I learned a lot about human nature, almost as much as I had been learning from my daily teaching routine.

I came back to the States in 1996 and remained there until 2002. During that time, I worked at a pleasant job in Washington, DC (hello, APIC!), and attended grad school at Catholic University (DC) from 1999 to 2002. I began as a part-time student, which proved prohibitively expensive; I had been told that full scholarships were available only to those enrolling full-time, so that's what I did after one semester of financial torture. I had to compete for the scholarship, but I got it, which was a good thing. Unfortunately, I also accepted a mess of Sallie Mae student loans along with the scholarship, and used those loans to pay my rent while I was studying so as to give myself more time to study. The end result was an "A" average for my graduate career, but also a mountain of debt that I have been, ever so slowly, paying off (along with the remains of my Georgetown student loan debt). I mention this because it figures into the Walk, as you'll see later.

My Master's coursework at Catholic U (hereinafter "CUA") was under the rubric of "Religion and Culture," but my specific interests were in Asian philosophy and religion, interreligious dialogue, and philosophy of religion (my interest in philosophy of mind is a recent development). I took the required courses in Catholic theology and "method" as per the requirements of my program; they and all the other courses were taught by cheerful, competent profs, and I learned a lot from them and from my classmates.

I graduated with my MA in 2002, and had thought to continue on to a Ph.D, perhaps with Buddhist studies as my primary focus, along with secondary and tertiary concentrations in philosophy of religion and so on. With that in mind, I went back to Korea in September of 2002 for the purpose of learning more Korean, and perhaps picking up classical Chinese along the way.

This was not to be. Although I did do a semester of Korean at Korea University's excellent Hanguk-eo Gyoyuk Saen-t'eo (Korean Language Education Center), I found myself dealing with my crushing scholastic debt, so I once again fell into teaching English. From 2002 to 2004, this meant private tutoring, which is illegal. In 2004, I found a job teaching at a language institute in Kangnam, i.e., the south part of Seoul, and stayed at the job while hunting for university work. From 2005 to the present, I've been teaching at my mother's old college, Sookmyung Women's University. By the beginning of 2007, I had saved enough money to pay off both my credit card debt (I remain debt-free on that front) and a personal debt to a Korean relative. All that remains now is my enormous scholastic debt, which tips the scales at over $70,000. For anyone who thinks I'm looking to get rich quick, rest assured that prosperity isn't coming my way anytime soon.

My time at Sookmyung has been fantastic. What an amazing change from teaching at those hagwons (language institutes)! While life at Sookmyung is occasionally hagwonish in nature, it's a far cry from the oppressive ambience I experienced in the '90s. This has been, without a doubt, the best job I've ever had, and it's something of a shame to let it go. I do plan to return to Korea after the Walk, however, so I won't be saying goodbye forever. I might even return to Sookmyung itself, if they'll have me.


Kevin's Walk is an idea I've had, in some form or other, for a few years, but now seems like the best time to embark on it. I'm nearing 40, and some egomanical part of me would like to be able to tell people that, yeah, I did Something Big before I was 40: I walked across America.

The basic plan is to do a walk across the continental United States, from sea to shining sea, "connecting the dots" between and among various churches, mosques, cathedrals, synagogues, temples, ashrams, cloisters, hermitages, college campuses, and whatever else I can find along the way. I'm doing this in part to satisfy my curiosity regarding a number of pressing interreligious questions, partly to do Something Big before I become too old to do so, and partly to get back into the same shape I was in back in 1990, which was when I finished a year-long stay in Switzerland, a truly fantastic country to walk through. I had spent my year there as part of my French major, living with a very nice Swiss family (the Thalmanns, not the Robinsons), and had developed a habit of hiking around whenever and wherever I could. I came back from the experience a lot thinner than when I started, and as I now near the scary threshold of 300 pounds (that's 21.4 stone to you Brits), nearly 100 pounds above my 1990 weight, I feel myself wanting to pull back from the edge-- far, far back.


Yes, I realize I probably won't be able to sleep on the grounds of these holy places; I'm more likely to end up sleeping at the residence of someone associated with the place-- a member of the laity, perhaps. Much depends on the welcome I receive from each place I visit.


I'm doing this walk primarily to ask questions and to listen to answers. As will be obvious if/when you buy a copy of Water from a Skull, I have my own metaphysical convictions, but by no means am I embarking on this walk with the purpose of beating people over the head with my point of view.

My hope is to arrive at each appointed place sometime in the afternoon, to have a chance at a shower and a change of clothes, then to sit down with people from that religious community who might be willing to speak on interreligious issues. I'll have a list of questions with me to prompt discussion, but if the conversation unrolls naturally, I have no problem with setting those questions aside and simply going with the flow.

It seems silly to go through all this effort and not record the insights I receive, so I'm hoping to document each stage of the trip somehow. I haven't settled on a documentary method, though I suspect the ideal would be to have a small team go along with me, setting up A/V equipment at each stopover and/or recording part or all of the walk itself. Much of this would end up on this blog; it's also possible that an actual documentary film might be the end result. In any event, I do plan on writing a book about the experience, à la Peter Jenkins and his classic, A Walk Across America.

Finding a documentary team might not happen until the walk has picked up some momentum, though; the Rolling Stones might have been able to secure the likes of Martin Scorsese to film them, but I'm a nobody, which means that finding an eager film crew, one willing to endure months and months of hardship and poverty, might be a bit of a problem.

So: at each stopover, I hope to shower, change my clothes, talk for a few hours (with the talk being recorded somehow), eat some small dinner, sleep, get a wee breakfast, then continue on to the next site. If there's no dinner and no breakfast, that's perfectly OK; one major aspect of this Walk will be mendicancy--, i.e., begging. I plan to rely on the good graces of those who will have me. If Nothing is what's on offer, then Nothing it shall be.

NOTE: I also hope to alternate sites (church, followed by synagogue, followed by mosque, followed by temple, etc.), though I know this might not be possible, especially if I find myself in a heavily Christian area.

NOTE2: I also hereby express my willingness to do chores and/or manual labor if that's what it takes to earn a night's stay somewhere.


I'm hoping to meet regular folks who are willing to talk about interreligious issues (some of which may be potentially uncomfortable, such as whether one would be willing to allow one's child to marry someone of a completely different religion). I want to get a feel for what "pluralism" might mean in American society, which is both huge and diverse. I want to know what people of a given tradition think of people of other traditions... and if they don't think about those other traditions, I'd like to know why they don't. Is it a taboo subject? Is it somehow dangerous to the larger community? Is it simply a matter of not caring? Above all, I'd like to see how all the information I hear can be put together into some sort of strategy for the peaceful coexistence of people of all traditions. Do Americans, who generally live peacefully together, often in religiously heterogeneous communities, have something to offer a world wracked by interreligious conflict?


I'm hoping to begin the walk in mid- to late May of this year, 2008. I don't know how long the walk might last because I don't know its exact route yet. In fact, that's something I want to talk about in subsequent posts: how, exactly, I should be plotting my route. Ideas and comments are welcome.

UPDATE: The date has been set for May 27, 2008.

UPDATE 2, 9/13/08: The walk started on 5/27/08, from White Rock, British Columbia, just across the border from Blaine, Washington.


There are at least three ways you can help me out on this walk, and I will be humbly grateful for whatever assistance you choose to provide.

a. Financial help

Despite the mendicancy theme, I don't like to beg. Who does, really? If you shell out money for me, then I hope to give you something in return for your contribution. Seems only fair, right? To this end, I will be creating products related to Kevin's Walk for purchase on my site-- mugs, tee shirts, and other items (all designed by me) whose purchase will help defray the expected and unexpected costs of the walk.

However, humility demands that I also put up a PayPal donation button on this blog; I have a PayPal account, and will be accepting donations from kind-hearted folks who think the Walk is for a worthy cause. There will be no minimum donation, so there's no pressure to donate more than a dollar if that's what you feel like contributing. I'm not the type to give people guilt trips; donate as much or as little as you like, or nothing at all.

I would also be willing to accept some sort of corporate sponsorship, though I'm aware that most corporations would rather avoid sponsoring something overtly religious in nature. I understand and accept this, but I also suspect that certain entities might be a bit more willing to look into supporting a religious project. If you know of any such organizations, please let me know.

b. Material help.

I will doubtless need things like food, changes of batteries for various pieces of equipment, replacement hiking/camping supplies, and so on. If you're willing to provide anything like this for free, I will gladly accept whatever you have to offer. As needs arise, I will likely blog about them.

I suppose the phrase "material help" might also include the notion of "shelter." I'm not planning on camping my way across the country, though I do need to be prepared to do some camping if the distance between destinations is too far for me to traverse in a single day.

UPDATE, 9/13/08: A chase car would also be helpful. I obviously can't expect a single person to serve as the chase car driver for the entire trek, but having a series of drivers, who would each drive for a short distance (maybe 1-3 days' hike) would be a real boon. WOuld you be interested in being a chase car driver? Catch up with my blog, see where I currently am, and contact me.

c. Spiritual help.

Constructive remarks, kind words, encouragement, advice, serious discussion of the issues-- these things all matter to me. Feel free to leave comments on this blog (comments here are moderated in order to weed out the uncivil) or to visit my Facebook page (you'll have to "friend" me to see it, of course) and engage in some discussion in the two "groups" I've created there, one devoted to religious diversity, and the other devoted explicitly to this walk of mine.


I'm not sure. If the country is roughly 3,000-4,000 miles across, and if I walk 20-30 miles per day, what does that come out to? Assuming I hike an average of 20 miles per day without zigzagging, I might be done with the Walk in 150-200 days; this also assumes that I stay at each spot only for one night. It also assumes I walk seven days a week for every week of the Walk. No lingering.

This pace is conceivable, but is it realistic?

No. What I see happening is more like this: I may stay more than a single night in some places, and my route will almost certainly not be a relentlessly straight march from west to east. I suspect the Walk will take me substantially more than a year's time.

I would love to encounter a religious establishment at absolutely regular intervals-- say, once every 20 miles. But I doubt this will happen, especially as I leave the densely populated coast and head into the country's central regions. Reality is, by nature, clumped and uneven, so there's little reason to expect churches, temples, and so on to be evenly distributed throughout the land.

UPDATE, 9/13/08: After about 500 miles of walking, from White Rock, BC down through Seattle, over to Portland, then eastward along the Columbia RIver to Umatilla and back up into Walla Walla, Washington, I can say that (1) I don't walk every single day, (2) my walks have varied greatly in length from 2 to 35 miles, and (3) I do camp a lot, though I probably end up in hotels or residences more often. Because I currently have a bad knee (medial collateral ligament strain), walking is excruciating without painkillers; I'm resting in Walla Walla and wintering in Boise in order to give my poor knee a chance to heal.

I still believe, however, that I can make the 2-year maximum limit. I've given up on finishing the walk before I'm 40; my pace is simply too slow. Then again, upon leaving Walla Walla, I'll have a chase car (my father's the driver) until I reach Boise, and I hope to arrange chase cars for the walk out of Boise to Parts Unknown. Ideally, I'll use my wintering time in Boise (about four months) to plot the rest of the route and arrange chase cars. I might-- just might-- be able to hit the east coast before my 40th birthday on August 31, 2009. If not... oh, well.


With many thanks to my good friend Nathan Bauman, the Walk will actually begin near Vancouver, Canada, in what Nathan has cleverly styled a "prelude" to the US portion of Kevin's Walk. The official beginning of the Walk will be somewhere on the US west coast, right at the Pacific Ocean, probably in the state of Washington. The official end of the Walk will occur when I arrive at the Atlantic Ocean, probably that portion of the east coast occupied by Maryland or Virginia (my hometown is Alexandria, Virginia). The Walk's "epilogue" will likely include a stop by a particular Zen temple I'm fond of, as well as my own church.

And then I'll just walk on over to my folks' place, and it'll be time to chew over the experience with my family, then think about heading back to Korea to continue my life as a university English and French instructor.

[UPDATE, 9/13/08: I started the walk at White Rock, British Columbia, from the Pacific Inn. Nathan drove me there on May 26, 2008, after picking me up at Vancouver International Airport. After leaving the hotel the following morning, I passed by the Peace Arch while walking on Canadian Route 99; at the border, I stepped through the pedestrian gate of Passport Control and found myself in Blaine, Washington. It wasn't until I had walked down to Bellingham Bay, however, that I "officially" touched the Big Water. See my sidebar for the link to the YouTube video of the moment I touched the water!]


I have quite a few unsettled questions:

a. obtaining sponsorship (corporate, religious, personal, etc.)
b. deciding on the proper method to plan out the route-- I'm currently leaning toward a "self-planning" route at the moment; further explanation of this will occur in subsequent blog posts
c. obtaining proper equipment for the walk
d. getting my financial house in order-- because of my scholastic debt, I need to be able to pay about $600 per month to stay afloat in the eyes of Sallie Mae
e. finding a possible documentary team for the walk and/or buying the appropriate A/V equipment for myself (digital video camera? Wi-Fi laptop or some other device that'll allow me to remote-blog the trip?)
f. finalizing certain rules of the road for the Walk-- e.g., whether I want travel companions (other than the hypothetical documentary team, and I might not want them, either)
g. training a bit so as to be in not-quite-sad shape when I do finally begin the walk
h. settling the matter of insurance: how will I be dealing with possible sickness and injury?
i. what else? there's always something else...

That's it for the FAQ so far. Congratulations if you've made it through the whole thing. I'll likely to be adding to and adjusting the FAQ as time goes on, and I'll almost certainly be tinkering with this blog's look over the next few months. If things get too busy for me, I might even hand these duties off to some trusted souls, like friends or family members.

Feel free to add your comments, but please keep in mind that I do expect all comments to be civil and constructive. People who can't help being assholes will not have their comments published (all comments are moderated). I've heard some folks cry "censorship!" when confronted with this attitude, but my take is that my blog is my cyber-house: it's open to guests, but just as I expect my real house guests to conduct themselves civilly, so I expect my virtual house guests to do likewise. Those who fail to demonstrate basic manners will be shown the door-- no questions, no arguments. Cleaning house is, ultimately, my responsibility. If you want to argue that this blog is a public forum and that I have no right to "censor" people, then you need to explain why I own this blog. A castle might house hundreds of guests, but this doesn't make it a public place. Besides, public places are usually policed. Do you want me to hire someone to police the comments here? Just keep things simple: civility brings with it no problems.

Come back soon and see what's new with Kevin's Walk!