A runner reimagines his place in a sprawling city

And creates new connections from the details.


Left, a compiled map of Rickey Gates' route through San Francisco, California. Right, Gates above the city.
Paul Low, Esther Kendall

On a clear day last November, Rickey Gates set out running. He ran across the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco, down along chilly Ocean Beach and around Lake Merced. He traced his progress carefully, making note of which streets he travelled. The next day, he awoke and did the same, this time on the east side of the city. For 46 days, he repeated this, recreating, run by run, a map of the city’s boulevards and dead ends, in a project he called Every Single Street.

Over the past few years, Gates has taken the Sisyphean sport of ultrarunning and found ways to make it stranger. Rather than run a race course, with the spur of competition and the support of volunteers, Gates has increasingly turned to odd, relentless pursuits, such as running every single street in San Francisco, looking for a different way to get to know a place.

Most human relationships are about repetition, the day-to-day rituals of cohabitation or coworking, the revisiting of old conversations, the years of watching another person change and grow. The same is true of our relationship to a place. You see the hills behind your home burn and then recover to become something new and different, you watch high-rises go up and displace the people who once lived in the shabbier low-slung buildings, you find yourself slipping to the margins of a city you once knew. And yet, for many urban residents, modern ways of life, from mapping apps and digitized social bonds to wealthier transplants’ tendency to city-hop, allow us to hold our physical communities at a certain distance.

As we loosen our ties to this place or that in favor of more sprawling connections, Gates’ undertaking became the opposite: a detail-oriented inscription of a particular place, its streets and the people who live there, for no real purpose other than to know it well and, perhaps, to find a sense of belonging there.

In the months before Gates began Every Single Street, he ran 3,600 miles across America along a route designed according to a set of rules: Follow a river for a while, spend as much time as possible in the South, end in San Francisco. The run took him five months, most of which was spent in the long stretches of rural America between major cities. “When you’re doing a run like that, you’re giving the same amount of time and energy to a city as a 30-mile stretch of highway in Kansas,” he told me. The day after he finished, he wandered around San Francisco with his friends and began to dream about the Every Single Street project. “I wondered if you lined up all the streets, how many miles of streets would there be,” he told me. In a piece on his personal website announcing the project, he wrote, “I now felt the desire to experience the immensity of a single pixel on the global map.”

Rickey Gates runs with his friend, Charles Beiler, during sunset in San Francisco.
James Joiner

GATES DID NOT COME UP WITH THE IDEA OF EVERY SINGLE STREET. Runners and walkers have been tracing the roads of their hometowns for years, and this kind of comprehensiveness extends beyond running: In recent years, people have mapped every building in the U.S., documented every pedestrian plaza in New York City and every planted tree in Portland, Oregon, and visited every park in Seattle. Taken together, these catalogers have created an incredible inventory of the built environments most Westerners now inhabit.

Gates, a lapsed Catholic, makes a ritual of his comprehensiveness, using repetition to relate to the places he’s called home. “I have a lot of little collections,” he told me, including tiny heaps of dirt from everywhere he has ever lived. “There’s all these things I do over and over again.” As he ran around San Francisco, he obsessively photographed an array of random landmarks: topiaries, lost pet posters, open garages, portapotties, trash bins on pickup day, women pushing strollers, grates and manhole covers, graffitied invocations of Jesus (Thanks, Jesus; Jesus Saves; Jesus is Lord), stairs and colorful Karmann Ghias, the quirky sloping Volkswagen sportscars. He began to notice patterns that slowly made the city become the irreplicable place that is San Francisco: In one part of town, all the pet posters were for runaway pitbulls; in another, it was parrots who’d gone astray.

Gates also documented the people who filled the streets he ran. About halfway through, he met a man repairing a Datsun in his driveway in the Richmond district. “It’s a labor of love,” the guy told him. Tell me about it, Gates responded. Those connections may have been, in the end, the whole point — the rehabilitation of the city as a human wild, the reimagining of it as an ecosystem like any other, full of delicate ties between organisms living in a fluctuating balance.

Cites are like the towering mounds termites build for themselves, elaborate habitations constructed by animals, human and nonhuman alike, Gates said: “We’re creating a structure that suits us.” Projects like his push for a love of the warrens we’ve built, an understanding and appreciation that erases the bounds between people and the environment they inhabit.

Kate Schimel, topics editor for Colorado Public Radio, is a former associate editor for High Country News, where she worked for four years. She writes about culture, politics and climate change, among other topics. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. 

High Country News Classifieds