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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — After walking over 3,000 miles and more than 250 days, 25-year-old Holden Ringer stepped foot across the Tennessee state line earlier this week.
As he continued down State Route 12 into Nashville, the city served as the two-thirds waypoint in his cross-country journey that began as a simple daydream a few years ago while he was studying for an international finance exam.
“That’s around the time I was graduating, and I was just staring out the window wishing I could be anywhere but there, but I had to study for this exam,” Ringer said. “The seeds were planted I feel like in that moment.”
While a bit daunting, Ringer had seen people complete a walk across America before, and a couple of long-distance walks ensured him that he too could make the trek. By March 2023 he had sold his car, sold his furniture and traded it all in for a small cart of items and a tent.
‘I never had any delusions that America was going to be this wonderful, walkable place’
Ringer set off from Seattle, Washington on March 31, and besides a few weeks to rest here and there, said he has been walking ever since. He mapped out the route along less busy roads to stay as safe as possible, but said he began his journey knowing it could be challenging.
“I never had any delusions that America was going to be this wonderful, walkable place where I got to walk on a trail, and everything was safe, and I didn’t have to deal with cars ever,” he said. “It was like no, America is arterial highways, America is strip malls, America is parking lots.”
Most of the walk has taken him along state highways, where he has passed by miles of sagebrush and farmland in the western part of the nation. Walking on U.S. interstates is prohibited, but Ringer said there’s been no alternative in some parts of the country.
In Oregon, Ringer climbed a mountain to avoid walking on the interstate but said he later realized he would still have to walk on the interstate for about four miles.
He encountered similar issues heading through Utah, where he had to take Interstate 84 and was stopped by police.
“They stopped me, and they were like, ‘You can’t be walking here’,” he said. “I told them straight up, ‘Where do you want me to walk?’ because there was no alternative whatsoever and they were like, ‘Yep, that’s a fair point, keep on going’.”
Throughout his journey, Ringer has camped out underneath picnic shelters, on the side of highways, underneath bridges, and even in airplane hangars. The many memorable people he’s met along the way have been one of his favorite parts of the trip.
Walk highlights problems in cities like Nashville
But his journey has also become about advocating for pedestrian safety. In each state he’s passed through, Ringer has noticed slight differences in walkability.
Most of his journey through Tennessee so far has been on State Route 12, which he said is far from pedestrian-friendly, but something that he expected.
Ringer spent about six miles walking through Nashville, where he said there were noticeable problems with some of the city’s infrastructure, including intersections where it was difficult for pedestrians and drivers to see each other.
“You had this blind intersection where cars were turning right, and you were supposed to be able to cross, but there’s no paint or signage or lights that’s going to designate that this is the place you’re supposed to be walking,” he said.
It’s a problem that’s been highlighted in multiple national studies and by local organizations like Walk Bike Nashville. In August, a study by KURU Footwear ranked Nashville and Memphis as the country’s two most dangerous cities for pedestrians.
A record number of pedestrians were also killed by cars in Nashville last year.
“The number of times I have opened my email mailbox and seen another alert for a pedestrian fatality, it’s just tragic,” Meredith Montgomery with Walk Bike Nashville told News 2 in a Jan. 2022 interview regarding the city’s infrastructure.
Some cities are ‘farther along,’ but it wasn’t overnight
A small number of streets where safety improvements are needed have been linked to most pedestrian deaths in Nashville. However, those infrastructure problems are something Ringer said he has noticed in many cities across the U.S.
“Some cities, they are farther along, but I don’t necessarily think they magically got there,” he said. “It was somebody actually putting in the work to make these communities more walkable, and I feel like that’s something I’m always trying to encourage because I’m just one guy.”
During his journey, Ringer said he has stopped to meet with local advocates from pedestrian safety organizations like Walk Bike Nashville in multiple cities.
He’s also using his journey to raise money for America Walks, a national advocacy organization.
While Ringer said he feels privileged to be able to complete his walk and try to raise awareness about pedestrian safety, it’s the people who don’t have protected bike lanes in their communities or functioning sidewalks who he feels are going to be “the strongest voice(s).”
With about 1,600 miles still ahead till he reaches his endpoint in New Haven, Connecticut, Ringer said he hopes his journey across America inspires people to get out and walk more, take risks and to speak out for safety improvements in their communities.
“We’re a very car-centric country and I’m not hating on cars, because I think cars are very useful. Rural America doesn’t exist without cars,” he said. “But at the same time, should we be building our cities, bulldozing communities for the car just so we can have highways? I don’t think that’s the case.”