A Walk Across America
By: Rocio Villaseñor
Walking across America was a physical and mental challenge that alumni James Dill, ’18, and Sam Rezaei, '18, faced. Although their journey lasted longer than predicted, on December 3, 2022, the duo looked out over the Pacific Ocean at Los Angeles’s Venice Beach, just as the sun was setting at their feet—feet that had carried them over 2,800 miles in 170 days.
“We just kind of took 15-20 minutes, sitting on the beach trying to process what we had just done,” Dill says. Rezaei echoes that it was the same feeling for him. “It didn’t feel like some big grand sense of pride or accomplishment,” Rezaei says. “We finished this challenge that we planned for ourselves and now it is on [to] the next step.”
Their journey began on June 17, 2022, in Coney Island Beach, New York, which they chronicled in both an Instagram account @theamericantrail and blog The Walk Across the United States. In their first blog post, both alumni write that this will be their ultimate challenge to immerse themselves in rural America.
“[The walk] really helped me understand such a big population that I and many other people that live out in the city never really get to interact with and all we maybe hear from them is through the news. So I thought that was very eye opening and I really enjoyed it,” Rezaei says.
Most nights the alumni pitched tents along roads, outside churches, or community centers. They faced weather, safety, and other struggles, mostly in the countryside, but they were fortunate to meet people that would help them out. They recall how some locals engaged them in conversations, invited them to services, fed them, offered them showers, or left groceries on the road.
“It was extremely genuine help,” Rezaei says. “We still keep in contact with [some of the people].”
Along the way, their purpose for walking expanded after being mistaken for homeless and having conversations with individuals who are experiencing homelessness or poverty. They decided to turn their walk into a Coast2Coast fundraising initiative powered through a Gofundme.com page, which will provide funds to The Night Ministry in Chicago. They set out a goal of $1 million and have raised over $16,000. They are still accepting donations.
The alumni promoted the fundraiser on their Instagram, blog, and news stations during their walk. They were also receiving cash donations when locals saw them in towns and shared with them that their money would be put towards the fundraiser.
The Night Ministry found out about the fundraiser from a reporter for The Daily Northwestern, where Rezaei graduated from. Burke Patten, communications manager at The Night Ministry, got in touch with the alumni and says this is the first time that the organization has received funds from somebody walking across America.
“We’re really grateful for the funds that Sam and James have raised for us. Those will go towards supporting our mission which is to provide human connection, housing support, and health care to members of our community who are unhoused or experiencing poverty,” Patten says.
The Night Ministry is also grateful to Dill and Rezaei “for calling attention to the challenge of homelessness in this country” and educating others about it.
The alumni visited the Night Ministry in January. They spoke about their fundraiser and experiences, according to Patten. “I believe they’re looking to find other ways to continue to stay involved with The Night Ministry,” Patten says.
Dill and Rezaei had savings, but their parents, for the most part, sponsored their journey. Both alumni say their family and friends are very proud of them. Their parents met up with them in California to see them finish the trip.
“It felt very normal [what] we’re doing after a while, but to other people it is obviously like a very kind of unique thing to do,” Dill says. “I still remember what it was like but it’s like a completely different chapter of our lives. Even though it was a huge struggle, I think we both definitely miss doing it, too.”
The walk was not only about accomplishing their goal but “about each given day and each given hour,” Rezaei says. “That’s something that I think we learned along the way…and how we [grew] through this walk.”
Lab alumnus Tomer Keysar, ’18, is turning their journey into a documentary. Keysar was there at the beginning of their trip in New York and also in California when they finished. They hope the documentary will be available to the public next year.
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