Aspen runner Rickey Gates and his 3,500-mile Transamericana journey
Rickey Gates doesn’t consider himself to be like explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, nor does he compare himself to the pioneers that first settled in Colorado.
For one, he navigates mostly with his smartphone, rarely needing the guidance of the stars to find his way. And, unlike the pioneers who may have viewed the Rockies with awe and intimidation, Gates recently looked on them with a sense of longing.
It meant, after nearly three months on the road, he was nearly home.
“I don’t know what the pioneers thought about that. They may not have had the same feeling as I did, but it was just instantaneous re-energizing,” Gates said of viewing the mountains after a long trek across the plains. “I’ll take the Rockies 10 times over rather than take Highway 50 across Kansas again. Which isn’t to say I didn’t like it, it was just really challenging.”
Gates, an Aspen native and accomplished professional runner, is in the midst of a roughly 3,500-mile trek across the country. At 36, he has spent more than a decade traveling the world as a sponsored athlete, mostly with Salomon. And while he’s enjoyed the globetrotting and competitive races, his current journey is something different.
It is about discovering what’s in his own backyard.
“I’ve been kind of wanting to keep that going in some form or another, but also wanting to centralize my travels to my own home country, realizing that I’ve seen a lot of parts of the world more than I’ve seen my own states,” Gates said. “I wanted to find something to kind of reinvigorate my love for the sport and not make it about racing, not make it about a fast time. Just make it about fun and people and discovery.”
The dream of “Transamericana” has been a lifetime in the making, although it was in the last couple of years Gates actually began to make it a reality. His goal was to see parts of the country he otherwise would never visit, and do it as cheaply as possible.
Gates began his journey March 1 in South Carolina with the Palmetto Trail, and from there attempted to link up many of the South’s famous trails as he made his way west across the country. While running is his main form of transportation, Gates isn’t against taking to the waters, such as his 300-mile trip down the Tennessee River on a stand-up paddleboard.
“My days are pretty simple. I wake up and I run all day and then I go to sleep. I eat in there and that’s about it,” Gates said. “You can have plans for a trip like this, but you really can’t anticipate what you are going to find. It’s mostly about people in the end. The trails are super cool, but we already live in the most beautiful place on Earth. It’s hard to sell natural beauty to an Aspenite.”
The first three months of his journey took Gates across South Carolina, northern Georgia, parts of Alabama and Tennessee, through Memphis and the Ozarks, before cutting north into Oklahoma and Kansas. The wooded South brought with it plenty of trails and scenery, which Gates describes as “brain candy,” while the plains brought a whole new level of mental challenge.
“No tornados, but I definitely got my share of weather in Kansas,” Gates said. “Kansas has been the hardest part of the trip so far. Highway 50, seeing a grain silo from 8 miles away and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and it takes hours.”
The monotony finally ended when he rediscovered his native mountains. He used the Colorado Trail to get from the Front Range to Leadville, and then took advantage of the 10th Mountain Division huts to reach Aspen via Hunter Creek. After roughly 2,200 miles and three months on the road, Gates arrived in Aspen on June 1.
After meeting with friends and family, among his main priorities during his short stint home was paying bills and getting his taxes done. Then, it was back on the road, the West Coast finally within striking distance.
“To go across it on foot, you get to know a place rather intimately,” Gates said. “There is no easy way to do it. There are easier ways, but as far as mostly keeping myself entertained, I need to come up with challenges along the way and going over 12,000 feet in the springtime in a snowstorm is a good way to do that.”
Into the oven
Chances are, Gates won’t have to worry about snow for a while. He’s on pace to complete his journey in the planned five-month window, ending with a victory lap across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Before that, Gates must navigate the harsh Utah and Nevada deserts.
“I’ve got a lot of different challenges coming up. I’ve dealt with a little bit of heat, but I’m going into the desert. It’s going to be really interesting,” Gates said while in Aspen. “Water is my biggest worry. I haven’t ever done anything like this.”
Gates travels light. His pack weighs roughly 12 pounds, and includes only basic sleeping supplies, such as a tarp and sleeping bag, a change of clothes and a couple of cameras. He rarely carries more than a day’s worth of food with him, but realizes he might have to bring more than that with him through the more secluded regions he soon will enter.
He’s kept to a budget of roughly $1,000 a month, staying in hotels no more than once a week. Outside of some gear from Salomon, he’s paid for the trip himself.
“I want other people to be able to do the same trip as I am, so make it cheap and rely on the kindness of strangers,” Gates said. “When you are walking or running across the country, there are a lot of places in there where people don’t stop and hang out in. It’s pretty cool to see they are just as interesting as anywhere else.”
Gates will end his desert odyssey in Reno, Nevada, from where he will delve into California’s mountains via the Tahoe Rim trail and Western States trail. Outside of returning to Aspen briefly in the fall, where he guides hut running trips, Gates plans to make San Francisco his new home.
What happens after that is anyone’s guess.
“I’d like to put this journey down on paper in some format or another. Taking pictures has been such a huge part of this trip for me,” Gates said.
“As far as another project beyond this, I’m not quite sure. I always have a lot of ideas. As with any artist or creator, you can be a little tightlipped about what that might be. But we’ll see. I want to get my speed back in my legs.”
Gates has been active on social media during his trip. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter, both under the handle @rickeygates. For even more on Gates and his trip, his website is RickeyGates.com.
“All day long I run. It’s pretty easy,” Gates said. “When I stop this, I’m going to have to think about what I’m doing all day.”
Reporter Austin Colbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.