The ultimate pedestrian: How one man’s walk across America became a journey of advocacy

Holden Ringer walks by a tractor during his 10-month walk across America

Holden Ringer walks by a tractor during his 10-month walk across AmericaCourtesy Holden Minor RingerCNN — 

Holden Ringer has experienced incredible highs trekking across America on foot.

The avid walker from Seattle has hobnobbed with state representatives in Georgia, eaten tacos in Kansas and seen the oldest KFC in America.

Of course, he’s also had his share of unpleasant moments – walking over roadside kill, bearing through thunderstorms and dodging speeding cars.

Through it all, Ringer said it’s rare he finds himself regretting the journey.

“I definitely wake up every single morning, excited and appreciative to do this,” Ringer, 25, told CNN. “I feel very privileged. I feel very fortunate to be able to walk on the side of the highway for 20 to 30 miles.”

It all started on a bleary night in May 2021 on the second floor of the Emory University library in Atlanta, studying for an exam as words and numbers swirled around his brain. He was on the cusp of graduation and didn’t know what came next.

He decided he needed a walk. Soon, he found himself searching the internet about walks and those who had taken epic ones across the country.

That day, “tiny seeds were planted,” and Ringer got a sense that he could do this one day – he could walk across America.

In true “Forrest Gump” fashion – and without a clear reason behind the trek – he decided to pack his bags and take a walk that has now gone on for 10 months and led him through 3,400 miles across 11 US states.

Ringer didn’t really know then why he wanted to make the trip on foot but he’s found his purpose on the road – using his journey and experience as the ultimate pedestrian to shed light and advocate for walkable communities

“There’s not necessarily one ‘why,’” he said of the walk. “There wasn’t somebody on their deathbed, saying ‘You have to walk across America.’ This was just the moment where I thought I could it happen.”

He’s now a long way from that sleepless night at the library, but closer than ever to completing his cross-country voyage.

Holden Ringer gets ready to leave Nashville, Tennessee.

Holden Ringer gets ready to leave Nashville, Tennessee.Courtesy Holden Minor Ringer

Creating walkable communities

To prepare for his journey – which started in March 2023 –  Ringer started going on longer walks, eventually doing a nine-day walk from Vancouver to Seattle. He also went on an overnight camping trip, and despite being sunburnt and covered in blisters, he “couldn’t wait to do more.”

Ringer understood his cross-country trek would be far from glamorous, as the US isn’t the most walkable country. But he thought he could use his adventure to draw more attention to this and advocate for a more walkable society.

Pedestrians cross a street past traffic in the Chinatown neighborhood of New York, US, on Saturday, June 17, 2023. New York City's congestion pricing plan for the central business district is expected to get final approval this month.

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He started off the journey with a backpack full of gear, but a lot has changed over the months. He’s gotten Smiley – a stroller he uses to push his gear. He’s updated his end destination from Washington, D.C. to continuing to New York and ending in Connecticut, which he hopes to reach by May. The journey also opened his eyes to the intense safety risks of walking through a country that centers around vehicle use.

“If every close call that I had with a car – it’s been numerous – if that’s what stopped me, I wouldn’t have made it this far,” Ringer said. “I think a huge part of this walk is shining light on these issues.”

He decided to partner with America Walks, encouraging those he comes across to donate to the organization dedicated to increasing walkable spaces in the US.

Without many walkable routes, Ringer often finds himself strolling down highways, stepping over used diapers and other trash, while trying to ensure he doesn’t get hit by drivers who are sometimes speeding or even distracted by their phones.

Ringer has seen firsthand the sheer enormity of roadside memorials created for lost loved ones, providing a gut-wrenching reminder of the dangers posed by the driving ecosystem in the US.

Dozens of pairs of cowboy boots in a tree for one person killed in Oregon. Another spot in Georgia was decorated with flowers and a Dia de los Muertos mask.

A Dia de los Muertos mask sits on a roadside memorial for a lost loved one.

A Dia de los Muertos mask sits on a roadside memorial for a lost loved one.Courtesy Holden Minor Ringer

“It’s really beautiful, the way people remember the dead and remember their loved ones,” Ringer said. “The reality of the situation is that the vast majority of my days are spent on high-speed highways that are covered in roadside memorials of all the people who’ve died.”

For Ringer, this journey has helped him grow a passion for creating more walkable communities in the US.

“America isn’t a walkable place,” Ringer said. “And it’s not because we have geographic constraints that make it that way. We very much built our cities and states around the car.”

Ringer hopes his walk will help inspire people to get involved in their local communities to create walkable spaces.

“I hope that people feel empowered, because these are the issues where people can make a big difference,” Ringer said. “But it requires people coming together and building coalitions to build better, more efficient and more walkable cities.”

Generosity in unexpected places

Through this journey, Ringer has met people from all walks of life, stopping strangers in diners or on the road to give his spiel on walkable communities, have a conversation or maybe find a place to sleep for the night. Some even recognize him from social media and the news as the man walking across America and stop him. He said he’s learned a lot on the trip about people’s generosity and capacity for good.

“Talking to people and learning about their experiences has given me a lot of faith in the good and generous people of this country,” Ringer said.

Often, he finds generosity in the most unexpected of places.

In Boise, Idaho, a man recognized him in line and offered to pay for his hotel room, realizing Ringer had stayed with his brother – a friend of Ringer’s aunt –  a few nights ago.

At a diner in Missouri, after a woman paid for his meal, other customers rushed to help him out, the generosity infectious.

In Colorado, Ringer texted a couple he’d met on the road for help after he was swarmed by mosquitoes and his wagon broke down. The woman was getting a tooth taken out, but she still drove out to pick him up and gave him a place to stay for the night, despite being strangers.

“I don’t think I would’ve gotten here without the generosity and kindness of so many strangers,” Ringer said.

“It makes me want to be more generous. It makes me want to be more appreciative,” Ringer added. “It’s tough to not want to give my full self in everything I do and the people around me as a result.”

This past week, Ringer returned to Atlanta, where he attended college. The stop wasn’t part of his original route – he hadn’t anticipated going to the South – but it allowed him to see the city with fresh eyes.

He’s often asked where home is, and typically he replies with whatever city he’s in at the moment. But this trip helped him realize he’s craving a home and community.

“At the start of the walk, I was thinking – maybe I want to walk across the world next. Maybe I want to be an adventurer,” Ringer said. “It’s a little poetic, that all you really wanted was a sense of community. And it takes you walking across the country to figure that out.”

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