A ‘Transamericana’ Running Journey

Rickey Gates runs across the U.S. in search of the America he knows and loves—and finds it

All goals are not created equal. With running, many pursuits often involve getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible. But speed isn’t always desirous. And for Rickey Gates, who wrapped up his five-month, cross-country “Transamericana” run on Aug. 1 while running across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, speed definitely wasn’t the point.

During his journey, Gates, 36, had daily goals—cover a certain number of miles, meet an interesting person or two, appreciate his surroundings—that were manageable chunks of his larger goals of running across the United States and learning more about his country and fellow Americans along the way. Gates has referred to running as “his ticket.” It’s been his way to travel the world and also launched his writing, photography and film career. Professional runners are pushed to win. Yet Gates, a Salomon-sponsored pro who has his own covetous collection of top race finishes, has always been more interested in the journey than a place on the podium.

The first actual step of Gates’ epic journey took place at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, in Folly Beach, South Carolina, on March 1. The journey ended 3,600-miles, 11 states and 152 days later, at Ocean Beach in San Francisco with about 30 runners in tow. Gates, an Aspen, Colorado, native, completed his mission with a dip in the Pacific Ocean, something he admits he never did when he lived in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Meeting with Gates months ago before his trip began, he was eagerly anxious and anticipatory. With his goal destination less than 20 miles away, the ever-thoughtful runner was still his jovial self, albeit now with a bushy beard and the quietly confident countenance of someone who has a LOT of miles under their belt. He’s also somewhat overwhelmed by the experience and attention.

“This experience has recreated what running means to me. I no longer see running as a sport, it’s motion, movement, getting from place to place,” says Gates, who admits it will take a while to process his journey. “The past 20 years of running have led to this trip, being able to walk into a place in a strange town, looking the way I do, very obviously doing something strange, and being able to talk to people.”

Sporting a scruffy beard and a peacock feather in his hat, Gates chats with runners on July 31 at the San Francisco Company in Mill Valley, California, after the penultimate run in his five-month transcontinental running journey. Photo: Allison Pattillo

Talking to people and learning more about the U.S. was the impetus for Transamericana. Gates realized he had seen much more of the world than he had his own country. After many years of thought and planning, Gates announced his Transamericana journey last fall, just days after the 2016 Presidential election. Instead of making the trip about speed, Gates opted to take it slow, and experience his divided country at a conversational pace. He wanted to meet the people he supposedly disagreed with according to statistics and news channels.

“I have a reaffirmed perception of America. I suspected there were a lot of good people out there. Now I know there are,” says Gates who said Southerners as a whole, were “the kindest people I met,” adding:  “Of all the places I ran, the South is the place I would immediately go back to and do it all over again.”

READ MORE: Transcontinental Running Reflections

It was important for Gates to pay for his trip himself. His wanted to do something that anyone could do. Most people can’t step away from their lives for five full months, a period of time Gates’ mom called “a freakin’ long time,” but they could break it into smaller distances. With that in mind, Gates set a budget of $1,000 a month, $5,000 in total, and had no support crew. He did all of his own route-finding, got his own food and decided where to lay his head at night, in stark contrast to recent well-funded, cross-country speed projects like those by Karl Meltzer and Pete Kostelnick. In some areas, he pushed a modified jogging stroller with all of the gear and water he needed and at other times he ran with a hand-pulled golf-bag cart, but mostly he just ran with a running pack.

He hit both his time and budgetary goals, saying others could make a similar effort more approachable by doing it for less money or covering fewer miles per day. That said, in Gates’ words, “Salomon put shoes on my feet and a pack on my back.”

Here’s Gates cruised through Hanksville, Utah on June 22. “I am not an early morning person. I’d love to be but it just hasn’t happened yet in my life,” he said in an Instagram post. “Running at night, watching the sky go from stars to the sliver of a moon and planet rise, listening to the birds wake up, followed by the hue and spectrum of the cool desert sunrise—these are all things that make this transition worth it.” Photo: Courtesy of Rickey Gates

Loneliness could be a concern for many on such a long journey, but Gates has an uncanny ability to connect with strangers, and was joined by friends and fellow runners at various points along his route. He received care packages of gear at pre-determined post offices along the way, and stayed with friends, family and others he met along the way for about 30 nights of his journey. He said having a phone made it easy to stay in touch, and a person he spoke with frequently was his mom.

“At first, I would call two or three times a week to check on him,” says Trish Gates, Rickey’s mom, who is also a wanderlust at heart—she stopped counting her cross country hitchhiking adventures at 17 times across the country. “Then we got into a rhythm of talking almost every day.”

Trish also met up with Rickey a couple times during his journey, sometimes playing mom, sometimes lending an ear or even being his support crew.

“It was cool to be part of the whole thing, experiencing it with him,” says the mother of five, who is curious to see what her son “comes up with next.”

As for what’s next, short-term goals for Gates are sticking his feet in the Pacific Ocean and enjoying a bonfire on the beach. He’s considering writing a book about his experiences and The African Attachment is working on a Transamericana film sponsored by Salomon Running TV. Elizabeth Thorp, Gates’ girlfriend, sketched a cartoon for each day of his journey, and a collaborative project may come of her artful representations. He’s also returning to Aspen to lead his Hut Run Hut trips through the Rockies for the third summer in a row. Basically Gates plans to keep running, putting one foot in front of the other to see who or what is around the next bend in the road and fork in the trail.

Gates finished his second-to-last-day by running to a party at the San Francisco Running Company in Mill Valley on July 31. Unlike most of his cross country miles, which have been done solo, Gates was joined on his run by an enthusiastic posse of supporters, with even more friends and family waiting in early celebration at the store.

“I’m not trying to inspire anyone to do anything,” he says, “but I do think it’s important for us to talk to our neighbors and that was the most important thing to me on this trip.”

Too early for Jeepers, too late for skiers. Gates made the final push over the high Rockies on June 7 before beginning the long descent down to the Colorado River and the great Utah desert. Photo: Courtesy of Rickey Gates

Transamericana Fast Facts

Runners are all about data, even runners like Rickey Gates who set out on his self-supported, coast to coast run without a watch or GPS device of any kind (he did have a cell phone). A journey of 3,600 miles has a lot of data. Here are some of the highlights.

Beginning point: March 1, Folly Beach, South Carolina

Ending point: August 1, Ocean Beach, San Francisco

Total mileage: 3,600 miles, including wrong turns

Duration: 152 days

States crossed: 11

Major trail systems: 8; Gates ran parts of eight major trails, plus many more local trails, including: Palmetto, Appalachian, Ozark Highlands, Colorado, Kokopelli, Tahoe Rim, Coastal Trail and Bay Area Ridge Trails.

Longest solo span: 2 days; He spent two days on the Ozark Highlands Trail without seeing another person.

Total cost: $5,000, roughly $1,000 per month for five months

Pack weight: 12 pounds

Pairs of shoes: 11

Chocolate milk: Roughly 10 gallons consumed from start to finish

Camping: 100 nights

Couch surfing: 30 nights spent staying with friends and people he met along the way

Hotels: 20 nights

Breaks: 2; While he took a few rest days here and there, Gates spent one week in Wisconsin and also took a few days rest with his family in Aspen, Colo.

River segments: 3; Transamericana wasn’t all about running, Gates also gave his legs a break with time on the water.

Photos: 200+ portraits taken; Be sure to check out his Instagram feed!

Longest day: 48 miles

Pairs of socks: 8

Pairs of shorts: 5

Hats: 5; He carried the logo from his first hat all the way across the country.

Longest span without a shower: 11 days

Gates passed through Haw Creek Falls Recreation Area near Hagarville, Arkansas, on April 16. For more 300 miles, Gates says he ran on the shoulder of a road with his sights set on this—The Ozark Highlands Trail across Northern Arkansas. The Ozark Mountains are the largest mountains between the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountains. Photo: Courtesy of Rickey Gates
Allison Pattillo
Motiv Running senior editor Allison Pattillo writes about running, health, nutrition, gear and travel from her home in Colorado. When it comes to gear, she’s a fan of tall running socks, short running skirts and wearing her hat backwards. Even with a BQ and a few podium finishes (all triathlons should be run, bike, canoe!), Allison finds more inspiration from running in beautiful places and exploring on the run instead of the numbers on a stopwatch. She looks forward to the day when she finds her ultimate running dog, which, at this point, may be more bulldog than border collie.
Photo: Courtesy of Rickey Gates