Originally published on Emory News Center. Written by Michelle Ricker. Portraits by Sarah Woods and trek photos courtesy of Holden Ringer. Map created from Getty Images. Design and animation on Emory News Center by Elizabeth Hautau Karp.

Holden Ringer 21BBA, a graduate from both Emory College of Arts and Sciences and Goizueta Business School, was procrastinating studying for a final when the idea first came to him.

Looking out the window of Woodruff Library, studying for an international finance exam in May 2021, Ringer was wishing he could be anywhere but there. A walk sounded nice, he thought, but he really needed to study.

He turned back to the books, but a seed was planted that day. Now, he’s more than 300 days—and 3,400 miles—into walking from Washington state to Washington, D.C.

Sometimes the Right Path Forward is a Full Circle

When Ringer set out from Washington, he didn’t intend to walk through Georgia. But when it became obvious that his original route would put him through Indiana, Ohio and West Virginia during December and January, he chose to head south for the winter instead.

Emory alum Holden Ringer 21BBA treks across the country on foot, raising awareness for walkable communities.

Being back on Emory’s campus, and in a city where he spent four formative years, was a full-circle moment. In fact, Ringer had applied to colleges in the South and on the West Coast to avoid snow in the first place.

Although born in Dallas, Ringer attended a Massachusetts boarding high school. His first winter there was one of the snowiest in Massachusetts’ history—and he never wanted to see snow again.

Emory’s broad options caught Ringer’s eye, as he was still figuring out what he wanted to do. He took advantage of the ability to pursue two different routes, graduating with a double major in marketing and American history in addition to a minor in German, all on top of running cross country and track for four years.

While walking through Georgia in January 2024, Ringer – and Smiley – spent time back on Emory’s campus, catching up with friends and reflecting on the place where he got this idea in the first place.

But that day in the library, steps away from graduating, Ringer realized he wanted to tie his effort to walk across America to an organization with national reach.

“Most of the work that happens with pedestrian advocacy happens at the local level, so I didn’t want to support an organization that was based in one city and be advocating for it halfway across the country,” Ringer says.

Ringer discovered America Walks, a national nonprofit that advances safe, equitable, accessible and enjoyable places to walk and move by providing resources to effectively advocate for change.

Holden Ringer’s jogging stroller, nicknamed Smiley, is a Chariot Cougar 1 model. The stroller keeps all of his supplies safe and dry and has made the journey far easier. He spent the first 40 days using a backpack but developed plantar fasciitis in central Oregon. The side of the stroller reads: I walked here from Washington. Say hi!

That aligned with Ringer’s own mission to meet with local advocacy groups along the way, learn what is and isn’t working, and help connect community members with existing resources, encouraging them to build the community they want to see—one future generations will also benefit from.

“I think people feel very apathetic toward a lot of political issues and that they can’t make change,” Ringer says.

But one of the great things about walkability being a local issue is that you can make change. You can meet with your city council members, you can build a coalition, you can support bills for sidewalks and protected bike lanes or whatever it is your city needs.

Holden Ringer 21BBA

While back in Atlanta, he met with Propel ATL, a group working to make Atlanta’s streets friendly to ride, walk and roll. He’s done similar things in Nashville, Tennessee; across cities in Missouri; in Denver, Colorado, and more.

A New Coast Brings a New Perspective

After graduating from Emory, Ringer moved to Seattle, Washington, with the AmeriCorps VISTA program, a national service program founded in 1965 to alleviate poverty.

Through AmeriCorps VISTA, Ringer worked in marketing analytics for HopeWorks, an organization that partners with small businesses and job training programs for people experiencing homelessness or chronic unemployment.

Ringer at the Great Salt Lake in Utah – seeing this was the main reason he decided to go through Utah rather than Wyoming, as there has been speculation the lake will dry up in the next five years.

One of Ringer’s main responsibilities was providing project data and implementing changes. “Living in Washington state, where there are very high rates of visible homelessness, and being at HopeWorks shaped a lot of my views,” he says.

Home for the 2021 holidays, Ringer decided to go for a walk on the winter solstice. That turned into a 20-mile walk all around Dallas—and the realization he could do it every day.

In early 2022, Ringer began making real plans.

Peaks and Valleys, Even Along Stretches of Flat Highways

Ringer set a start date of April 1, 2023. But to make it a true coast-to-coast accomplishment, he ventured out from La Push, Washington, on March 8, and headed inland to Seattle. Once home, he sold his car and furniture, built a website and left again on March 31 with a “group start,” where friends and loved ones saw him off.

Nearly a year into this journey, Ringer has seen a wide swath of America—and Americans. Many nights, he’s asking permission to pitch a tent in someone’s yard or relying on townsfolk to point him to an overnight shelter. Despite plenty of rejections, he’s made a plethora of friends along the way and learned not to judge a book by its cover.

He’s walked and slept in all sorts of weather conditions and road conditions, from well-maintained paths, like Missouri’s 240-mile Katy Trail, to the nonexistent shoulders of state highways near Chattanooga.

Really, Ringer says, he’s doing what he learned at Goizueta: networking.

Reflecting on his four years at Emory, Ringer wishes he’d taken more time to explore his interests and the city rather than worrying about a concrete life plan.

“I’ve used my time after graduation to do those things,” says Ringer.

I needed Emory to have that more structured experience and get me to realize there’s this big whole world out there. While that may seem scary, it’s very encouraging to me that I get to go explore it and find out what I really want to do for the rest of my life, to discover what will bring me joy and fulfillment.

Holden Ringer 21BBA

People have also told Ringer that, at 25, he’s too young to be doing this. “How old are you supposed to be?” he asks, laughing. “And what am I losing out on if I don’t do this experience? This is shaping my perception of the world I am hoping to build and be part of in the future.”

That future is just around the corner. Ringer anticipates arriving in Washington, D.C., by mid-March and New York City by late April. New York City will be the “group end” of the walk, where Ringer will meet up with loved ones. Then, he’ll walk to New Haven, Connecticut, for his individual finish.

While New Haven may sound anticlimactic, it holds something for Ringer that no other city does—a memorial to his grandparents. The money he inherited after their deaths provided the security he needed to undertake this journey, and Ringer will finish the walk by paying his respects and thanking them.

“I always stress that this is my walk, but it’s really important that you find your walk. It may not be walking across America. Maybe it’s starting a business, maybe it’s going to grad school,” Ringer says. “Maybe other people won’t believe in the vision you have. But you don’t have to justify your dreams to yourself.”

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