I keep seeing older versions of me on the subway A nicer coat with a brand that I’m clueless to A streak of gray overcutting eyes that aren’t concerned I whittled the minutes Thinking of the next Peeling them away Putting them to rest Flower petals on the well-lit floor Lightly bucking with the tunnels And didn’t see the young man Pick one up and compare It to his own smooth fingernails.
Author Archives: timcushing
“In a past life I was a velociraptor,” Adam said with intense eye contact, his Jurassic Park poster framing his bowl cut on the wall behind him. I didn’t know what to say. I had never had a connection to a previous life. I didn’t possess such spiritual sagacity. The gravity of the situation was magnified by the silence of Adam’s house. It was a silence that had an eerie personality. Maybe it’s because every time I went to Adam’s place I was always doing something spooky–watching Poltergeist or Alien, playing with an Ouija board, discussing games such as “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board” or “Bloody Mary.”
The general consensus, though, was that Adam’s house was haunted. It was a labyrinth of wood–dark hallways and door ways leading to nooks and rooms. Nestled against a beautiful grove of pine forest, the house was a quintessential New England home. Granite foundation built to withstand the cycle of seasons.
As I sat there in the aftermath of the “velociraptor” statement, I felt the need to come up with something. I tried to concentrate, connect with the spirit world that flowed through the house, and get a glimpse into any previous dinosaur life that I might have had myself. Nothing came to my 10-year-old brain. So, I lied. “Yah, well…I was a triceratops.” “Cool!” Adam said, the moment that had slowed down returning to normal time. “Want to see my Alien toy?” I ended up also buying an Alien toy to fit in with Adam. It, quite frankly, terrified me.
Adam was always able to balance the serious, playful, absurd, and brilliant. His mind always seemed to be grabbing whatever it could get its hands on and cataloguing, cataloguing, cataloguing. We both had the macro curiosity for the world that only youth affords. We would go from ghost-hunting his house to the stream on his property where he could enthusiastically describe all of the natural life that made up its ecosystem. I would stare into the clear, flowing water and try to see the source of the passion. That’s the effect he had.
We drifted apart when Adam moved up a grade in elementary school. His precocious tendencies moving him to a different plane of “a year ahead” that is untouchable at that age. He took on a new group of friends, and our close-knit trio of Adam, Tommy and Timmy that began in preschool became a duo. I started hanging out more with Tommy, and from there other teenage friendships evolved through middle and high school.
We didn’t reconnect until college. Many of my hometown friends opted to go to the state school, University of Maine at Orono, a near three hour drive northwest of my hometown. I went six hours in the other direction to Staten Island. The Orono clan in the north began to form, and I would hear stories about them playing made-up games, going on nature adventures and other silly endeavors that can only be given proper seriousness and care by college students. Included in the group of merry pranksters were Tommy and Adam, a few other close friends and some other solid people who I would get to know over time. From there, I started to get to know Adam again during my trips home on vacations.
Adam and I reconnected over guitar. We were both self-taught guitar slingers who had ears for a good song and an appreciation of the folk wisdom of the legends like Bob Dylan. In one of our first jam sessions, we covered Wilco’s “Reservations” with youthful seriousness, yearning for enough life experience and relationship experience to convincingly deliver lines like: I’ve got reservations/About so many things/But not about you. Adam could talk at length about the Wilco catalogue, constantly digging for b-sides and rarities.
In the summers, we started playing open mics at The Big Kahuna– an out-of-place blues venue in our tiny hometown with an owner who brought an air of NYC snarkyness to his small-fry operation. We’d get 15 minutes each week to hammer out covers and originals. Our reward each week was a CD ripped from the soundboard. We’d change our band name each time, The Bottle Rockets being our default when we couldn’t think of anything clever.
We truly re-cemented our friendship during a long winter in Maine. Adam had found a nice apartment attached to a library in nearby Waterford. He was one of my few friends who stayed in our hometown area after graduation, his summer job for a local conservation not-for-profit turning into full-time work. So when I found myself living with my parents at age 23, Adam was one of the few people still around. I’d drive the dark backroads to his house where we’d listen to full-length Pink Floyd albums while battling hordes of Nazi zombies. The winter days were short but grueling. One time I showed up and Adam had put up black-out curtains He said that the CDC had been calling him and wanted his information. I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or serious.
On most weekends we’d make the long drive to Orono together so that he could see his future wife, Beth, another childhood acquaintance from my hometown. Before hopping onto the highway, we’d buy giant coffees from Dunkin’ Donuts. Sometimes we’d chat, expressing doubts about decisions or the the future, or talk music, or make plans for grand double albums with lofty concepts. Or we would just cruise to music. The dirty snowbanks on the empty northern highway moving by to albums by The Fleet Foxes and Animal Collective or classics like The Beatles. We almost always listened to albums in their entirety. As spring came, we took a few camping trips to secret spots that Adam knew about.
After that winter, I left Maine for good. Adam gave me an empty notebook as I was leaving. It was one of those high-end ones that populates the turnstyles of independent bookstores. He encouraged me to keep writing, and I shyly took the gift, giving him an awkward hug. It was a moment that yearned for something profound and sentimental but, in the end, probably didn’t need words. We had helped each other through a dark winter and now had found a fork in the river.
We saw each other here and there from that point on. I made the trip up to Maine from Kentucky for his wedding. Adam and Beth always made lots of space for me in their lives. We shared trips to music festivals and getaways in Maine cabins together. There is an air of tell-it-like-it-is straightforwardness to Beth that added an honest dynamic to the time spent together. She’s always been a grounding force. They had adventures in Montana together, toying with the idea of moving there before settling near our home town.
As the years in Korea started to tally up, the diverged rivers slowly brought us further apart again. I’d see Adam a few times in the summer for some pick-up basketball or to go camping. We’d check in by e-mail from time to time. The responsibilities of our respective lives piled on as he bought a as house and prepared for his first kid to be born. But it was still a friendship that eschewed awkward society courtesies. When I found the time to see him, he would cut through the time spent drifting apart with a quick joke or anecdote. He was never afraid to tell you a slightly embarrassing story about your past to bring you back to roots and reality.
Adam died tragically while driving on a clear April day through no fault of his own. I got the call from Tommy about an hour before work. The beautiful spring day in Maine was reflected on the other side of the world in Jeju. Like now, the flowers were in full eruption giving perfume and pollen that suddenly soured when Tommy said in a concerned voice, “Tim this is big.”
The community shook. Adam was a bright young force in a small town where most people of our age, myself included, leave. It was one of those things that doesn’t process. The event multiplied the distance between me and home. I sat for weeks at my desk at work in Korea completely numbed, reading news stories about Adam, looking at pictures of the stretch of highway, feeling like it wasn’t real. I think that’s part of the reason that I didn’t go home immediately. A piece of me thought that he would still be there that summer in Maine, waiting to make sarcastic comments over hoops or to play me a few of his newest songs.
In the last e-mails that we exchanged, I was complaining about college debt. I was just starting school to become a teacher myself. Part of my decision had been inspired by he and Tommy. They had been teaching for a few years and had worked into comfortable lifestyles. Teaching suited them, a meeting place of passion, intelligence, and altruism. Adam was able to share his love of the natural world with the next generation, bringing the streams and woods and lakes to life for them. Adam said that “debt is inevitable” brushing aside financial worry. It’s the passion and the goal that matters, and the rest is secondary.
I was always a bit jealous of Adam’s clearsighted confidence. I hung out with him enough to know that this was well-earned and didn’t come without its fair share of worry and anxiety. But still, Adam seemed to live by a code rooted in sharp intelligence and common sense. His particular folksy code of ethics served him well. He generally knew what was right, and kept things in perspective. A series of well-grounded decisions brought him to a hard-earned place of comfort.
It was this worldview that attracted people to him. It should have been no surprise that those times when I was off on my own branch of experience, Adam was having the same effect on other people. He left behind a scattered collection of friends who believed in him and the ideas that he planted. These ideas and impacts still continue to grow and evolve.
After his death, I became even more certain that I wanted to become an educator and share my love of words. It is a rare profession that rewards and often requires passion. I still check in with Adam every once in a while to make sure that I’m doing it for the right reasons and making decisions based upon what I know to be true. The world of education can easily become complicated and convoluted and perspective is important.
Since childhood, I’ve left behind my belief in the supernatural and mystic. I no longer look for signs of ghosts. But that doesn’t mean that there doesn’t continue to be surprise and awe in the world. That initial tributary of childhood wonder is something that flowed toward grander things. With age and maturity comes a perspective that invites comfort and confidence. I’m getting closer to knowing the secret that Adam seemed to have figured out and, if I’m lucky, we’ll get to hang out as dinosaurs in a next life together.
Recommended listening: Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Track 1994-2014 by Wilco
Recommended reading: Narcissus and Goldmund by Herman Hesse
Most days I run the same 10km loop in my neighborhood. There are a few little landmarks throughout the run: there is a friendly dreadlocked dog who rolls around on his back while I scratch his head, a colorful barn door, a top of a tiny mountain, a view of Mt. Halla across fields, a horse near an old well hundreds of years old. Pretty damn idyllic. They’re all little check-ins that border on ritual.
Running for me began in Asheville, North Carolina. Broke and wanting to kick a post-college smoking habit, I started running a small loop up onto a ridge near my apartment at 59 Annandale. I had no idea what the limits of my body were, and no real clue about how to run. I was making about 4.50$ an hour plus tips at a downtown cafe that tried to recapture 1950’s nostalgia by making everyone wear suspenders. The real effect was to make everyone miserable. And so, the few customers I did have didn’t tend to tip well.
That’s all to say that buying running shoes was a big deal. I saved up for a few weeks, eating left over hush puppies, pasta with cheese, and popcorn until finally I could afford the shoes that I had decided to splurge on: the majestic Asics GT’s. I can still feel the luxury of my first real running shoe. It sprang my foot off of the ground and propelled me forward. Rocks didn’t infiltrate my cushy armor. I could fly.
And with my new shoes, I carved out a loop. The ridge was a grueling initial ascent, but once you got up there you could cruise for miles. Sometimes, to add mileage, I’d add smaller laps in the park. One night I added another and another until I got to 10. I got home and peeled off my socks to discover my first bloody toe. It didn’t hurt, and I had heard that this was a thing. “I must be a real runner now,” I thought to myself.
The loops only got bigger from there. I spent a winter in Maine tracking larger runs in my hometown on the backroads. Plodding away through snow and slush. The silent tapestry of a winter dirt road in Maine dotted with the sound of wood peckers, chickadees and the creak of iced branches.
I had a vague sense of distance, but all that I had to measure my runs was a cheap wristwatch. The runs went from 30 to 60 to 90 to 120 minutes. Eventually I figured out that I needed to start running with a water bottle. I didn’t eat anything on those early runs.
I learned as I went, notching my first marathon in Louisville, Kentucky after a spring spent running the 2 mile road through Cherokee Park and a nearby reservoir. And then that brought me to Korea where I started my first Jeju loops. That’s when I first laid the groundwork for the runs that I do today.
Recently there were a few years in China, running the flat neighborhoods of Pudong on good air days. I had an 8km run that took me down the long tree lined streets overlooking brown canals. Some weekends I’d travel with other runners from my school to the mountains of China in Moganshan or Wenzhou for races, one time even making a trip for a marathon on the Great Wall.
From time to time I, like every runner, get the question, “Why do you run?” I can never come up with an answer. Usually I shrug it off or say something like “Why not?” But it’s certainly something deeper than that. There’s a reason to go through the ritual of lacing up a battered pair of shoes and heading out on the same piece of road or trail each day.
As I’ve run over the course of time, I’ve noticed something. Like the landmarks of a single run, there are other landmarks scattered over time throughout experience. There are moments when the current experience lines up with the past and clarity snaps into view for a brief second. Maybe it’s the endorphins, a runner’s high, or just simply the unplugging effect that running has, but it’s something that feels real.
These landmarks might not be as concrete as a barn or a weirdly shaped tree. They are more like feelings. Either way, there is something recognizable in them. During a run, a simple image such as a bird erupting from an orange grove or a shimmer of leaves can lead to a sudden overflowing memory. Triggers for golden moments planted along the course. My mind goes to a place where it can connect the new and the old. I see a snapshot that I forgot and it lights me up for an instant.
Of course, this isn’t every run. Some runs are 5 AM slogs through sopping rain that leave me shivering at my doorstep, blowing on my fingers before I tap the entry code to my apartment. On other runs, the body is spent and my eyes want to close. The landscape is ignored and I spend the 10km staring at my watch as the kilometers add up. But part of me thinks that the terrible runs need to happen in order for the clearer moments to occur.
These small loops seem to add up to something bigger. They overlap in grand patterns beyond my understanding or comprehension. Running is humbling in this way, and there’s a mysticism there that keeps me coming back. Although the runs might feel mundane sometimes, they are worth it. The loops might be the same, but each run is different–imperceptibly altering chunks of time that meld the past and present, leading to something better.
- The Rise of the Ultra Runners: A Journey to the Edge of Human Endurance by Adharanand Finn
- What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
There’s been something uncanny about the whole situation. The response in Korea has been, by most accounts, timely and effective. New infection rates are dropping daily, and normalcy seems like it could show up on the horizon at any time. Yes, there were a few scary weeks in South Korea where it was uncertain what the virus would do. The initial outbreak here was made even more surreal by a story involving a cultish church in Daegu with connections to Wuhan. But since then, a calmness has found its way into the cracks of everyday life and people approach public spaces with more ease.
Meanwhile, in recent weeks the news on the other side of the world seems increasingly ominous. Negative numbers have increased: infections, deaths, periods of quarantine, the number of feet you should keep between you and another human. It’s hard not to open the news tab without anxiety.
On the day that things got real in the States, I hiked Mount Halla with a group of friends. There was no small amount of naiveté at that point. We began our hike with jocularity on a diamond Jeju day, packs full of too much food and not enough water. The virus had been starting to pickup on the mainland, but Jeju still felt sheltered from the events of the world. I had been watching the news, but didn’t feel concerned enough to stay indoors.
For a lot of people, realizing the heavy gravity of this situation seems to have been like watching an approaching train. At first it is moving forward with a hypnotizing graceful muscularity in the distance, dancing on an unseen but predetermined path. It gets closer and closer–another harmless piece of the countryside. At some point though, an invisible barrier is broken in an instant and the train savagely shakes the ground beneath your feet, screeching a million fiddles that you can’t reconcile with the idyllic picture that you were just staring at with quiet wonder. I think that this whole pandemic has brought into focus the personal dissonance that we suffer from with the news.
My friends and I came down from the mountain after eight hours of hiking. Two people went in a cab to grab the car from the trailhead. While they waited, the remaining three sat and talked on a wooden platform. The convenience store had been closed due to the virus so we halfheartedly tried to distract ourselves from our hunger and thirst through light conversation. When they got back in their car my friend jumped out. He had a look of excitement on his face that had not realized its unease: “Tom Hanks has the virus!” “Rudy Gobert tested positive and the NBA is shut down!” “The market is going to crash!” Humanity smacked into a wall of reality that we’re still aching from.
There’s a guilty longing to being overseas at this time. The truth of the situation renders going back impossible, while at the same time that’s exactly where you want to be during this period of history. Jeju is one of the safest places to be right now. The only comparable thing that my friends and I have been able to think of is 9/11. A diamond day into which a vividly painful memory is suddenly lodged like a knife. The pain slowly moves outward. It’s like a bad movie where you keep looking up and down at the wound in disbelief as if it will disappear. An initial feeling of uneasy excitement that gives way to very real facts and numbers.
I’ve talked to several friends who can’t seem to stop watching the numbers go up and down. There’s so much data right now to keep track of but so few answers. There hasn’t been enough time for clinical trials to take place, and so we’ve been forced to be armchair scientists, gleaning what we can from the news and the experts. I do know at some point, that the numbers that matter will start to recalibrate. Respirators, masks, and testing kits will become more readily available. New cases and deaths will go down. Breakthroughs will go up. Then we can start the work of healing.
I think that one reason I keep looking at the numbers is to try to anchor myself to my home country. The numbers should be reflections of the truth through all of media fog. It can have the opposite effect though, and make my head spin. Instead, I’ve been trying to excavate memories that I haven’t revisited for a while and talk about them with loved ones. There’s a therapeutic element to delving into the past. It blurs time and ameliorates the impossible wait that is happening right now. Personal stories can help to facilitate a meaning that feels so much more immediate and real than the stories cycling through the media. There’s something unquantifiable and uncountable about them, and in that specific ambiguity is something in which I can take comfort.
A few haiku:
Pond inverts to sky I throw a stone with my eyes To see a ripple
Blue marble we're inside Spring with domed walls and birdsong And then hard quiet
Currently listening to: Funky Kingston by Toots and the Maytals
Just watched: Portrait of a Lady on Fire
As spring comes to Jeju and with it a series of stunning moons, I find myself reflecting on a project from grad school that my advisor, Gale Jackson, put into motion a few years ago. It was a time when I thought I’d be leaving Jeju for good, and so I started to say goodbye over the course of the springtime months through poem.
Gale told me to “look at the moon” and encouraged me to write. I started jotting down a haiku each evening and then compiled my favorites. Haiku should be written fast like brushstrokes, and I slowly painted a picture of spring. It’s interesting to retrace the footsteps – to see the journey from cold to warm as the earth woke up, and to apply meaning to familiar images through a newer lens.
Last year, I took a trip to Kyoto to see the cherry blossoms. I arrived at peak time when there were fluffy pillows in the gutters. I wandered the streets snapping photos, admiring the silence that the city and the season has to offer. I walked into Nijo castle at night and the illuminated trees took on eerie and mythic personalities with their translucent pinks and whites.
I was supposed to make the same trip this previous weekend. Again, the timing would have been perfect. I had the weekend circled, and as I waded through the day-to-day of work I held that on the horizon. But as events played out in the world, the trip drifted away and I found myself planted on Jeju spending much time at home, wandering the surrounding farm roads with my dog, and running my familiar trails on the weekend. The weekend where I was supposed to be in Kyoto drifted by like an easy petal in the wind.
When the global news became serious, at first there was disbelief, and then frustration, and then fear and then acceptance, and now? Now, I find myself wondering what can be done. I think for many it’s been a good chance to reconnect to family and friends, which I’ve been doing, but also it’s been a chance to reconnect to the land. This week a calm has set in as I look around my island. It’s not without the flavor of uncertainty and fear, but my day-to-day has been in stronger contact with the details. I’m trying to take this as a chance to notice, and to see where the past lines up with the present to form a clearer picture.
Reading these poems again, I think about how I felt in that month before leaving Jeju and moving to Shanghai. The mounting electricity of spring that builds and propels you to the full splendor of summer. Trees shake off their delicate scales to show something more verdant and enduring. And it was at that point that I said goodbye to Jeju.
Now that I find myself more or less stuck here on the island, I realize that that electric energy of leaving Jeju might have been that of staying–that my nightly check-ins with the night sky had built an appreciation for something that I have often taken for granted: where I was. When I left Jeju I missed it, and when I came back I forgot that I had. When I wrote the poems or wandered Kyoto I wasn’t enamored by the transitory cherry blossoms of spring, but by the enduring heartbeat of the island or the city. This is an awareness that only honed observation can bring.
And so tonight as a reminder of that I’ll tilt my head to the sky and pause for a few seconds to look at the moon, knowing that it’s a meeting spot for all of the places where I’ve felt the comfort of place. It’s home to a thousand translucent threads of time, space and memory that it only takes a few moments of pause to connect with.
Recommended Reading: The Essential Haiku from Bloodaxe Books. An essential collection from haiku masters Basho, Buson and Issa.
I woke up the final day at Haeinsa feeling rested and ready to hit the trail. We had made a new friend the previous night who wanted to show us around. Her Buddhist name was Arona and she had been sweeping outside of our door as we came back from dinner the night before. Seeing our cameras she became very excited and insisted that we come see her pictures later. She was a sweet lady who told us about her family and her beliefs and showed us her workbook where she honed her English skills by copying famous speeches. She was all in all very motherly.
So the next day we woke up to rain and walked around seeing the temple with a new sheen. Arona snapped pictures and took us to her favorite spots that we had seen on the previous day but were made better by her excited chatter and picture taking. Before we left she made us go to the gift shop with her where she bought us Buddhist bracelets. The temple was empty due to the rain, so we had time to make small talk and sip instant coffee with the gift shop’s owner. The owner also wanted to give us a gift, and insisted that we take a pack of postcards and a bag of potatoes. Arona walked us to our trailhead and we said our goodbyes before leaving Haeinsa behind.
I made my way up the trail to the peaks of Gayasan quietly listening to the rain lightly smack the leaves. The dampness eventually found its way through my old raincoat and I gave up on keeping dry, taking off my hood and feeling the cold drops on my forehead. The hike to the top seemed brief. We found ourselves on a huge rock enveloped by fog. The first true peak was a silhouetted stone giant about a hundred meters away. A few Nepalese hikers snapped their pictures with us and we continued on to Sangwangbong, one of Gayasan’s two peaks. I looked into the grey fog and thought about the view that it was hiding.
The second peak is called Chilbulbong and is a few meters taller than the first. We reached it in ten minutes and then started making our way back down the other side of the mountain. Near the bottom a few Korean hikers emerged. They were having a picnic and offered us some fried chicken. We refused, but didn’t turn down the apples that they offered instead. We said “Thank you” in Korean and continued on down.
At the bottom we took a rest at a campground under a roof with benches. I used the automatic hand dryer in the bathroom on a few of my things that were especially damp. Following the road we came to a strange terrarium with a museum attached. It was all in Korean but had to do with the ecosystem of the park. The museum was completely empty. A man appeared to take a small entrance fee. I wandered through the museum section and then into the silent terrarium. Attached was a glass room with a woman inside. I went in and she handed me flower tea. She let me smell the different varieties and I bought a glass jar of purple petals.
We walked on the road toward town as occasional cars whizzed past. There was a small chance that two soaking wet vagabonds would be picked up so we resigned ourselves to the long walk. As we came closer to civilization we noticed that a celebration was going on. There were giant beach balls floating in the air and giant expo tents set up. We walked down the hill to the entrance and were greeted by a Korean with an Australian accent named Lucy. She was an English speaking tour guide for the Millenial Anniversary Expo of the Tripitaka Koreana. Amazingly, we had tickets to the event from our Templestay host.
Lucy, who had lived in Australia for a while, showed us around the Expo and then put us on a bus headed for Daegu. We reversed our trip back to Busan. Arriving around nine, we quickly checked into a hotel and ditched our wet gear before walking out on the street to reacquaint ourselves with civilization. We walked to the strange set of bars named after American cities and states excited to see it at night. However, all that greeted us was a depressing ghost town where strange women urged us to come in and drink with them. Feeling dejected by the sad scene, we walked half-heartedly around a few more blocks and then made our way back to hotel.
The next morning we met up with our other boarding assistant friends who were excited about what they had been exploring while we were gone. They took us to a much livelier part of town to the cheap but classy brand-new love motel where they were staying. From there, we went to the largest department store in the word called Shinsegae. It is nine floors of disorienting escalators and commerce that left me feeling dizzy. It even has an ice rink. We walked by the beach and through a strange downtown business district where a protest was happening.
The city was full of restaurants and bars. Many of them had strange allusions to America or were American chains. I picked up some books at a store near our hotel before we made the rounds of a few nightspots in the area. In the evening the street was lit up in neon and there were countless street vendors all selling similar food. We stopped at a few of them they quickly cooked delicious greasy dumplings and Korean pancakes on their carts.
The five of us left our motel early the next morning, got some coffee and made our way to the airport, leaving behind the mainland and heading back to our island.
Waking up at three AM was something that I’ve never attempted. I’ve experienced it from the other angle and stayed up until three to see the most quiet part of the night. I’ve woken up at four to catch airplanes or buses. I’ve driven through the night in the middle of America watching the lines on the highway. However, waking up at three for the sake of starting my day was something foreign.
I was not groggy as I awoke – there was more of a pensiveness to the atmosphere as we all began to stir and roll up our mats and take turns in the bathroom and make for the door. Outside the moon still dominated the sky and as we convened in a courtyard we couldn’t help but stare up at it. We made our way in line to the drum and watched the monks and then went to the temple and listened to the monks chanting. The rituals were repeated but took on a whole new meaning in darkness of the very early morning. The routine had kicked in and I had come as close to immersion in temple life as I would during my stay there.
So we made our way to the tea room where we laid down mats in lines and faced forward at our guide and she put on a CD that took us through 108 bows. Backing a man’s voice was music that could have served as the soundtrack to Braveheart. The music wove it’s way through moments of intense adventure and tranquil lulls. After a while I stopped counting the bows and tried to focus only on the movements I was making. The bowing process becomes somewhat strenuous when repeated, and a few people had to stop and rest. After the bowing we meditated. I might have fallen asleep if it weren’t for the intense pain in my legs unused to being crossed for extended periods of time.
We had a delicious yet simple breakfast of rice, kimchi, and soup and pickled things and then went on a tour of the temple. We were shown a building that houses the Tripitaka Koreana. The building is carefully planned to provide the right conditions for almost thousand year old wooden printing blocks of the Buddhist scriptures.
After our tour the silence lifted and the Templestayers dispersed. Wesley and I were the only ones staying another night so I nodded goodbyes to the people I had not really spoken to. By this time it was mid-morning and I had been up for seven hours. I decided to take a nice long nap before lunch, unfolding my mat.
After lunch, Wesley and I took off toward town. We made our on the path and witnessed the full degree of tourism that occurs at the foot of Haeinsa. The flea market that had been empty the previous morning was bustling with school children and tour groups and people in costumes. It was a shock after spending nearly 24 hours in almost complete silence. We quickly made our way through saying hello to curious school children eager to try out their English on us.
After a little searching we found the trail head that we were looking for and began to make up way up toward the summit of Namsan Jeilbong. There were a few hikers who smiled or tried a little English. The path was well marked and maintained and took us fairly quickly to the summit using metal stairs where the rocks became too steep to be safe. We took in the view and continued on a steep descent down the other side not quite knowing where it would end up.
The trail meandered to a small temple at the base of the mountain with a garden full of greenery. I smiled at a lady as she made her way past us to do some harvesting. The path continued to a town with distant noises of cows and dogs and the occasional car. We saw a festival in the distance and walked in its direction hoping it would bring us to a road that would loop back to Haeinsa. We had slightly misjudged time and distance and the day was wearing on.
A van sped around the corner and came to an abrupt stop. “Haeinsa?” the driver said. We nodded and he motioned for us to get in. The man drove with a confidence a person can only have in their hometown roads. He cut the s-shapes right down the middle and honked at anything or anyone that was encroaching on his path. His foot slammed on the gas for straightaways and flexed precisely on the brake for corners. We soon found ourselves in Haeinsa town. The driver handed us a card for a nearby hotel, smiled, and took off up the road probably rushing to get back for dinner.
We trudged up the hill, set our packs down in our room, caught dinner and made our way outside to view the temple at night. The lanterns that lined the path had been illuminated and the atmosphere was one of quiet festivity. I heard the drumming and chanting from a distance – this time slightly muffled and enchanting, and night had returned to Haeinsa.
After a chilly night of what I think was slightly below freezing temperatures, I awoke slightly disoriented on a stream bank. The sun had just come up and was reaching through leaves in full foliage colors. I hadn’t been able to see the trees in the dark and did not realize that we had arrived in the mountains in peak Fall season.
Wesley and I ate a breakfast of bread and water, and looked around. There turned out to be a legitimate campsite across the road that was completely vacant. There wasn’t even a sign of a caretaker. The occasional car rushed past on the road on some errand. We wandered the rest of the way down the mountain through Haeinsa town and and started making our way to the temple. There were a few town residents out eating breakfast or getting their shop ready for the day. They gave a friendly and slightly confused smile and stared as we walked down the road.
We got to the base of the temple and found ourselves smack dab in the middle of a flea market. The temple rush hadn’t started yet so all the merchants very enthusiastically pushed free samples our way. We tried a variety of foods including rice vinegar and homemade green tea. A group of Korean temple goers wanted their picture taken with us so we humored them. Eventually we pushed on past the mecca of commerce and up a path lined with colorful lanterns. Things got quieter as we neared the temple and the people thinned out. This quiet would soon be shattered by busloads of tourists and pilgrims. But for now it was peaceful. I walked down a path past a mirrored pyramid and looked at some buildings. Wesley said it was like Rivendale. I turned around and saw the first big group of the day leading droves of companions making their way to the entrance. We decided to hurry up before it got more crowded.
We found the entrance – a long straight path up a few stairs and through a few sets of arches. The second arch led into a courtyard where people peddled around. To the left was a giant drum under a roof where a monk performed a fast-paced routine with arms tracing patterns around the drumhead. The ground was all dirt and had countless footprints.
We saw a sign for Templestay and followed it down some stairs eventually coming to a room where we checked in for the night. We followed a lady who spoke no Korean who brought us to our room and then immediately brought us to lunch. We had a silent meal of soup and rice and kimchi and a few other vegetarian side dishes. At four, our Templestay program started. We met the monk who would be working with us and practiced bowing and then had dinner. There were about 10 of us total and the men and women slept in different rooms. Our sleeping room was a giant hall with sauna climate and mats to put down on the floor.
Following dinner, we had some down time. When the sun started to set we made our way to the courtyard. The tourists had left for the day and peace had returned to Haeinsa. We walked to the giant drum and stood quietly in a line. Monks took turns performing quick-handed solos on the drums with wooden sticks that seemed effortless. To switch performers, a monk would approach the drum and sync up with the beat before the other monk stepped off and sat down. From there we went to a shrine with three enormous golden statues of the Buddha. We did three bows and then listened as one monk began chanting with the accompaniment of a woodblock. The chant erupted as the other monks joined in creating a thunderous chorus. Outside the night was completely quiet. It was hypnotizing and was the most moving experience during my time in the temple.
From there we marched in a line to a room where we sat on cushions on the floor. They served us tea and we talked with the monk who taught us to bow. He spoke no English but we had a few translators. People asked him mostly about specific problems and the monk pointed out that the conversation was becoming cyclical, that people needed to become aware of their inner-mind. Most of the specifics of the conversation were lost in translation.
After an hour and a half of tea, we went to our room and went to sleep on our mats anticipating a three in the morning wake-up.
Last week I took a trip to a temple called Haeinsa with a fellow boarding assistant named Wesley. We had a flight booked to Busan on the southern coast of the country and vague plans of getting to the mountains in the middle. We were drawn to search for a section of the Baekdu-daegan, , a mountain range that runs up almost the entirety of the Korean peninsula and is often referred to as the “tiger spine.”
Upon arrival in Busan, we grabbed a Korean lunch of bibimbap and Coca-Cola and looked around a bit in the area of Busan station. We encountered a strange strip of bars that took their names mostly from American states and cities that sported banners welcoming the US Navy. (As we found out later in our journey this area transforms at night into a creepy ghost town populated by women of the night.)
From there we got onto the speed train called the KTX and were a quarter of the way up the country in a city called Gyeongju in a mere 15 minutes. After about 30 minutes of discussion we decided that Gyeongju was not, in fact, where we needed to be so we got back onto the speed train and found ourselves in Daegu. In Daegu, we hopped onto the subway to a bus station and got onto a bus going north. One of our fellow passengers was a monk on a cell phone. As the sun set I saw mountains in the distance who’s shadows got closer as we wound our way farther and farther into the dark landscape.
An hour and fifteen minutes later the bus reached it’s final destination in Haeinsa and I stepped out into crisp mountain air. There was a small mountain town at the base of the temple with a few restaurants and motels and we grabbed a delicious meal (again of bibimbap but this time with soju and homemade makali so cold it had ice crystals in it.) We had vague plans of camping for the night and inspired by the electricity of the mountains walked our way up a road that wound up and up. We reached what seemed like the top in a few hours. We were surrounded by stars and mountain spines with the occasional bark of a dog in the background and it felt like the roof of the world. We quickly made our way down finally stopping for the night at a makeshift campsite next to a gurgling stream. We unrolled our new Korean sleeping bags (brand: Buck703), sparked a fire, bundled up, and hunkered down for a cold night of sleep.
A few weeks ago some friends and I acting on a tip went to an island off the north of Jeju called Chujado. Knowing nothing about the island I packed some clothes and took off in a cab to catch the daily ferry. The vessel was called “The Pink Dolphin” and looked like a worthy enough boat. I boarded with high spirits not knowing I was getting aboard something akin to Willy Wonka’s chocolate riverboat. Five minutes into the ride the sea began to rock the boat. I tried to walk around but my legs were rubber. I sat down and closed my eyes trying to sleep. Poseidon had other plans. I heard the people around retching violently as their stomachs caved to the ferocious swaying of the boat, but clenched my jaw determined to make it to Chuja with my breakfast intact. This went on for an hour, the Dolphin carving it’s way up and down relentless swells and me staring ahead trying to keep my mind blank as my hopes for arrival slowly dwindled. The boat stopped miraculously and so did the demon in the my stomach. I stepped onto Chujado with relief and a new outlook on life.
The island itself is small. One major town center with a small village a ten minute car ride away. The whole thing is walkable in about seven hours and has an amazing Olle that winds along its coastline over hills and through fields. We found a cheap hotel to stay at along the trail that was right on the ocean and had a spectacular roof.
Our first night we feasted on pork Korean barbecue style where you cook it yourself on a grill built into the table and then did a night hike. On our way back to our hotel we heard noise from a staircase and investigated. Inside we found some friendly Koreans front of a big screen TV singing karaoke. A group of quiet friends watched approvingly from a table. One man in particular took a liking to us (despite speaking barely any English) and immediately began to buy us drinks that were magically replaced when empty. In return we sang them songs. I began with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and all of us closed out the night with a stirring rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
The next morning we took off on a hike around the island and took in the sweeping ocean views. We realized we were running late for the departing ferry and fortuitously flagged down a Bongo who’s driver happened to be going right to the terminal. The ferry ride back was smooth. I even got a nap in.