Dave Sylvester rolled into Billings Sunday afternoon with a pretty short to-do list: hugs and high-fives.
A large, gregarious man with an easy laugh, Sylvester this year embarked on his latest cross-country trip after picking up corporate sponsorship from the Duke Cannon soap company to fund his mission: Give a hug or high-five to at least 25,000 people across the lower 48 states.
“I said, ‘The scent of your soap will be in people’s nostrils the rest of the day,’ and they bought it,” he says. “My job for this summer is to go around the country and make America smile.”
So far, he’s at just a little over 9,000 hand-slaps and embraces — he always carries a small, mechanical clicker to keep track of his progress — but beams with the confidence of a man who has grown out of self-doubt since his first transcontinental journey, by bicycle, in 2002.
"I thought it was gonna take someone else to discover me … I didn’t think it could come from me,” he says, reflecting on his initial trepidation. “It ain’t easy, but I’m doing it.”
Sylvester said he’s always been partial to hugs and high fives — “I’m that guy,” he says, but his initial sojourns across America began as he struggled with his grief after losing a close friend who was in the first tower struck during the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
“I wanted to do something significant, I wanted to do something special,” he recalls. “That was as vulnerable as everyone in the country ever felt. I remember looking up in the sky, with Philadelphia being sandwiched between New York and Washington, D.C., looking up into the sky and wondering if we’re next.”
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After pedaling off from the City of Brotherly Love to spread goodwill in 2002, he realized, “I wasn’t alone. People wanted to feel as warm, safe and secure as I did.”
Following a severe ear infection that left his balance compromised, Sylvester now travels the U.S. by car, rather than bike. Yet given the news headlines, consistently filled with the day’s latest tragedy or outrage, he believes a hug goes just as far as it did 15 years ago.
“With everything going on in the world, I think it’s something people need.”
Sylvester set up shop Sunday at the Pickle Barrel in Billings, following another stop Saturday at the same franchise in Bozeman. It’s his first time visiting Montana — one of just three states in the lower 48 he hadn’t yet checked out.
Next up as his one-man tour heads back east are Rapid City, South Dakota, Mount Rushmore and Fargo, North Dakota. For Sylvester, each day is a different one, filled with the never-ending variety of people and places he encounters. But the driving force behind his journey remains a simple one.
“It’s all about something we all desire, to feel a hug and a high-five,” he says. “Who doesn’t like that?”