Meet Rickey Gates, the Man Who Ran 3,700 Miles Across America
Gates embarked on a 5-month-long expedition that took him from South Carolina to California.
As Rickey Gates watched the results of the 2016 presidential election roll in, he realized something: Americans were deeply divided, and no one was talking to one another. In effort to connect with his home country, Gates decided to run across it.
So on March 1, 2017, Gates embarked on a 5-month-long running expedition that would take him from Folly Beach, S.C. all the way to San Francisco, Calif.
"They say that you cannot know the world without knowing your own backyard," Gates said at the beginning of his trip. "In a time of uncertain politics and a crescendo of differences, I have chosen to slow things down, simplify my life and get to know my country at a step-by-step intimacy."
Gates traversed a total of 3,700 miles through trails, roads, rivers, and snowy mountains. He went "unsupported," which means he had no RV, no bed, no beers, and no friend cooking him meals. It was just him, his sneakers, and his backpack.
This was by design. He wanted to force himself to be uncomfortable, to ask for help from total strangers, to seek out human interaction, and most importantly, to experience the small moments of kindness and humanity.
"The way you choose to travel changes the way you see a place and the way a place sees you," he says.
Gates's trans-American journey paints a portrait of America, one that captures the spirit of the country and makes us realize we're not as divided as we think. (You can check out Gates's book, Cross-Country, here.)
I interviewed Gates about his life-changing journey, the mental resilience it took to get him through some dark patches, and why he's optimistic about our collective humanity.
(Below is an excerpt of the interview, but I encourage you to listen and watch to the full interview here:)
In your documentary Transamericana, a man named Jim Steele opened his wallet and gave you all his money even though you told him you didn't need it. What did you think of that act of kindness?
GATES: It illuminated to me that we always have something to give to other people. I felt like I could see it most clearly in Arkansas when this gentleman — after I insisted three times that I didn't need the money — was giving me the money in large part because he personally needed to. It was doing something for him, and I still think about that specific moment to this day and think about all the times in my life where I have been generous either with time or money toward other people and how good it felt to me to be able to do that. On that trip, I was providing an opportunity for other people to do something good, something they knew was good in that moment. To do good is certainly not a one-sided thing.
You said, "There's this level of generosity where people look out for each other. It wasn't the wealthiest people who were giving me money." What did you mean by that?
Exactly that. You could see with Jim's truck that he could've spent that money on his truck. He could've spent it on any number of things, and I think the closer you are to the bottom, the closer you are to understanding how much a few dollars goes or how far a smile or a kind word goes. The further you get away from that, the more alien it becomes to you, and the more you're distanced and disenchanted by it.
You mentioned that we're all 90% the same and 10% different, but politicians tend to latch on to that 10%. What are some of the characteristics you found were common among everyone you met?
I said politicians and media. I think the media does it just as much. It's a powerful tool to divide us and make us feel different from others. The similarities we all have are really simple basic needs: We want shelter. We want a good education for our kids. We want friends. We want family. We want to feel safe. We want to be able to believe what we want to believe and pursue the dreams we want to pursue. So when you take all of that, that's most of our daily life right there.
How important is travel to gaining perspective and developing empathy?
Before I did this run across the country, I had spent the better part of 15 years traveling around the world, seeing every single continent. But it's funny that I had gained empathy for so many places around the world, but I hadn't yet gained that same empathy for my own home country.
The differing of politics and opinions and beliefs was just as vast within our own borders as it is from United States to places around Europe or even Africa. It's immensely important to travel and see other cultures, but I am also careful to recognize that you can do that without leaving your home country, and frankly, I think you can do that without leaving your own town.
What is a challenge that we can set for ourselves to stress test ourselves and help us better understand ourselves and our neighbors?
Look at the path that you take today from where you live to go to the grocery store and realize how often it's the same path. It's almost the same path every single day. The next time you go to the grocery store, choose a completely different way of getting there. Just look at what you notice differently on that simple little walk — whether it's a few blocks or a mile. The day after that, try a different path to go to the grocery store — or go to a different grocery store.
We call them "desire lines," which are these paths that we take almost in an animalistic nature where we don't even think about them at a certain point. To challenge that part of us in order to see something different is so important.