Cross Country: A 3,700-Mile Run to Explore Unseen America by Rickey Gates chronicles the ultrarunner's transcontinental crossing of the United States with only a small backpack and an anthropologist's curiosity to understand better the political dichotomy that is polarizing America.
Published in 2020, Cross Country and illustrates Rickey Gate's 3,700 mile run, hike, and paddle from the Atlantic Ocean in South Carolina to the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco, California. Illustrates is a fitting descriptor as the book has the feel of a "heavy coffee table" collection filled with full-page, vivid photography, and stanza like prose. Rickey describes his career as a "crossroad of endurance and photo-gonzo-journalism" based on project-based runs. That is what you get: a rich, colorful collection of photographs and short, flowing prose that feel as if you are touring an art exhibit.
Rickey Gates is an American and Solomon sponsored ultrarunner for the past decade. Through running, he has traveled to over 30 countries and all 7 continents. Rick is well known in the ultrarunning circle, having competed in many sport's top events. Mainstream America got to know Rickey after his cross-country trip and subsequent Every Street Project in which he ran the +1,100 miles of streets in San Francisco.
Rickey embarked on his cross-country journey following the 2016 presidential year election, where the deep political division in the country become acutely evident. For the first time, Rickey realized that nearly half the country had entirely different political views as his own and those of his close friends. "How can you have a discussion when you don't know anyone on the opposite side of the argument" Ricky observes, noting that he had spent more time in Europe as a professional runner than he had in the southern U.S. states.
He created a personalized route across the U.S., starting in South Carolina, given his lack of familiarity with this South. His path was a mixture of rural roads, hiking trails, and the Tennesse river, the latter embracing waterways' role in the history of American westward expansion. He added waypoints of personal interest or significance, such as a stop in his hometown of Colorado. Finally, Rickey ended his journey in San Francisco, his former home and place of deep friendships and personal significance.
It is important to note that Rickey's trip across the U.S. was never about speed. His trip was 700 miles longer than the most efficient running route across the U.S. The efficient route is from San Francisco to New York City in a record of 42 days. While researching this book review, I learned about a whole separate culture of people crossing the US on both foot and bike. The American Discovery Trail is a +4,800 mile, non-motorized, coast-to-coast hiking trail stretching from Delaware to California. For bikers, transcontinental crossings are more common with multiples established routes and even touring companies.
Chapters are organized into America's geographic sections on Rickey's journey: South, Appalachians, River, Ozarks, Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, Desert, and West Coast. Ricky begins each chapter with a succinct introduction intermixed with poetic phrases and construction. Captions add context to most pictures. The pictures are high quality, vivid, and published on glossy, full-sized pages. The layout is artistic with a modern flair.
This review is a rare occasion where I recommend first watching the movie over reading the book. Preceding Cross Country's publication was the documentary film release of TransAmerica (available on Salomon TV or YouTube), chronicling Rickey's same trip across the U.S. The film captures the backstory, character nuances, and emotional insights. The photographs in the book are largely sourced from the documentary film. The film brings the photographs to life, capturing the depth before and after the still snapshot. It is easier to do this in the film. It takes a rare and gifted writer to do this in words.
Cross Country is, in my opinion, best treated as an artistic accompaniment to the documentary film. As you flip through the book, the pictures show the changing landscape and culture of America. You are constantly reminded of the breadth and diversity of the United States. At 250 pages, the book is easy to read, being light on words on dense on photographs. The writing serves the pictures. The book lacks the character development and contextual details of my favorite running stories. I sense this was intentional. Rickey is a runner and artist. His book showcases his photographic eye, including his many collages of rocks and "road trash" found along his journey. Through Cross Country, Rickey reminds us that even feats of endurance are personalized expressions of art.