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Rickey Gates posted this photo on his Facebook and Instagram accounts Friday as he crossed the border from North Georgia to Tennessee. Gates is traveling by foot across the U.S. after beginning his journey at Folly Beach in Charleston, S.C.
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Rickey Gates

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See more of his photos on Instagram, here.

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Rickey Gates over I-75 near Ringgold

Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to just get up from your house or work place, walk out the door and keep on going, walking and walking until you hit the Pacific Ocean and had to stop?

Rickey Gates is going to find out.

He's made it almost 600 miles now, since starting March 1 with one foot on the sand and the other in the Atlantic Ocean at Folly Beach in Charleston, S.C.

Over the next four months, the 35-year-old Aspen, Colo., native will keep following roadways and trails across the entire country, spending most nights in a campsite beside whatever road or path he ends up on, until he reaches San Francisco.

Why?

"I've been traveling for most of the past 15 years," Gates said Friday afternoon over a reuben sandwich and tiramisu at Whole Foods on the North Shore. "I've been to all seven continents, 40 different countries, and it just occurred to me over the past couple of years that I know so much more about the rest of the world, better than I know my own country."

And so he set out on foot, with a bag that weighs between 11 and 13 pounds, depending on how much food and water he is carrying, packing some extra walking shirts, a smartphone and charger, a sleeping bag, two collapsible walking sticks (great for keeping dogs away), a broad-brimmed hat, and two rubber chickens, a gift from his brother and 3-year-old niece. One of the rubber chickens is attached to the outside of the pack, "to remind myself not to take anything too seriously," Gates said. "If I go into a gas station and they won't let me use the toilet, I can look at the rubber chicken and laugh it off."

Gates is a professional traveler. He's ridden a motorcycle from Colorado to Argentina, walked and run all over Europe, Japan, and Africa, and spent four months in Antarctica washing dishes on a U.S. government contract. Why Antarctica? "Why not," Gates responds, with a ready smile. He ran a marathon at the South Pole, although he drew the line at running outdoors if the temperature was colder than 40 degrees below zero. "It's the closest you can get to space travel while not leaving Planet Earth," he said.

As an elite athlete, he is sponsored by Salomon Running, and a local rep met him at Rock/Creek in Chattanooga, where he was scheduled to hand out race gear Friday. But this trip is unsponsored, so he has a budget of $1,000 a month, mainly for food.

On a normal day, he covers between 25 and 30 miles, running about 60 percent of the time and walking the rest, using Google maps to find roads that have a decent shoulder to walk on. Sometimes Google fails him, like this morning when his smartphone told him Boynton Drive in Ringgold was bike friendly. "That was the least amount of shoulder of any road so far," he said. "Cars were whizzing by at 50 mph."

He starts to look for a place to stop as the sun goes down and rises with the sun the following morning. He occasionally allows himself a night in a motel, but normally sleeps in some out-of-the-way spot by the side of the road. "That's been a lot easier than I thought," Gates said. "There are little spots off the road in the woods, little places I would normally drive by at 50 mph — you think no way anyone would ever want to camp in there."

He doesn't worry about security — his only "weapon" is a boxcutter.

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Rickey Gates

Food is hit or miss. "I like to say if you run your engine hot enough, you can burn pretty much anything," Gates said. "I don't have much of a choice in what I'm eating, there are certain food deserts out there, you go from gas station to gas station. I've had beef jerky for dinner and a bag of chips and candy bars, and sausage and egg biscuits for breakfast. Even if I wanted to follow a healthier diet, I could not."

He's learned a few things about the rural South, an area he has not visited since a train trip with his mom back when he was in elementary school.

He didn't vote for Donald Trump, he said, but he now understands better why a lot of people did. "I've been going through a lot of extremely poor places," Gates said, "just seeing some places that are not doing well, that haven't been doing well. I can see how in some of these communities, they want something completely different than what has been given to them for a long time."

He doesn't argue politics with those he meets. "I don't think it's smart or a good way to go about things to go and try to change people's minds," Gates said. "If I can understand where someone is coming from and why they vote the way they do, at least we are having a conversation, and that is something that has been lacking in this country."

Gates will spend two nights in Chattanooga, competing with some 200 other runners in the Rock/Creek River Gorge trail race Saturday morning. Then he'll get into a canoe on Sunday and paddle down the Tennessee River through Alabama all the way until the river runs back into Tennessee at the town of Savannah, where he will pick up another trail west. He may be bored by the broad Tennessee. He's been down the Grand Canyon three times, the last time in a raft only a few weeks before starting his current trek.

Gates is unmarried, but he acknowledges feeling a need to settle down. "I am at a point in my life where I would like to slow down and grow some roots," he said. But not yet. He has no job or house or kids, and there are still 2,900 miles of road and trail ahead.

Contact staff writer Steve Johnson at 423-757-6673, sjohnson@timesfreepress.com, on Twitter @stevejohnsonTFP, and on Facebook, www.facebook.com/noogahealth.

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