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Urban Serenity

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Did you hear the one about the traveling sales runner?

The month was filled with 20,000 airline miles, dozens of half-used miniature shampoo bottles and an excessive amount of inebriation. I lived, for a moment, the same miserable life as Edward Norton’s nameless character in the early scenes of Fight Club.

“You wake up at Seatac, SFO, LAX. You wake up at O’Hare, Dallas-Fort Worth, BWI,” he narrates. “Pacific, Mountain, Central. Lose an hour, gain an hour. This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.”

That modern-day, airfaring salesman had a secret club that allowed him to release his angst into another guy’s face.

I had a pair of running shoes.

It started when an entrepreneurial friend, Richard Betts, needed somebody to peddle his new mescal, Sombra, around the country and I, reluctant though I was, needed a job. On the outside, the work appeared to be ideal—travel to cool cities, tell the product’s story and buy people drinks with someone else’s money.

Having recently moved from the mountains of Colorado to the hills of San Francisco, I had adopted a newfound interest in scouring Fog City for trails of any length, surface or direction. After a year of searching, I had accrued various five-, 10- and even 15-mile loops through the city that took me along mural-covered alleys and mosaic-lined staircases, deep into eucalyptus forests, alongside the crashing Pacific Ocean and through a hundred different neighborhoods.

With a bottle of booze and a pair of running shoes in my luggage, I began a new and brief epoch in my life. Disguised as a traveling mes cal salesman, I set off on a nationwide scavenger hunt for that which I had already found within blocks of my new residence—the elusive metrotrail.

I flew into Phoenix, where the contrast in temperature from the inside to the outside is so great that it is nearly impossible to dress for both. After pouring some juice at three bars, I returned to my hotel room to suit up for a late-afternoon run. I zigzagged from Old Town Phoenix to the base of Camelback Mountain, where an athletic stampede of runners and hikers scurried up the clearly defined ridgeline. The desert regalia was scant clothing, a dark tan and a water bottle, none of which I had.

In Seattle, a sunny day had the bartenders nervously drumming their fingers on the bar because drinkers were outside rather than drinking. I, too, took advantage of the sun, and ran from the iconic Space Needle to a trail along Puget Sound. Lego-like shipping containers stacked eight stories high enclosed a portion of the water, while the empty and wingless cabins of 737s rolled in the opposite direction toward the Boeing plant. I breathed in the cool seaside air.

In Hollywood I ran the palm-tree-lined Sunset Strip from my hotel, which boasted John Wayne among its former guests. Past Mulholland Drive, I encountered a maze of trails leading up to the 45-foot letters spelling out an address for the world to see: HOLLYWOOD. On my way down the mountain, a gay couple stopped me to ask how to get legs like mine. Flattered, I told them it’s easy—just run every day.

I hadn’t realized that the Mississippi flowed through Minneapolis until I crossed a bridge away from the Vikings Stadium. The last leaves of fall held on desperately while the first snow blew through the air.

As the month drew on, my itinerary adopted a predictable structure. Fly, eat, drink, run,   eat, sleep. My more creative loops were generally preceded by extended “market” visits. When the question arose in my mind of whether I was turning into a runner with a drinking problem or a drinker with a running problem, I knew the job had run its course. I returned to San Francisco and phoned in my resignation.

Settling back into unemployment, I reflected on what my life as a traveling sales runner had taught me. An urban runner knows the downtown air of rotting garbage and urine, fresh coffee and diesel exhaust. But the metro trail runner knows more, knows what lies beyond: the decomposing foliage on the leaf-strewn trails along the mighty Ole Miss, the beached fish along Puget Sound or the dryness and heat above the resounding hum of a million air-conditioned cars in Phoenix.

Adventure, for the metro trail runner, lies in piecing together disconnected parts of city and earth, from the broken sidewalk to the meandering trail. A footloose city slicker pulls back the shag carpet of humanity for a glimpse of the earth before the first building went up.

Rickey Gates prefers a long, sober run in the mountains.