“I’m definitely suffering a bit, and I don’t put too many pictures up of me being depressed in the desert… I think it’s just the nature of the desert, and it being so big.”
So says Rickey Gates from the dusty floor of a western Nevada valley. For those of you who don’t know about Rickey Gates’s current adventure, he’s in the final month of a five-month-long cross-country run. He started in South Carolina in March and is now approaching the Sierra Nevada before his final run into San Francisco, California. But that’s not what I want to talk about right now. What I want to talk about is empty space. Wide open distance.
The Great Basin is a geological phenomenon that defines the state of Nevada. Its borders are unclear, but it roughly spans an unimaginably huge 190,000 square miles, and what makes it special is explained by its name: it is a really big basin, with no outlet to the sea. All of the water that comes into this area leaves only vertically: it either precipitates up into the sky or percolates down into the ground, unless it’s drunk by one of the rack-ribbed cattle browsing among the desert shrubs. The Earth’s crust is thinning here; the planet is pulling itself apart, and over millions of years this action has caused hundreds of faults to form that now define the region with a distinctive “Basin and Range” topography. Broad, deep valleys bordered by long, sharp mountain ranges. The mountains are high but aridity commands the climate. This is a desert, huge and empty, classically, nostalgically, American.
And Rickey is now running through this desert, pushing a stroller with a hubcap on one wheel and an American flag flying from the side. He is growing thinner too, stretching himself apart every day as his journey stretches across the continent. And by the time you read this he’ll probably be gone, up into the mountains, among the snows of the high Sierra Nevada and headed down into the mechanized former paradise of California’s Central Valley. Before long he’s going to run right into the ocean itself, where he’ll have to either turn or start swimming. But for now he’s trotting across the parched desert, where you can see storms approach from 50 miles away and then evaporate before wetting the ground.
Here’s one of the ways he describes his routine: “Every single day waking up before the sun rises and going until the heat gets to me and then stopping and trying to nap, but you can’t nap in 100-degree heat and just kind of waiting waiting waiting for it to cool off and then, you know, getting going again, and when people are sitting down for dinner I put my shoes back on and start going again and go until people are asleep and then I get a short sleep and then get going again the next morning. It’s kind of rough in that sense, but there’s also something magical about that as well, seeing the sun rise and the sun set every day and covering massive amounts of distance…”
If you follow Rickey’s Instagram account, you have seen his pictures. He shows the people he meets and the places where he meets them, and only occasionally shows himself, a pale and emaciated figure with a red beard and a crinkly smile. His captions are snapshots of his encounters: quotes, descriptions, observations. It’s creative nonfiction told in 140 characters, the brevity leaving empty space for the imagination to fill in with color. And if you’re anything like me, you fill in the blanks with gorgeous portraits in vivid color. I imagine long shadows across rocky plains; the warm grooves of a shaded culvert in the heat of the day; the singular rattle of baby-stroller wheels among the obscene, pounding silence of a desert that swallows everything for hundreds of miles in all directions. I illustrate his trip in my mind with heartbreaking fantasy, and I wish I was there.
“For the desert part,” Rickey says, “I kind of purposely didn’t think about it, like even logistics, I didn’t really know how I was gonna’ get across… I knew that the desert was gonna’ be hard, and it has been, but I didn’t focus on how hard or what kind of hard, and it’s good that I didn’t, because, yeah, it would have been bad to dwell on…”
For a distance runner, I don’t feel that I have a great sense of scale. My runs are mostly pre-meditated, my adventures scripted. I regularly drive or fly huge distances so that I can challenge myself in particular ways in specific places. Along the way I take photos and videos that feel honest to me. I don’t want to lie about what I do. But it’s easy to build a box around your routines; it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re already doing all you can. The word “adventure” is overused. Not often have I set off into the real unknown, so when I see someone who has, like Rickey, it’s captivating because it shows me a new facet of something I thought I understood so well. I have been part of this sport for all of my adult life, and here is something that has been, for me, entirely unconceived.
That’s why I fill in Rickey’s empty spaces with brilliant daydreams of what it would be like if I were there. But I’ve spent enough time exploring the wild spaces between ideals and reality that I can reasonably guess that it’s not always crisp, starlit nights and friendly middle-aged waitresses giving him free waffles in small-town cafes. So when I spoke with him, I wanted to know what it was really like. I wanted to know if his pictures were a true representation of his experience or if he were choosing between what he felt and what he wanted to feel. “Do you find yourself thinking about other places often?” I wanted to know. And he said yes, “which is also really hard, thinking about the end of the trip and it being, like, so far away, but then you know it all just happens really quick… I’m kind of through the Great Basin now… I have a couple more hot days but I’m essentially through the desert and, you know, now it’s done. Now the desert’s done.”
It sounds so easy. He says he is now so used to this routine that he can run 35 – 40 miles a day without ever feeling like he’s working too hard. It’s clear that he is not infatuated with the glamor of the adventure the way the rest of us are, and that’s to be expected. Nobody can maintain that kind of idealism from the drudgery of daily tasks, like a musician trying to be inspired by the repetition of scales. And the nature of Rickey’s pursuit is that it is as contrary to a race as is possible within the realm of the sport: there is no artificial glory around his run; nobody is around to bestow a false immortality to his nine-minute (at best) miles. Rickey just runs, and waits, and eats, and then runs again. In between he sleeps. His greatest show of strength is not in running huge miles every day for months, or climbing mountains, or overcoming the sickness that leveled him for a week. He shows his bravery by continuing, by embracing the desert, or if not embracing it then at least accepting it and facing it. He moves into a new unknown every day, and if he doesn’t always enjoy it he at least respects it. He wouldn’t have gotten very far otherwise.
To the extent that anyone can be authentic in a culture that prioritizes frantic self-awareness above all else, Rickey seems to be just that. He wants recognition, just like the rest of us. But that doesn’t seem to be why he’s out there running through the parched and striking Nevada desert. He’s doing it…because. Just because.
“What we have to understand, said the blind man, is that ultimately everything is dust. Everything we can touch. Everything we can see. In this we have the deepest evidence of justice, of mercy. In this we see the greatest blessing of God”
– Cormac McCarthy The Crossing