Skyler Roberts is getting tired. For the past nine months, the 20-year-old has been on a solo journey across the United States. He has walked over 3,600 miles, and he’s still got a long way to go. Or as he puts it, “just 600 miles” to go. Just.
From his starting point near Ontario, Canada, Skyler has hiked through dozens of states, from New York to Texas to Washington. The finish line is San Francisco. On the way, he’s worn out seven pairs of shoes. He’s been stopped by police 20 times (without incident). He’s eaten countless packages of instant mashed potatoes and ramen noodles. He’s also found 16 spoons.
He did this to visit some online friends he met playing Minecraft.
Generating level, building terrain
It started as a joke. Skyler was in middle school when Minecraft entered public alpha, and he caught the bug almost immediately. He started playing just before the release of the Nether (opens in new tab) and has since logged thousands of hours across several servers, including his own ultra hardcore server (‘UHC’ is a survival death-game mode, and isn’t that fitting) and the Jsano fan server, an offshoot of the Mindcrack community.
One day, he told his far-off friends in server chat that he’d walk over sometime. He laughed it off at first, but somehow the idea stuck with him as he waded through high school. By his junior year, he was so busy with schoolwork and his part-time job that he didn’t have much time for Minecraft. He was feeling the pressure of graduation. What next? He wasn’t sure.
After graduating in June 2016, Skyler didn’t want to immediately commit to anything and risk exploding “like a bed in the nether,” he said on Reddit. He wanted to unwind. So he got a second job, worked 60-hour weeks, saved up around $5,000 Canadian and charted a gap year across America. You know, to cool off. He also wanted to sell his parents—his mother in Canada and his father in the U.S.—on the idea, which actually went pretty smoothly.
“From the get-go I was like ‘awesome!’” says Paul Roberts, Skyler’s father. “I raised him to be capable of these kinds of things. I trust him and believe in him and he thought about it … he thought about this for a while before he ever pitched the subject, and I could tell that, so I was like ‘yeah, you go!’”
In speaking with the Roberts, I get the sense that fear doesn’t run in the family. That being said, Skyler’s mother, Esther Roberts, was understandably concerned for his safety. She wanted to know where he would stay, how he’d get there and how he would fund his journey. Skyler started mulling over the same questions before he approached either of his parents, and because he had good answers, his mother had no qualms trusting him.
“You know, I have protected my kids to a certain extent,” she says. “And all of my family was shocked, you know, ‘how could you let him go?’ Well, how could I keep him back? You don’t really have a lot of control as a parent when they get older. If he was 16, I mean, absolutely not. I would be screaming bloody murder, absolutely you’re not going anywhere when you’re 16. But when you’re 20, that’s a whole different thing … he knew I would ask five million questions and he had the answers to all of my questions. He’d thought those through.”
With his proud parents behind him, Skyler started gearing up. He was an accomplished camper long before he punched a tree in Minecraft. Most of his 50 pounds of gear was leftover from previous, considerably shorter trips—among other things, a tent, a sleeping bag, a jetboil stove, a sturdy phone, a portable charger and a laptop that sadly can’t run Minecraft at a decent framerate.
Far lands or bust
It would be doable, but it wouldn’t be easy. Just getting acclimated to the walking regimen was tough enough. Skyler departed August 14, 2016, and by December his hip was killing him, so he exchanged his backpack for a jogging stroller. That eased the pain but also made passing through stretches like New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains even more of a slog. The day I spoke with him, his hip was hurting again, but Skyler is anything but discouraged.
“I’m really looking forward to this next month. A few months ago, I was more scared to do things,” he says. “A few months before that, I couldn’t even imagine being finished. Before that I was still getting my sea legs on. It’s interesting how it’s evolved. By this point I’m ready to be done. I’m excited for this last portion and I don’t want to rush it too much.”(opens in new tab)
Skyler was never in a hurry. His journey was always about meeting people and seeing new things. He had a rough route in mind when he set out, but his only goals were to “outrun winter” on his way south and visit as many Minecraft friends as possible. He originally wanted to meet seven, but he’s already up to nine. Skyler makes up the rest as he goes, all the while diligently chronicling his travels via his subreddit, YouTube and Instagram, always eager to share the day’s stories and scenery.
“I purposely didn’t read any books by people who have [travelled across the US]. I did my best to because I wanted this trip to be my own,” he says. “I just wanted to do it. I didn’t want any expectations going in. I just wanted to experience it for myself.”
And what an experience it’s been. Skyler can only spend a few days with each friend, so most of his weeks are raw travel. And though his route is malleable, he does have places to be, so he keeps to a schedule. Sunrise is his alarm clock and sunset his curfew, and there’s often little but walking in between. “Before, I was doing 10 to 15 miles a day,” he says. “Now I’m doing 20 to 25 … some days I’ll just never stop walking, just keep walking for seven or eight hours straight or even more. When it gets to an hour or two before sunset, I start looking for a place to camp.”
Skyler regularly rooms with local Couchsurfing hosts, and he’s spent plenty of time in churchyards and parks. Some nights saw less likely shelters, including the Kentucky Downs horse racing track.
“It was getting dark and there was no security around so I snuck in and camped right in the middle of the field,” says Skyler. “I got out before sunrise because it probably wouldn’t have been good if I was there too late on a weekday.”
He spends about half his nights indoors but he’s only paid for housing twice—once due to severe weather and again when his stroller broke. His GoFundMe campaign helped with that, not to mention all the shoes. I asked him what his most dangerous moment was and he told me about an eventful night near a small town in Idaho.(opens in new tab)
“I was about 10 miles outside of it and I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it there. The sun was starting to set, there was rain going on, so I was just going to find a place to camp. I started knocking on people’s doors—and this was really rural, so we’re talking houses a quarter-mile apart.
“Nobody answered until like the third or fourth house. The guy who answered, old guy, he didn’t feel comfortable with me camping in his yard, but he told me about a half-mile down the road there was a barn and I could stay in there for the night. So I left and I was going to head back to the road, and as I was going back this guy in a white pickup truck just comes barreling towards me. He stops right in front of me and his first words were ‘what the fuck do you think you’re doing knocking on people’s doors out here?’ And I was like ‘oh, shit.’”
After hearing Skyler’s story, the man stowed his rifle, which had been sitting in the front seat of his truck, and gave Skyler a ride to a nearby park. He bought him breakfast the following morning. It started with a threat, but ended with a meal. Skyler has mostly met friendly people during his journey and says he’s grown comfortable talking with strangers along the way, though he knows the dangers.
Before the trip, "tons of people" told Skyler he couldn't do it. He'd be murdered or robbed, they said. He listened, but went for it anyway. "It’s good to keep what people say in mind," says Skyler, "but not to let other people’s fears prevent you from living your own life, experiencing the world for yourself."
“The people he comes across, a lot of them are fearful of the unknown,” says Paul Roberts. “There’s so much stuff out there in the news about bad things happening, so he looks like someone who isn’t from [parts of the country], and you kind of have to overcome that fear with folks. And he’s good at it. He’s really good at it.”
I also spoke with Chris Kreidler, who Skyler visited a few weeks ago. Kreidler has known Skyler since 2013, but while they’ve cracked jokes online for years, he never expected to spend a weekend together. But when Skyler posted a Skype message asking if anyone was near his northwestern route, Kreidler reached out.
“He got here Friday evening. I drove about 20 miles to pick him up because he didn’t make it all the way to [my home in] Seattle,” Kreidler says. “Then he was here for Saturday and Sunday. We went out and did some stuff Saturday, then he spent a bit of Sunday just writing some blog posts and we did a couple things later, then he packed up Monday morning. So two full days.”
Kreidler has made many friends through Minecraft, and met many of them in person through events like Minecon, but Skyler’s visit was more personal. He thought things might be tense since they’d only ever interacted online, but it didn’t take long for old habits to kick in.
“The very first part when I met him was a little awkward because I don’t really know him that well, but after a few minutes it’s not much different from talking online,” Kreidler says. “It went better than I expected it to. I was worried beforehand that it’d be awkward the whole time and that we wouldn’t really have anything in common, but it’s not too hard to start talking to him. And he had a lot to talk about, obviously.”
It’s testament to how easy it is to bond over games, and how legitimate and valuable those friendships can be. “I think having online friends is great, and [that] the Internet is great for making friends,” Kreidler says. “Because if you meet online you automatically have something in common. He and I had Minecraft in common. That would make for a really great real-life friendship as well.”
Thousands of miles later, Skyler is every bit as supportive of making and visiting online friends. “I would say go for it, definitely do it. It’s worth the experience 99 times out of 100. I can’t even articulate it,” he says. “I totally support anybody doing this, or anyone taking any sort of trip to experience more of life than you normally would.
“Meeting people is fantastic. I think walking across a country to visit friends is maybe not for everybody—probably not for everybody. But I think driving down or flying down and meeting someone and having some fun for a weekend, that’s something a lot of people can do and a lot of people should do.”