Day 105 of Chris Andrews’ journey began just like the others: He woke up, ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, rubbed cornstarch on his feet and started walking.
The 22-year-old had never been to Dallas. He arrived a few days ago — by foot — from Washington, D.C., covering 1,473 miles with more than 2 million steps, in search of face-to-face communication.
On this morning, Andrews wanted to visit the Bishop Arts District. He’d heard it was a great place to meet people, so he pushed his traveling cart 17 miles from Addison to Highland Park, to Uptown and Oak Cliff, down sidewalks and shoulders, past gaping bystanders and honking cars.
The walk took six hours — easy compared with some of the 12-hour, 30-mile treks he’s made in 100-degree heat or pouring rain.
He arrived before lunch, his blond beard uneven, growing wild ever since this journey began Aug. 8. A tan line divided his face just above the nose. The logo on his shirt matched the one on his cart: “Let’s Talk: A journey to get America talking again.”
The Bishop Arts District was busy on this day. Some people walked and talked. Others buried their faces in their phones.
Andrews moved along the sidewalk, looking to start a conversation. Mike Goldfuss neared at a quick pace. The owner of Collective Brewing Project in Fort Worth was on a sales call. He saw Andrews and his cart, but never intended to stop.
“Hi there,” Andrews said, his words enthusiastic. Goldfuss paused.
“My name is Chris Andrews. I only want to take your time for 30 seconds. I’m crossing the United States on foot from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles to try to spread a message about the importance of face-to-face conversation in our digital age. Just encouraging people to try and find that balance. And I was wondering if I could ask you a question? Do you have a smartphone?”
Goldfuss looked confused.
“I do,” he said.
“Could you try to explain to me how your life would be different if you didn’t, or if no one had smartphones?”
The 35-year-old laughed.
“Well,” Goldfuss said. “That’s not a 30-second question.”
A simple ‘Hello’
Two years ago, Andrews began almost every morning the same way: He’d reach for his phone, find the Facebook icon and scroll through his news feed.
He was a college student, and like many of his friends, was dependent on the connectivity of social media.
“It was this mind-numbing way to spend time. I didn’t really enjoy it, but it was just so endless and so stimulating in a way that it was hard not to do it. It became an instinct. It became routine.”
Andrews used his phone for GPS, texting, emails, social media and casual communication. It was convenient. It was quick. It was entertaining. He would reach for his phone during lulls, like sitting on a train or waiting for coffee, and noticed everyone else was doing the same.
But after a while, Andrews grew concerned. The time he spent staring at a screen was time he could’ve formed personal connections with friends and strangers. He needed balance, so he became more aware of when he was using his phone. The problem? Many of the people he was trying to communicate with were still focused on a screen.
“I felt isolated. I felt like it was hard to connect with people and really build friendships when there was at least one person in the group maybe in that gray space, where they’ve got their phone out, they’re participating in the conversation, but they’re not fully there,” Andrews said. “They’re not experiencing deep listening.”
Communication was changing, so when Andrews graduated, he embarked on a campaign. He would travel across the country and seek face-to-face conversations, breaking barriers to stop people for a simple “Hello.”
And he’d walk.
“It’s the most basic form of transportation paired with the most basic form of communication,” Andrews said. “You’re forced to interact with people constantly.”
Andrews funded the trip through $4,000 in donations from friends and family. He pushes a cart, equipped with a tent, sleeping pad, food, water, clothing and a solar panel to charge his iPhone and camera.
Because Andrews knows how important mobile connectivity is. He’s just promoting balance.
In 3 1/2 months, he’s walked through D.C., Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He’s walked past roadkill, rattlesnakes and wild dogs. He’s slept on church floors, couches and front lawns (when the homeowner approves).
He has four pairs of underwear, seven pairs of socks, and is on his sixth pair of sneakers. He’s sponsored by multiple outdoor apparel and survival companies. He rubs cornstarch on his feet to prevent blisters, a trick he learned from a professional runner he met on the way.
He walks 20 to 30 miles a day, showers once a week and tries to do laundry twice a month.
“I’ve learned to love the simple nature of what I do,” Andrews said, who’s from Michigan but has lived all over the world. “I’m eating, sleeping, walking and talking.”
He also speaks at middle schools. That’s the generation Andrews is most concerned about, the one raised with smartphones and social media. This week, he spoke to 700 students at Highland Park Middle School. He begins each talk the same way: Turn to the person next to you and stare in their eyes for 10 seconds.
His travels are recorded on a website, www.LetsTalkUSA.com. It lists his mileage, message, road map and stories, but the section he’s most proud of is “Face to Face.”
That’s where his connections are preserved. After memorable conversations, he’ll take out his camera and ask for a picture.
Seeking authentic responses
The sidewalks in Bishop Arts grew crowded with diners and shoppers, and among the bustle, two strangers connected about the importance of face-to-face communication.
Without smartphones, Goldfuss explained, he’d have a hard time navigating. But he understands the downsides.
“I think we’re losing touch with other people,” Goldfuss said. The small business owner cited concerns with generations dependent on mobile communication. For example, if they have minimal experience with face-to-face conversations, how will they interview for jobs?
“You won’t be able to get straight responses from some of them because they don’t have 15 minutes to think about it before they respond,” Goldfuss said. “So it scares me about how detached with everything people are. How attached to their phones and technology.”
As Goldfuss spoke, Andrews made eye contact. He nodded and smiled, actively listening and focused on the conversation.
“I really like that idea of authentic responses,” Andrews said. “Thanks for such a good answer. I appreciate that.”
By now, Andrews’ 30 seconds were up. But Goldfuss stayed. Now he was asking about Andrews’ travels, and the message he was trying to spread.
“It’s a good issue,” Goldfuss said. “But [technology is] not going to stop.”
“But if we can get people to think about it, then maybe we can get a few people to put their phones down at the dinner table,” Andrews said. “Or not scroll for an hour when they wake up.”
“Yeah, because everybody thinks what’s on their phone is more important than what’s right in front of them,” Goldfuss said. “And you lose touch with what you’re actually experiencing. You’re not experiencing it.”
To that, Andrews smiled. This was the purpose of his journey. Maybe Goldfuss would continue this conversation with his friends. Maybe he would share Andrews’ story, or his message, and one person at a time, people would slowly detach, finding that balance to live in both worlds, to make more eye contact, to start more random conversations, on the train and in line for coffee, to feel less isolated and more connected with the people and places surrounding them.
On Friday, Andrews leaves for Midland. He’s hoping to make it to Los Angeles by mid-March.
He thanked Goldfuss again for talking. And before he moved on to the next conversation, he reached for something in his cart.
“Do you mind if I take a picture of you?”