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Out and Back

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.

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Shut the @*!% up and run

Each year in late August or early September, some of the world’s most unhinged minds descend upon the tiny mountain town of Chamonix in France to hijack its tranquil mountain vibes. I’ve never been to Chamonix (or France for that matter), but I can picture the scene: a quaint alpine village on a quiet sunny day. A couple sits at their sturdy wooden table about to tuck into some fromage. Out of nowhere, their wine glasses starts to show ripples of seismic movement. Small at first but then growing in intensity. The ground begins to rumble. The husband glances at his wife with concern.

“Qu’est-ce que c’est?” he states blankly.

“Je ne sais pas,” is all that she can muster in the short-lived silence.

And then, over the hill, the first few runners appear. But that’s just the drip before the faucet turns on full blast. Soon thousands are descending upon the valley. Decked out in bright goji red Salomon packs, the runners wield poles like walking spears. Their heads are wrapped in bright buffs bearing their banners of choice. An array of flashy sunglasses banded across their faces. Spandex shorts, rippling calf muscles, pumping arms. They are not here for blood though, they’re here for personal glory. The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) is ready to begin.

The UTMB is one of the biggest running events in the world. It is a soul-sapping 171 kilometers around the behemoth Mont Blanc with an overall elevation gain of 10,000 meters. For my New England folks, that is over five Mount Washingtons. This is one of the most elite ultra events in the world and pulls together some of its most talented (and deranged) runners. The event is quite a spectacle from what I’ve seen on the live stream. A sea of runners pulsing in anticipation before the starting gun. Dramatic music plays. A guy inexplicably walks on a high wire above the crowd, perhaps a metaphor for the balancing act of training, nutrition, sleep and luck that the race entails.

This year, one of the best runners on the planet, Courtney Dauwalter, convincingly took top female in the race while simultaneously breaking the course record by seven minutes. For reference, there has never been a top male finisher from the USA at the UTMB. Dauwalter is one of those runners who emits inspiration. When I go down ultra running YouTube rabbit holes, she inevitably appears in the videos of others, giving runners encouragement or advice. Her running stamina seems to extend to a large store of human compassion. Don’t be fooled though, she’s as rugged as they come. In 2017 she won the Moab 240 mile race outright.

In a post-UTMB interview, Dauwalter reflected on the race while casually holding a beer. A little weary, she still had her signature smile and described her own energy as a “tie dye jelly bean factory.” I couldn’t help but notice that she kept saying “we” and “our” as she broke down her race strategy. The interviewer also picked up on this and asked if the other part of “we” and “our” is her partner Kevin who crews for her during the race. Dauwalter confirmed this, and then pointed out the maybe not-so-obvious: ultra running is a team sport.

Ultra racing, especially at the higher distances, is contingent on people who help runners. There are the volunteers who assist at aid stations and checkpoints. There are pacers–running buddies who meet up with runners at pivotal times in the race to help their progress. There are crew–friends or family who dutifully await their insane loved one ready to give them whatever they need. This can be a candy bar or a make-shift blister surgery. It’s whatever the situation and conditions dictate.

This year, I’ve set my sights on my hardest challenge yet. The High Trail 9 Peaks will take place on October 30 in the Yeongnam Alps of Korea, north of Busan. This race is going to take every scrap of grit that my body has to offer. It begins at midnight and will take me 104 kilometers over nine peaks for an overall elevation gain of over 8000 meters (four Mt Washingtons if you’re counting). With the impending challenge, training has needed to reach a new level. I just arrived back from a trip to Jirisan National Park on the mainland for a big 42km training run in the rugged mountains, and have been doing weekly jaunts up Mount Halla to get even more elevation gain and descent under my legs.

As I’ve plodded away through my weekly training plan, I’ve been trying to envision race day. I’ll arrive in a tiny town with my gear and a goal but no crew. I won’t have pacers or friends at the aid stations to ply me with jokes and calories. Of course, there will be a slew of volunteers to offer aid and encouragement, but I want a way to bring my community with me–a way to turn the “I” into “we.”

There inevitably comes a time in the race when your jaw is on the ground. Legs are cement that firms with each step. Every small bump in the trail looks like Mount Everest. This is the time when runners need to “dig deep.” They need to, as they say, “dig in the pain cave.” They need to throw the gorilla off their back, look down and will their feet forward into a rhythm. Pain, along with sweat, drips from every pore. The splits reach diminishing returns and progress seems to flatline. The idea of quitting continually enters your brain and you swear to yourself that this will be your last ultra. “This is the sport of fools and masochists,” you say to yourself. “Maybe it’s time to change hobbies and take up fishing full time?” It’s at this exact moment that it’s important to have an ember inside of you. A faint glow that you can ignite into the tiniest of flames to burn that self doubt and deliver your body a different message. At some point you just need to tell your legs to shut the @*!% up and run.

Talking to Dauwalter, the interviewer asked what she had been listening to during her race. She grinned and said that she had an old iPod Shuffle full of “bangers.” I love this concept–a playlist of songs that will keep the serotonin pumping. In the darkest of moments, this might be an important tool to have in the goji red Salomon running pack.

This brought an idea to mind. What if my friends helped to put together a bangers playlist? This would give me a way to connect with community out on the trail in those dark moments when the way forward is bleak and the leg cement is at risk of fully drying. So, if you would, please leave a comment with some song suggestions. I’m looking for good tunes that will give me a kick and keep me plodding along. Hopefully we can meet up in person down along the trail sometime soon. In the meantime, let’s keep running.

Mount Halla, September 24, 2021

I’ll add songs as they roll in to the playlist here that we can all use.

Want to give kudos and encouragement? You can follow my training on Strava.

Thanks for reading!

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Progress takes a lot longer than a montage…

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, you don’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.

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A Year Without Treadmills

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

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Spirit Animal

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.

“Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.”
– James Wright

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Forgetting

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’s nearing 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.

R.I.P. to a legend.

If you’re still reading, here’s a petition encouraging a more direct approach to teaching about racism, oppression and injustice in the standards that my school as well as many other “American” schools across the world use. Please consider signing and sharing.

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