Stephan Foust became a public curiosity with his large, loaded backpack, hoofing it on a regular basis from Elkhart along the side of County Road 6 and on to Douglas Road in South Bend.
Someone called 911. A county police officer stopped to see what’s up. On a later walk, WSBT news reporter Norm Stangland came to report on the mystery hiker. It was Foust’s training regimen for the epic — what would become both a 3,506-mile walk and storytelling journey from Nags Head, N.C., to Point Reyes National Seashore, Calif.
The trip spanned from January 1979 to September 1980, with a winter break. It was the era of President Jimmy Carter but also that of WSBT radio host Bob Lux, who convinced Foust to call in at 2 p.m. each Friday of his walk with a live report on his latest tales.
Sounded like a grand idea. Foust didn’t know that he would grow to curse this trip and his heavy, body-aching pack that he’d bear through extreme heat and cold, sand storm and mountain blizzard. He didn’t know that he’d question his decision to go. But, without that show and his local celebrity, which several South Bend Tribune stories also fed, he could have anonymously bailed out and come home. Now there was no easy way to give up.
“It was my lifeline back home,” he says by phone from his current home in Tennessee.
And in the 780-page book he self-published in February about the hike, “A Life in the Stream,” he says, his weekly call-in shows from the trail became his “Greek chorus.” (The book is available on Amazon: $24.99 as paperback, $8.99 on Kindle)
Foust wrote the book with fictionalized names and refashioned stories — he refers to himself as Jonathan Allen — while it stays true to his precise route and his own feelings.
This, he says, avoids focusing on “I” and instead shares more stories of others, while keeping a novel-like narrative, even while you can read each chapter out of order as its own tale. He popped in several references to South Bend-area staples from that era, using the actual names of places such as the Vegetable Buddies night club and Bonnie Doon Drive-In.
For the radio show, he had to scramble to find a phone each Friday. And on deadline. Cellphones didn’t exist. That’s how, in Oklahoma, he frantically knocked on a stranger’s door at 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-barrel, 12-gauge shotgun, cocked and propped up on Foust’s knee “just in case I was telling a lie.”
After that call, the man’s wife brought out lemon pie and coffee for a “marvelous conversation.” And Foust spoke about it on the next week’s show. He’d call from restaurants, gas stations, a winery, radio stations and “lots of pay phones.” Guests — the people he’d meet — would sometimes join him.
Back home in South Bend, the show grew from 10 minutes to a half hour and gained an advertising sponsor as more people tuned in to listen. Lux, long retired, recalls, “Everywhere I went, people were talking about it.”
Lux, who is Bob Love in the book, is halfway through reading it, flipping through 40-year-old memories.
“I remember him talking about a tornado, hail and wind and how he was laying face down in a ditch,” Lux says. Each week, he says, “I had no idea where he’d be calling from.”
The journey itself began thanks to a student in one of the history classes Foust taught at Brookdale Junior High School in Elkhart. Foust, who’d actually grown up in the southern Indiana town of Washington, worked the teaching job at Brookdale for a few years. He’d spend summers as a vagabond exploring history in the national parks and the West. As he waxed in class about the travels of early pioneers, a student dared him, “If you think it’s so cool, why don’t you go do it?”
So Foust did at age 30. He’d often find the actual wagon tracks of the Santa Fe Trail 20 yards from U.S. 50 and would hike either one, admitting, “I wanted to walk with ghosts.”
It sure felt like it when he wakened from a daytime snooze at Bent’s Old Fort, a former trading post on the trail at La Junta, Colo., and heard the “jangling of metal on wood.”
“Here comes a wagon train,” he recalls. “It was a ‘Twilight Zone’ moment. They were shooting a TV series, ‘The Chisholms.’ They knew who I was before I knew who they were because of all the newspaper coverage.”
One of the stars, Delta Burke, decided to do some method acting by hiking a full day with Foust “to see what it was like and pick my brain.” Two actors betted she couldn’t last. But, after a stop at a broken-down gas station to freshen up her makeup, her sore feet walked into the agreed-upon bar by day’s end. Drinks were on the actors.
Foust also followed the Donner Party’s route from Nevada into California at Donner Lake.
After the trip, Foust spent three and half formative years back in South Bend before he chased work at five more TV stations in Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia and then, as a professor, founded The Center for Innovation in Media at Middle Tennessee State University.
The book itself was born 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 TV news producer. The two retirees cajoled Foust since he hadn’t yet written the biggest story of his life. Or as Doolittle put it: “Just tell the damn story.”
Now 73 and retired, Foust says his weighty travel saga is just as he’d intended, a nice long read with local references that make it “my love letter to Michiana.”