Young Woman Forgoes Rat Race To Run Across America
When Forrest Gump decided to go for a little run one day, and keep running, to the end of town, to the end of the county, to the end of the state, to coast to coast to coast, the world didn't get it. "Why are you running?" the press hounded. "For world peace? For the homeless? For women's rights? For the environment? For animals?"
"I just felt like running," he replied.
And as you read this, one 24-year-old girl just feels like walking. For the past few months, Catherine Li has been trekking by foot from Daly City, California with just a shopping cart of necessities, and her sights are set on New York City. She's been on the road for seventh months now, with the cut-up feet and shredded Google maps print-out to prove it. And it isn't for world peace, the homeless, women's rights, the environment, or animals. It isn't for politics, charity, self-publicity, or God.
"I just felt like walking," Li told MSNBC. "I just decided to click over to living in the actual moment instead of inventing all these fantastic fantasies for the future."
Li's story back in the Bay Area is unclear. Christian Menno, the Courier Times reporter who walked with her for half an hour on Wednesday, said she went to college for a time, but isn't sure if she graduated. Li immigrated from China as a young teen, and seemed to be living on her own, it seemed, before she made the trip. She now refers to herself as "homeless." Menno believes she worked as a massage therapist for a couple years, but a Google search yields no results for a Catherine Li masseuse in the state of California.
Career isn't Li's focus right now. She has other things on her mind. "The clouds in Ohio, were just so perfectly shaped," she told Menno, "like the most innocent drawings from a child."
One could see Li's adventure as a parable for her generation. Young people in America face the highest youth unemployment rate since World War II. Most feel like they have less opportunities than their parents, and they're told that they may be the first American children in two centuries to have a lower life expectancy than them too.
Being the "lost generation" has it's challenges: moving back home after college, scrounging for money, collecting food stamps, recalibrating ambitions. But there is also some freedom in this situation, if you can grab it. Amy Klein, for example, told the New York Times that she couldn't find a job after graduating Harvard in 2007. So she joined a punk rock band, hopped in an old Chevy minivan, and has been playing in venues across the country ever since, looking for America.
Rejected from the rat race, young people have a chance to get a little philosophical. Many see the Arab Spring as the result of an epidemic of unemployed youth, who had lots of time and lots of anger. Those young people finally decided to change the system that to them was so clearly broken.
Li may not be starting a revolution, but she's learning a little bit more about humanity, getting by on gifts from strangers to supplement her meager savings. A McDonald's gift card here, a couch to sleep on there. One time she went into a store and found a $20 bill tucked into her cart. And she's learning a little bit about herself as well, as one might traveling mostly alone for 3000 miles on foot. "When you're on a trip like this, you get so much closer to the truth about yourself," Li said.
During the course of Forrest Gump's three-year jog through the country, he accidentally came-up with the slogan "shit happens," and invented the yellow smiley face logo. He also started a movement, as tens of people joined him, finding something personally meaningful in the idea of running, just because you felt like it.
Wild things can happen when you open yourself up to serendipity. Perhaps one day people will hear about all the things Li saw and did, the people she encountered, the meaning - if anything - she managed to extract from the experience. Or maybe they won't. After all, unlike most people of her generation, Li isn't tweeting or blogging or drafting a future memoir of her adventure. She just felt like walking. And if that catches on, it really would be a revolution.
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Claire Gordon has contributed to Slate's DoubleX, the Huffington Post, and the book Prisons: Current Controversies. While an undergraduate at Yale University and a research fellow at Yale graduate school, she spoke on panels at Yale and Cornell, and reported from Cairo, Tokyo, and Berlin.
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