Dipping his toe in the waters off Charleston, South Carolina, on March 1, Ricky Gates started his five-month #TransAmericana quest to cross the country on foot carrying 12 pounds of gear on a self-supported endeavor. Midway through the trip – some 2,000 miles in – Gates stopped off in Colorado Springs to share his story – the who, what, where, when and why – at the Colorado Running Company on Sunday, May 21, with an intimate group of about 40, twenty of whom joined him on a 30-minute run prior to his talk.
One of five siblings, Gates was raised in Colorado. He credits his mom for instilling a love of the outdoors and a desire for adventure. “We grew up on a very modest budget, but Mom always managed to create an adventure for us kids. She thought nothing about driving eight hours to watch the Sandhill Crane migration.” In 1969, his mom ran the famed Mount Marathon race in Seward, Alaska, which has since become one of Rickey’s favorites. “She finished in second place,” said Gates proudly, then added, “There were only two women. That’s the first and only race she ever ran.”
For those who have followed Gates, he travels a lot. In fact, he has been to over 30 countries in the past 15 years, but he wanted to spend time in America. “There are lots of places I’d never been to,” said Gates. The now 36-year-old had been thinking about this trip since he was 16 years old, a time when Peter Jenkins’ book, A Walk Across America, inspired him. The idea of slowing the pace of life, one step at a time resonated with Gates.
For his route planning, Gates wanted to hit the classic through-hiking trails. He looked at where he wanted to start and where he wanted to stop. “Five or ten years ago, it would have been a different experience.” With Google Maps, Gates has found a very unique and helpful tool, “I hit the little walk button and I’m off. It sends you on some incredible back roads. Pretty much everywhere I’m going is new to me.”
In his research planning the trip, Gates learned there are thousands of historic trails – most of which run east and west. He decided that he wanted to incorporate US history by way of these trails, like the Santa Fe Trail he picked up in Hutchinson, Kansas, “I saw a sign on the road for the trail and got on it. I ended up doing 400 miles. I did 230 miles of the Palmetto Trail, a section where I saw just two other people.” A fact he mentioned because, in his opinion, “We need more people on the trails.” He also followed the Trail of Tears – a trail he learned about in middle school.
Additionally, he wanted to incorporate natural trails and as many red states as he could. “My bubble is very, very blue (having lived in Colorado, San Francisco, and Madison, Wisconsin). I wanted to experience many different opinions – those different from my own.” Interestingly enough, Gates has not gotten into very many political conversations.
He also wanted to take advantage of water crossings, most of which in the west didn’t line up with his skill set. However, he found the eastern water features did and thus, spent 10 days on the Tennessee River astride a stand up paddle board. “I looked for a canoe on Craig’s list, and someone suggested a stand up paddle board. I had never done that.” An example of generosity happened when a guy loaned him a board, and another guy offered to meet him down river to get the board back. Gates found that most of the river was dammed up, and it was slow going. “I spent 14 hours a day paddling…all day long…every day. There were not a lot of people on that section. It was really lonely and really tough.” That 300 miles of river travel included an abundance of industry and, “A part of America I’d never be able to see from a bus,” reflected Gates.
Gates has been shown an outpouring of support on his route. He talked about generosity and the kindness of strangers, something veterans of cross-continental trips had told him he would encounter. Gates learned that, “If you put yourself out there, show your vulnerability, people want to talk to you, take you into their homes.”
One of his favorite stories included an encounter with Kevin Wilson. “Kevin was a guy I met on the Osage Indian Reservation in northern Oklahoma. There was a storm coming in. I set up my tent. Three inches of rain, there was no escaping it. I was in a puddle and hating life all night long. The next day, I went into a convenience store looking for a dry place to stay. I was in line talking to the clerk and a guy behind me said, ‘Well, you’re staying with me. As long as you don’t steal anything or go in my brother’s room.’” So off Gates went with the stranger to his home complete with two small dogs running amok, and a caged squirrel. The pair ended up talking for four hours straight.
Gates said that he hadn’t come across any bad situations, or any large animals thus far. However, in the South he was asked, “Do you carry a piece?” Gates laughed and said, “No, I don’t carry a piece. It weighs a pound and a half!”
Speaking of gear, Gates carries everything with him that he needs on the run. Most items serve a dual purpose. There’s the sleeping bag that serves as a jacket, and a tarp that doubles as a poncho, and hiking poles – another item he never used before – that could be used to set up a tent. Although a self-funded trip with a budget of $5000, Salomon is helping out by providing footwear (he’s gone through six pairs of shoes so far and provides a post office location with a General Delivery address to Salomon when he needs new shoes), and a prototype backpack. He used the urban fast packing model to learn how to lighten up. He searched the 8-pound pack options and ended up with a 12-pound cache. “There’s a lot that I wanted, but realized there’s little that I needed,” said Gates. His budget translates to about $30 per day. “I figure about $20 per day for food and I get a hotel room about once a week.”
Those meals on the road often include some interesting choices. “I’ve eaten more gas station food that I ever thought possible,” said Gates who admitted, “I’ve been eating the worst food you could imagine for the past two months.” He estimates he consumed about 5000 calories a day to start, and in the past few weeks, he’s dropped his calories down to three or four thousand a day, and has even gained a few pounds. Each day says Gates, “I manage some time to hang out at a café or a gas station to talk to people.”
He averages about 30 to 44 miles a day, translating to a pace between 12 minutes per mile (that’s fast according to Gates), and 20 minutes per mile depending on the terrain. “It’s called the flyboy shuffle. It’s like first or second gear – kind of four-wheel drive.” He has had people with him about 10-15% of the time, but mostly he’s on his own.
He has had a bunch of injuries, though none lasting more than two or three days, and none stopping his forward progression (although he did take one week off during the trip to visit his girlfriend in Wisconsin). When asked about the “Forest Gump thing,” Gates said he’d heard it way less than he thought he would.
In a couple days, Gates will be on the Colorado Trail, and for the remaining journey, he’ll utilize bike paths, be on the Tahoe Rim Trail, the Western States Trail, the Bay Area Ridge Trail, and dip his toe in the Pacific Ocean on August 1. He has documented his entire trip with his GoPro and he doesn’t rule out the possibility of a movie. Certainly that movie would include two of his favorite highlights to date: Watching the sunset in Kansas, and the sunrise on the Tennessee River.
“I’m really embracing the trip and discovering my own country,” reflected Gates, a humble and rather contemplative individual whose introspection showed through as he considered a final question. Asked what lesson he’s learned, Gates shared this, “I don’t think we’re talking enough with our neighbors.”