A Simple Hug
by David Hale Sylvester

ou know the feeling when you find some money in the pocket of an old pair of jeans?

No matter the denomination — $1 or $20, the discovered bills in your hand leave you feeling like you found a prize, a gift, some treasure.

That’s also how I feel when I get a hug or a high 5 from a passerby, and since 2001, I’ve traveled the globe amassing a fortune of this treasure.

Why? Because you live in the same world that I do, a world where the headlines about this shooting and that massacre hurt to read, but not as much as they used to because so many occurrences have desensitized and disconnected us from each other. I want to initiate change.

Let me explain. On September 11, 2001, I lost a good friend. I wasn’t alone: We all lost something and needed an embrace that day.

Without cell phones and social media permeating every aspect of our lives, 9/11 may have been the last horrific event America experienced without looking down to a device for comfort and community. Instead, we turned to each other in hopes of finding some reassurance that the future wasn’t as dire as the crumbling Twin Towers made it look. On that day, we all tried to find just a bit of treasure residing in another person’s embrace.

The enormity of the destruction initially stilled me, but by the summer of 2002 I got myself in gear — literally, and cycled from Washington State to Philadelphia, hugging anyone I could.

The embraces of a nation were healing, an inspiriting treasure trove that had me feeling that hugs and high 5’s might become my new life currency. But I needed to explore things a bit more.

I explored by bicycling from Cairo to Cape Town, South Africa, and the richness of my African experience spurred on visions of acquiring even more treasure. My next treasure hunt took me to Asia and, though pedaling from Istanbul to Beijing was a much harder trip, I wanted more. Now, here’s where it gets interesting.

Wait, you mean bicycling three continents isn’t interesting enough?

Not by a long shot.

I wrote a piece about my “treasure hunting” for ESPN, and people loved it. Almost immediately, correspondence poured in from around the world telling me how much my story inspired.

Some letters simply said, “Thank You,” while others were more in-depth, like the one that was delivered a few months later. I received an envelope with a bracelet inside, along with a note from a woman who said her mother had been suffering from cancer and would read my article every time she went to chemotherapy. Each reading ushered in a smile, and the woman thanked me for living and writing something that brought her mother happiness during a painful time when nothing else did. She also informed me that her mother had passed away and felt that she would want me to have one of her bracelets. She ended the note: “Keep Going.”

This heartfelt note and bracelet were more than any treasure I had come across and were the catalyst for thinking of ways that I could include others in my journey. I planned another bike trip across the U.S., but just biking wasn’t enough now. I added the element of stopping each week to give a day of service and hugs to local charities: homeless shelters, hospices, domestic violence shelters, veterans hospitals and more.

This trip, pedaling from San Diego to Philadelphia, was wonderful because every week I had great dialogue with a very different population. They observed something different in me and, in turn, asked for something different from me.

I pedaled away from that tour feeling like I knew myself better, as if I had put on a pair of old jeans and found money in every pocket.

Pockets full of treasure make one feel fearless, so even though I had never written anything longer than an article, I wrote a book about my adventures, Traveling at the Speed of Life. It was a success, and to celebrate its publication I bicycled the U.S. again.

Though this was my third trip, I treated it differently by speaking less and listening more to people’s thoughts as to what was next for me. All I heard was, “You know you aren’t finished, right?”

Being wealthy beyond measure in hug treasure but poor in cash made this notion seem absurd. But the people were correct. I soon found myself bicycling Australia for my first official Hug and High 5 Tour.

The tour’s mission of bicycling from Sydney to Melbourne, volunteering at a few charities and embracing 1,000 people was so easy to achieve that I tried to replicate it in the U.S. in 2016. But a sinus and ear infection stopped me before I could begin. Being forced from the bicycle was emotionally tough to handle, but it was necessary for me to see that my story had long since pivoted away from cycling places to find treasure. My ability to help create treasures for others was what mattered most.

This epiphany had me driving across the country deliberately seeking out people to hug who didn’t look like me, think like me, or vote like me. And I was aggressive at it, hugging a real scary dude with a few tattoos in that Nazi font and embracing people wearing confederate flags.

By tour’s end, I felt I had done something significant, but The Pulse nightclub massacre occurred soon afterward and I knew that there was still much left to do. I traveled to Orlando, embracing everyone I could, and the generated warmth prompted me to find a way to hug at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia and other places.

By year’s end, I had embraced people in 31 states. I may have stopped, but the nation’s mood was still much too dark. I decided to do even more in creating some good news for people to read. So, with no idea what to expect, for Valentine’s Day 2017, I organized a Hug Party in Lebanon, Kansas, the geographic heart of the country.

Embracing half the town’s 195 people was awesome, but what really touched me was a Wyoming man who read an article about me and drove 400 miles just to get a hug. With an expression of incredulity mixed with honor, I stood motionless while the man hugged me and said, “I believe in what you are doing. Keep going.”

The words “keep going” and all of the bits of treasure I had accumulated since 2001 had been so impactful that I pitched an idea to a company days later. The pitch was simple: I will hug all of America — just for a moment, and the scent of their soap will be in the nation’s nostrils for the rest of the day.

Duke Cannon Soap bought the idea and, along with a partnership with Advantage Rental Car, I was able to engage, hug, high 5 and connect with 13,986 people in 48 states in 77 days.

By tour’s end, I estimated that I had hugged and given a high 5 to more than a quarter of a million people in 49 states and 37 countries.

But then Santa suggested that I adjust my figures. Santa? Let me explain.

While on that tour, seven Alaskans confronted me with one question: When are you hugging in our state? With no trip planned and no money to pay for it—funding these trips had left me broke—I blurted out “before 2019” and got to planning. I made it to my 50th state in November, and of all the cites I’ve visited, North Pole, Alaska was the most special because that’s where the big man in red lives.

Once in Santa’s House — yes, it really is a place, one of his helpers asked how far I had ventured to see him.

“Philly,” I said, and by the time I shared my story all she could do was say “wow” and lead me to him. Standing before him feeling like a little kid, I said, “Hi Santa, my name is—”

Cutting me off, he said, “I heard your story. But more than hearing you, I felt your energy as soon as you came in. You lit this place up.”

Now, really feeling like a kid, I said, “Really, Santa?”

“Yes. And I think that you’re selling yourself short on how many people you’ve hugged. I think it’s at least twice that.”

So, according to Santa, I’ve hugged and given a high 5 to at least half a million people in 50 states and 37 countries in 17 years. Why is that important to me? Because if you’ve read this far, I’m willing to bet you’re smiling and thinking that the world needs more of these stories.

The world does need more of these stories, but not from me. The world needs your hug, your smile, your high 5 and your good moment.

Your community needs you to throw a hug party and generate good vibes for others. Nervous about it? Call me at 267.252.1974 and I will help you plan it.

The bottom line is that now, more than ever, the world needs the treasure only you can create. So, go create it!

David Hale Sylvester is an author, motivational speaker, trainer and world traveling hugger and high 5’r.

There are lots of words that one could use to describe Sylvester, but most people just say, “Big Dave is a cool dude.” Follow him as he hugs the world.


David Hale Sylvester is an author, motivational speaker, trainer and world traveling hugger and high 5’r.

There are lots of words that one could use to describe Sylvester, but most people just say, “Big Dave is a cool dude.” Follow him as he hugs the world.