Triple Crowner Cal Dobbs Runs Across America for Transgender Rights
In August of last year, Cal “Starburst” Dobbs reached the northern terminus on the Pacific Crest Trail, making them the first reported transgender hiker to complete the Triple Crown of thru-hiking. Now, only a few months later, Cal is making new strides as he runs across America to raise awareness for trans rights.
Cal (pronouns he/they) began his TransContinental Run on March 4 in Los Angeles, California, and he expects it will take approximately four months to reach the finish line in Tallahassee, Florida. That Cal’s route spans the southern US is no coincidence; 2023 has been a record year for anti-LGBTQ and anti-trans legislation, and several southern states have ranked among those with the highest number of proposed bills.
“There could not be a better time for this,” Cal says of the effort. “Everybody is talking about trans people, but very few people really know what they’re talking about. And so, I was like, ‘OK—the way into people’s hearts is a good old-fashioned American sports story. In running across America, I’m like a trans Forrest Gump; it’s a very lovable narrative.'”
I had the opportunity to speak with Cal about the TransContinental Run.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
All photos, including featured image, courtesy of Cal Dobbs.
You’re in Texas now—what has your experience in the state been like so far? And don’t you have some exciting news to share?
“Everybody told me, ‘Oh, West Texas is gonna be the worst—you’re not even ready for how awful it’s gonna be.’ And actually, the things that most people hate about it—that it’s monotonous and boring—are what I love. There are these long, infinite two-lane highways, and I can turn my brain off. It’s the same with thru-hiking: I love road walks; they’re like a nice meditation.
We’re going to be doing something super fun—we’re hosting a virtual and in-person 5K called Trot for Trans Lives. Folks who live in Austin, Texas can come out and do the in-person 5K on May 27, and anyone else can participate virtually. It’s not a race; it’s just going to be a fun, family-friendly run to support various Texas organizations that are working to protect and support trans people in what is, unfortunately, the most anti-trans state in the country.”
Sign up for the Trot for Trans Lives 5K
What does a typical day look like for you? How did you go about planning for this trip?
“We usually car camp. In the mornings, Izzy (Cal’s support person) will make me breakfast and coffee, and then I run. We’ll meet for lunch, and then they’ll meet me again at the end of the day. Luckily, I’ve had pretty reliable service on the roads, so we can generally pick an endpoint and stick to it. If I need to readjust or something along the way, I’ll often have service to call Izzy, which is really cool and also very different from thru-hiking.
I tried to plan out my route as much as possible in advance, but I’ve found that it’s really one day at a time out here. I did a lot of research about various bike trails across America, so I’m loosely following one of the most southern routes you can take biking across America—I’m pretty sure I’m the first person to ever run across America on this particular route, though.
I had initially planned to do the Grand Enchantment as a part of this, but I decided not to run on trails, simply because I’m doing this run supported. Trails typically aren’t accessible for my support vehicle, so I’d have to carry more. Every day is a slack pack out here, and I don’t intend to change that!”
Speaking of trails… You went from being a first-time backpacker on your 2019 AT hike to an accomplished Triple Crowner in the span of just a few years. Can you tell us a bit about your experiences as a thru-hiker?
“The AT was a disaster—I know people do it, but I don’t recommend doing a thru-hike with no experience. It wasn’t at all what I had pictured it would be—it was so hard. A lot of people on-trail were like, ‘Oh, I feel like I’m home when I’m in the woods,’ but I was raised in the concrete jungle that is LA.
When I got to Katahdin, I just knew that there was more for me to learn and experience.
The AT is also when I really figured out my gender identity, but I couldn’t articulate it on-trail because I was scared. I was mostly hiking with cis men—it didn’t feel safe to be out, especially since I wasn’t sure how I would answer people’s questions. I had never met a trans person before who I could talk to or ask questions or anything…
When I went and did the CDT in 2021, I really started to come into myself as both a backpacker and a trans person. The CDT was a really good time for me to be away from the projections and the expectations of society and really just be with myself. And that was when I was able to really blossom.”
In your experience, have other backpackers and thru-hikers generally been receptive to your identity as a trans person? What advice do you have for the community?
“Yeah, the trail community is generally pretty supportive. I do wish that people asked me more questions. I don’t ever really ever get tired of explaining things because people never ask, and I would rather they did. For me personally, the greatest gift anyone has ever given me as an ally has been good-faith questions.
I hiked with a guy on the PCT who said to me, ‘I’m from the South; I’m pretty ignorant. Can I ask you some questions?’ And I was like, ‘Yes! I welcome that’—the fact that someone is curious and wants to learn means so much. Usually people are weird or uncomfortable and I hate that.”
READ NEXT – 7 Ways to Be “Trans Competent” on Trail
You said you first had the idea that you wanted to run across America when you were in middle school—can you share more on this?
“This is one of my favorite parts; it’s pretty central to why I’m doing this trip. Middle school was also when I started becoming more consciously aware of my gender identity, and right before I started this run, I found an essay I had written at the time about how I wish I’d been born a boy. I’m so glad I found that essay, because this run very much feels like an honoring of a childhood dream and my childhood self; those things are so tied together.
That’s why so much of my work is centered around fighting for and protecting trans youth—so that they can be themselves, too. A lot of the legislation targets trans youth, so I hope that my advocacy work as a trans adult—especially a trans adult athlete—will enable them to have the same access that I’ve had to the things they love.”
What’s one last thing you would like the community to know?
“I want people to know that there’s no shame in ignorance. None of us were taught any of this stuff and the greatest gift you can give as an ally is just being interested and curious.
I think that this run is really fun—it’s like I said, I’m trans Forrest Gump. I’m not here to fight anyone or change your mind; I’m here to be your friend and answer your questions. We learn by having personal connections where we feel safe enough to learn and to question what we’ve been taught.”
Follow along on Instagram (@cal_hikes) and at caldobbs.com. You can provide financial support through Venmo or Patreon or by participating directly in the Trot for Trans Lives—remember, you can also participate virtually!
Visit this link to leave a public comment on the recent update to Title IX, telling the Biden administration to protect trans youth.
All photos, including featured image, courtesy of Cal Dobbs.
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