Long journeys usually end back home. But when Colorado native Rickey Gates arrived in his hometown of Aspen last May, he still had one third—about 1,100 miles—of his journey to go. Gates was traveling across the country from South Carolina to California. A Salomon-sponsored trail runner, he was hoofing from “sea to shining sea.” His project, dubbed TransAmericana, wasn’t about speed or breaking records, though. Instead, the 36-year-old took his time, five months in all, hoping only to slow down and learn about his country and fellow Americans.
“I’m out here to meet people,” Gates shared when he was on the road. “We’ve all got something to learn from each other. People are afraid of people, afraid of their own neighbors. We have to talk to each other.”
Colorado was the eighth state on his journey. So far, he’d run through South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas. With 2,300 miles of the country behind him, Gates was beat up and tired by the time he made it to Aspen. He treated himself to a few days of R&R and home-cooked meals at his mom’s before suiting back up. Early on, when grappling with the ideas of pausing his trip for rest days, accepting gifts of food or lodging from strangers or even having a friend join and carry his pack for a few miles, he had decicded that this was his trip, and he’d do it his way.
The Starting Line
Beginning in South Carolina on March 1, 2017, Gates pieced together a route allowing him to run on iconic trails and country roads as much as possible (though he did need to use long stretches of highway miles and a few sections paddling or floating rivers to connect it all). The dirt miles included junkets on the Palmetto, Appalachian, Ozark Highlands, Colorado, Kokopelli, Tahoe Rim, Western States and Bay Area Ridge Trails, as Gates hoofed through 11 states. He budgeted $1,000 a month for food, supplies and the occasional hotel.
“The first step was really nerve wracking,” says Gates in reference to the sheer magnitude and anticipation of his journey. “But I’d been planning for a couple years and dreaming for much longer. ”
Gear is critical when fast-packing. Too much would prove exhausting to carry and, too little could mean suffering in the elements. Gates worked with Salomon to create a prototype down jacket that also served as his sleeping bag and a prototype rain jacket that doubled as a tarp or makeshift tent—both essential (although not available to consumers), as he spent most nights under the stars. Otherwise his 12-pound pack carried his phone, a camera, a GoPro, extra clothes, a sleeping pad, his water for the day and enough food to get him to the next gas station, rest stop or restaurant. He arranged for friends and family to send Salomon shoes to post offices along the way. Over 3,657 miles he shredded 11 pairs.
Welcome to “Colorful Colorado”
“Early on in the trip, when I told people what I was doing, they were full of excitement and very congratulatory,” Gates says. “But crossing the plains of Kansas and into eastern Colorado, when I told people I would run up and over the mountains, they were more skeptical, suggesting it was going to be hard or I had a long way to go. I’d rather run mountains than plains any day, though. I was born and raised in the Rockies.”
Gates admits the wide-open, plains landscape looked the same on both sides of the Kansas-Colorado line. But it felt different— more “Wild West”—once he’d crossed into Colorado and was running toward home.
“I was in Colorado for a good five or six days before I saw the Rockies, and a few more before I made it to them,” he says. He spent his birthday on the empty eastern plains in La Junta, originally part of the Santa Fe Trail in the 1800s. “When you look at map, you are aware of the size of Colorado’s plains. But when you run across them you are very aware.”
From there, he ran U.S. Highway 50 to Pueblo; then he made a cut north past Pikes Peak and along the Front Range. His mom joined him for a bit, riding her bike along as he ran. Colorado Running Company in Colorado Springs also hosted “a great community event, where I was really welcomed back to Colorado,” says Gates. He arrived at the Colorado Trail in Waterton Canyon on May 24, relieved to trade pavement for dirt. From there, he pounded 130 miles of trail he’d never run before. He saw hardly anyone. The snowpack could have been to blame—not only was it still four feet deep above 10,000 feet in May, it snowed as he ran. Near Copper, he linked up with the 10th Mountain Division Hut Trails to Aspen. The huts hold special meaning for Gates, since he worked them in high school and the Hut Run Hut trips he leads each summer follow a similar route.
“It was pretty liberating to put my phone and maps away and know where I was going,” he says.
Once in town, he spent a few days connecting with family and friends. But it wasn’t all about pizza parties and beer toasts. He did the 2nd annual Runoff, an ad hoc race between local kayakers and runners, that follows the Roaring Fork River. “The runners won by a long shot!” he laughs. That race and getting a burger at 520 Grill compete for his best memory.
On to the Finish
Leaving Aspen, Gates ran over Pearl Pass to Crested Butte, then over Kebler Pass to Paonia and Delta before boarding a raft and floating the Gunnison River to Grand Junction. Once he got off the river, he encountered blazing summer heat, with triple-digit temperatures across the desert.
At first, friends and his girlfriend ran and rafted with him in his home state. Soon, it was just Gates and a videographer. Then he was alone again, which put him in a slump. “Leaving Aspen was the beginning of a slow downward spiral that took about three weeks to get over,” he says.
The stretches of highway were longer, stops fewer and farther between, and he encountered fewer people along the way—and people were the essential part of the experience for Gates. Not only did he enjoy talking one-on-one to those he met, he was excited to document his journey, by snapping more than 200 portraits in total of the people he met. Gates was careful to be respectful when asking people if he could take their picture. “It’s like talking to a woman at a bar. You don’t just ask a gal for her number, you strike up a conversation first. You get to know a person.”
Gates also referred to those who offered him shelter and food as angels, much like the concept of trail angels along the Appalachian Trail. In the desert though, those encounters were fewer and farther between. He started running with a baby jogger to carry enough water and food to get him from stop to stop.
Running through the Sierras was a breath of fresh air compared to the desert. They also marked his last big hurdle before eventually making his way to San Francisco. Gates ended the journey with a triumphant run across the Golden Gate Bridge surrounded by friends and family. Even though he is not a fan of sand or the ocean, he went for a celebratory swim when he reached the Pacific on August 1, 152 days and 3,657 miles after he began his quest.
Rickey Gates’ Travel Tips
No matter if you are running coast-to-coast or just on a weekend jaunt, these pointers will improve the journey.
Want a pleasant surprise? Visit the Ozark Highlands Trail in Arkansas and Missouri. Gates calls it “160 miles of secluded beauty.”
Closer to home, put some miles down on the Colorado Trail. Gates says the 486-mile route is well-marked and showcases some of the most beautiful, hidden parts of the state.
“Go see the 10th Mountain Division Huts,” says Gates. He feels they are a great way to explore the mountains between Aspen and Vail and that they should count as a national treasure. If you don’t want to go on your own, you can join Gates himself in 2018 on one of his Hut Run Hut trips (hutrunhut.com/).
Gates also suggests packing light. “Know your abilities and how to use the small amount of gear you have, and it will set you free.”