by Fran Withrow
After I read “The Man Who Walked Backward,” I decided to try backward walking myself. It was fun for about ten minutes. My legs quickly became fatigued, and there is always the danger of stepping in an unseen hole or bumping into a mailbox. Plus, people look at you funny.
I quickly abandoned my experiment. I’ll walk facing forward, thank you very much.
But Plennie Wingo made a different choice. In 1931, with the Great Depression in full swing, Wingo, like countless others, lost his job. He then decided that walking around the world backward was his ticket to fame and fortune. True story!
Wingo set off from Fort Worth, Texas with high hopes and little money, peddling post cards and stopping occasionally to take odd jobs advertising local restaurants. He wore out several pairs of shoes and met folks from all walks of life. (Some encounters were less beneficial than others.)
Author Ben Montgomery could have made this simply a book about Wingo’s journey, since the backward walker took copious notes, sent letters, and even wrote an account of his trip (though it was poorly received by the public). But as Wingo wends his way across the United States, Montgomery blends his travels with a look at historical events connected with that city.
Thus, when Wingo passes through Dallas, we learn about the slaughter of buffalo and how that led to dust storms in the 1930s. As Wingo backs through St Louis, Montgomery explains why beer sprouted up there more than in other nearby cities. And as our adventurer chugs along in Chicago, we are treated to a brief discourse on Al Capone. I enjoyed these seamless forays into history immensely.
Wingo practiced for six months before setting out, armed with a special pair of glasses and a steadying cane. Incredibly, he made it all the way to the east coast before sailing to Germany to continue his trek.
En route to Europe, Wingo faced seasickness and belligerent crew members but never wavered from his goal. Once on land again, he was able to walk backward all the way to Turkey before authorities halted his expedition, citing the increasing threat of danger as he traversed eastern Europe. Wingo returned to the States, catching a ride to California and walking home from there. His unusual journey became the defining moment of his life. He died in 1993, penniless, his adventure virtually forgotten, a rather sad end to a truly quixotic life.
I found Wingo both troubling and intriguing. While his wife and daughter struggled to survive back in Texas, Wingo plodded farther away from them, the muscles in his calves moving to the front of his legs and his weight winnowing from the daily exercise. Was Wingo the selfish product of his time or an imaginative, creative freethinker? Whatever he was, his entertaining tale is about a time in history when someone might walk backward as a way to get ahead.
The Man Who Walked Backward: An American Dreamer’s Search for Meaning in the Great Depression
by Ben Montgomery
Hachette Book Group