Winding down a dirt road in Agua Fria village, Rickey Gates passes a couple of wire-haired pigs, a seemingly abandoned Chevrolet truck lugging an empty horse trailer and some barking dogs.
Every time he sees a miniature liquor bottle, Gates scoops it up and drops it in a sheer, smelly backpack — the same one he wore during a 3,700-mile journey across the U.S. in 2017. Picking up the bottles — he says Fireball whiskey is the most common — is one small way to help clear trash while on his daily runs.
“If I cleaned it all up, I’d only make it a block,” he jokes.
Not long after bending down to pick up a 4-inch whiskey container, a woman yells to Gates from her car, wondering what he’s doing in the neighborhood. It’s not common for a guy in tight-fitting running pants and a hydration pack to wander these streets.
Gates just smiles and waves, telling her he’s doing a project called Every Single Street, in which he’s attempting to walk or run every documented road in Santa Fe.
“I promise I’ll just go to the end of the street and turn around and leave,” he tells her.
Then, he walks at a brisk pace to the road’s end, taps a gate that marks private property and turns around. Checking his map, he does this over and over again, sure not to miss a single side street that stems from Agua Fria Road.
In so many ways, Gates doesn’t look or act like the stereotypical elite professional runner — he’s not moving at lightning pace, laser-focused on what’s ahead. Instead, he stops to look at flowers, take photos of arroyos and talk with strangers.
While Gates says he still loves competitive racing and is grateful for the time he’s spent running around the world — he’s traveled to 35-plus countries and all seven continents — he says his passion has shifted toward Every Single Street and other local projects that encourage people to find adventure in their own backyard.
“I know adventure makes me happy, but do I need to save up $5,000 and set aside months and months of time to plan … or can I find that adventure out the front door?” says Gates, who moved to Santa Fe in September with his wife, Liz Thorp, an artist and Meow Wolf employee.
Since arriving in New Mexico to continue the Every Single Street project, which he launched in 2018 and completed in both Mexico City and San Francisco, he’s found areas closer to home “are just as interesting to me as somewhere in Ecuador or on the coast of Antarctica. I was really happy to find that you really can find [adventure] anywhere.”
Gates, 38, grew up in Aspen, Colo., where he spent a great deal of time outdoors with his four siblings and parents. With a love for all things outdoors, Gates says he can’t pinpoint a specific moment he knew he wanted to make a career of running.
“It’s just one of those things that kept evolving year after year,” he says. “In high school and college, there’s no way you could’ve convinced me I’d do what I’m doing today.”
Gates ran track and cross-country for his high school team. While studying sociology and photography in college, he tried out for the University of Colorado’s cross-country team three years in a row, without luck.
It wasn’t until he won first place at the 17.1-mile Imogene Pass trail race his senior year — the same year he drove a $500 motorcycle to Chile for a study abroad program — that he realized he may have potential in a very different sphere of the running world.
After the race, Buzz Burrell, a legendary ultrarunner, told Gates about the U.S. Mountain Running Team, inspiring Gates to race the Mount Washington Road Race in New Hampshire the following year and qualify for the world championship in Turkey.
Pivoting to trail and mountain running, Gates says, “was a huge turning point for me.”
His running career gradually evolved. He went on to win Mount Washington a second time and made the podium at Colorado’s Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon and Alaska’s Mount Marathon multiple times. In 2007, he was named USA Track and Field’s Mountain Runner of the Year, and in 2011, he won his first ultra-distance race, the nearly 78-mile Canadian Death Race in a record-setting time of 12 hours, 15 minutes and 54 seconds.
Gates remembers busing tables and working as a waiter in the months leading up to world championship races. Later, he was given a stipend to run and train overseas for half the year, and before long, the sport became his full-time career.
Despite his accomplishments, Gates jokes that because mountain running is such a niche sport, “any Olympic runner wouldn’t have known who I was. I strongly believe they don’t know who I am today either.”
Over time, says the athlete sponsored by sportswear company Salomon, he stopped winning as many races and started to face a bit of an identity crisis.
“It kind of affects your psyche a little bit to go from winning a race to getting eighth in a race,” he says. “If a race goes well, you’re happy, and if it doesn’t go well, you’re sad. I started questioning that recipe.”
In recent years, Gates has set his sights not as much on the competition of the sport, but on the pure joy it brings him. While he admits he’s still highly competitive by nature, he says, “I’m not as hard on myself.
“I had to really start looking at what I enjoy about running, what it does for me, and what it could potentially do for other people,” he adds.
This is largely why Gates decided to embark on a self-sustained run across America in 2017, in which he documented the people he met in his newly published book Cross Country: A 3,700-Mile Run to Explore Unseen America.
It’s also why he launched a project about a year and a half ago to document North America’s most pristine trails, and why he started Every Single Street in 2018. The projects seek to inspire runners to see beyond medals and finishing times and to enjoy the places and people they meet.
The Every Single Street project, in which Gates has traveled an estimated 250 miles in Santa Fe so far, is an effort to learn more about the city. He says the movement, which now has thousands of hashtags on Instagram and hundreds of participants around the world, has grown during the coronavirus pandemic, as more people are required to stay closer to home.
Gates hopes the project allows others to discover more about their surroundings and, ultimately, themselves.
“It’s just a matter of breaking down our preconceived notions. I guarantee you talk to someone living on Canyon Road and they’re going to paint one picture of Santa Fe,” he says, “and then you talk to someone down on Airport Road in one of the trailer parks there, and they’re going to paint a totally different picture of Santa Fe for you.
“Getting to know your city on that intimate level lets you know your neighbors,” Gates adds. “I’m trying to forcefully take myself out of my comfort zone, out of my bubble. … It’s getting to know my home. This is my home.”