PORT TOWNSEND — What if, following a national trauma, the president encouraged us to go out on a walk together?
This would be no paltry stroll. No, we’re talking about 50 miles within one day and night. Neighbors would set out in groups, people with nothing in common — save this expedition the commander-in-chief hoped would bring the country together.
Seems implausible. But this is what happened in early 1963. After the collective terror of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy urged their fellow Americans to participate in the Big Walk. From coast to coast, people got out there: They were the JFK 50-milers.
Port Townsend author Adrianne Harun heard about this moment in history. Fascinated, she obtained an early ’63 Life magazine on eBay and, with her novelist curiosity and skill called into service, began to write.
“On the Way to the End of the World,” the story of a motley group of walkers from the fictional city of Humtown, will be released this Friday. Harun’s book launch party will start at 7 p.m. at the Pope Marine Building, 603 Water St., with poet Tim McNulty also giving a short reading. Copper Canyon Press cofounder Tree Swenson will introduce the two writers.
“Also, there may be cookies,” Harun quipped.
Humtown is Port Townsend; the “End of the World” is an actual blufftop spot known to many locals. The people who set out together make their walk from March 16 to March 17, 1963 — and they’re people who muscled their way in to Harun’s imagination.
On the walk, we have mismatched companions who manage to keep one another going. There is recently widowed Caroline; fisherman Jasper; Avis, a teenager fleeing her abusive brother; the guy who wears a Catholic priest’s collar but may not have been ordained; and Helen, the gossipy telephone operator. There’s a pair of Boy Scouts too. They discover many things on the journey — including the abandoned car of a young mother who has gone missing. This kindles a whodunit element amidst the odyssey.
Harun, a longtime resident of Port Townsend who has published two short story collections and a novel, “A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain” (2014), takes her readers by the hand on this Big Walk, and gives them a flashlight. It’s winter in the far Pacific Northwest, so much of the story unfolds in darkness. But Harun walks her characters slowly into the light of human connection.
“There’s a tiny bit in here of ‘Wizard of Oz’ quality: People come together from different circumstances,” Harun said. Together they go from hither to yon, learning what they’re made of. The novelist wanted to write about fear, courage and getting through tough times.
“It’s a pandemic book,” said Harun.
“It’s a walk through that kind of heaviness … and I think character wins out. I think almost everyone on the walk has the character they need, to create the lives they need to live,” after the walk is over.
When she began writing “On the Way,” Harun didn’t know exactly how it would all turn out. That’s typical for novelists, she said, adding she has a friend who compares fiction writing to traveling from Spokane to Miami. You know where you want to go, but you aren’t sure exactly how you’ll arrive there.
“You always know what you hope to do. But you’re always surprised,” Harun said. Characters appear. As they interact, strange things happen.
“On the Way” has already received raves from other Northwest authors including Jess Walter and Erica Bauermeister.
The tale is “both dark and light, unsettling and full of hope,” Bauermeister said. Harun, she added, is “wicked talented.”
Harun has done her share of walking. Her husband Alistair Scovil, with whom she ran the Motorsport garage in Port Townsend for many years, died in 2018. She later traveled to England to do a long walk with a group of fellow travelers she didn’t know. The writer came to understand anew that out there on the path, it doesn’t matter where you came from. You’re just a bunch of companions. When we can see one another as people, and put our old judgments to one side, she believes, we can make it through.
By the way, Harun added with a smile, we may not need all that fancy hiking gear.
“Bobby Kennedy walked out of his West Wing office in his loafers,” and did those 50 miles, she noted.
Harun also knew of an Anacortes man who completed the walk when he was a teenager in 1963. What did he pack?
“I think I brought a sack lunch,” he told her.
Diane Urbani de la Paz is a freelance writer and photographer living in Port Townsend.