Across the country: Two alumni walk 2,800 miles to combat homelessness


Photo provided by James Dill

BITTERLY COLD. Sam Rezaei and James Dill sleep in tents throughout their journey, braving the harsh conditions.

Clare McRoberts, Assistant Editor

A blanket of snow covers the New Mexico landscape, and 10 long hours of walking lie ahead in bitingly cold air. As hours pass, the snow becomes gooey mud. A wheel breaks off a stroller, which is carrying all the camping gear. There’s no one to call for help; it’s a cellphone dead zone.

This is what a walk across the United States can look like on its bleakest days. 

James Dill and Sam Rezaei, 2018 U-High graduates, expect to finish a five-and-a-half month walk from New York to Los Angeles in early December. They’ve suffered blisters, grappled with crushing heat and bitter cold, and made their way next to sometimes-dangerous highway traffic. 

But along the way, they say, they’ve also found something they didn’t expect: boundless kindness and generosity from strangers.

“Throughout the whole trip, we’ve had people just give us food or water out of their car without even asking what we’re doing, just expressing concern for our well being,” James said. “Someone threw me a pair of jeans out of their truck — they threw it right in front of me on the interstate.”

Sam and James, who became friends at Lab in ninth grade and stayed close after they left for college (Sam to Northwestern and James to Oberlin), embarked on their trip after Sam came up with the plan late one January night.

I had this idea, and then I actually went out and did it,” Sam said. “It was something that I thought was really cool” — a rare part of life that didn’t involve the support of an institution or a program, he noted.  

The two began their expedition on June 17, stepping off the Coney Island Boardwalk in Brooklyn. They’ve walked more than 2,000 miles, about 25 miles a day. They sleep mainly in tents and often walk along interstate highways. Their hope is to finish their adventure on the pier at Santa Monica, California, in the next few days. 

A couple of months into their trip, the pair began to consider gathering donations for a cause. After research, they landed on raising money for an organization based in Chicago that helps people experiencing homelessness, Night Ministry.

James and Sam were inspired, in part, by people they met in the first weeks of their walk. 

“We had a couple interactions early on, particularly one in Pennsylvania at this gas station, with a clerk who was previously homeless,” Sam said, “and we just found their stories and their experiences really touching.”

They have sent dispatches from their journey on Instagram, using the account @theamericantrail. It includes their GoFundMe on behalf of Night Ministry.

One of their most memorable experiences occurred early in the trip, on July 4. They were walking along when a car drove up. The motorist, a man named Ed, offered the pair Gatorade and candy bars. They shared their story with him, and Ed recalled how he had once hiked the Appalachian Trail. He invited them to his son’s home, not far away. By the time they arrived, pizzas, fireworks and beer were waiting.

“I’m never going to forget about that,” Sam said. “When you’re down in the dumps after a long day, it’s crazy what just a nice conversation can do for you.”

Still, the kindness of strangers couldn’t spare them from the more grueling aspects of their trip. At times, their feet ached, and at one point, in Columbus, Ohio, blisters from the boots Sam had been wearing grew miserable. 

“It looked like my feet were through a meat grinder,” he said. 

At another point, in the summer heat of the Midwest, Sam began experiencing daily migraines. And carrying their gear was a challenge: They went from using backpacks to Walmart shopping carts to strollers.

Through good and the bad, the simplicity of walking brought the pair new clarity about life, they said.

Before the journey, “I felt like I always needed something that I could look forward to at the end of the day – otherwise, it was going to be a crappy day,” Sam said. “But I think I’ve kind of shed that necessity on this trip because each day is so simple.”