Welcome to the fourth installment of The Story Goes, a monthly column of stories told by Eric Senseman about someone, somewhere in the sport of running. You can find every installment of the column here.
I can’t recall the very first time that I met Rickey Gates. I’ve hung out with Rickey only a handful of times, so I can remember each time, but I don’t know which of the times came first. I think that’s because when you meet Rickey, it feels like you’ve known him for a long time. It might feel that way because he looks you in the eye when he talks to you. Or maybe it’s because he makes you feel serenely at ease, like you’re talking to someone who not only already knows you, but fully understands you. It could be because he asks a lot of questions about you, and he listens to your answers and you can tell that he’s listening and that he cares, and when you ask questions of him, his answers are so sagacious, and uttered so calmly, that it feels like he’s been pondering your questions for decades and he’s finally arrived at the most appropriate answers just now.
In 2017, Rickey spent five months covering some 3,700 miles from South Carolina to California. I say covering because sometimes he was walking and other times he was running and he even paddled hundreds of miles of river along the way. He documented his journey with photographs and prose, and his recently released book, Cross Country, provides readers with a glimpse of what he saw: roadkill and empty vodka bottles; water towers and bridges; mountains and desert; people and their different cultures. The book also offers us an insight into Rickey Gates.
Rickey says that his journey was motivated by a desire to explore, and better understand, unseen America. But not halfway through the book, he recounts a day when he awoke at his campsite along the Appalachian Trail. He got up and sat around a still-burning fire with the camp’s unofficial warden. The man was drinking, so Rickey joined him and drank from eight in the morning until noon, at which point he realized that he better get moving if, after all, he was going to make it across the country. “I stumbled down the trail looking at myself,” he muses.
There is an Ancient Greek aphorism that translates as “Know Thyself.” It was referenced by Socrates and Plato and others in a variety of ways and for a variety of purposes. In one variation, the aphorism is meant to mean that you cannot fully understand others until you truly have an understanding of yourself. Perhaps paradoxically, it’s often by looking outward that we can better understand what’s inward. We can better know ourselves through the lense of other people. In Cross Country, Rickey seems to do just that: he learns about himself by investigating the people, and places, around him. By the end of the book, he seems to see himself more truly after he’s investigated his surroundings genuinely. One of his reflections from the later pages of the book seems especially astute on this point: “I tell Liz about how the birds would tell me where to seek shade in the desert. I didn’t even know they were showing me. Neither did they.”
This is the sort of poetic insight that Rickey sprinkles into the pages of Cross Country. Although most of the 256 pages are dedicated to other people--through portraits, quotations, quick anecdotes and short stories--we learn most about Rickey. He talks with store clerks and convicts, cowboys and tourists, bikers and business owners, immigrants and nationalists. What we learn through their stories is that Rickey asks earnestly, listens sympathetically and learns quickly. We learn that Rickey is less concerned with his personal pursuits than he is with the pursuits of others. That’s evident in the book because he spends most of his time narrating his conversations with other people and very little time talking about his own running. But these individual interactions on the road were only able to happen against the backdrop of his journey, a run across America. Throughout the book, that seems to unify him with the people he meets, no matter their background. I imagine, too, that his thoughtful questions and insightful answers put everyone he talked to at ease. I imagine that everyone he met felt like they had known him for a very long time.
One of the times that my path crossed with Rickey was in Silverton, Colorado. I’m not sure when it was, but I think it was in the summer of 2018. This was after Rickey had run across America but before he had run every single street in San Francisco. It was a warm morning and a cool mountain breeze whisked through the coffee shop. I sat down with Rickey over a cup of coffee. He wore a brimmed straw hat and listened closely as I spoke until a bird rode the breeze straight through the coffee shop’s open door. Rickey watched as the bird rose to the ceiling and coasted overhead. It landed in a box of potato chip bags on top of the cabinets in the back of the shop. The big open box also had a small square cutout at the bottom that the baristas could just barely reach into while still standing to grab a bag of chips. I saw the bird as it flew into the box and then I saw Rickey quietly get up and walk behind the counter.
The coffee shop was bustling and the baristas were busy, so I’m not sure that they saw the bird land above the cabinets. And I don’t think any of them heard Rickey politely ask if he could use the small step ladder. Rickey climbed the ladder, removed his hat, placed it over the top of the open box with his right hand, and blocked the small square opening with his left hand. He moved the hat toward his left hand until it met the sidewall of the box. He lifted the hat upward and put his left hand at the top of the open box until his two hands met, his straw hat and the small bird between them. He climbed down the ladder, walked outside and released the bird. He sat back down across from me and said something like, “Sorry about that. Where were we?”
Rickey is a noticeably reflective person and that personality trait comes through especially clearly in Cross Country. His assessment of himself--who he was and who he might be and who he’s become and is now--tends to happen at points in the book when nothing is really happening. He’ll talk about the day’s weather, or how flat the terrain is, or how far he has to go, or something else rather mundane. Then in an instant his reflections turn rather profound.
“We are never the same person from one moment to the next,” he writes, echoing a thought from Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, who’s quoted as saying that “no man steps in the same river twice.”
“There is an overlooked monotony present in most great adventures...I had neglected to realize the change that occurs as a result of that monotony,” he continues, seeming to undercut the unrealistic world of Instagram photos and social media that allows people to depict their lives as constantly adventurous and interesting.
“Oftentimes, we don’t have the capacity to recognize our own personal growth or decomposition--it’s a realization that’s reserved for reunions, weddings, and funerals,” he concludes, tapping into the difficult reality that we’re limited in our own assessments, and recognizing that many small, unnoticeable changes add up to produce large, noticeable changes over time.
Rickey’s musings are often deep and serious, but he also possesses a keen sense of humor. He has the ability to go from one (funny) to the other (serious) on a given topic within a matter of pages. One example is when he jokes about a very long, tough day: “Having been on the move for nearly four months, I was having one of those days (they seemed to be coming more often) where I was feeling particularly feral--a sentiment often accompanied by a lost sense of self, intense chocolate milk cravings, and a roadside analysis of Nietzsche.” Later in the book, as he considers the implications of his run across the country, he returns to the topic of chocolate milk in a rather serious way: “I don’t miss chocolate milk; what I miss is craving chocolate milk. I miss wanting it more than anything in the world.”
I didn’t run across the country with Rickey Gates. Not even for one mile. In fact, I’ve never run a single step with Rickey. Most people that read Cross Country won’t have run with him either, and probably won’t even have met him. But if you read the book, you’ll feel like you started on the beach in South Carolina with him, your feet sinking into the sand. You’ll hear an eighteen-wheel truck whizzing by you on the highway. You’ll feel the suffocating heat of Nevada in the summer. You’ll feel a sense of drained elation when he reaches San Francisco. And if you read the book, you’ll feel like you know Rickey. You’ll laugh when he’s funny, you’ll squint your eyes to focus when he’s profound, and you might tear up when he’s reflective.
If you ever get the chance to meet Rickey Gates, you’ll think he’s an old friend. Either because you’ll have read his book, or because he’ll look you in the eyes when he talks to you and he’ll ask genuine questions and he’ll take the time to save a bird in distress and then he’ll apologize to you for the inconvenience.
But whether you ever read Cross Country or meet Rickey, you can learn from his journey that life is best lived, and the moments you experience are unique and should be lived fully. Or, in the words of Rickey Gates, “The sun disappearing for two minutes is not something that you can fabricate or reproduce. You have either experienced something or you haven’t. Either way, the moment is everything. And when it is gone, all you are left with are recollections and interpretations of that moment.”