One week since my first visit to San Jose. Two weeks since I came home. Three weeks since I hiked Hallasan. Four weeks since I left my job. An eternity since I’ve written. Two and a half months until I leave again. Back here in the US and still meeting new people, catching up with people, feeling some slip away just a bit. The noise that’s created in my head in a time like this is deafening. Do this, do that, sign that, meet him, meet her. How to get there? Restlessness was at least was tempered by a routine of exercise, writing and teaching back in K-town. In unemployment, the sounds are louder. Nothing but time to listen restively. What will temper this?
The noise that I have before griped about in these annals—the kimchi-mandu lady and the air conditioner guy coming by in the dead of winter—echoed that much more that morning I moved out of the street-level corner apartment back in Anyang. Perhaps it was just that there was no furniture to absorb the sound. Or I didn’t have my instant coffee at my side, my own music on and the unfolding story in front of me on the page. Had I not the shite coffee, eclectic music and the story that I write (which at times has driven me to insanity but most often ecstasy), I could not have dulled the ubiquitous morning calls from the truck-mounted speakers and their blaring sales pitches. Have I not a way to get through other people’s noise in a day by making a little of making my inner world as small or as large as I want, my sanity would otherwise be sliced up.
For the last two and a half months in K-town, I was hiking on most Saturday mornings, sleeping in the afternoon and getting into a big dinner and a bottle in the evenings, making questionable decisions. The time in Anyang was running short, the list of friends to see was dwindling at the same time it increased (over there, expats are as often exported as they are imported), I found myself much in the same predicament as now: things to do, people to see, papers to sign. If only I could spend an unlimited afternoon on top of my favorite hill like I did with Timmy and Trevor down in Busan at the beginning of April; a Gwanak hike was hurried by my middle-aged Korean friend, Ga, as I went with Trevor on his first and second hike to the top of Gwanak-san. After teaching was over on April 25th, after couch surfing for a few days, after a couple university job interviews and a few cheap motels, I headed off to Jeju to hike 1950-meter Halla-san, the tallest in South Korea.
I had been to Jeju before and the only goal was that lofty volcanic peak. Well, that and a little peace and quiet on a midweek hike (weekend hiking in Seoul is no quiet affair, what with mountains right in everyone’s backyard). The first day, I rented a bike and toured around some coastal farmland and quaint housing with only the sound of the foghorn from the nearby port (and the sounds of jets taking off). My solo adventure started to take effect as I cordially exchanged some hellos with the natives but mostly tried to keep quiet, a self-imposed moratorium on worry, the fretfulness that frequently manifests itself in heated conversations with myself.
Early the next day, I was at 600 meter trailhead at the foot of the Halla-san. Calm, having paid a brief visit to the Buddhist temple just down the road, I smiled broadly to myself. One or two people nearby this alternate to the only other starting point for the long hike ahead, the weather was sunny and warm, the cloud cover on the peak not even a ripple of concern to my consciousness. I stepped lively but as quietly as I could, making my way up the long but not steep first seven kilometers, coming across caves of such great length that it would be a day in itself to explore the ancient artifacts of the island’s first people. I kept on, soon the cloud cover dappling my advance as much as the changing foliage; at a certain height, the weather changed and the deciduous giving way to mostly evergreen, but strangely enough back to a mix of the two at a higher elevation. Further on, still having only encountered a handful of people on my ascent, the volcanic rock more readily exposed, I had maintained the silence, not even inner monologue to distract me from the beauty and silence of this shield volcano.
And shield volcanoes typically are not so much steep as they are with great circumference at the base. Three hours and seven kilometers from where I started, I reached the rest area, about 700 or 750 meters from the peak. I rested, ate my Hershey’s bar (my only food for this lean hike, not wanting to be weighed down by too much on this minimum six hour hike) and moved on sooner than I’d have liked. Despite the ghostly clouds whisping over the peaks, the little valley echoed with raucous Koreans at their midday meal. The peak, I thought, would be much quieter. I marched the remaining distance slowly as it was the most difficult 1.9 kilometers I can remember hiking. But the weather and sounds again changed to my advantage. Although there was not much visibility of surrounding areas, I was now in the clouds, audibly protected from the voices of people, cooled constantly and thoroughly as I carefully picked my way up the rocks and around the patches of snow. Greeted by crows along the way. And more people. Where had they all come from?
As I finally reached the peak, weary and soaking, the racket of blood pulsing in my ears gave way to the noise of hundreds of voices. A few large groups of high schoolers had hiked up the main route and had mobbed the peak in obnoxious impatience for the clouds to clear and provide a view of the volcano’s caldera. There was nowhere to stand so I, after reaching the peak in just under four hours, used the cloud cover provided and ducked past the fence and made my way about a quarter of the way down into the extinct caldera just in time to hide amongst the pock-marked igneous. Then, the sun emerged and the wind picked up, the clouds unveiled beneath me the small lake, un-shrouded the rim of the birthplace of this island. And I had found a place of my own, quiet enough for me to ponder the creation of such a sight, the age of the rock I sat on, the fantasy of walking along the caldera rim or along its bottom. And my first verse in over a year came to me.
An Island’s Creation
The lip of the caldera atop this
mountain of people, I escape
voices and my
own. The clouds clear
and the collective wonder sends
me beyond boundaries into the
ancient one-time island-maker. Soon
the silent mists return, bringing
with them sounds obscured—far
down the lava pit are sounds
of crows calling, hunting; some creature
drinks from solitary lake—the voices
above me retreat on the
hushing waves of brume, ghostly
now are the sounds.
Around me the swirl—near, far, not
Finally, I am alone with
the sound of lapping water.
The clouds did return and the noise above me decreased even more, the crows and other beasts made noises in the caldera that I could only guess at as I listened intently. Turns out, the top of the mountain must be vacated by 230 or 3 and I was the last visitor off the peak that day. Shortly thereafter, I met a rarity in Korean culture: a single Korean man, Se-yeon, five years my senior who decided to resist marriage (and many attempts by his mother to match him with incompatibles), dislikes his engineering job and wants to be a horticulturist, growing new types of roses. He was the most atypical Korean I have met since Jude, confident in what he liked and the decisions he has made. We conversed, finding similar tastes in music, exchanging phrases in our native languages, agreeing on views of domesticity. He told me of the Korean superstition about crows, saying that they were a harbinger of death. There were many on the mountain that day, picking at the trash the teenagers had strewn about on their decent. On our way down, Se-yeon and I stuffed two plastic shopping bags full of their refuse. At the base of the hill, eight hours after I had begun on the other side of the mountain, we had a couple beers, talked some more shit and parted ways, me back to downtown Jeju, he to the other side of the island. My head clear, but belly empty, I took in some much-needed calories with breaded, fried and cheesey pork cutlet, don-kass. And took in nine hours of uninterrupted sleep. The crows and teenagers not to be seen.
Worn out by that expedition, having seen much of the island before, and overtaken by the restlessness of having to pack, needing to follow-up on my job interviews and hoping to see more people before my departure a few days later, I took a flight home a day early. Had some dinner and drinks with friends, saw the lights for Buddha’s birthday in downtown Seoul, went on an ill-advised island trip where it rained the whole first day and my restlessness got the best of me and I was on the first ferry off that island (despite the excellent weather) so I could begin my attempt to put my next three and a half months in four bags of various sizes. Hopped a plane a day later and made it home.
I have caught up with a few people, have met new people, wonder if other people will go by the wayside. In this short time home, I’ve celebrated Mother’s Day with my whole family, gotten to know my niece Lexi a little better, reconnected with Campos, had dinner with Uncle Lyal, Aunt Linda and Cousin Brita, stayed up till dawn more than a 31 year old should, seen my good friend Erik get married, danced for three hours in the blazing valley heat with a pleasant anomaly, escaped to the Sierras with my buddy Jenie to talk all things Korea and her impending departure into military training. I’ve also seen a ghost from a different half life and am still yet to see my best friend and wonder if there will be enough time to do all the catching up I want to do with others while not neglecting my own project.
The heated air in the Central Valley plays with the sounds. A parking lot sweeper from a mile away sounds as if it is right outside; the hum and horns of freight trains from even further away are larger than the trains themselves. Crickets chirp through the day. Dogs bark angrily or playfully. My slumber is populated by train wrecks, mountain hikes and parents looking for something in the room where I now sleep, where I once grew up. All of these things I’ve seen before but never experienced them in the same way. Just as I saw the lightshow of Buddha’s birthday a year ago in my first month in downtown Seoul, or hiked any of those peaks around Anyang or Busan numerous times, just as I went to a Korean baseball game before or went to norae-bang and sang until sunrise. All these things I’ve done before. But I experience them differently the second time around because of the people with whom I experience them. In their new experiences, my experience becomes new. Yesterday, my lifelong friend and I drove that drive together. I’ve driven the vast ancient lakebed and pastureland coming back from the Sierras throughout my life. Yesterday they were swept by fierce winds and fire. Today much of the same. The wind is in my sensitive ears. The heat upon my burnt skin. The smoke permeating my nose. The experience emblazoned on my mind, separating it from all those other times in the receding past.
There are times when boredom and apathy creep, times when I can hear nothing but the air conditioner salesman in the middle of winter. Nothing but time to listen to the nag of necessity. But, as I have all this time to listen to obligation, I am tempered by listening to my own passions; tempered by listening to the people I will likely leave behind and the people who are never really that far away. Listening even in those brief relationships, as well as the lasting ones. I can only hope they are lasting.