Stephan Foust’s backpacking trip across the United States produced a WSBT radio show and a book
Stephan Foust became a public curiosity with his large, loaded backpack, regularly sabotaging it from Elkhart along County Road 6 and up Douglas Road in South Bend.
Someone called 911. A county police officer pulled over to see what was going on. On a later walk, WSBT reporter Norm Stangland came to report on the mysterious hiker. This was Foust’s training regimen for the epic – what would become both a 3,506-mile walk and storytelling journey from Nags Head, North Carolina, to Point Reyes National Seashore, California. .
The trip took place from January 1979 to September 1980, with a winter break. It was the days of President Jimmy Carter but also of WSBT radio host Bob Lux, who convinced Foust to call in at 2 p.m. every Friday from his walk with a live report on his latest stories.
It sounded like a great idea. Little did Foust know that he would end up cursing this trip and his heavy, sore pack that he would endure through extreme heat and cold, sandstorm and mountain blizzard. Little did he know he would question his decision to go. But, were it not for that show and his hometown stardom, which several South Bend Tribune stories have also fueled, he could have bailed out anonymously and gone home. Now there was no easy way to give up.
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“That was my lifeline back home,” he says over the phone from his current home in Tennessee.
And in the 780-page book he self-published in February about the hike, “A Leaf in the Stream,” he says, his weekly trail shows have become his “Greek chorus.” (The book is available on Amazon: $24.99 in paperback, $8.99 on Kindle)
Foust wrote the book with fictitious names and reworked stories — he refers to himself as Jonathan Allen — while staying true to his precise route and his own feelings.
This, he says, avoids focusing on “I” and instead shares more stories from others, while keeping a novel-like narrative, though you can read each chapter out of order as its own tale. He made several references to South Bend area staples of that era, using the actual names of places such as Vegetable Buddies nightclub and Bonnie Doon Drive-In.
For the radio show, he had to scramble to find a phone every Friday. And on time. Cell phones did not exist. Thus in Oklahoma, he frantically knocks on the door of a stranger on a ranch saying, “In five minutes, I have to do a radio show in South Bend, Indiana.” The man inside let him sit at a table with the house phone, but sat across from him with a double-barreled 12-gauge shotgun, cocked and propped up on the Foust’s knees “just in case I’m lying”.
After that call, the man’s wife brought over a lemon pie and coffee for a “wonderful conversation”. And Foust talked about it on next week’s show. He was calling from restaurants, gas stations, a winery, radio stations, and “many payphones.” Guests – the people he met – sometimes joined him.
Back in South Bend, the show was cut from 10 minutes to half an hour and gained an advertising sponsor as more people tuned in to listen. Lux, a long-time retiree, remembers: “Everywhere I went, people were talking about it.
Lux, who is Bob Love in the book, is halfway through her reading, flipping through 40-year-old memories.
“I remember him talking about a tornado and hail and wind and how he was lying face down in a ditch,” Lux says. Every week, he says, “I had no idea where he would be calling from.”
The journey itself began with a student in one of the history classes Foust taught at Brookdale Junior High School in Elkhart. Foust, who had actually grown up in the town of Washington, southern Indiana, held the teaching position at Brookdale for a few years. He spent his summers on the loose exploring the history of national parks and the West. While talking in class about the journeys of the early pioneers, one student challenged him, “If you think that’s so cool, why don’t you go do it?”
That’s what Foust did at the age of 30. He often found the actual Santa Fe Trail wagon tracks 20 yards from US 50 and hiked one or the other, admitting, “I wanted to walk with ghosts.”
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It really was like that when he woke up from a daytime nap at Bent’s Old Fort, an old trading post on the La Junta, Colorado trail, and heard the “clattering of metal on wood.”
“Here is a train of wagons,” he recalls. “It was a ‘Twilight Zone’ moment. They were filming a TV series, ‘The Chisholms’. They knew who I was before I knew who they were because of all the media coverage.”
One of the stars, Delta Burke, decided to do method acting by going on a full-day hike with Foust “to see what it was like and pick my brain.” Two actors bet it couldn’t last. But, after stopping at a broken gas station to freshen up her makeup, her sore feet walked into the agreed bar at the end of the day. The drinks were on the cast.
Foust also followed the Donner Party route from Nevada to California to Donner Lake.
After the trip, Foust spent three and a half years training in South Bend before seeking work at five other television stations in Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia, then, as a teacher, founded the Center for Innovation in Media at Middle Tennessee State. University.
The book itself originated a year before the pandemic when Foust had lunch with Lux and Wayne Doolittle, the WSBT news director who would become his boss in his next life as a television news producer. The two retirees cajoled Foust because he had yet to write the biggest story of his life. Or as Doolittle put it, “Just tell the fucking story.”
Now 73 and retired, Foust says his travel saga is exactly as he envisioned it, a lovely long read with local references that make it “my love letter to Michiana.”
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Follow Outdoor Adventures columnist Joseph Dits on Facebook at SBTOutdoorAdventures. Contact him at 574-235-6158 or [email protected]