Mike Posner is the first to tell you that he’s had a pretty good life: at 31 years old, the singer and producer already has a hit music career under his belt. So he decided to switch things up, embarking on a six-month journey walking alone across America. He left Asbury Park, New Jersey on April 15 and dove into the Pacific Ocean off of Venice Beach, California on Oct. 18. Along the way, he logged some 2,851 miles, as many as 30 a day; suffered a rattlesnake bite that called for an emergency helicopter ride to the ICU in Colorado; and grew a considerable beard. But the hardest part — and the whole point of the trip for Posner — was to become accustomed to discomfort, and to transform into someone tougher. “Hopefully I can share this concept of becoming somebody you’re actually proud of,” he explains to TIME. “I don’t want to be anybody’s hero; screw that.” Instead, he wants to be an example of taking on challenges and not making excuses.
Posner, who first made his mark in 2010 with the Billboard hit “Cooler Than Me,” has always had a nihilistic, introspective streak in his music. The remix of his song “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” made its way to the top of charts around the world, even as its lyrics decry his isolation. Since then, Posner has released poetry projects and music with collaborators like Wiz Khalifa and Talib Kweli. But the walk is a new level of self-exploration. And you can’t go nearly 3,000 miles across the country without learning something not only about yourself, but also about the country.
“Anyone who feels misanthropic in any way — and Lord knows I do sometimes and have sometimes in my life — I’d say, take this journey and be blown away,” Posner says, referencing the surprising interactions he had along the way and the ways his perspective shifted while crossing the Navajo reservation and internalizing the rural scope of the country. TIME spoke with him just a few days after his final steps. He was still waking up at 4 a.m. daily and slowly readjusting to a more static life. But Posner suggested that the walk was, for him, just a beginning.
TIME: You started this walk in April. When you set out, why did this appeal to you as a project?
MIKE POSNER: I had an inkling that there was more inside of me than I was letting out. When somebody says, who’s your hero? Who inspires you? I wanted to be able to look them in the eye and say, “Me.” So I tried to go become that person. I’m not done, not even close. But that’s really why I went on this journey. I felt called to it.
What was it about crossing America that interested you? Or was it the solitude and scale of it?
It was all those things. It would be crazy to complete this trip and not have some major self-growth. I spent a lot of my life trying to make things as comfortable as possible. In the walk, I was trying to do the opposite. What happens then is that you become a better, harder, more authentic version of yourself.
What was a day on the road like?
I’d wake up at 4 a.m. and meditate for 20 minutes, get stretched out, eat something, and get out the door as soon as possible. I’d typically be walking by 5:10 a.m. I’d walk eight miles; the first eight miles were silent miles, a walking meditation. Then I’d take a break. I walk supported, which means I wasn’t backpacking; I had a friend who went ahead in a support vehicle, so at each break the vehicle would be waiting for me. It didn’t drive next to me; when I walk, I walk alone. But at the breaks my stuff is there. I always like to make that clear, because there are many who do walk across America that way, and they’re more badass than me. After the first eight miles, I’d take a break, eat more; a lot of wood going in the furnace. Then walk another four miles, take a break, walk another four miles, take a break, walk six more. That puts me at 26. Towards the very end I was starting to get 30 mile days pretty consistently. I liked to be done at 5 p.m., with time to stretch, meditate, eat and be in bed by 7:30 p.m. And I’d walk six days a week and take Thursdays off.
What was most surprising thing, physically, about the experience?
It’s easy for people to say to me, “You know, it’s amazing how the body can adjust.” It’s true, but it’s more amazing to me that there are people willing to suffer to let that adjustment happen. It never gets easy. The whole way, it hurts. But your mind gets better at dealing with things that aren’t easy. That’s a superpower. Most of us are so afraid of feeling pain or being uncomfortable that we try to rig our lives in a way that we never feel those things. Without knowing it, we live our lives inside a tiny sandbox, forgetting that there’s a huge wide wonder world outside of that. Personally, I want to play on the monkey bars, go down the slide, leave the playground and see what else is out there.
Was there any place that stuck out to you while you were passing through?
Like a thousand. What really stands out to me is the time I spend walking across the Navajo nation. I walked 189 miles across their land — about 10 days. If that was my whole trip, it would have been worth it, just that part.
First of all, this was a place I was warned about incessantly before I got there. People told me to be careful, that it wasn’t safe. But when I got there, it was the most support I received on the walk by a mile — almost to the point where I got frustrated; it would seem like every other car was stopping to give me a gift or pray for me or take a picture. Most notably, I met a man named Al Largo. His stepson basically guided me through the land.
I’m not an expert, just a white guy who walked there for 10 days. But it seems to me in their tradition, they honor their elders in a way we do not in our culture. When Al speaks, everybody listens. And when you don’t interrupt, you learn a lot. It’s a small tweak that has huge manifestations, reverberations. We believe in private property; they don’t. If you ask, who owns this land? They’ll say, well, the deed says so-and-so. But nobody owns it. You can’t own land.
So what does that mean? There’s a reason our land is ending up so polluted and the water is poisoned in places like Flint. On a lot of these reservations, though, the land is perfect — unless white people have somehow figured out how to set up coal mines or uranium mines and are exploiting it in some other way.
I imagine there was a pretty strong contrast between places like the reservation and the developed areas you walked through. What did the fabric of America look like from the ground?
You know how when someone takes a trip someplace and comes back they say, “It was beautiful!” Maybe it sounds trite, but at some point I realized: every place was beautiful. [Laughs.] New York, before there was a city, it must have been gorgeous. After you go into the woods or desert and you come back to cities, you see how ugly a lot of the stuff we build is.
One of your mantras was “Keep going.” What was the intention behind that?
You have to have a “no matter what” clause in that contract with yourself: I’m going to complete this no matter what. In the case that things fall apart — and the longer, harder the journey, the more likely they will — you don’t have to make a decision, because you already know you’ll get through it and keep going. Later, I got bit by a rattlesnake and was in the ICU for five days; I couldn’t even walk to the bathroom. But when that happened, I didn’t have to re-decide if I was going to finish or not. I learned that’s how you get things done in life.
All my new age yoga friends in L.A. — I love them, but what do we say when things get hard? We say, “It wasn’t meant to be.” But what are we really saying? “I’m giving up.” When I make fun of them, I’m making fun of myself before I did this. But you have to keep going. That’s where the person you want to be is, on the other side of that suffering, the other side of that hardship.
You talk a lot about becoming someone who can handle suffering. What made you want that toughness?
I just want to be better; it’s that simple. I think another way of framing it is about the lack of suffering in my life. To start, I’m a white male in America. Things have gone pretty good for me. I was good in school, I went to a good college, before I was out of college I had a record deal. Everything’s going pretty good, so I think in a lot of ways I’m soft. I wanted to do something to make myself a little harder.
Many of us, we do all these affirmations. But sometimes we’re wrong. We are not strong, we are not resilient if we haven’t put ourselves in the situation to actually learn those skills. It’s important not to beat the hell out of yourself for no reason, but it’s also important to be honest with yourself. Some people’s journey might be the opposite of mine. What I just want to share is how to get there. My walk is over, but I found this place in myself I didn’t really know was there; a lot of strength, a lot of potential, and I want to keep exploring what that is. If people go, “Oh that’s cool, how do I become somebody I’m proud of? What am I putting off that I need to do?” then it was worthwhile.
What was the tone of your interactions with people along the way? Did you ever feel unsafe?
I was overwhelmed by the kindness shown to me. I have some sort of following on social media, fans from my music career, so some of the support I got was because of that. But I also came across all these people who didn’t know who the heck I was, just a crazy-looking guy with a beard on the side of the highway. And they’d pull over and ask “Young man, do you need a ride?” or offer me water.
I was unsafe every day I was walking on the side of the road; I almost got hit by cars pretty much every day. But in hindsight I don’t think I was ever in any danger of the ill will of another human. This example springs to mind: I was in Ohio walking down the highway and I saw a man marching out of a church straight towards me. He had jeans on and no shirt and was completely covered in tattoos. This guy comes up to me, and he has his hand behind his back, and I’m like, “Oh God.” He takes his hand out — it’s the middle of summer — and he has two ice pops.
It sounds like you were left with a sense of hope around how people reacted to you.
That’s fair to say. Look, I think some of the best people in the world live in America. Meeting them and walking on the East Coast you see all the monuments to the revolutionary war, the old cemeteries with the tombstones sinking into the ground of the soldiers who fought to make this country — and it makes you feel really proud to be an American.
At the same time, you get to the Indian reservations, you’re reminded of the treaties that we violated with those people, how we exploited their land, how the Navajo nation has poisoned water because of the uranium mines we put there to build bombs and now their children have cancer — and you feel shame as well. Part of being American to me is to feel pride and shame at the same time.
What was the hardest part?
The hardest day of all was when I first got into Kansas. I’d been walking through Missouri and at the time that summer, Missouri was all flooded. Let’s be clear, it’s a small problem for me; there were people whose houses got destroyed. But the road I was supposed to go on just wasn’t there. So I had to walk the wrong way for a day or two, which was demoralizing. I kept saying to myself, just get to Kansas. I had a powerful moment at the border; I cried. Then the next day? Alarm goes off 4 a.m. and you gotta walk across Kansas now. I had made a huge mistake in creating a false finish line, and so my body, my mind, my spirit — all thought I was done. I had nothing left. If I wasn’t actively thinking “walk,” my body would just stop. Then I knew to think about it as checkpoints, not finish lines.
And what’s the biggest lesson you learned?
I think the checkpoint not a finish line thing, that’s big. I think the fruits of doing something hard, and how worthwhile that is, is a big lesson. Having some connection to the land — like the Diné people (Navajo is a white word, they call themselves the Diné) — they have a connection to the land. I think that makes you live life differently; you don’t want to trash the planet.
Where I am now, in Hollywood, seems completely absurd. On the journey, almost none of it was in a city. Most of us who live in cities, we think America is all cities, or at least suburbs. But at least where I walked, only 1% was in cities or suburbs. The rest was in between. Really, it’s wrong of me to say “in between,” because that’s really what — in a geographical sense — is the majority of America. Demographically, I don’t know. But distance-wise, you walk across that sucker, you’re not in cities, like, ever. Spatially, it changed how I think of the country completely.
What’s next? Would you recommend this to others?
I’m not particularly interested in becoming a fat old white dude who says, “Remember when I did something cool?” This journey itself is not something I’m trying to get other people to do, unless they in their hearts are called to do it. It’s incredibly dangerous. What I’m an ambassador of, is of you doing that thing that’s on your list — that thing you want to do after you’re done doing what you have to do.
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Write to Raisa Bruner at firstname.lastname@example.org