In his latest release, “Freedom,” journalist and author Sebastian Junger doesn’t waste any time trying to pinpoint a single all-encompassing definition for his book’s titular concept. Instead, he goes broad, blending historical anecdotes and sociological theory with accounts of his own experience traversing nearly 400 miles of railroad through rural Pennsylvania.
Junger joined Boston Public Radio on Tuesday to talk about his new book and offer some thoughts on the state of freedom in present-day America.
“We called it ‘high speed vagrancy,’” he quipped, reflecting on his time walking down the railroad with a small group of companions (and one dog named Daisy.)
“We carried everything we needed on our backs, we moved 10, 15, 20 miles a day. We were sleeping under bridges or in abandoned buildings or out in fields. We cooked over fires and got our water out of creeks. At night we were usually the only people in the world who knew where we were,” Junger said.
“There are many definitions of freedom," he said, "but surely that’s one of them.”
Being that rail lines are private property, Junger and his crew were breaking the law throughout the duration of their journey. And though they were generally able to avoid law enforcement, he recounted at least one tense encounter with a fellow vagabond on the train tracks.
“There was this guy who saw us coming in the middle of Pennsylvania outside a little town, and we saw him take something out of his pack,” he recalled. “He put a revolver in his back pocket — I didn’t actually see it, but I’m pretty sure that’s what he did.”
He said the stranger explained himself to be a “snake catcher” and offered cryptic parting words as they went their separate ways.
“He did make sure to tell us, he said ‘that little town up ahead? … I just moved up there last week, no one knows me, and if I have to leave no one knows I’ll be gone,’” Junger recalled. “I took that to be... not a threat, but a warning.”
Later in the interview, Junger was asked about the January 6 Capitol insurrection and what he thinks it might reveal about the state of American freedom and democracy.
"I don't address current events in the book," he prefaced. "What I would say is that a study of freedom provides a lens to look at the events of any era, including right now."
He stopped short of making predictions about the future of U.S. democracy, though he did draw parallels between January 6 and Francisco Franco's seizure of power in Spain in the 1930s. He described the January aggravators as representing a “form of fascism.”
“The courts are there to try to protect the process, but when you say ‘I have to use violence to protect my freedom,’ you are, by definition, saying ‘I don’t think I’m living in a democracy,’” Junger said. “It is antithetical to the very idea of freedom you say you’re espousing.”