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October 13, 2011

Running Back Through Time: The Symbol Bridge

Spending a week in the outdoors is awesome, and spending a week with a group of middle school kids can be highly rewarding. But spending a week in the outdoors with a group of middle school kids is enough to make you want a temporary escape.

(Click any photo to enlarge)

Such was the case on my trip to Lava Beds National Monument, which was a great experience, but occasionally left me a little bit restless for some time to clear my head. There was one other like-minded parent – who, as luck would have it, also happened to be a member of my training group at home – chaperoning the trip with me, so we stole a few early mornings to sneak out of our tents and go running before the rest of the campers woke up.

(And thankfully, he also brought a camera, because this run took place on the day after my blog camera broke, which qualified as a major catastrophe under the circumstances. It’s nice to have friends who are sympathetic to the cause.)

On a couple of our runs, we weren’t merely traveling away from the campsite, but almost literally back in time – through a volcanic landscape that describes the formation of the Earth so many years ago, and to a destination that is filled with voices from the past.

I guess if you’re looking to connect the present day to the remote past, a trail called Missing Link would be a good place to start. This trail was less than a mile from our campsite, and led the way to our ultimate destination at Symbol Bridge.

The Missing Link Trail makes for a pretty mellow way to start an early-morning run; it’s a fairly serene, almost completely flat trail that meanders through the high desert brush, letting your legs greet the day in a nice, easy manner.

To the casual observer, the terrain underfoot looks fairly gentle as well – and in some stretches it was. The trouble was that footing on this trail, like every other one in the area, is deceptively tricky, because …

… all the trails out here sit atop a massive volcanic field, where sharp, irregular lava rocks jut out from the ground unpredictably all over the place. Sometimes the lava rocks are shallow and hard to see, other times they’re tall and dense, without any flat surface for foot placement. In either case, these are trails where you need to keep your eyes open …

… and your feet a little more protected than usual. Although I reported that I wore my Vibram Trek LS for the entire week of camping and hiking here, I decided to go with VIVOBAREFOOT’s Neo Trail for my trail running, because I knew the thick, knobby outsole would give me better grip and improved protection than the FiveFingers would. It occurred to me that breaking a pinky toe while chaperoning a field trip might be seen as bad form.

Approaching the Symbol Bridge, we passed collapsed lava tubes that once were conduit channels for molten lava directly underground …

… before arriving at the Symbol Bridge, so named because … well, you’ll see in a minute.

This was our designated turnaround point, but before heading back to camp, we dropped down into the rocks to wander around …

… and take a look at the symbols and stories from the past, left here for our enjoyment by the Modoc Indians who called this area home for thousands of years. (By the way, this photo contains the image that was seen in close-up in last weekend’s Random Shot of Beauty).

The pictographs are prominent here, but there’s not much consensus on what they actually mean. According to the park website, the fracturing of the Modoc tribe by the US Army prevented any ethnographic study from taking place later on – and it’s also possible that the Modoc just felt like keeping some of their stories to themselves.

One fascinating aspect of these drawings is that they are all made with lines that are roughly one finger wide. If you stare at them long enough, it’s easy to imagine a Modoc choosing each particular location carefully – low weather exposure, enough sunlight to see but not to fade – before dipping his fingers in paint at this very spot to cast the lasting images on the stone.

This particular wall segment was especially interesting to us for a couple of reasons – one, because of the sheer density of paleo-doodles …

… and secondly, because my running partner that morning is a physician. Or, as I said to him immediately upon seeing the drawing on the left, Hey – that looks like a caduceus! Maybe the Indian who painted this was a tribal doctor! My friend could very well have been staring at the calling card of some long-passed professional forefather. I decided to look for any sort of ancient symbol that might represent a primitive blogger, but for some reason that profession was underrepresented on these walls.

As to why this place is called a bridge instead of a cave – it’s because the cave actually opens on two sides, forming a land bridge on top. You can go rockhopping down one side of this rock formation, and back up the other … and in between, you try not to think about the huge boulders perched perilously in the ceiling overhead.

Also, remember what I said about the Modoc choosing the proper place for their paintings? The bridge structure allows an ideal amount of light to filter through, but the rocks with the drawings are never directly exposed. Of all the caves and lava tubes in the area, this spot seemed just about perfect.

We could have spent a lot longer climbing around the rocks and looking at pictures, but we had kids to get back to, so after briefly stepping into the world of our forerunners, we retraced our steps …

… and returned to the present day, to the campsite where the students were getting ready for breakfast. By our normal running standards, this outing seemed relatively short – probably less than 5 miles in all – but in other ways, it might have taken us farther away from the everyday world than any we’ve done in a long time.

*See other photo tours under tab at top of page.

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ross88guy 10/13/11, 11:58 PM  

This could quite possibly be one of the most interesting running routes that I have ever seen. Going back to your normal routes at home is going to be a struggle!

Missing link...sounds ominous!

Sara 10/14/11, 8:48 AM  

Beautiful. I love these pictures, and I hope to have the opportunity to run in a place like that someday. Thank you for sharing!

Dan 10/14/11, 12:52 PM  

"Hey – that looks like a caduceus!"

Are you sure you didn't mean to say, "Hey – that looks like a rod of Asclepius!"

Of course I'm just teasing you, Donald. Your gift of wonderful wordsmithing is amazing and there's no way I would have known the difference between a caduceus and a rod of Asclepius had not Wikipedia mentioned the distinction.

I just love posts like this one where you combine great pictures, crisp writing, an interesting story to tell, and a history lesson included at no extra charge!

Morgan Hill

Donald 10/14/11, 6:26 PM  

Dan: Very interesting - thanks for pointing that out. I love historical tidbits like that.

It's funny - one of the reasons I didn't second-guess the caduceus reference is that the medical bookstore at my grad school was actually named "Caduceus". I wonder if I should write and tell them they named their store wrong?

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