Posner says he felt like he was in some kind of artist purgatory. He envisioned the walk as a party.
Posner says he felt like he was in some kind of artist purgatory. He envisioned the walk as a party.
Posner says he felt like he was in some kind of artist purgatory. He envisioned the walk as a party.
On Walking

Why Mike Posner Walked Across America

Grammy nominee Mike Posner left behind his life in L.A. to go on a 2,851-mile journey in search of... something. Here's what he learned about grief, motivation, struggle, and authenticity.

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The day Mike Posner was bit by a baby rattlesnake in eastern Colorado was the best one so far. He had been awake since 3 A.M. and had already walked 16 miles along a thin, two-lane highway with no shoulder when he felt a stab of pain and waited for the shh-shh-shh of confirmation. It was around noon on August 7, 2019. In front of him loomed the Rocky Mountains, which had only materialized on the horizon the previous morning. Behind him an imaginary dashed line led back to Asbury Park, New Jersey, where the writer and singer of the hit “I Took a Pill in Ibiza”—yes, that Mike Posner—had started his walk across America 114 days before. He scanned the gravel beneath the RV, his support vehicle for the trip, which had pulled over with him for his lunch break, and saw nothing. But then he heard it: the unmistakable rattling that made all the warnings he’d received that day from passing strangers feel like dark omens.

For most long-distance hikers, this would have been a low point, a venomous brush with death signifying the end of the road. But Posner had already dipped into the darkest places his mind could go on his 2,851-mile journey, and now he was just thrilled to have a helicopter ride, some air-conditioning, and life-saving medical attention. After weeks of trudging on stiff, aching feet across Missouri and Kansas, through 90 percent humidity, he says his five days in the ICU of a Colorado hospital were like a luxury hotel stay. But it wasn’t just that. The Grammy-nominated pop star also had the sense that he’d found the struggle he’d left Los Angeles in search of, or some sense of validation—the journey was real enough to have almost killed him.

Posner posted a photo of his venom-engorged leg with a buoyant caption: “Shout outs to this rattlesnake that bit me—he only made me that much harder.” In other photos from his recovery, he’s inching a walker across a hospital room in a gown and no-slip socks and beaming at medical caregivers from behind a full amber beard, curly hair untamed, blue eyes crinkled at the corners in a characteristic look of glee. Never mind the fact that Posner would spend three more weeks in crippling pain, trying to relearn the basics of how to walk (heel first? toe first?)—the rattlesnake bite had been a good day. “I was really in the trenches,” he says, laughing as he recounts the story. “This experience put me in the hospital, but I was proud because I was living my life, maybe for the first time.”

Posner in Rio Grande National Forest, in southwest Colorado
Posner in Rio Grande National Forest, in southwest Colorado (Zac Zlatic)

By his own account, Posner was on a journey without a cause. Five years ago, he’d been hanging out in L.A. at a friend’s jewelry shop, listening to some faux Venice Beach hippie ramble on about chakras, when he overheard another conversation about someone who walked across the U.S. “You can do that?” he interrupted, incredulous, abandoning the hippie’s long-winded sermon on crystals. “My friend just did!” the shop’s owner told him. And Posner knew right then: I’m going to do that someday.

Though he remembers that exact moment, Posner maintains it’s not important. “We all have a thousand of those moments,” he says. We list the things we want to do in the far-off future or announce a huge goal and get a dopamine-rush reward as if we’ve already pulled it off. What mattered was when he made the actual commitment to walk. He laid out his mission in a series of Instagram posts on January 4 of this year:

I’m excited to announce that starting March 1, 2019, I will be walking across America. I will start at the Atlantic Ocean and end at the Pacific ocean. The journey will take me most of my 31st year. You are welcome to join at any time. See you out there, mp

The plan had only come together that week, during the press tour for his third studio album, A Real Good Kid. Posner was 30. He was a multiplatinum singer-songwriter with two major radio hits, but success hadn’t always been easy to sustain. His 2010 debut song “Cooler Than Me”—an electro-pop earworm recorded in his Duke University dorm room when he was 20—had reached number six on the Billboard Top 100. By 22 he had already released his first album, 31 Minutes to Takeoff, with RCA Records and was out on the road with the Vans Warped Tour, playing at festivals like Bonnaroo and South by Southwest and opening for Drake. Then his recording career stalled. Years went by without producing another hit of that level. Between 2012 and 2015, his record label shelved two albums’ worth of his songs. 

Posner says he felt like he was in some kind of artist purgatory. He had always pictured success and fulfilment as a ladder, but it was starting to feel more like a hamster wheel. A 2014 YouTube video titled “Draw My Life sums up his attitude at the time: “I always thought as soon as I got a record deal, I would be happy. But I sure wasn’t. I was still fighting my depression, and the world felt too big, too scary, and I wasn’t comfortable with everyone liking me so much.” While he was essentially benched at RCA, he started writing songs for other artists, including the hits “Boyfriend” for Justin Bieber and “Sugar” for Maroon 5. In some ways, not getting to record the songs for himself felt like a failure. But taking a break from the spotlight also suited his uncertainty about how much attention he was comfortable with.

In 2015, Posner moved labels, to Island Records, and then released his second album, At Night, Alone, the following year. It included the massive hit “I Took a Pill in Ibiza.” The song had already been out since April 2015 as a quiet acoustic single, but in July of that year, Norwegian EDM production duo SEEB released a remix of it to massive international success—and ultimately, after it made it big in the U.S., a Grammy nomination for 2017 song of the year.

With lyrics chronicling the downsides of celebrity culture, “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” describes Posner wrestling with his relationship to fame. But with a pure injection of club-beat energy to offset all that melancholy introspection, the song hit hard in its reincarnation as an upbeat house banger. The opening showcases Posner’s knack for vulnerability: I took a pill in Ibiza to show Avicii I was cool / And when I finally got sober, felt ten years older, but fuck it, it was something to do. Then, furthering the irony for a hit that would go on to chart in more than 20 countries: I’m just a singer who already blew his shot / I get along with old timers ’cause my name’s a reminder of a pop song people forgot.

His next album, A Real Good Kid, took Posner into even more personal territory. Recorded from early 2017 through 2018, and released in January 2019, the album was an attempt to process his emotions after a breakup, as well as the 2018 suicide of his friend Tim Bergling—the Swedish DJ better known as Avicii. But it was anchored by the grief of losing his father, who died of brain cancer in 2017. When his dad was diagnosed in 2016, Posner moved from L.A. back into the house where he grew up, outside Detroit, to care for him. The first song on A Real Good Kid, titled “January 11, 2017”—the day his father died—closes with a recording of Posner’s father’s voice: “I love you so much. You’re gonna put that into a song?”

“I had to go to the studio every day, and I was trying to just show up and record all the songs and do a good job, and I was sad,” Posner told NPR about the album.

The recording came out to largely favorable reviews admiring its depth and authenticity and Posner’s seemingly newfound maturity. “There’s always been a melancholy edge to Posner’s innocence mission, but his light soulful rasp, gently thumping grooves and upbeat optimism always gives away his unique club kiddishness,” wrote Variety. “‘A Real Good Kid,’ however, portrays what a few years… and several tragedies… can do to a man, and how he thinks of that now-ragged axis of life, love and responsibility.”

Walking among the fields in Alamosa, Colorado
Walking among the fields in Alamosa, Colorado (Zac Zlatic)

In one of the album’s most traditionally poppy songs, “Move On,” Posner chronicles those two years of tragedy and grief, with a title that doubled as his personal resolution. His voice sounds sunny and full of hope. But once the album was out, Posner had an ache in his stomach. He searches for the words to describe it to me, settling on “existential despair.” “I felt empty,” he says. He started to dread promoting the album, or as he put it, “doing sets between Shawn Mendes and other artists that are ten years younger than me, and traveling around the world trying to convince program directors and radio stations that they should play my song more than Ariana Grande’s.”

“I just realized my responsibilities to promote the album are based on complete bullshit—they’re based on maximizing my income and my record label’s income, and maximizing my fame, and hoping that turns into more income,” Posner says he remembers thinking around the end of last year. “I couldn’t bring myself to do any of that stuff. I felt stuck. I was explaining it to one of my best friends, and he said, ‘What do you want to do?’ and I said, ‘I want to walk across America.’”

The walk took form quickly. Posner hired two logistics managers to help him plan a route and take turns driving a Fleetwood Jamboree RV and preparing meals. After he announced the trip, he was inundated with comments from his manager and others close to him, who wondered why he was walking across the U.S. Some asked if he was on a quest to further the grieving process that began with the album. But when I spoke to him, he resisted that easy narrative, saying those deaths served as more of a push to do the walk than as inspiration.

“When people die, it’s just a reminder that you’re gonna die too, dude—you’re next,” he says. “In the meantime, you should start doing the things that are important to you now. This is it. This is your life. Look around, here it is.”

Posner envisioned the walk as a party. He would perform what he calls “ninja shows” along the way: free shows in parks to audiences of assembled fans in bigger cities on the route, like Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Columbus, Ohio. He would release a new, prerecorded song at every state border he crossed, teaming up with big names like Wiz Khalifa, Ty Dolla Sign, and Talib Kweli. People would join him to walk alongside—a throng of walkers would assemble behind him like he was the Forrest Gump of party jams, and he would practice “deep listening” to their stories and problems. He would be present in the moment and in his struggles in a way that was tough when you live in an overstimulating city and a huge component of your life is self-promotion.

In Rio Grande National Forest with logistics manager Julian Roy
In Rio Grande National Forest with logistics manager Julian Roy (Zac Zlatic)

In January, he released a bold itinerary for the walk, including the cities he would pass through and his daily schedule, which involved waking every day at 4 A.M., walking 20 miles in total, and meditating and doing yoga in the mornings and evenings.

At first, when he took his initial steps away from the beach in Asbury Park, the walk did appear to be an itinerant social gathering. Posner was excited. He had 30 or so fans striding alongside him. He had his support driver to drop in and check on him. And he had his phone—with music, podcasts, and Instagram—to keep him entertained. By the end of his busy first day, he was completely worn out. His trek had taken him a grand total of eight miles, less than a third of 1 percent of the distance he needed to cover. “I pulled up Google Maps, and it just looked like I was still on the ocean, like I hadn’t moved at all,” he says, laughing. Still, he fell into bed exhausted by the effort.

To drop into Posner’s aggressively chipper Instagram from those early days is to get the impression that walking across the country is all mindful meditation, endless positivity, and campfire guitar sing-alongs, with the occasional motivational platitude in acoustic-jam form to spur you forward. Times were chill, he says—he spent a lot of the hours just walking with people and hanging out. On his 31-day trek across Pennsylvania, he played a few concerts and did a few news interviews. Already in good shape from daily yoga and strength training, he worked his way up to 15 to 20 miles a day as his body adapted to the distance.

The narrow Midwestern states ticked by even faster: Ohio in about two weeks, Indiana in eight days, Illinois in eight days. Now there were more frequent milestones to celebrate. Posner kept his promise to release a song at every border, dropping acoustic covers and new, prerecorded collaborations. Along the way, he continued to meet up with fans, who would message him via social media, and he had dinner in the homes of roadside strangers, who invited him over with no idea that the friendly, wild-haired man was a famous pop star.

As the walk progressed, Posner says he complained about the rain, the heat, and his aching body to friends, but his Instagram was still sunshine and chestnuts of road wisdom, like, “I’m not walking to show people who I am. I’m walking to find out who I’ll become.” Julian Roy, one of Posner’s two walk managers and a fellow musician, says that inside the RV, they shared stories of playing music and adventure travel. “There was a lot of focus but also extreme silliness, because you have to have both sides when you’re doing something intense like this,” says Roy.

Then he hit Missouri. It brought heat, humidity, and mosquitoes and offered little shade. But the flooded roads beside the Missouri River, which slices across the middle of the state, presented the biggest obstacle. After record rainfall this spring, the governor had issued a state of emergency. In July, Posner found himself fighting his way through waist-deep water along the Katy Trail. To avoid the worst areas, his straight-shot route folded back on itself, and for days, Posner walked in the opposite direction—a soul-crushing detour. The temperatures soared into the upper nineties, with 80 percent humidity. As he struggled, he told himself everything would be OK if he just made it to the Kansas border. It became a mantra: Just make it to Kansas, just make it to Kansas, just make it to Kansas. 

Walking across the state border, Posner cried with relief. But the next day, the alarm went off at 4 A.M. like always. “I just started to fall apart,” he says. “My body, my mind, my spirit, they thought I was done because I had made it to Kansas. I was limping. I got to this point where if I wasn’t actively thinking, Walk!, my mind would drift, and I would realize I was just standing in the road.” Posner had to force his body to move from one patch of shade to the next—every part of him was done. “It was the lowest I ever felt on the walk and I honestly didn’t know how the fuck I was going to finish,” he wrote about the experience on Instagram. He struggled with the sense that he was giving it everything he had, and it just wasn’t enough.

There’s a motivational speaker named David Goggins who’s often cited as “the toughest man alive,” a former Navy SEAL who’s competing in ultramarathons and ultra-distance cycling races essentially off the couch, treating them as mental challenges rather than pure physical ones. From Goggins’s social media, Posner discovered the concept of false finish lines, or creating an imaginary end point that causes your body, mind, and spirit to react as if you’ve already reached your goals.

If Posner’s quest was an effort to find something more authentic inside himself through struggle, he was now successful. The party was over. The cockiness he had in those early days, back when he was cruising across a new state border every week and thinking things like, This shit is easy! I got this! was gone. Even his social-media posts took a turn. The trademark chipperness was replaced by sweat, sunburn, and frustration. The physical and emotional exhaustion of occupying a body that walks 15 to 20 miles a day was setting in.

By the time he’d trudged out of Kansas toward the Rockies and directly into the baby rattlesnake’s path, he had learned two lessons: There are no real finish lines, just “checkpoints”—that’s the word he started using when he hit milestones like state lines. And always include a “no matter what” clause in the contract when you come up with a big goal. That’s how Posner knew the rattlesnake wouldn’t stop him, even if it meant taking nearly a month away from his journey to heal.

“If you crack the door open and say, ‘I’ll do it unless this happens or that happens,’ before you know it, the door will keep opening,” he says. “If you say, ‘Instead of 24 miles, I’ll walk 20 today,’ soon the alarm goes off and you just take the day off. And then, before you know it, you’re just like, I’ll take a bike or a motorcycle, and then before you know it, you’re just staying on the couch and you’ve failed.”

But Posner did not give up or catch a ride. After healing from the snakebite, he returned to his route and began to walk again. The incident had shaken him, though. So, too, had meeting a man running across the country, 40 miles a day, unassisted by a support team. “I felt like a wuss next to him,” Posner says. “He was sleeping on the ground, he didn’t even have a tent. But what was really impactful to me is he didn’t have headphones, he was just alone with his thoughts.”

Inspired, Posner started walking without headphones and distractions and asked his fans not to join him along the walk anymore. He had been taking a more or less direct route, walking a mix of back roads and highways. On narrower, busier streets, cars were clipping him with their vehicle side-view mirrors on occasion. It felt too dangerous to bring others along for that. Now he was covering up to 30 miles a day, with no time for anything else. Just walking, eating, and sleeping.

“Unplugging made the journey a lot deeper, because I went to places in my mind that I didn’t know were there,” he says. “I tapped into my superpowers, as I call them. The trip is supposed to be hard, so you’re just riding these up-and-down waves. At some point, I figured out how to get through a low to the next high with only myself.”

Posner with his friends on Venice Beach in California, the day he completed the walk
Posner with his friends on Venice Beach in California, the day he completed the walk (Zac Zlatic)

Prior to the trip, he had been to every state but only to a major city within each border. Now he was seeing how much more was out there: the mountains, the desert, empty dirt roads. In Arizona, he walked across the Navajo Nation. Roy remembers this part of the trip as the most inspirational, as the two walked with Navajo tribe members and learned more about their lives and traditions.

Back in Pennsylvania, Posner came up with an ego-driven vision of ending the walk with thousands of people crowded around him, to really “blow it up,” he says. He thought he would emerge from his “hippie-dippie, freewheeling journey as some type of bearded guru. I was still looking for validation from other people,” he says. But as he crossed his final border, into California, the vision changed. “I realized the person I was now, I didn’t want that at all,” he says. He wanted to walk on his own, to sprint into the waves of the Pacific with an audience of only his closest friends and family, and feel what he felt without having to explain it to people like me, a journalist who wants him to articulate exactly how he felt.

Posner once described the comedown after leaving the stage at a big concert: you connect with thousands of fans and then discover yourself on your own after the show, standing in silence. I asked him if the end of the walk was a similar kind of letdown: to paraphrase Posner’s own lyrics, he was about to step off that roller coaster and be all alone.

He says he didn’t see it that way. He feels like his walk was a process of coming to terms with something he had long suspected since his first album, when he realized the fame he thought would finally make him happy made him feel no different than he had before. “At the time, it made me ask myself, OK, if fame and success isn’t what life is about, then what is? That’s what I realize my job is now—to go to the fringes of society, to walk across America, to live a life where my waking hours aren’t spent in pursuit of material goods. To go see what’s out there and report what I find.”

Too many people see happiness or enlightenment like the end zone on a football field, he says—like you can just dance across the line and spike the ball in celebration that you’re done. But in reality, it’s a day-by-day decision of who you’re going to be.

On the last day of the walk, Posner ran across the sand at Venice Beach, California, and dove into the ocean to the cheers of gathered friends. He posted a video of himself afterward, captioning it simply, “My name is Mike Posner and I walked across America. Keep going.” It was just the beginning of whatever comes next for him. It wasn’t even the best day on his trip.

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