To Reset Your Life As A Pop Star, Try Walking Across America
When Mike Posner asked the 911 dispatcher on the other end of the line if he was going to die, she did not sugarcoat her uncertainty: "All she said," Posner remembers, "was 'I don't know.' "
Posner posed the question in early August 2019 on a hot, bright day on the eastern side of Colorado, where the gentle plains of the Midwest give way to distant glimpses of the Rockies' front range. A pop singer and rapper with a few Top 40 hits and a Grammy nomination to his name, Posner was on sabbatical, seven months removed from the release of a tormented third album he had barely bothered to promote. He was about 1,800 miles into a roughly 2,800-mile, 13-state walk across the United States. Posner had started in Asbury Park, New Jersey — which he knew via one of his earliest influences, Bruce Springsteen — with the goal of reaching Venice Beach, California, where he'd first considered the ambition five years earlier after happening to hear a stranger mention the endeavor. The task simply struck him as a worthy adventure, a whimsical idea that lingered on his wishlist.
The trek had been, at times, hell. Posner had walked until he felt his feet were forever broken, their sides almost certainly beset by stress fractures he'd someday have to fix, he assumed. His Solomon running shoes fostered an agonizing symphony of blisters, while the top of his glutes often quivered and ached. Kansas had been an inversion of Dorothy's nightmare — seemingly infinite and too real, with oppressive July heat and monotonous scenery. But he would put on headphones and listen to a mixtape of his own music, accompanied by voicemails from the likes of Diddy, Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, and Posner's mom, Roberta. He'd made the tape in advance, personal affirmations gathered to propel him through the toughest times. For eight states, Posner had heeded the title's advice: Keep Going.
Still, Posner had not been sleeping well. That August morning, he set out long before dawn, walking the day's first eight miles in silence in his tennis-ball-hued safety vest. When cars approached, he would move into the scrubby brush along the thin shoulders of State Highway 10; at some point, a man in a Dodge pickup stopped to warn him that the grasses were a rattlesnake haven and to step lightly. He offered Posner some water and carried on.
That afternoon, Posner finally reached the decade-old Fleetwood RV that an assistant drove ahead of him every day. Sore and sweaty, he took a break and let his guard down. Standing beside his home on wheels, he felt a sudden sting, then heard the rattle. A fan who'd been walking with him late that morning rushed to the road, found a skosh of cell service and called for help. Posner tried to keep the mood light, insisting he'd be back on the road after a jolt of anti-venom. But then his brain began to slow down, the world going dark for 30 seconds at a time. "It felt like the end of Looney Tunes, where the circle gets smaller and smaller, like I was fading away," he says. "You know, ' That's all, folks!' "
Half an hour later, volunteer paramedics rushed him to a hospital and his first round of treatment. When that hospital ran low on anti-venom, another team airlifted Posner to a second facility, where he got more shots and spent days learning to walk again. He returned home to Michigan and slowly rebuilt his stamina by going first to the bathroom, then the kitchen and then down the block. About three weeks after the bite, he was back on State Highway 10, at the spot where the rattlesnake had struck — headed west again, this time without headphones.
"When the operator told me that she didn't know if I would live, I thought, 'Well, this could be it for me.' I really got to try out how that feels — dying," says Posner, laughing now with the hindsight knowledge of how incredibly rare it is to die from a snakebite in the United States. (Around five people succumb each year.) "I got to think about the fragility of life — about how quickly this could all be over. But I forget that even now, how special it is to be alive."
The rattlesnake bite — and what, at the time, Posner felt might be his date with mortality — was oddly apropos for the journey. Death was, in many ways, the catalyst of and backdrop for Posner's trek.
In January 2017, his father — a prominent workers' rights lawyer in Detroit named Jon — died from brain cancer; Posner had left Los Angeles 10 months prior to be with him at home. A year later, Avicii — the star Swedish DJ that Posner was trying to impress in the first verse of his own 2016 megahit, "I Took a Pill in Ibiza" — killed himself. Five months later, the rapper Mac Miller overdosed in Los Angeles, offering the slightly older Posner a painful and poignant reminder of what can happen when the hamster wheel of stardom spins too quickly.
Those feelings form the brittle core of A Real Good Kid, the album Posner released in January, almost two years to the day since his father died. Interlaced with recordings of their bedside conversations, its dozen tracks dangle at the ostensible end of Posner's rope, all raw nerves and dashed hopes. At one point, during "Drip," he reflects on the cyclonic turmoil of death and a break-up and bad habits. He can't contain his rage: "I worked the last 10 years. I'm a multimillionaire. I'm 30 years old. It's supposed to be all good. It is not f****** all good," he screams. You can't tell if he's laughing madly or crying deeply. It is a hard, honest listen, Posner's wide-eyed sentimentality flanked by the savages of love and loss, like twin razors.
Without hesitation, Posner says the album is his best work yet — and maybe that's why it could, and should, speak for itself. During an Alaska camping trip late in 2018, he told a friend about the "existential dread" he felt when pondering the album's impending promotional cycle.
"I had nothing inside me that wanted to go to a radio station and try to convince them to play my song more than Ariana Grande. I didn't want to do incessant interviews to maximize my fame and income," Posner admits. "I didn't have it in me to do it again."
Posner has always had an uncomfortable relationship with mainstream success and its job requirements; almost a decade ago, just months after he graduated from Duke University, the popularity of " Cooler Then Me," his innocuous first hit that climbed to No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, left him soaring and then reeling from the side effects of stardom. He didn't release another album for six years. The ascendancy of that follow-up's ubiquitous anthem, "I Took a Pill in Ibiza," was a fluke, an acoustic lament about not doing drugs that reached No. 4 on the same chart only after a synth-and-sequencer remix turned it into a fluorescent smash. It was tantamount to "Born in the U.S.A." soundtracking Independence Day cookouts. If that's how people listened — that is, not really — why should Posner beg for airplay with songs that exposed his marrow?
He knew the time to pursue his real goal had come, that this was his moment to walk away, even temporarily. Standing in Alaska, he decided to tell his band they wouldn't be touring across the country because he'd be hiking across it instead. "If I didn't do it now," he says, "I realized I was always going to be the guy who only talked about doing it."
Perhaps to a fault, Posner has always been hypercompetitive. At Groves High School outside of Detroit, his favorite class was AP Literature as a senior, after peers interested only in building résumés had opted for the easier stuff. Here, reading Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, the discussions were deeper, the stakes higher. The smart kids applied to the University of Michigan; wanting to one-up them (and escape the cold), he applied to Duke, got in, and graduated, as he boasts during Keep Going, with a 3.59 GPA.
These days, Posner is mostly in competition with himself — to become a real good adult, as he might put it, someone he finds more meaningful than some nouveau riche pop star whose vapid hits have become shopping-mall wallpaper. He stopped smoking weed almost a decade ago and stopped drinking seven years ago; he dabbles in psychedelics if he has a problem he wants to face, "to help me come back to my life better." He has sworn off and apologized for past misogyny, both in his lyrics and life. (He confesses to stockpiling Plan B pills in his suitcase during "Come Home," then chastises himself, rapping "That's gross / Time to grow.") During a series of increasingly long stays in solitude at a Colorado monastery, he learned self-control and patience — walking across the country became an arduous extension of that practice, more mental than physical.
"Most things that are worthwhile, whether raising a child or learning a skill, require tedium. It is part of life," he says. "You can be someone who celebrates and finds glory in the tedium, or you can be somehow who abhors tedium and lives in opposition to life. You get to pick, every day."
Walking through Kansas, undergoing physical therapy after a rattlesnake bite, overcoming grief instead of giving in to it: Posner has learned to choose the tedium.
It is tempting to romanticize Posner's walk as some monastic exercise, a sylvan expedition into the heart of seclusion and self-reflection, à la Thoreau at Walden Pond or vogue forest-bathing. And Posner did think about his dad a lot, seeing him in dreams and then waking up to worry about his mom back home. And during walks, he'd ponder impasses with old friends, then call them during breaks to talk it out.
But the truth — as with Thoreau and forest-bathing, too — is more complex. Before the rattlesnake bite, fans would show up to walk with Posner almost every day. Those who couldn't join him could keep constant tabs via social media and a map on his website, which his managers would update with his progress. And this was a "supported" trek, meaning Posner slept in an RV with one of two rotating assistants who bought and cooked his food.
Hiking nearly 3,000 miles is onerous and even dangerous enough, Posner reckoned, and he had the luxury of affording the extra resources to help him actually succeed, like a Game Genie slipped into an old Nintendo console. "They did everything," he confesses, "except the walking."
Posner estimates that 98% of that walking was on or alongside blacktop, too, not on isolated backwoods trails. Three fabled paths extend between the top and bottom of the United States — the Appalachian Trail in the East, the Continental Divide Trail along the spine of the Rockies, and the Pacific Crest Trail in the West. (For context, more than half of those who begin the Pacific Crest Trail each year are believed to finish, while only a quarter complete the Appalachian Trail.) But the journey between the coasts is a different story, requiring a patchwork of highway shoulders, two-lane strolls, and forest-service roads, with only an occasional sojourn onto a traditional trail. Posner walked directly through Pittsburgh and into a string of countless small towns, rarely alone or more than an hour from some civilization.
The close contact pulled Posner out of his own worries and into the wider world, where people had problems of their own. He would strike up conversations with strangers, asking about their anxieties and hopes. In Kansas, he met a farmer who fretted that the world thought he wanted to poison them because his crops weren't organic. In the North and Midwest, he reflected on the privilege of being a white man passing businesses and homes with Confederate flags flapping in the wind; the flag-wavers were uniformly nice to Posner, but he wondered what the situation might look like if he weren't a straight, white man with a battlefield-ready beard.
In journeying across the Navajo nation, a woefully impoverished region the size of West Virginia where some residents still lack electricity, he realized he would never understand the struggles of all Americans, or the complex history of persecution and promise we've built. But he could try. "My conception of America was based on my life, which is fair," he says. "My conception of America was obliterated."
Posner realizes that what he's done may seem like a publicity stunt, from the Forrest Gump-worthy beard and the made-for-Hollywood rattlesnake interlude to the deep reflections on what it all means, bro. After all, his manager, Ryan Chisholm, says he was first worried that, by Posner going away for five months in music's current turbocharged release cycle, his star might diminish. But the trip had the opposite effect: Posner's social media followers actually multiplied, as people tuned in to watch him beam through the daily hardships. According to Chisholm, Posner has never gotten more press than when he wound up in the hospital. There's something satisfying about that, Posner admits.
"There is a part of me that wants to feel special, that doesn't want to be normal. And there's an even ickier part of me that wants attention," he says. "It's a flaw and part of my nature, unfortunately."
But, in many ways, that is the very essence of a journey like Posner's: to square up with the worst aspects of oneself, walk toward them, and then power through anyway. And his reasons for doing it are inherently secondary to the very act of doing it — of actually walking the walk, of being transformed by it. He hopes that perseverance and the payoff of finishing give something to his fans, a spark for those who want to pursue an idea that seems impossible or absurd. Posner talks a lot about being his own hero, but it's clear he wants to be someone else's, too, to "the kid who will one day do a deep dive on me." When he crossed the final state line into California in early October, he released Keep Going, that mixtape he'd listened to during the walk, handing over his inspirational score for someone else's adventure.
Since finishing in late October, Posner has done his best to maintain his early-morning schedule and his meditation practice. He has climbed his first two major mountains, summiting Mount Adams and Mount Hood in the Pacific Northwest. He ascended Hood in snow and ice alongside new friend Colin O'Brady, the now-legendary explorer who became the first person to cross Antarctica unsupported last year and, in December, will attempt to row the treacherous 600-plus miles between South America and Antarctica.
"For Mike to say I'm going to walk across America or me to say I want to cross Antarctica, you have to go, 'I don't know who I am going to be on the other side of that journey, '" says O'Brady. "The hope is you're going to learn something about yourself."
Posner says he has learned to speak his mind and to not be so scared of conflict, given the self-reliance it takes to put one foot in front of the other six million times in six months. And he realizes his relationship with the music industry must be different now, at 31, than it was in his 20s. He still has a home in Michigan, but maybe his next move takes him to the mountains, not back to Los Angeles. He doesn't know.
"I want to be somebody I am proud of," Posner says. "I don't want to die living someone else's life or having these dreams I know I have the ability to make real. Now that's reallyscary to me."
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