Time compresses and leaps in starts and fits. A six month lease in my early twenties felt like a lifetime of commitment. That was six months of high-stakes productivity. Songs to be written, places to see, experiences to have. Who knew what city I’d be headed off to next? (high mileage Mercury Sable permitting.) Now a three year contract felt like a blink. In my thirties, I’ve settled into a rhythm of teaching and running that melts the days away. It all adds up to something, but the rewards aren’t as immediate or palpable as they were. Breakthroughs are more infrequent, but there’s something about a routine. Feelings fluctuate between boredom and comfort as the days tick off.
In high school, I could never fathom the sense of time in Homer’s Odyssey. Seven years stuck on an island? A windstorm that causes a year-long setback? It felt flippant with time in a way to which I couldn’t relate.
I’m definitely not comparing myself to Odysseus–I’m just a teacher with a guitar, a pair of running shoes, and a dog that makes uncomfortably long eye contact; not a bow, a sick boat and a loyal crew– but there is something relatable to his journey. The pull of home that caused him to brush paths with heroes, gods, demigods, monsters and new lands. That same pull has led me all over the world during my eleven years abroad.
As an international school teacher, it feels like I’ve spent a lot of time on detours. Late nights grading, planning activities schedules, talking to insomniac students in the dorms. These are the small detours. And then there are the big ones like taking on teaching social studies full time despite background and training in English. The tasks and pathways have shape-shifted depending on my many roles, but they’ve been constant. We tell ourselves that these are extra lines on our resumes, that they’ll serve us in the future in some regard. These detours are never exactly what we are looking for but eventually add up to a career. Every decision has compromise embedded in it, but some can feel like a big step in the wrong direction.
As my move back stateside approaches in June, my image of what it will be like grows blurrier. Recently it’s become clearer that running needs to be halted. Nerve pain and ankle issues are telling me to stop. The long distances have slowly pounded my lower vertebrae together to a point that my running form is painful and tottering. I can get through a workout, but the run spent holding my breath and hoping that this isn’t the run that pushes my body over the edge.
Running was supposed to be the backup plan next year if nothing turned up in the world of teaching, but that isn’t seeming to pan out either. Although I have enough experiences in education to fill over a decade, none of them seem to be the right experiences. I’m missing this or that. Applications and interviews have so far been dead ends.
I’m starting to have to pull the frame back a bit. Maybe teaching and running need to be shed for the time being. These giant parts of my identity need to be let go in order for the journey to continue. It’s nerve-wracking and sometimes terrifying to put both on hold. These two mainstays in my daily routine are melting away to leave behind who knows what?
Setbacks seem like detours until you’ve reached where you needed to be. Journeys sometimes only make sense once they’re done. A voyage is never a direct one, and sometimes you’re closest to progress when you feel the farthest away from it. Steps along the way can seem like detours in the moment, but end up comprising the core components of a necessary voyage to home.
There was a night in high school where it became too much. The dull hum of small town Bridgton, Maine had dipped its toes into our ears before deciding that the water was just fine and that it could make itself right at home in our heads. That hum had grown in volume over time creeping up to a buzz and then a loud rumble. Our eyes started to shake and our fingers started to tap. The asphalt of main street stretched out out out until, at 10pm on a random fall night, we started driving south. Three high school guys with nothing to do, we made our way to one of the only places that is reliably open in Maine 24/7: L.L.Bean.
I don’t remember much of that night except wandering the empty store, buying nothing, hitting a Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through and getting some light and sweet coffee, and, as the sun was rising, the classic rock station playing Here Comes the Sun. There’s an achievement in itself to staying up all night. We made a few dumb phone calls, left a few voice messages. In the early morning we pulled back into our town’s beach parking lot and jumped into the frigid fall lake. The glint of those weary but vivid rays mixed with the sugary coffee and tasted like the present. The town woke up unaware of our night spent on the backroads of Maine.
There’s a secrecy to breakthrough moments. Something that’s often not worth articulating because it would evaporate in the explanation. In the world of ultrarunning, these breakthrough moments seem to exist along side those of bottom-of-the-well desperation. I had a few of both in my most recent ultra: the High Trail Nine Peaks in Ulju, South Korea. The course was a soul-sapping 105km loop over, you guessed it, nine peaks that added up to an ascent about equal to the elevation of Mount Everest from sea level. And to make it more fun? A midnight start.
As the sun rose after seven plus hours of running dark trails over peaks and through small-town roads (some not unlike Bridgton) a moment hit. The loaded spring of months of training released and propelled me into the day’s first hour. A dog in the distance barked and I barked back. The trail had become a reality of existence. The only thing was to move forward on it and let it unveil the scenery and experience.
The race was a quiet one. I was one of three foreigners and it felt like a disconnect, like I was kind of running my own race. Maybe it was in my head, but it felt like when other runners saw me they either wanted to pass me or were surprised at seeing a foreigner. This wasn’t true for the kind folks at the aid stations though. They took reliably good care of me. Other than that the trail was mostly a lonely one. Usually I relish the lonesome trail, but at another point after over twenty hours of little to know interaction the silence had started to feel like a weight. I found two other runners on the dark trail at my pace and formed a bit of a pack. We hiked along in stride, silently lapping up the dark kilometers. I imagined I was in the army, marching through the night under orders.
I started out the race feeling strong. Despite the daunting 105km ahead of me, I plodded off into the dark with the intention to put distance between me and most of the pack. My legs started to work the first ascent as headlights danced behind me on the trail. “Alright, Tim, 10 minutes and and all systems are go. Breathing is good, poles are working it, legs are feeling great and….” fuck! I was suddenly skidding face first down the trail. My pole had caught my shoe and used my momentum to fling me forward. I popped back up with a skinned knee and no small amount of pain. Great start, Cushing. Now time to keep moving. Don’t think about it.
As the night wore on, I kept to the plan. Keep sipping water. Check in with the body. Keep eating gels. The aid stations were efficient and progress was steady. By that first sunrise breakthrough, some confidence was starting to find its way into my stomach. My knee hurt a bit from that fall, but other than that all systems were go.
The day dripped away in hourly increments. A small headache set in that I monitored closely. These had had a habit of turning into full-blown migraines in the past, and I was determined to stave off this one through sheer will and lots of electrolytes. To my amazement, this strategy worked. In the heat of the day, the trail meandered through some of the most stunning views of the course. I popped in my headphones and queued upmy playlist. My legs kicked when I asked them to. I zigzagged through groups of hikers. At a popular peak a race photographer snapped my picture and I refueled before resuming movement.
The trail itself is probably best summed up in one of the only few texts that I sent out during the run: “This race is satan.” The flats were few. You are either moving up or down. As for terrain, take your pick of adjective: jagged, sharp, stabby, snaggy, agro, thorny. There were a few times when I woke from a running trance to realize that I was lost in a bramble patch. I had to trace back and find a flag, pick a new direction and push on. Lazarus Lake, the creator of the infamous Barkley’s Marathon could take some notes. I thought about this as I bulldozed through a few small trees to get back to the trail.
Night descended for a second time and I flicked on my headlamp. The end was the slightest bit palpable. Coming into the next town and one of the final big aid stations my legs found some bounce. My body was responding and some focus clicked in. I picked off five runners and left them behind in the dark. I came up on another group and blew by them. I churned into the aid station, grabbed some snacks and sat cross-legged as I made preparations for the hardest section of the race.
Exiting that aid station I still felt good. Maybe it was dehydration or hunger or exhaustion or delusion, but a punchy humor seeped in. I began an ascent with a few other runners in the distance. Something glowed in the woods. It looked like a golden levitating cross-legged Buddha in the forest, emanating light. This turned out to just be a sign warning of falling rocks that was catching light from my headlamp. The hallucinations continued. The reflector vests of the runners ahead of me started to dance. They were neon football pads and then animated frogs moving to the rhythm of Demon Days by Gorillaz in my headphone. “Rad,” I thought and smiled. My eyes were playing tricks but my legs were strong. I caught up to the dancing frogs and left them behind in my wake. That climb eventually hit a peak and brought me down. The trail was flat and I started to cruise at my fastest pace of the race, putting healthy distance between the pack that I had passed.
On the race profile there’s a sheer climb that I had been dreading. It was about 700 meters of straight up that I knew would hurt a lot at that stage of the run. I hit the climb and tried not to think about it. Jack Kuenzle, a dynamite runner who took the White Mountains Hut Traverse FKT last summer reiterated a mountain mantra on a recent podcast that stuck with me: “Slow is fast and fast is smooth.” My brother said the same exact words in a phone call before the race. I tried to focus on that. Small smart movements that could add up to success. The climb melted away. I passed a few more people, reached a flat and raced off into the night.
The end felt near. I was low on water, but getting closer. That’s when a painfully long stretch of up and down began. Frustration set in. I was thirsty. I wanted the race to be over. “Focus Cushing, focus,” I muttered intermittently. The hallucinations had continued and all the rocks seemed to have tiny playful faces on them like something out of Princess Mononoke. Mountain spirits. The rolling hills played mind games. I couldn’t tell if a large looming silhouette was another mountain that I had to climb or just a trick of the night. And then my watch shut down. I cursed as I fished out my battery and cord. Without the race gpx file the organizers wouldn’t count my time. Did the file save? Was all the data gone? I couldn’t think about it now. As I waited for the watch to kick on I looked behind me down the trail at a few headlamps that were meandering in my direction. They weren’t going to catch me. The watch flicked back to life. I started a new file and hoped that the other 20 hours of data was still on there somewhere.
There was one final aid station before the finish. I knew I was close but my headlamp was dangerously dim. I had to stop again. It was then that a small bell sound started to shimmer from behind me down the trail. Oh great, are we starting auditory hallucinations now? Nope. Two ladies blew by me, one who was wearing a tiny bell on her pack that taunted me as they churned on. I managed to muster a small “fighting!” for them. Batteries clicked into my headlamp and the chase was on.
When I got to the final aid station Tinker Bell was there but her friend had pushed on. We gave some encouragement to each other. “You’re amazing,” she said and grinned. I lit up at the unexpected words. A paradox of competition and encouragement is rife in ultrarunning. The same runners that we leapfrog battle with over hours of terrain can be our biggest encouragement. She took off a few minutes before me as I greedily downed some water. “How many more kilometers?” I asked the volunteer. “Six,” he said. I had this. First I had to catch up to that nice lady with the bell.
I chased Tinker Bell’s tinkling noise through the dark. Passed her. Kept going. The descent was on road and my legs felt strong. I wanted to catch her friend. I hit the final trail section that would bring me to the finish and just kept churning. I passed the friend. She looked pretty cooked. I’m sure I looked the same. But the finish line was near and I had discovered a little something left in the tank. I erupted into the finish area, and a wave of triumph washed over my tired body. Finish lines are emotional places for me. I’ve cried at a few of them. This time I just felt proud. Proud of the effort, proud of the training, proud of the people that had helped me reach the finish line. “You finished in 12th! Amazing!” a text glowed from my phone. Some friends had been texting me all race, and their company was important beyond words. 12th place didn’t seem possible. I had been in the mid 20’s three aid stations back. I started out the race only wanting to finish. All details to mull over tomorrow. I hobbled down to my hotel room for a beer and a sleep. And yes, in case you were wondering, the data was all on the watch.
I don’t know why I keep signing up for these things. It definitely has something to do with that high school decision to just get in the car and drive. That small itch to explore has grown into a big one. I’ve been collecting these snapshots of breakthrough moments since those teenage years, and there’s something about ultra racing that lets me punch through more frequently. The trail, the travel, the people. Main street keeps stretching ever forward, and I’m happy to see where it leads.
Every mountain has its own character. Some are stoic, plainly presenting themselves in dramatic stone glory. Some are playful, offering surprises around their circumference–streams, small waterfalls, meadows and groves. Some are just kind. My hometown hill is called Pleasant Mountain, and the name says it all. The 2,000 foot hump on the outskirts of downtown overlooks a large pond. It’s a walk to the mailbox compared to some of the mountains on the west coast or even in the White Mountains. During winter it morphs into a low-key ski resort. It’s the Tom Hanks of mountains–giving a smile a wink, and a wave to tourists who drive over the causeway at its base.
And then there’s Hallasan (한라산) here on Jeju (제주). This is a mountain that dwarfs Pleasant. It dramatically bears its chest–a stunning peak that, on a clear day, you can see from anywhere on the island.In my eight years on Jeju, I’ve run over and hiked it countless times through seasons, ages, different levels of shape. I became versed in the landmarks of its trails.
During my two year stay in Shanghai, I started to get nostalgic about the peak. The city crowds and dubious air quality of the city ground me down until the Jeju life I’d left behind began to feel idyllic. There was free entry to an 80km race I had done before so I naturally decided to venture over for the weekend. I had been training on the flat boulevards of Shanghai, and was surprised at how quickly my legs had forgotten elevation. The race started out well enough. We began at sea level at 6am, plodding up the road to the island’s center where Halla awaited. On the first real ascent I knew something was up. Muscles collapsed into painful knots as my legs kept churning. I cursed the flat streets of Shanghai that had allowed my uphill and downhill muscles to atrophy. And then another surprise: snow on the summit in late march. I had foregone crampons and had some near misses gliding down Gwaneumsa (관음사) trail to the snow-free terrain.
Before beginning the race’s last big ascent around the 50km mark a storm hit. This was no problem, a little sprinkle of rain never hurt anyone. I trotted up the trail and began the grinding climb. But, as I neared the summit of Yeongsil Oreum, I noticed something. The rain had turned to snow…and it was picking up. By the time the Eorimok trail spit me out into a clearing near the summit, it was white-out conditions. My thin jacket which was soaked with rain and sweat began to feel icy against the skin underneath. I didn’t quite know what to do. I could turn around and book it down the mountain, or push on the few kilometers to the descent on the other side. I knew there was some sort of shelter coming soon, but it was hard to say how soon in the white out conditions. I didn’t even know if it would be open. Turning around, on the other hand, would end the race that I had traveled and trained for. I kept going.
My hands continued to get colder. Gloves might have been a good idea. I did the old hand tuck in the jacket but it didn’t help. I blew into my icy paws. I pinwheeled my arms wildly to keep blood flowing. A mad man in a red jacket on the top of a mountain in a blizzard. The image of Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining popped into my head. They were going to chisel me out of a snow bank tomorrow. Why hadn’t I packed gloves or a warm layer? Was the extra weight that much of a liability. I knew there was a waypoint coming up and I pushed through, the aching in my hands growing increasingly worrisome.
And then, like an Elysian hallucination, a hut appeared. A few friendly race volunteers ushered me inside where there were other racers in similar shape. We huddled around a gas stove with cups of instant coffee in our hands in silence. I regained feeling, procured some cheap gloves and a plastic poncho from the volunteers, took a deep breath and a long look at the side-winding wall of white snow moving past the door, and then set out into the storm again. I booked it down the mountain and managed the final stretch of road to the finish line as nighttime descended. Turns out my hands would have stabbing and painful chilblains, the initial signs of frostbite, for about a week. I had a few things to consider when I arrived back in Shanghai. A few lessons to learn.
It was with this humbling experience in mind that I planned my trip to Jirisan (지리산). I was in the mood for a challenge and had my eyes on the Jirisan Traverse (화대종주), a 40km route through the heart of Jirisan National Park. Most of what I knew about the trail I took from a helpful running expat blog that I stumbled across in my research. There were a few logistics to work out, but it seemed doable. I would go and stay in a small hotel near the trailhead, get up early, and arrive at the other side in mid-afternoon with enough daylight to meander back to the hotel in time for dinner.
I picked up my friend, another Tim, at 6am and we made our way to Jeju airport. It was in full frenzy for Chuseok holiday (추석), the parking lot full to the point that makeshift spots were being invented. Tim also realized at the end of our car ride that he had somehow ended up with his wife’s phone. While he negotiated with a cab driver to deliver the phone to his house, I circled the lot a few times. 15 minutes passed and nothing was appearing. I tried the art of inventing my own spot only to end up in a minor yelling match with a bus driver. Panic was setting in. We were going to miss our flight. And then, like the hut atop Halla, a van pulled out and a dream spot appeared.
We flew into Gwangju and grabbed a cab to the bus station. Time for breakfast. But nothing was open aside from the chains. There was one curry place that gave us some hope. One lady motioned us in, and then as we entered another lady decided differently and told us “no” holding up her arms in the unmistakable Korean “X.” We sulked off in confusion and disappointment. This is how on the first day of vacation and ready to tuck into local cuisine we found ourselves walking into a Subway. They hadn’t even made the bread for the day. Flatbread it was. A poster for the new “Sub Dog” mocked us from the wall. One of Tim’s best qualities is his unadorned honesty. “This tastes like ass,” he said.
From there, a two hour bus ride to the park. Despite the Subway flatbread-shaped bricks in our abdomens, we were feeling slightly better now that we had made it to the home stretch and were ready to chat a bit during the ride. We found our seats and began to ease into conversation, only to be silenced by a small gust of loud air. What the hell? It was a shush.
“No talking,” said the driver from his throne four seats ahead of us. His sunglasses peered at me in the mirror. This guy wasn’t fooling around. We looked at each other in confusion, soaking in the absurd scenario. We began texting each other about the ridiculousness of the situation. Every fiber of our being wanted to break the silence. It was like trying not to fart in church.
The Tims arrived in mid-afternoon and scoped the terrain of our mountain hamlet. It was on the outskirts of Gurye (구례), a small town to the southwest of Jirisan. We found an acceptable cafe and an exceptional lunch of mountain food. The banchan (반잔)were small courses unto themselves. Marinated black beans and mountain greens. The flower root deodeok (더덕) which tasted like an earthy ginseng.
That night we hiked up to Hwaeomsa Temple (화엄사)where silence descended along with dusk. We meandered up through three gates that travelers were meant to pass through as a series of cleanses. As we reached the top, the dull throb of a monk hitting a drum began. Another monk chanted from an unknown location. The noises pirouetted with the crickets and the breeze and built until a giant gong was rung. Small shockwaves to end the day.
We spent half the next day waiting out a torrential but expected thunderstorm. The small stream behind our hotel became an enraged river. The ionized air danced through the screen. When the storm cleared I strolled into the visitor center and used my shoddy Korean to inquire about the trail. The park ranger made the same “X” when I said I wanted to do it in one day.
“Impossible,” was her general message.
“Agree to disagree,” I thought to myself.
As I began to get my supplies ready, I glanced at a few final logistics. It was then that I found the one detail that I had invariably overlooked: the return trip. I had assumed that, at most, I was dealing with a 50,000 won return cab ride from the other side of the park. I also knew that there were some buses that I had assumed could lead me back this way. However, the buses were looking to be a seven hour odyssey that I wasn’t going to be able to navigate in sweaty running clothes. The cab ride was going to be 150,000 won that I wasn’t willing to spend. Anxiety rose in my chest. This needed to work. I had come all this way. I looked at different routes, different apps, different websites. There seemed to be no feasible options. Impossible was right, but not for the park ranger’s reasons.
I talked it over with Tim over a dinner of grilled deodeok in red sauce. It was simple but delicious. Perfectly browned on the bottom. Crunchy and chewy both at once. The quiet night outside our bright hospital lighting restaurant. By the end of the meal I had made peace with an out-and-back. I would run 21km into the heart of the park then turn around and retrace my steps. The anxiety of post-run transportation logistics dissolved but traces of disappointment remained.
I plodded out into the early morning, making my way up the initial ascent. The first climb traced the small stream that flowed behind my hotel straight up the mountain. It was a quiet warm-up to the day. The trail passed a few waterfalls here and there, making its way through flat riverbed rocks. I hit the first hut in the beginnings of morning. A few other hikers quietly moved in the morning fog. One snapped a photo for me before I moved on down the trail.
As the trail continued in the foggy morning, I started to focus on the gnarly roots and rocks. My legs moved at strange angles and my hiking poles extended like feelers to find a way forward. In the woozy fog, a hypnosis took over and the roots and rocks were the White Mountains of New Hampshire thirty minutes from Pleasant Mountain where I grew up. In short bursts it felt like home.
A few more peaks. A stop at a natural spring to fill up my water bottles. A chat with another hiker in my rough Korean. We were at least able to communicate where we were going before we reached the turn-off where we parted ways. Eventually I had stopped checking the GPS, confident of where I was headed. My legs started to adjust to the trail’s contours and I no longer had to concentrate so hard on every puzzle that the roots presented. A rhythm was forming. And then the sky’s stomach grumbled.
I ignored the first few rolls of thunder, passing them off as sonic anomalies in the valley, but then there was another, and another. Eventually it started to sound like I was standing in the parking lot of a bowling alley. The thunder was frequent. I began an inner monologue.
“Come on, I had planned this so well. The storm was yesterday, not today. Today was supposed to be cloudy but clear. I did the research, I brought the right gear, I had learned my lessons from Halla.”
Jirisan didn’t care about my mental complaining, it threw a few more strikes at me. I had moved from the bowling parking lot into the waiting area by the lanes.
“Maybe the storm is passing north? This is a big area, there’s no way this sucker is going to land right on top of me.”
And then the leaves started chattering with rain drops. The next words I spoke out loud.
“Fuck, this is going to land right on my head.”
I whipped out my raincoat, threw up the hood, and started booking it as the few initial droplets out of the spout turned into a steadier drip and then a full-on geyser. I could see the lightning now. It would burst and then 1…2…3…boom, the applause of thunder. This was getting dangerous. All that I knew from my wilderness experience was to form three points of contact with the ground. I pictured myself huddled on the trail hugging my knees and discarded this mental image. Something told me I needed to keep moving.
CREAACKK. A particularly loud thunder roll. I could practically feel that one grabbing me by the shoulders and shaking me. I decided to consult the GPS for answers. My hand reached into my vest, the glow of the screen, and a look at the map, “holly jolly Christmas, there’s a hut right around the corner!” I sprinted that last half a kilometer with every bit of concentration I had. Roots and rocks flew by before I was spit out into a clearing. The dark mouth of the empty hut was calling my name. I had found shelter.
A fellow hiker appeared from the trail, an older lady who seemed much more nonplussed than I. Five minutes later, her friend emerged from the woods. They argued in quick Korean between the thunder strikes in our small space as I played out scenarios for the spat.
As the storm sputtered its final droplets, I tentatively jogged from the hut and down the path. The fog of the morning had been completely brushed away by the violent storm. I hit a more technical section of the trail–gnarly roots and high boulders–but paid them no mind. My attention was focused on the approaching turnaround that I had chosen based upon the label “Viewpoint.” It didn’t disappoint. I found myself on a bald rock with a full view from the heart of the park. The peaks licked the last bit of fog off their lips. The trees turned from opaque to vibrant as they greeted the sun. I whooped across the valley.
Returning felt quick. Maybe it was knowing that instead of a five hour bus ride at the end I had a hot shower. Maybe it was the transformation of the storm. My feet felt sure and focused, finding quick footing. By the time I reached that first hut, it was buzzing with tourists. I charged through in a hurry to find my way back to quiet trail, and descended down my rocky ravine.
The next morning, Tim and I took another hike to the temple and then jumped into the stream behind our hotel. On our return trip, we knew to sit in the back of the bus out of bus driver earshot. We talked about aspirations, writing and business ideas. We shared some of our stories with each other. The couple of other passengers didn’t seem to mind the chatter. Jeju airport was asleep when we arrived. Lots of parking spots. Mount Halla looked down from its dark perch as I drove in the fresh evening to drop him off.
Mountains aren’t your friend or even your teacher. They’re a collection of enchanted mirrors. You can spend time in the mountains and come out with a pleasant experience, emerging unscathed. Or you can come out with some tiny transformation. It’s those discoveries that keep you making the trip, tracing an initial path that will inevitably require a return journey back to wherever you came from.
There’s a classic song by The Contours where the protagonist confidently proclaims a newfound ability to dance. “Do you love me now that I can dance?” the singer repeatedly croons as the song gallops along with a rock and roll shuffle. I always admired the simplicity of the song’s narrative. In my mind, the story it tells operates in three phases:
Phase one: he can’t dance so he is rejected and sad.
Phase two: he disappears for a while and learns how to dance, perhaps with the help of a dancing maestro.
Phase three: he triumphantly returns with the inexplicable ability to dance. His new signature moves include the mashed potato and the twist.
America is obsessed with these types of transformations. This song’s premise immediately conjures up examples of similar character arcs in popular culture. These are most commonly in the form of a movie montage–Karate Kid, the drumming boy in Love Actually and Rocky to name a few. The song is basically the plot to Footloose. Avril Lavigne’s Sk8r Boi kind of flips it on its head. Perhaps the most famous real-life American transformation is Robert Johnson’s deal with the devil at the crossroads. Johnson left a mediocre guitar player, but returned a soulless blues legend.
For some reason, this song by the Contours has popped into my head a few times as I’ve floated in the water, waiting for waves. I usually think of it after taking some hard spills. Learning to surf has brought me to some low-points where I’ve considered walking away entirely. These were their lowest during the first few months of getting into it. I’d go to the beach full of hope and leave drenched, exhausted, embarrassed and down. The experienced surfers seemed like gods on the wave, seamlessly gliding into swells that crested and broke while they curved backs and arms and legs with poise–they danced along the wave break, walking the board or weaving from wave top to wave bottom. These locals formed a crowd in my mind, an inner circle. It was like they spoke a foreign language that I desperately wanted to learn. I projected judgment on their behalf as I struggled to stay on my board even in still water.
On a clear, cloudless and particularly crowded day at Jungmun Beach people were out in force. From shore, the water was dotted with surfers lined up like ants. These were mainlanders and locals of all levels. I paddled out and gave nods to a few familiar faces as we floated. The break was good and consistent and had me full of promise. I caught one wave, a left, and felt my body react automatically to the waves thrust. I glided up into position and felt an exhilarating acceleration toward shore. I dropped into the water at the end of the ride full of humming. Then I caught another. And another. My confidence was swelling a bit. Maybe I was getting the hang of this. And then I accidentally dropped in on a local.
As I was popping up on a wave, I looked to my right just in time to see him hurtling towards me on a direct collision course. The waves tumbled us together before spitting us out close to the shoreline. We untangled and he started to furiously examine his board. “Are you OK?” I asked.
His board was a tiny bit dinged and he was so mad that I didn’t mention the cut that I had sustained on my forearm. He huffed and scolded. I tucked my arm behind my back to hide the blood that kept welling up in the shallow gash as he marched me across the beach to get my info. I knew I deserved to pay for the ding for my breach of surf etiquette, and didn’t want to use the cut for false sympathy.
It was humiliating being led across the beach like a misbehaving child, chided by the local surfer for my drop-in. I went from feeling bad about the ding to feeling like he was overreacting. I clenched my jaw a bit to take my mind off the pain in my arm. Maybe it was a bit more serious than I thought and was worth mentioning? We got to his scooter and he took out his phone with exasperation to get my information. It was only then that he noticed the cut and softened a bit, asking if I was alright. I told him I was fine and to just let me know the cost of the ding repair before turning around to make my way back down the beach, trying to preserve a bit of pride.
I shuffled along back to my board, hand clenched over my arm to stop the bleeding, feeling a mix of frustration and humiliation. The sunny day had soured. The brightness suddenly felt overbearing and my stomach clenched. I felt a smoldering judgment from the other surfers scattered across the shoreline and the waves and my ears and cheeks burned. This was my movie opening where I am humiliated by the cool kids. It was time for my transformation montage. But first I needed to get some bandages and iodine.
I kept at it, returning to surf whenever possible. The arm healed over the course of the coming weeks eventually turning into a slight pink divot in my arm. The summer turned to fall and then frigid winter. I surfed through snow and rain. Wearing boots and gloves to combat the frost was a must. On Christmas day some surfers wore Santa hats at Iho beach while they cheerfully stormed the break. The waves and faces became familiar. I knew the direction a swell would take, what a break would do. I started to be able to decipher a clear line even on the choppy days.
In surfing, youdon’t have the option of behind-the-scenes progress. My bumps and spills all happen in broad daylight. But I’ve realized that this is the process for everyone. You learn how to dodge beginners and anticipate their mistakes. Sure there are collisions from time to time, but you try to roll with it. As long as you get back on the board and keep paddling for the next wave you’re fine. There’s no room for self-conscious doubt and embarrassment. The best thing to do after a wipe out is to grin and get back out there.
The fallacy in the American transformation story is that mastery equals success. There’s a top of the mountain to get to. I always wanted a follow-up on what happened to The Contours’ protagonist. What happened when the song ended. Did his target of affection run into his arms with admiration? Or did she shrug it all off with a “so what” and still walk off with another guy? Did the cool kids beat let him into their group or decide that something else was suddenly the new cool and beat him up anyway?
It turns out that this group of Jeju “cool surfers” is imaginary. I don’t know where I got this narrative. Maybe it’s from Point Break. Either way, there is more nuance to the social structure of the Jeju surf crew. Sure, there’s a shared knowledge and experience that the more wizened surfers have–there might even be some chat groups made where they discuss waves and the days of surfing they’ve put in–but they don’t have some secret midnight council where they perform rituals, banish amateurs and adopt new members. In surfing, coolness comes from a respect for the process.
Looking back I’m amazed at the progress I have made in a year, but there are still lessons to be experienced. Perhaps the dings that the process leaves are more meaningful than the end point. I see the surfer who I collided with from time to time and we exchange nods before looking out at the horizon for incoming waves, both looking for the same thing. He asks me how I’m doing from time to time. The scar from that bright day at Jungmun sits on my arm indistinguishable to all but me. You wouldn’t notice it unless I pointed it out. But sometimes I glance down at it and my mind drifts off to the waves that I’d rather be playing in.
At the end of each summer, a few typhoons usually roll through Jeju (제주). They first appear as model images on computer screens, cyclones of various intensities taking form in the Pacific Ocean. A spectrum of lines from green to purple to red signaling various wind intensities. The days before a typhoon can be some of Jeju’s most pristine. Sunny skies and no wind. But residents watch the projections change and it becomes a topic of conversation. “This will be a big one!” people say with misplaced excitement. “I love a good storm,” others say.
In 1653, there were no computer projections. The halcyon days before the storm didn’t have any of the surreal anticipation that we feel today, except maybe to those with knowledge who could detect subtleties in the weather. It takes wisdom to spot an ominous pivot in a fair wind. In that year, a group of 64 Dutchmen on a small shipping vessel called the Der Sperwer (The Sparrowhawk) pulled in behind a small island off Jeju’s southern coast. The ship was making its way from China to Japan, and a wind had picked up and gotten worse over the course of a few days. The typhoons are still deadly today, and an unprotected wooden boat was like a ripe section of tangerine being held up to the storm’s hungry lips.
One of the first things I did upon arriving in Jeju in 2011 was to explore the nearby southern coast. There’s a stunning giant ice cream scoop of a mountain called Sanbangsan (산방산) there that draws you in. At the mountain’s base is a cave and Buddhist temple. Follow a trail down to the coast and you’ll find a rusted amusement park outpost. Past that, something strange: a giant replica Dutch ship. At the ship’s base is a bronze statue of a man on a bench. Tourists stop by and pose with him and move on. He just stares and stares, his bronze features glinting at different sunny angles.
The man’s name is Hendrick Hamel (하멜). A bookkeeper for the Dutch East India Company, Hamel was one of 36 crew members who scampered onto Jeju’s shore after a typhoon descended and shattered their ship. He and the remaining crew spent a year on the island, awaiting word from the capital about their fate. Subsequently, they spent over a decade in Korea, being bounced to Seoul and then to the secluded Jeolla province before making an escape to Japan. At that time during the Joseon dynasty, Korea had a policy of preventing foreigners from leaving the country once they had entered.
Hamel described in detail his travels in a journal that was published after he left Korea. These days, Hamel is celebrated as the first westerner to give an account of Korea from within the country. This celebration seems strange though, as his writing is marbled with a tone of discontent. It’s clear from the outset of his thirteen year stay that he did not want to be there. The initial capture of his crew was somewhat traumatizing, and there was a fear of being killed (partly due to a language barrier), but the crew soon settled into a routine in which they were given relative freedom and good treatment during their Odyssean stopover.
As I read excerpts from Hamel’s journal, there is a small thrill as he mentions my area. “At night we stayed at a little place called Tadjang(TaejOng).” It’s a brief glimpse back in time, and leaves me longing for more description of houses, trees, anything. Daejeong (대정), the area that he mentions, is the site for the “Global Education City”–a development project by the Jeju government to provide private education in country to Korea’s best and brightest. A dense jungle was clear-cut to make way for the sprawling project. Schools sprang up from the earth. I landed in 2011 to brand new facilities in the clearing dust of the new construction.
I think about Hamel and my arrival. For my first seven years on Jeju I chose to be here, but what mindset did I bring in? In culture shock trainings they talk about the “honeymoon phase” upon moving to a new country, where everything about your new location feels fresh and invigorating. This is also a time when ignorant missteps abound. I remember complimenting people on how well they spoke English and I cringe. One of my first jobs at my new school was to help South Korean students select “western” names. It was all too easy to bring a colonizers mindset into an environment built around the economic power of the english language.
Hamel didn’t seem to have even a honeymoon phase. His stay in Korea began with fear. Despite his initial terror of being killed by the locals, however, he was soon welcomed in. He was given soju and food. He was even venerated for his whiteness. He says, “Actually most Koreans didn’t think at all that we were ugly. They admired the whiteness of our skin. The possession of it is being regarded at as something desirable.” This welcome doesn’t seem too far off from the treatment that most white foreigners receive in Korea. An instant status is imputed based upon skin color (South Korean beauty standards still esteem pale skin). Add to this the culturally honored title of teacher, and most foreigners enjoy a level of status here that they might not otherwise.
In his description of the island, Hamel’s language is stripped of any wonder or care. Hamel describes Jeju with the detached tone of a scientist. Jeju and its inhabitants become museum pieces. He even takes a jab at the people of Jeju in the process:
This island which is called Schelue (Cheju ) by them and Quelpaertby us. It lies as previously mentioned on 33 degrees 32 minutes latitude, twelve to thirteen miles south from the south point of the mainland or Coree. It has at the inside or the north side a bay, in which the ships come. From there they sail to the mainland. It is dangerous to come in for those who don’t know it. It can’t be sailed by those who don’t know it, because of the invisible cliffs. Many who sail there and miss the bay, eventually drift to Iapan. There is, besides that bay, no roadstead or port of refuge. The island has a lot of visible and invisible cliffs and reefs on all sides. The country is very populated and is fertile for the life stock: there is an abundance of horses and cattle. Yearly they give a lot of income to the king. The inhabitants are poor people and considered to be simple by those of the mainland, they aren’t esteemed very high. There is a high mountain, full with trees and further there are mainly bare mountains without any trees and many valleys where they cultivate rice.
What motivated Hamel? Was it pride? opportunity? Ambition? Curiosity? According to him, he was on his trip “…to continue our journey in the name of God.” When god places him on Jeju, though, he instantly wants to escape. His lack of reverence for his journey is strange. Everything is bent toward the idea of getting out. Eventually, the king apparently became tired of the crew and placed them in their Jeollam outpost. After being moved to Jeollam, eventually Hamel and a small group of the original crew were able to get out aboard a small fishing ship bought from a local.
And what were my own initial intentions for moving here? I took it for granted that the English language is a commodity. That my citizenship immediately bestows status. There were and are times when this is forgotten and benefits are blindly enjoyed. I came to Jeju for a job and ended up loving it here. But for what reasons? I still don’t speak the language past the level of a toddler.
I think about a forced year on Jeju. Up until this point, during my first seven years here, I have been free to leave. The fog of COVID that has shrouded the world has stopped me in place. There are days when this is suffocating. I picture a house in my home state of Maine with a hometown life. I picture a life that doesn’t exist for anyone in the current state of affairs.
Pushing up against this mental boulder becomes exhausting, but luckily isn’t constant. This too has been a time to see the island up close. This year has been one of connection with the island. I spend my free time running, hiking, surfing, taking Korean lessons, helping with cleanups. I immerse myself in all that Jeju has to offer and try to make friends outside of the school bubble. I familiarize myself with the wild lapping waves of Iho beach (이호) and the smooth rolling ones of Jungmun (중문).
I wake up at 3am to run a leg in a 24 hour event to support the conservation of a local landmark. Songaksan (송악산) is a small mountain that juts out into the sea and is at risk for being the newest victim to Jeju’s ongoing development boom. There is some speculation that this might be the point where Hamel and the crew first arrived. Driving my car through quiet Jeju in the early morning, I put some soft music on the radio and roll my windows down. Daejeong is silent at 3:30 AM. My running partner and I strap on headlamps and begin our loops of the small mountain. We don’t talk much, listening to the wind stirring trees and waves in the dark early hours.
This year on Jeju has been a time to ask myself an important question: do I love this island itself or the privilege that allows me to be here? How will I choose to describe Jeju to others?
The replica of The Sparrowhawk near Hamel’s purported point of arrival on Jeju serves as a small museum. You can walk inside a door and peruse a strange array of artifacts. There are creepy full size replicas of Dutch seamen and a small cinema where you can relive the shipwreck. Walking out, you find Hamel on a bench with his far off stare faced toward Sanbangsan.
I wonder why the museum exists? Is is a point of pride for being associated with the popularity of Hamel? Is it guilt for keeping him against his will? Hamel’s account of his stay in Korea achieved massive notoriety and brought lots of attention to the country, but it wasn’t exactly a positive portrayal. His descriptions contain some strikingly negative portrayals of Koreans. In discussing their morals says, “…they lie and cheat and that’s why they can’t be trusted.” Despite being at the mercy of another culture and another geography, Hamel never humbles himself. What was the rippling effect of his stay and what it represented? Commerce, development, tourism, globalization?
And so I look at my year on Jeju as a chance to connect with the island. Sometimes it can take years to appreciate the small details that make something worthwhile. Initial frustrations get smoothed over into long-term endearments. What irks in the moment becomes nostalgic. The hard winds of Jeju leave indelible marks.
Maybe Hamel didn’t quite grasp that in his year here on the island. What did he take with him when he left Korea? He was always mentally bent toward the idea of home and escape. Perhaps that’s why his journal reads as such a clinical text. Maybe that’s why he’s stuck on a bench, perpetually facing Sanbangsan, staring toward understanding.
My 2020 round of running started in Portland, Oregon. While visiting my brother there, we set off into the city on a long run, moving from his residential locale to the iron and glass of downtown. In the intervening zone, we passed an oil change center, a destitute mall, tents on sidewalks, graffiti under a bridge. The grit of the dreary Pacific Northwest muted by clouds and the threat of rain. We hit the river and crossed Steel Bridge, feet pinging on the grated metal. I looked down and saw the river flickering through the tiny openings.
We meandered through the city. Up the gondola to the hospital where he works, then down the hill on winding roads to a farmer’s market. We greedily ate some food cart tamales that smoked in the chilly air, then hit a donut shop.
“You should sell a running food tour of Portland!” I joked as we made our way back to the river. His beard framed a grin. Then over the Hawthorne bridge–the bridges curvature making the ascent seem protracted as we dodged bikers and runners. The suspension bridge stretched time. Eventually we were descending. And then back to his house. 21 kilometers in the books.
At some point, I decided to give up treadmills (or the “dreadmill” as runners jokingly call it). Maybe it was my two years in Shanghai that burned me out on them–countless hours spent pounding away on the spinning mat while an air filter whirred next to me. Hiding out from toxic air. Watching episodes of old HBO shows that I had missed while I sprinted. I watched all of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire. Eventually the treadmill mat formed a hole big enough for me to slip my running shoe through.
On that fraternal morning run through Portland, I decided to avoid the treadmill for the year. It would be a challenge. Each kilometer would be earned by a step on soil or concrete or gravel or tree root. From Oregon I went to Hawaii for a few days before journeying back to Jeju. Runs up to Diamond Head Crater and Ala Moana Park. Grinning through the rain showers that would come and go a few times in one run. The thrill of exploration, pushing it just one more kilometer, one more kilometer, before I decided to turn around and make my way back.
There is a different feeling when mapping out a new route in a strange land. The body is attuned to elevation, turns in the road, intersections, noises, and weather. The brain processes a million stimuli as the body cruises. This is rewarded with the awe of new sights. Topping Diamond Head Crater or coming around a bend to stunning views of a jagged coastline. There is something about the novelty that pushes the body. The mind converts new stimuli into running fuel. Discovery.
Upon arrival in Jeju after vacation, my running regimen resumed. Approximately 80km a week on the farm roads around my apartment. Early morning slogs through chilly morning air. Post work 5k’s to blow off steam. At this point, after seven years of running these roads, every turn could be anticipated. Every distance had been mapped. The trees and cracks in the pavement all familiar. I began each weekday morning with some light yoga and a 10km loop, snapping a photo of the sunrise each time from my favorite spot. The weekends were reserved for longer runs and surf sessions. Sundays were a chance to run my favorite Jeju trail to check in with horses that hang out on a nearby oreum.
During my runs, I’ll put on music or an audiobook. I’ve worked my way through a small library of books on my runs over the years. Recently I’ve noticed a strange effect. Vivid scenes from these books will come back to me mid-run. I’ll spot a stone wall or a familiar bend in the road and it will trigger a memory from one of these listening sessions. They are always incredibly random scenes that spring from the depths of memory: one of the jester scenes from Hartley and Hewson’s reworking of Hamlet or one of the heated debates about colonialism from Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. Books that were listened to and buried five years ago are brought into vivid forefront from a stone wall, a tree, a farmer’s barn.
I wonder how much of our memory is tied to place. What is the biological function of this? This year has been a forced exploration of the stationary, but it has bolstered my memory. These repetitive runs reinforce the stories that I listen to, and ask me to revisit them. Connecting to an oral tradition with moving feet and headphones. As I run, I hang memories from the trees and hide them in rock crevices to be discovered later. This is done without realizing it. Memory becomes blended with the local landscape. A library hiding out in the orchards.
On my bucket list is the dream of running across the entirety of the USA, coast to coast. The romantic idea of plodding along day after day toward the other edge of the country. It looks poetic from a distance, tracing a mental line.
The running app that I use spits out my year end totals in December. This year I ran 3,858 kilometers with 65,161 meters in elevation gain. That’s nine Everests. That’s enough distance to get me from Cali to North Carolina, ocean to ocean.
But this year most of my miles were spent on loops, exploring the familiar. No outward discovery, only an inward one. And that type of discovery is more arduous and slow to come by. Repeated scenes and turns in the road might be growth or stagnancy. It takes time to decipher which.
I’ve stumbled upon a certain genre of YouTube video in my watching algorithm lately. It’s thru-hikers who condense their journey into an hour of footage. It seems like these videos have certain conventions: the thrill of the journey’s beginning, a few moments of desperation, the finding of quiet on the trail, friends met along the way, the thrill of finishing. Classic hero’s journey stuff. Each video always ends with some maudlin reflection about humankind’s relationship to nature and tries to eke out an epiphany. The journey definitely had value, but it’s clear that it’s near-impossible to put into words. These videos try though. It’s fascinating to me.
It makes me wonder what purpose a thru-hike or a run across the USA would serve. One of the most insightful comments made in one of the YouTube videos was in a candid moment in which a delirious hiker addressed the camera on the verge of tears. It was late in his journey on the Appalachian Trail and he starts talking about the trail speaking to him. “I’ve realized that I don’t confront things in the moment as much as I should. You know what? I’m going to be better about that.” It was a simple but sincere observation. The journey hadn’t given him special overarching insight, but had provided perspective on what he needed to work on in the real world. He had arrived at a starting place.
3,858 kilometers in 2020. I wonder if this distance would have served a different inner-purpose if spread across the entirety of my home country. I think there is something to be said for making the time for such a sole pursuit. Maybe there will be a day for that. In the mean time, I keep plodding along through the orange orchards, tilling connections to my home soil.
One of my last runs of 2020 was in mid-blizzard. Jeju snows differently than most places. It comes in waves of wind and white-out, punctuated occasionally by gaps of blue sky framed by tangerine clouds. I ventured out into the sideways snow, intending to do a 10km run at most. But as I got to a fork in the road I went left, extending the run. I knew that this was committing to at least 14km. And then at another turn-off I went left again, extending to a half marathon. I felt wild taking slugs from my water bottle, stomping my feet into snow-drifts. When the wind and snow kicked in hard I whooped and hollered, letting the Jeju wind rip the sound from my lips and disperse it across the orchards. Despite the familiar trail I thought for a moment that, “This was discovery. It might even beat Hawaii. It sure as hell beats a treadmill.”
each footstep’s handshake
greeting new and old terrain
body over land
Recommended reading (both are read by the author on Audible)
Barbarian Days by William Finnegan
Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In by Phuc Tran
When I was nine or ten I had a small smooth amber colored stone that was purchased at a quarry gift shop. We had gone on a school trip to the quarry, the dandelion yellow bus traveling the back roads to South Paris, Maine. New views outside of the familiar rectangle windows. On big bumps some of the windows would fall down, the plastic latch letting go.
The quarry was fascinating because you could keep whatever you found. Of course, the granite hills of Maine didn’t have much to offer. It wasn’t like California hills which glittered with promises of gold. Maine had some quartz, pyrite…maybe a leaf fossil if you were really lucky. But still, that dusty chasm that our bus pulled up to had some mystical promise to it. What secrets had the earth hidden in it’s rocky time capsule?
I was usually a quiet kid, but I mustered up enough courage to ask a question to the teacher: “We really get to keep whatever we find?”
“Yes, that’s right!” Mr. Bridge Koeningsburg said in his enthusiastic and proper way.
The bus pulled up and let us out. We had only 60 precious minutes to search. I can’t remember if we were given any tools. Maybe a small hammer. We got to work.
Most of the kids lost interest after five minutes. They started playing tag which degraded into rock throwing. I’m sure to Mr. BK’s eyes “the quarry” started to seem like the upcoming title to a Lord of the Flies sequel. I chipped away, disappointed at my efforts. Bits of stone crumbled in my tiny kid hands. I knew that the allotted 60 minutes was quickly coming to an end. Maybe not on a conscious level, but there was a part of my child unconscious that knew that kid chaos would soon result in Mr. BK calling off the dig early.
I tried to conjure up a remarkable find to no avail–straining with every inch of my subconscious. Time was up. I looked at my best friend Tommy whose eyes mirrored my same disappointment.
“Let’s go to the gift shop!” Mr. BK announced.
My committed and generous mom had joined us on the trip. She had always been involved in my elementary school years, somehow finding the time to help in the classroom or join on a field trip. This worked out in my favor, because a money source was readily available.
“You can pick one thing,” she said as we walked to the small hut of souvenirs.
I floated around the shop, looking at the shelves lined with craggy stones. Golden pyrite, deep purple geodes, boxes of arrow heads. A smooth amber stone attached to a hard cardboard paper caught my eye. It have small streams of white running through it. I picked it off the hook and flipped it over. On the back was a list of animals with characteristics for each. If you held the stone in your hand it could somehow tell you your spirit animal. This was my choice.
I didn’t know that you could have a spirit animal until this point. The card hinted at a deeper world of magic under the surface–one that many writers and artists have tapped into over the years. The fantasy world that lives just out of sight and can be accessed if you know where to look. It was ingenuous really. Make-shift astrology for kids. My friends and I took turns holding the stone in our palms, concentrating on what signal it would give us. It’s satisfying roundness finding a home in our hands and emanating its message. In the end I settled on fox. I’m not sure what Tommy picked or if he even bought into the whole thing.
On a recent morning run, I slogged along in the breaking day. The shortening daylight hours had timed my run perfectly with a sunrise on the backside of the oreum that my route hits every morning. There had been some rain overnight, and the concrete was stained darker. I moved my body over the oreum’s peak and turned the corner for the back, looking at the clouds that were brightening with the rising sun. And then in the path was a panicked deer.
The deer’s antler’s had been caught in a farmer’s net. It couldn’t fathom the invisible force that tugged on its scalp as it strained its entire body, neck taught, grunting and whimpering, it strained as hard as it could in one direction, and then realized that the only way to go was back. It tumbled off the road, and pulled the net in the other direction, a small cry of hopelessness emitting from its tired lungs.
I tried to untangle the antlers, but it was too dangerous. The deer was freaked, and when it saw me it became more nervous. I needed a tool to cut the fencing. I booked it home and grabbed my scissors. Jumped into my car and drove back. Within a few minutes I had the deer almost free. Only a few strands of plastic netting remained. The deer pulled hard and looked at me intently. If it came forward it could do some real damage. One snip. It continued to stare, a little deeper. I looked hard at the antlers which suddenly seemed a lot sharper. Grabbing the rope I pulled for extra tension. I climbed up a little, trying to get as close as possible. The deer kept staring, blowing warm air forcefully through its nostrils as it pulled in the other direction. Second snip. It staggered back and immediately bolted into the forest, some excess rope dangling from its antler. Then quiet.
A few weeks later, the incident was repeated. I rounded the same corner and was greeted with a wild beast. Jeju deer are on the miniature side compared to the white-tails of Maine, but this was bigger than usual. Up close his muscles quivered with electric strength. It barked when it saw me and flopped over the side of the road into the bushes. I knew what to do this time.
When I arrived with my scissors, the deer still struggled, wrestling against the invisible force. I sloppily chopped at the net, just trying to get it cut. He bucked and grunted, eventually getting stuck behind one of the larger trees on the oreum’s embankment. I hacked at the fence like it was a mythical hydra, and managed to get it down to one strand as before. But I couldn’t get close enough to cut the rope short. He looked at me with anger and confusion, emanating unpredictability. I cut, leaving a good two feet of rope on the antlers.
The deer was free but bothered. The rope dangled from his head and it swung furiously as he bolted into the field below. The rope seemed to be pulling his head down to one side as he bounced through the field. He came to a four foot stone wall, still hindered by the rope’s weight. With a giant vertical leap he cleared the wall and then ran disoriented into the forest.
Another week later biking to work I rounded a farm road corner and looked down. On the edge of the thick Jeju Gotjawal forest was a dead baby deer, perfectly intact. It was as if the forest had placed it there as an offering to the world outside. I could only guess that a car speeding on the back farm road had clipped it. I stopped my bike and looked closely. It’s hazy eyes had lost the wildness that I had glimpsed in the two rescued deer. I didn’t know what to make of this. Was Jeju undoing my work? Were we counting back down now?
Over time, I lost the smooth amber rock from the quarry. I’m sure that in my teenage years, it took on an embarrassing significance and was discarded. There was no more time for magic. These deer reconnected me with that animal energy. Brushing up against the wild had reminded me of that feeling that the gimmicky cardboard had elicited. But this felt more concrete than that. The mechanizations of the universe were coming together in a weird way. I waited for the next sign.
A few days after the baby deer incident on a post-work run, I hit a patch of road leading up to my apartment complex. It was a slight climb that banked left past a tangerine grove and a barn. I was startled to see a man laying on the ground by the barn almost in the road. He was motionless. His head was a melon waiting to be burst by a passing tire. Was he alive? My mind flashed to the baby deer. Was this nature’s balancing blow? I stopped in my tracks for two long seconds, my stomach reacting before my head could.
And then the man shot upright to a seating position and smiled and said something I couldn’t hear through my headphones. I waved and sprinted the last few hundred meters to my apartment.
What did all of these omens add up to? Probably nothing. Life continues its random march through time. But still, I’m more attuned these days as I round the corners. I look up at vague outlines in the morning gloom with curiosity and sometimes horror. The ambiguous shadows taking on imaginary forms.
These incidents are reminders. Small divergences in a routine that show that there can be something new, shocking, or exciting around the bend. The faint flame of childhood discovery is kept fanned.
Jeju’s Gotjawal forest holds some unknown. One of its features is its rocky terrain that has prevented agriculture. Vines and thick trees have formed their way into the rough land. On my trail runs, I sometimes hear the deer barking at sunset, reminding me of the mystery. I peer into the inscrutable forest for a deer with a small bit of rope dangling from its antler. My new spirit animal.
Vacation sets in. The mind moves with the forward progress of work and propels for days, even weeks. Normally there’s an emancipation to vacation marked by a physical leaving of Jeju. A transporting long trip to the States involving around 24 hours of buses, trains, flights, and cars. Bodily movement can coax the mind into a departure from routine. The hard reset of jet lag.
But this time I stay on Jeju for the first time in my seven years here. The vestiges of work-mind mix with a surplus of free time to create a low-level feeling of urgency. What to do with the time? A day can be spent on a small task–a trip to the grocery store or a walk on the beach. The hours melt away and then meander.
The swath of free hours means a migration of details. Transitioning from remembering the specifics of teaching (67 students, missing assignments, meetings, grades, deadlines, virtual school, maybe virtual school, not virtual school) to the open space of summer and a processing of what has been happening in the USA. With all of the time I could catch up with friends and family, organize my apartment, surf, work on music, read, stretch, write, figure out ways to become more politically involved, run, relax.
The list of things that I want to do swells the limits of a day’s hours. It feels like the hyperdrive mind of teaching during the pandemic isn’t going to be easily slowed. Each day eases a bit though, and the summer details start to come more into focus. The days elongate. I settle into my apartment and feel more command of the space. I visit the beach with Rupert and snap some photos.
In the midst of the drifting days a realization hits me like a thunderclap on a clear day. My passport is missing.
When was the last time I saw it? I close my eyes and conjure the image–a leather case sandwiching the navy blue outer casing. I’m not one to lose things. It actually feels like my mind is too active sometimes in its rundown of details. This isn’t like me.
The ensuing days are maddening. How do you retrace days that have all been exactly the same? The previous nine weeks fog up in my mind. I try to pick them apart but am only met with an impenetrable wall of mundane memories. I’ve spent much of my time since March in the same space. Many days working and then relaxing on the same spot. How can I dissect them?
The last time I knew I had had it was when I had fingerprints taken at the police station. I check the storage box where I usually put it. It’s not there. I pace around a bit. Check the box again. Still not there. I get on my hands and knees and look underneath all of the furniture. Finally I convince myself that I had left it in my classroom and put the thought aside for a day. Another beach walk. More photos.
It’s not in my classroom.
I check the box where I usually put it again. Dump out all of its contents. No passport but some old photos that I had printed fanned out onto the floor. I sift through, looking at images from three years prior when I had moved from Seoul to Shanghai. A mix of Jeju and Seoul. I put the contents away carefully, finally admitting that the passport isn’t there.
I reorganize my clothes, thinking that it might be in a stray fold. I check every coat pocket. I reorganize my music equipment. I take out everything from kitchen shelves and put them back again. I look under my rugs with the faint hope that some imaginary trickster had hidden if there as a bad joke. I do laps of my apartment on on all fours like a wild animal, scanning the hidden crevices at floor level. I vacuum every inch of my car, sucking up countless grains of sand from my trips to Jeju’s various beaches. I call the airport lost and found. I check drawers repeatedly.
Everything is clean and in order. My passport is nowhere. It’s OK, when’s the next time I’ll be traveling anyway? I can just wait and maybe it will turn up somewhere. Right? But I can’t wait. This is reaching a mania. The missing passport is a black hole pulling all of my other thoughts in its gravity. How could I lose something so important? Something that is such a keystone to international living. How do I even get a new one? I stare at the ceiling at night thinking about it. Ideas strike me. Drawers I might not have checked. I spring up and run to them but find nothing but disappointment.
So it’s a hail Mary trip to the police station on the off chance that I had left it there when I was fingerprinted for my teaching license renewal. Upon arrival, the area where the friendly fingerprinting cop used to be is now a construction zone. Not a good sign. I enter the main building and with the help of Google translate explain my plight. But my passport isn’t there.
I sit dejected eating some salmon eggs Benedict at a brunch spot near my apartment. I stare into space meditating, trying to conjure up where it might be. My deep meditation is probably concerning the waitress. I pay it no mind. I’m too deep into this mission now to care about civilians and their social norms. I slow my heart rate and focus. Maybe it was stolen? There’s a slight sliver of a memory that keeps nagging me. A faint flashback of telling myself, “It’ll be alright here. I won’t need it for a long time anyway.” But where was that?
I picture the moment when I find it. How good that feeling is when you discover something that you’ve been missing. When that light switch goes on. It’s unlike anything else. It’s a flood of nectar. I try to will that moment to happen but keep returning to the same realization. It’s nowhere.
I get back to my apartment. My nice clean apartment that feels so empty because of the one thing that’s not there. Rupert stares at me blankly. His cavernous jet black eyes as usual reveal no answers. They are voids that reflect the universe’s deep questions.
This has gone on long enough. It has to be here. It has to. I step up onto on my trusty stool. Good old reliable wooden stool. I start looking at my apartment from the bird’s eye. I move it to different spots, and stand and scan. And then my eyes meet the shelf above the fridge. And I open it. And there it is: on a stack of negatives that I had stuffed up there. The memory comes back to me. I had thrown it there the one night in a rush to clean before a Point Break movie night. “It’ll be alright here. I won’t need it for a long time anyway.” The shelf just out of the way enough that I forgot it existed. I don’t get an overwhelming feeling of relief, although there is a bit mixed in. It’s more confusion. Hadn’t I checked there? I’ve been reduced to a cliché: it’s always in the last place you look.
It’snearing halfway through vacation and perhaps this is a turning point. I have a freshly organized apartment and nothing is missing. The disorganization of stagnation can dissipate. The space becomes more controlled and familiar. I can start to push outward on summer projects. Everything is accounted for.
I remember hearing a podcast about how cities have different tempos. Some are slow and methodical (Kyoto comes to mind) while others are on the more frantic end of the spectrum. It has something to do with the molecules within a city agitating each other into a more frenetic rhythm the more busy and crowded a city becomes. I imagine that Shanghai–a city known for its population, nightlife, and neon–possesses the tempo of an ear-throbbing techno song.
A year into living there, I had settled into a modicum of comfort with the city’s pace. The push and shove of the subway’s snaking masses had become second nature. I could weave through a crowd in rhythm to the music on my headphones. Loud yells and bells and blurs of light had settled into a picture that I could make more sense of. It had taken time, but I was finally starting to wrap my mind around the city.
At the beginning of that second year, I bit of more than I could chew at work. There was an ambitious initiative that needed a lot of groundwork to be laid. Free moments were spent thinking, planning, scheduling, writing. As my picture of the city started to settled down, my internal tempo began to quicken. Work, like it had done before, began to seep into the free moments of my life. But still I’d plan outings into the city that felt more like missions–trips with a deliberate purpose in mind.
A lot of time in China seemed to be spent in large malls. There were endless floors of shops with restaurants always on the upper levels. Massive ornate displays of Jeff Koons-like contemporary art seemed always on display. The malls were always sparkling clean and milling with people. Whirring cogs of commerce.
It was during one of these forays into a downtown mall that I picked up a new Garmin GPS watch. My old one had developed problems after a year, and for some reason I found myself buying another one of their unreliable watches. This time I stood at the kiosk staring down at a model of watch that shot green lasers onto the upper part of the wrist to somehow detect your heart rate. This was a feature that I had no use for. At frequent times I resented the watch that I did have, and questioned the wisdom of even tracking my miles in the first place. At the same time, I felt the anticipation of regret if I didn’t shell out the extra money for this slick feature. Besides, I was a modern man living in a modern city. I deserved something a bit more classy. In the end, I got the watch with the heart rate monitor.
That Monday at work, I caught the watch face on a doorframe leaving a room and left a little scratch that is still there. My heart sank, and I kicked myself for carelessness. This new shiny device was already tainted. But the laser feature seemed to work, and I continued to check it with interest. Work continued to surround me, and I plugged away through my routine. I’d run, work, gym, eat, work, sleep, repeat. My movements became almost machine-like and I began to assess my routine for inefficiency. Everything began to feel like clockwork. My running times got faster. I had a treadmill in my kitchen that I could hammer out a 10 mile run on in an hour and ten.
And then I began to notice something on my watch. The resting heart rate was low, under 40 beats per minute. On some days it was at 32. Just for reference, a healthy heart rate is between 60 and 100. A small pit began to spin together in the pit of my stomach. I had heard of athletes’ heart rates being lower, some even around 40, but this seemed abnormal. Of course I ignored it, and jumped back into the routine. Run, work, gym, eat, etc. etc.
But the heart rate stayed the same. And the pit in my stomach spun into something a little larger each day. I decided to see my doctor–a chilled out Californian who had pictures of himself doing yoga on the wall. His bedside manner was some of the worst I’d seen in the industry. He’d make a noise like, “hmm…” and then give a long pause, letting you really soak in the silence before he’d say “oh yes this is common.”
But he was kind and competent, and I can be fiercely loyal to even small hints of kindness, so I found myself going back to him for issues that arose. I found myself in his small office showing him my watch and asking him about my heart rate. He paused for many moments with a puzzled expression before suggesting, “well we could do an EKG?” The statement was poised in a way that could have either been whimsy or medical advice. Either way it was covered by insurance, so I found myself in another small room, electrodes being placed onto my chest. I put on my shirt, walked out into the lobby and waited. There is a vulnerability to waiting rooms. The quiet anticipation of judgment from the doctor while what feels like judicial deliberation is happening behind closed doors. As if there’s a panel of people in a huddle back there whispering, “Will we give this one good news or bad news?”
My name was called, and it was back into the small room, my racing mind bracing for the worst. This suddenly felt like a very real test that could throw some very real truth my way. The doctor looked inscrutably at the test and said the words “incomplete right bundle branch block” and then looked at me and really let them sink in. In addition to sounding like a bad grade school tongue twister, it also sounded terrible in conjunction with the heart. Something was blocked? Something was incomplete? What the hell was going on here? Maybe he detected my panic, or maybe not, but he decided with nonchalance to fill me in. “It’s common. It could be the result of an infection when you were little. A lot of people have this. It’s probably nothing to worry about.”
Probably: that word that lodges itself into your brain and then slowly starts to needle. It’s a seed of doubt that spreads slowly over time. There’s a strong chance that everything is fine, but the probably is always there, tugging at your pant’s leg. The doctor definitely sensed my inner panic this time and said with atypical assertiveness, “Maybe we should do a holter test to make sure.”
I came back the next day to get outfitted, the thirty minute ride in the DiDi (think Chinese Uber) was starting to feel common place. I went to work and then I went to the doctor’s office. The receptionists were starting to recognize me. I felt a sick comfort in my “regular” status.
Wearing a holter is like wearing the most obvious wire in the world. It’s a box with electrodes that stick to the chest. I walked around for a day like the world’s worst spy. Yet still nobody noticed the outline of wires under my shirt, or the chunky remote control in my pocket. The results came via e-mail a few days later and were concerning to my eyes. My heart rate was getting down to 29BPM. At no point did it exceed 120BPM. It stopped for 2 seconds or more over 105 times. The report included words like “sinus arrest” and “junctional escape.” And at the very end the words, “Suggest to see a cardiologist for the further assessment.”
I distinctly remember listening to Bill Callahan’s incredible tune Too Many Birds as I walked up to the specialized clinic high rise in the glowing metropolis downtown. I listened to that song on repeat a lot at that time. My headphones kept out the city’s ambiance and I could focus on the songs groove. The bass and drums low-key churn providing a backdrop to Callahan’s guttural deadpan that delivered gut-punch lyrics with a soothing unhurried tempo. The premise of the song is simple: a tree full of birds. Eventually there isn’t room for the last bird. I don’t know why he picked this image, but it’s a striking one. “One last bird and then another.” And then he builds the final line, saying it again and again, adding a new word each time: “If you could only stop your heartbeat for one heartbeat.” The line is a question and a statement and a yearning all in one. With that line ringing in my body, I walked into the clinic to see the cardiologist.
Yes, I’m aware that it’s messed up that it took a GPS watch to tell me that something was wrong. As an ultra runner, I spend lot of time checking in with my body for aches and pains, things to tune up. But these micro issues are sometimes pointing to something larger. It’s easy to get caught in the tempo of what surrounds you. The noise and rhythm can get so loud that you forget all about the drum that is causing them.
In the end, the cardiologist said that there was nothing structurally wrong with my heart. She said that I should exercise less, only 40 minutes a day (advice which I promptly ignored). My heart went from something that I was constantly monitoring, trying to sense signs of danger or abnormality, to something that I could once again leave to its own devices.
I still wear the watch–it cost a small fortune after all–but I find myself checking it less and less these days. My pulse returned to more normalcy after that chaotic year. I always had a hunch that it was stress related, the compaction of responsibility and schedule squeezing my heart beats into forced efficiency. It’s becoming easier to carve out time for the important things in life that allow space for the molecules to roam. Maybe its Jeju or maybe it’s more of an inner change. Either way, I find myself wandering in my free time a lot more, letting time unravel at its own pace. The scratch on the watch face doesn’t even bother me anymore.
Recommended listening: Bill Callahan Too Many Birds
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