As a young American lad, I was very involved in the Boy Scouts of America. My years of efforts culminated in achieving the rank of Eagle Scout (which almost never comes up in conversation nowadays).
Regardless, as I have moved into my mid-20s, I realize that a lot of aspects of scouting I complained about at the time are things I appreciate today. One such thing is hiking.
Back then, I used to complain about everything (I wasn’t the most motivated teenager).
“How much further?”
“My pack is too heavy.”
“My water bottle is dry.”
“This is stupid. We’re just strapping weight on our backs and walking long distances.”
“Where’s the nearest GameStop?”
While my complaints were endless, the lessons I learned in discipline, perseverance, and incremental effort toward a distant goal persist today. On backpacking trips, no one had the luxury of giving up. We were miles deep in a desolate wilderness with nothing but the supplies on our backs to sustain us. One arduous step at a time, we clawed our way up mountains, down into valleys, and across meadows.
I’ll never forget the lighter-than-air feeling of relief when I unstrapped my backpack at the pre-designated campsite. A flowing stream whispered soothing sweet nothings into my ears while the aroma of fresh pine caressed my nose. It’s funny how one can remember so fondly an event that felt like pure torture at the moment. Memory can be a fickle, untrustworthy siren.
I bought a new pair of tactical boots at a Big 5 sporting goods store before departing for Korea. My compulsive research on the country, fueled by unbridled uncertainty, led me to discover that the Korean Peninsula is 70% mountainous. After experiencing a blissful hike in Edinburgh with my family, I was determined to catch the hiking bug.
My first Korean hiking experience was a bit challenging, to say the least. I seriously underestimated the grade of Korean mountains. Fortunately, the trails at Wolchulsan were reinforced with ropes and stairs. If not, we would practically be rock climbing.
We didn’t last too long. Potato bailed first, retreating to the nearby Buddhist temple for what I assume was a spiritual awakening. Soon, we all dropped like flies. We chose to skip the summit and end our trek at a waterfall. Sadly, the waterfall was reduced to the trickle of a leaky faucet. Sugar, I know your birthday hike wasn’t the greatest, but I still hope you had fun.
Months went by before I chose to take another hike. However, in the midst of experimenting with an alcohol-free weekend, I decided to solo-hike up Yudalsan – a famous mountain overlooking Mokpo. I rode my bike to the destination, dismounted at a windy road redolent of Interstate 80 ascending into the heavenly Sierra Nevada Mountains.
The hike was short but steep. My calves burned. I frequently had to stop, panting with my hands on my knees. I shed layers like a molting snake. First my outer jacket, then my sweatshirt, then my beanie. My backpack was stuffed to the point of bursting with my sweat-laden clothes. Older Koreans decked out in fancy hiking uniforms (complete with safari-looking hats, zip-off pants with a million pockets, Under Armor long-sleeve shirts, and carbon graphite trekking poles) overtook me with ease. Leave it to a mountain to make me feel small and out of shape.
However, when I reached the summit, my pain and struggles evaporated. The view took me into the present moment like no meditation ever could. As I gazed across the city that I have come to love too much, I smiled. This view was the tangible result of my seemingly futile foot-at-a-time effort.
As I relaxed on top of the mountain, getting in some reading, cold crept back. As I ceased my laborious movements. My backpack exhaled a sigh of relief as I reapplied all of my layers and prepared to descend.
I have come to learn that the descent and ascent of mountains are both tough in their own ways. Going up, my joints feel fantastic, but my muscles burn like a kerosene-soaked candle. Going down, my muscles loaf on each gravity-aided stride, but my knees that brace for each heavy-hitting impact.
Emboldened by that ascent, I have since climbed two more mountains – Kubong-san in Yeosu and Oryong-san right here in Namak. Each journey yields a new iteration of the same story – a calf-burning tiresome ascent precedes an eye-of-the-storm calm bliss when I relax on the summit followed by descent in which my sole goal is to protect my knees. Each time I have breathed the air of a slightly higher altitude, lost that breath when I saw the view from the summit, and soaked in a bath of exercise-induced endorphins.
With this in mind, I plan to take many more trips to new cities to hike the local mountains. It’s fun, it’s free, it’s healthy, and it gives me a sense of great accomplishment.
Most importantly, it exemplifies the mindset I strive to adopt every day. I start at the bottom, staring hundreds of meters up to a seemingly distant peak. A several-kilometer walk up steep terrain invites despair and resignation.
Then, with the wisdom of audiobooks in my ear, I work toward that seemingly far-off goal one step at a time. Tired? No problem. You just need to take one more step. And then another. And another. Small individual efforts compound to produce profound results until without thinking I find myself exactly where I wanted to go. I stare down at where I once was, smile at where I am now, and then relish in potential possibilities as I gaze up at an azure sky.
Samsung car? Hyundai grill ornament? BMW rims? Make up your mind, car!
Fat chance. Sometimes I feel like everyone is in a hurry. My most popular mental question is, “why are you running?”
“Don’t get bodyslammed by a butt.” Smoking will break your back.
I have heard of severe burns, but never a burn hot enough to sever my hand. That must be hella degrees Celcius.
My happy 300-won coffee dispenser. These things are amazing and everywhere.