Monday, May 24, 2010


Every cyclist and runner has favorite routes: we know their length, we've memorized their contours, we see them in all seasons, all weather, every time of day. We know our times on our routes, they become touchstones to our training. I bet I'm not the only one who has secret names for landmarks along the way. Sometimes these landmarks are associated with time benchmarks so that I know if I'm ahead or behind my goal time when I hit them.

I was out on a ride the other day, one I've been doing for over 20 years. As I passed by some of my own personally named landmarks (Frog Song Hill, Dead Marshes, the Hot Pocket), I thought about the human need to give name and meaning to things. One of my favorite books to take on travels around my home state is the heavy tome Oregon Geographic Names by Lewis A. McArthur. Giving the history behind names of everything from towns (Rome, Oregon was so named because some nearby rock formations nearby looked like Roman ruins) to rocks (there are, not surprisingly, three Haystack Rocks, though the one at Cannon Beach is probably the most famous), creeks (Fiddle Creek was so named because in 1894 two men passed through the area aiming to buy cattle. One broke his leg and they had to hole up in a cabin to wait for it to heal. He wished repeatedly during the time of his confinement for a fiddle to help him pass the time) and rivers (the Rogue river's name has been disputed for years with one camping claiming it came from the French "rouge" meaning "red river" and others saying that's nuts because it's a clear blue-green river that never runs red and that even the French in the area called it "La Riviere aux Coquins" -- or "Rogue River" in French -- after the local Native Americans who the settlers found "troublesome").

Even worse in the geographic names department, I spent my entire youth going to church camp at a place called (I am not making this up) "Dead Indian". Dead Indian Methodist camp was named after Dead Indian Creek, which flows right through the camp. Oregon Geographic Names tells this story: In 1854, some settlers found two dead Rogue River Indians in some deserted wigwams near the creek, and supposed that Klamath Indians had killed them in a fight. They named the stream for their discovery. Fortunately, the camp has now been renamed "Latgawa" after the local Native peoples. In their own language (which they shared with the Takelma who lived in the same region), Latgawa means "those living in the uplands".

As I bike or run or hike through the valleys, hills, and by the rivers of my community, I envision the peoples that walked here before me. I know that they, too, had names for places. Although most of those names are gone, some reminders remain. The Willamette River runs through my home town, and the name comes from an original native place name (although there is much debate about the spelling) that means roughly "where the river ripples and runs fast". Even better, near the river in 2002 the Kalapuya Talking Stones were installed, reintroducing words of the Kalapuya language in a beautiful and artistic fashion. The one I run by most frequently is set in a hazelnut grove and says "Ga-Ach-Li" or "Peaceful in Daylight". There are also stones that say "Kanaa" the "going across place", "Hi-Dwa" - "in a wooded area" and many more. They are tangible reminders that peoples have been walking these trails long before the bike paths of my time, and the hazelnut groves of the white settlers time.

My strangest personal landmark name was on a ride I did frequently when I lived in Washington. The ride went out from my work at Microsoft onto Redmond-Fall City road, I could go all the way up to the incredible Snoqualmie Falls on this ride. Coming back into town, there was a bit of a hill -- not long but short and steep -- and parked at the top in a little gravel turnout there was a worn brownish van with a sign painted on the side that said "Man Bullets". I never stopped to find out what that meant, but it always intrigued and to tell the truth scared me a little. Nevertheless, that became "Man Bullets Hill", even long after the van disappeared.

My place names keep me connected to the world around me. My rides and runs are not just about paces, lactic thresholds, and when to eat a gel or powerbar. They are about being in contact with the greater world, seeing the green peacefulness of the forest overhead, hearing the birds, tasting the water in the air from a creek running hidden beside the road.

And what about you, do you have personal names for places that you run or ride by? Share a few!


Marv said...

Good post Robin. Yes, I have landmarks like that too. Thanks for bringing this up. I thought I was the only one who had this tendency to name things and places and let them be benchmarks. Ex:

Buster Reid Road; A man by that name had a dairy here once. The silo is still standing as a beacon. Reaching this means I am less than 10 miles from the truck.

Bull hill: the baddest hill on the route once had a billboard showing a big black bull for sale.

Lee said...

Great post - thanks for the reminder of how cycling connects me to my surrondings.

I love my/our perosnal landmarks, for me they define my bike & run routes better than the road names (which I never remember). Like hatchery hill (w/ fish hatchery at the bottom).

My favorite is the Hucklechuck 100. A route from Kent, Wa out towards Mt Rainier National park (past Wilkenson/Carbonato) there is a huge metal railroad sign in the middle of no where that is the end of a sseries of long climbs. We always regroup there and take a group photo. This route was my first century ride ever.

Robin said...

Love those photos. What an interesting sign! That sounds like a ride I'd like to take sometime when I'm up visiting. The trestle bridge is really beautiful!