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Ryan Johns, CC ‘09, crossed Europe in a bold 2,542 mile trip using just the bare essentials. Along the way the former architecture major took in the major sites from across the continent, making his way from Amsterdam to the Tower of Pisa to his ultimate goal, the Parthenon.

One day after his graduation, Ryan Johns, CC '09, flew to Amsterdam with a one-way ticket, carrying nothing except a six-pound backpack with two pairs of shoes, two t-shirts, two pairs of shorts, and several other items. Once he disembarked and arrived at the exit of the airport, Johns began to run. He kept running, and running, and running. In fact, he ran for 2,542 miles over the course of 132 incredible days that took him from Amsterdam in Northern Europe all the way down to Athens on the coast of Greece. Averaging almost 20 miles per day, he would arrive in a new town every day without a place to sleep. A self-imposed rule kept him from sleeping in hotels, so he relied exclusively on the hospitality and kindness of complete strangers who often didn't speak any English. Johns, who was an architecture major at Columbia and is planning to pursue graduate studies in architecture starting in September, combined two of his passions on the trip. "I had a few 100-mile weeks at Columbia," said Johns, who walked onto the cross country and track and field teams as a junior. "People would ask me, 'Where did you go?' And I would say, 'Nowhere, I just ran in a big loop around Central Park a couple times.' I decided to use it to get somewhere. I spent a lot of time late at night, looking at maps and figuring out where I wanted to go, where the works of art were, where the buildings that I wrote papers on were. I pinpointed those on a map, and then just painted a line." Johns first started running in middle school, but became more serious during high school in Olympia, Washington. "I started becoming more serious when I was in high school," he said, "but, really, I was never fantastic." He walked onto the Columbia cross country and track and field team after taking some time off, and quickly found a niche running 8K races on the cross country team and mostly 5K races on the track and field team. It was during his time at Columbia that he began making the plans for his trip, seeking to explore Europe in a different way than the traditional tourist. "Europe is so heavily traveled, it's hard to really try something different," he said. Needless to say, he found a very different way to make the trip. Johns spent a lot of time before his trip planning what to bring with him. "I talked to some guys who did something similar, running across the U.S.," he said, "but they even brought a tent. They ended up getting hurt, and having to push a baby stroller in front of them. I didn't want that. I would be by myself. I was very limited. If I wasn't going to use it every day, then I wouldn't take it with me." He ended up carrying only two t-shirts, two pairs of shorts, a light jacket, a space blanket, a cell phone and charger, three pairs of socks, a toothbrush, two razor heads, a Bic pen and a few other assorted items with him in a small backpack. Altogether, the contents weighed only six pounds. "I printed my route onto the two t-shirts," he said. "I tried to make it as light as possible." The trip, however, almost didn't happen. "I almost missed my flight [to Amsterdam]," Johns said. "I only made it on because I had no check-in bags." "It was like a weird dream," he continued. "I never really believed that it would happen." Once he got off the plane, it was pretty simple for him. "I started running," he said. "My face hurt from smiling so much." The first week of the trip was fairly planned-out, as he had arranged to stay with friends of friends, couch surfing and relying on word-of-mouth. "At the end of the first week, I ran into a town without a place to stay," said Johns. "I ran to a hotel and to a café, but I couldn't find anywhere, so I started running to the next town." He found an old World War II bunker, and began to prepare to sleep there for the night. "Then a guy came up to me and asked me what I was doing there," he said, "and we started talking and he offered me a place to stay. And it turned out that I was the first person that he told that his wife was pregnant. We still stay in touch. It was such a lucky experience." For Johns, that kind of experience would be repeated throughout the rest of the trip. "Really, that's how most of the trip went," he said. "I would ask for a restaurant, and then people would ask 'Where are you from?' For the first 80 days, I only slept outside once." He fondly recalls another memorable experience in Belgium. "I found an abandoned brewery, and I was going to stay there, and then this guy comes out," Johns said. "He said that it had been closed for over a year, but he gave me a tour anyway and let me try some beer that he brought up. He let me try it out of an old wooden barrel. It was an old bottle of beer. He showed me everything that he loved in life." The trip was also an experience of rapidly changing environments. "When I was in France, over the course of three days, I stayed one night in a refurbished mansion which was one of the nicest homes I've ever seen, and one night I slept in a homeless shelter." Throughout the trip, there was one theme which was consistently echoed, no matter the country or language. "There were a lot of cases where there was just so much help from so many different people," Johns said. "A lot of circumstances, and the hospitality was just overwhelming." The final leg of his journey took him through Greece, from the small town of Oropos, to Marathon, and finally to Athens. He ran the original marathon and finished his trip basking in the view of the ancient Acropolis. "This was a big thing for me to look forward to," he said. The original plan had him taking a boat back across the ocean, but by the time he reached Athens, he realized that he wanted to get home sooner. "I got homesick for a few weeks," he said. "It was the most alone and most social that I had ever been, at the same time. It was a very isolated lifestyle." He hastily arranged a flight back home from Athens, aiming to get home in time for a family reunion at his dad's house. On the final leg of the journey, he ran over 80 kilometers (49.7 miles) from Oropos to Athens. "I ran that distance in one day," he said. "I got into the city center and I just hit a wall; my legs stopped working. But I did get to see the Acropolis." For Johns, the trip had a simple, yet elegant, purpose. "Architecture was the main thing," said Johns, who one day hopes to start his own architecture firm. "I did it for the architecture. I think you need as many life experiences as possible. You can't be creative unless you have an understanding of other fields. This really got me exposure to many different environments." "Seeing the things that I saw in person, the art and the architecture, this is what we think of as great human achievements," he said. "This gives me a scale of the world. I think we often underestimate how small the world is. The crazy expanses of the world aren't that vast." He finished the trip by catching another one-way flight home, and managed to make it back in time for the family reunion. Over the course of 132 days, he ran roughly the distance from Chicago to LA, relying solely on the kindness and generosity of total strangers to provide him with shelter on a nightly basis. Running through seven countries and for over four months, Johns quite succinctly described the sensation of reaching Athens and completing such an adventurous journey. "It was a good feeling," he said, "but I was a little bit tired." After 2,542 miles on foot, who could blame him?

Cross Country Feature