SANTA ANA MOUNTAINS, CALIF. — We dropped the journal and a couple of pens into a plastic freezer bag and tied the bag to the base of the flagpole, then placed a few rocks on top of the bag so it wouldn’t blow away.
That was on April 26, 2007.
Other members of the running club Orange County Trail Runners and I had been running this former fire road, the Santiago Truck Trail, for about a year. And when we set out the mostly blank journal, and the writing tools, we weren’t the first to do such a thing.
A flag had popped up on a hill, about 3.3 miles into the trail that leads to Old Camp, a little after 9/11. And in May 2004, mountain biker Wes House, a Gulf War veteran, had left a journal near that flag, his idea being that visitors could write messages to U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We were just building on House’s concept.
We invited anyone who saw our journal — fellow runners, hikers, mountain bikers — to jot down their thoughts as they drank in the stunning views from this hill overlooking a rugged canyon painted with cactus, sagebrush and chaparral of scrub oak.
We hoped the journal would survive up here, on this knoll about 2,000 feet up in the foothills of the Santa Anas.
While on a hike on Dec. 9, I retrieved the journal, went home and pored over each tattered page. I had scanned it before — a cheapie notebook with a plain brown cover I bought at a drugstore — but now I wanted to read every entry.
Time and the elements had destroyed the journal’s cover. Several pages were missing.
But as a read — as I soaked in the words and the drawings and the stains — the voices of hundreds of people came whispering off the pages. Some were silly or profane. Some were just names and dates. But many others were moving and resonant.
They were the words of strangers united in their love of the outdoors and in finding joy, peace and solace in a world on overdrive.
Often, the messages had nothing to do with running, mountain biking or hiking. Instead, they touched on something bigger.
As an avid trail runner for several years, I’ve run, on some days, from sunrise to sunset, and then to sunrise again. I belong to that quirky tribe known as ultrarunners.
Why do you do it?
People ask me that all the time. The journal, actually, provided me with some answers.
Consider this entry about the beauty of the outdoors:
As the trees, flowers, shrubs and clouds blow in the wind, I find myself in total wonder of the beautiful world we live in. The stillness speaks.
Or this one:
Misty gray, flowers everywhere. So beautiful.
This is brought to you by God. Smile at someone today.
All true, but that’s just scratching the surface.
Only six months after two runners and I placed the journal at the flag, the devastating arson-sparked Santiago Fire broke out, decimating this region of the Cleveland National Forest.
The journal — located near the start of the steep, rugged trail called “The Luge” that dumps riders and runners on gorgeously curvy Live Oak Canyon Road — survived.
The last entry on Sunday, Oct. 21, 2007, was at 2 p.m. — four hours before the Santiago blaze starting chewing through brush. In the entry, a mountain biker raved about his ride.
When a friend and I ran the trail 10 days after the fire started (we knew we weren’t supposed to, but we had to see the damage up close), we found the journal covered in ashes.
When the Santiago Truck Trail reopened about a year later, the journal entries quickly resumed — many of them messages of gratitude to forest officials for getting the beloved trail back in shape.
More answers came to me in the journal:
Persevere. It’s good at the top.
Makes me appreciate life and not sweat the small stuff.
Ahh! It’s like visiting an old friend.
You usually can get a clear cellphone signal from where the flag flaps in the wind and where several journals now are crammed into two ammunition boxes.
You also can pick up a journal and enter a different world — a world where not all thoughts are quickly dashed off and instantly forgotten.
One entry in our journal takes up an entire page. It’s from a man who wrote about a dear friend, 28. She survived a rape, an abortion after she became impregnated by her attacker, a relationship in which she was battered and became anorexic, and, finally, cancer.
Sure, it’s beautiful up here, the man wrote. Sure, this trail is awesome.
What really matters, though, are other things — like his dear friend.
“(She still) is teaching me what it means to be positive … Let’s remember and cherish those in our lives who make it worth living and improve our species and planet.”
Several journal entries were celebrations of health, spiritual and otherwise.
Saved and sober.
I’m beating cancer the way cancer should be beat.
I have a “six-pack” because of this.
One person wrote in memory of a loved one who died of skin cancer:
Wear that sunscreen, people!
I returned to the flag to put the journal back into the ammo box. It seemed sacrilege to keep it for myself. Like other journals and log books in mountains and beloved places everywhere, these words, I feel, should remain in the domain in which they were created.
What a blessing. Praise God.
It pays to be a winner.
May light shine with purity upon your life.
Several entries will stay with me, like this one dated Nov. 16, 2008:
After living in the U.S. for over 30 years, I finally became a U.S. citizen. Seeing the flag and looking toward Catalina. God! What a country.
And this one:
The only price you pay for getting here is some fatigued muscles and some soul cleansing.
No recession up here!
One entry quoted Thoreau. Another Toulouse-Lautrec. Several quoted the Scriptures.
But it was the voices of strangers writing in their own words that gave me the best answer as to why I love running on trails so much – sometimes for hours, and often alone:
It’s not about trying to escape daily life but learning how to embrace it.
Balance yourself and be able to make choices.
Confidence is your engine.
To all my friends: I wish all of you to be here one day.
Distributed by MCT Information Services