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February 10, 2010

Airplane Trail, Toro Park

One of the first things they teach you in elementary school English classes is that every good story needs a beginning, middle, and end … but this post goes against convention in some regards, in that I really don’t know how the story begins. I’d love to find out someday, though.

This much I know: the story involves a small airplane - one that met with an unfortunate fate. The ending is clear, but the beginning and middle of the story are something of a mystery. Every now and then I visit the airplane and try to piece together the rest of the story, either factually or in my imagination. And by “visit”, what I really mean is “take a pretty cool trail run and make up crash theories to mentally preoccupy some of the long miles”, but you probably already guessed that.

The location of our story is Toro Regional Park (click to enlarge any of these pictures), home to rugged hills, steep canyons, beautiful vistas …

... and cows. Lots and lots of cows.

Most of the outbound trail is a gradual uphill climb that takes you past remnants of the old rancho days of Monterey County, such as this corral where early settlers kept livestock and lived off the land, but now is little more than a vacant echo of a time gone by.

The trail continues up to a high meadow where, after a rainy day …

… these kind of tracks are pretty common. A few weeks ago, several people pointed out my lack of expertise in confusing cougar prints with coyote paws – but there’s no mistaking these kind of tracks …

… especially when the owners are relaxing just around the next bend in the trail. These are the pastures of heaven that Steinbeck described so eloquently, and the fact that I can find myself here with a relatively short trail run is a continual source of amazement for me.

And whatever the ranchers were serving for breakfast that morning must have been pretty good, since no one seemed particularly bothered by my presence.

I bid goodbye to the cows on the high meadow, and started a long descent down the opposite side of the ridge …

All the way to the base of Harper Canyon, where the open vistas are replaced by thick tree cover, and the trail narrows to a meandering single track climbing into the steep valley …

… and back and forth across a seasonal stream. I did this run just a couple of weeks into our rainy season, so the ground wasn’t quite saturated enough to run off into the stream bed – but in another month or two, several sections of this trail will be submerged in a few inches of water.

Despite its shoddy appearance, this bridge is actually fairly safe. I know this because the first time I ran on this trail, I had my training partner go over it first. Partners are great, aren’t they?

The trail eventually splits between a saddle that leads to the top of the ridge, and the generally unmaintained Airplane Trail. Maybe this is just me ... but if you were in the middle of a steep, narrow trail, miles removed from any roads and saw a sign labeled “Airplane Trail”, you'd pretty much have to see where that leads, right? I thought so.

Shortly after the trail juncture, the first sign that something is out of place: instead of a standard wooden footbridge, you cross the stream on what looks to be a metal floorboard from a single-engine aircraft. A little further up the trail you notice something that is definitely out of place:

Part of the airplane fuselage that came to rest in this little clearing. What’s especially interesting about this fragment is how far removed it is from the rest of the aircraft …

… which lies another tenth of a mile or so up the trail.

There are conflicting local theories about what exactly this plane might be. Some think it was a piloted single-engine aircraft that ran into trouble shortly before approach or after takeoff from Carmel Valley’s rural airstrip a few ridgelines away from here. Others think it was an unmanned military-type drone from the nearby Fort Ord Army base that crashed and was conveniently forgotten.

I honestly don’t know which way I’m leaning; it seems awfully small for a person to have fit inside, but canary yellow isn’t a color I normally associate with military aircraft. One thing I’m certain of, though: regardless of how the story might have begun, it darn sure didn’t end well.

After gawking at the wreckage for a while, you have to retrace your steps to return to the trail junction and climb out of the canyon, leaving the mystery of the airplane shrouded under the canopy of oak trees behind.

A few random notes about this picture at the top of the canyon …

1) Yes, I’m fully aware that in the last couple of self-photos I’ve published, I appear to be carrying a few extra pounds than in my crazy ultra-racing days of last spring and summer. All I can say in my defense is, it was January, and I’m working on it now. (Um … sort of.)
2) I’m wearing one of the first-ever logo shirts from Wilderness Running Company, which I’ll review here as we get closer to spring. You’re probably not going to believe this, but at one point I thought the shirt might literally kill me. And now I love it; I’ll explain it all later.
3) Vibrams, baby. Vibrams.

By this point of the run, you’ve earned your mileage, and the only thing left is to enjoy a long gradual descent back towards the Salinas Valley, with one half of your mind absorbing all the killer views, and the other kicking around crazy airplane crash scenarios. Or maybe that’s just me.

Although the story of the airplane isn’t properly told without a real beginning, I find it fairly compelling anyway - it’s one that I find myself returning to from time to time, perhaps hoping to glean some piece of information or cobble together some theory that I didn’t have before. Either way, it keeps me interested, which should always be the goal of good storytelling – whether my former English teachers agree or not.


Bob (Downtown Runner) 2/11/10, 5:00 AM  

Nice Post! Always fun to take along a camera. And the extra crash story really adds to the post.

Anne 2/11/10, 5:47 AM  

That plane might not have survived impact, but given how old it must surely be, it's weathering nature quite well. And my heart would hiccup if I saw all those mountain lion paw prints in fresh mud. (Oh, I hadn't noticed any weight gain, either, but, as they used to say in seventh grade, "Are you growing your hair out?")

The Dude 2/11/10, 9:41 AM  

Thanks for the post! What socks are you wearing with your Vibrams?

Gretchen 2/11/10, 11:45 AM  

Happy cows! Yay, I've missed the cow pictures. I love it when the hills are so green down there. That looks like some killer running.

I'd say you're a pretty good story-teller. Keep 'em coming!

And, death by shirt? Curious. Sounds like a good premise for a story.

Stacy 2/11/10, 5:43 PM  

No suggestion that maybe the plane is from the future? Or maybe the past? (I thought you were a Lost fan?!)

Probably a good thing you didn't go down that road. My head spins easily.

DL,  6/26/11, 6:16 AM  

Great pictures. My buddies and I built that bridge with the two tree trunks as runners and the shortened redwood fence posts that run across the top. And that "airplane floorboard" bridge is actually from the Salinas Memorial Hospital.

And after lots of asking around, I finally got the real story on the crashed plane from the first respondant, or first contact, that helped with the rescue! It's a neat story.

Donald 6/26/11, 5:27 PM  

DL: Cool! Shoot me an e-mail (info@runningandrambling.com) - I'd love to hear the whole story!

Mauri Me 9/9/11, 12:41 AM  

What was the story? Also, what are the cordinates to this airplain site? Or how do you get here? (Live near Toro Park From Salinas)

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