on the trail again
April 4, 2013
I didn’t expect to find myself backpacking along a mountain’s edge in China. But then again, nor did I expect to be living in this country—and loving it, to boot. But here I am, and here we are, a now sun-soaked and smelly bunch, on the road back from the peak we summitted, overlooking the Gorge. This was the activity for one [small] group of us as we enjoy a week off from school. A short trip, really, with 2 overnight train rides and 3 days of the trip itself; but well worth the time and work of preparation. And definitely worth the hike!
Backpacking is an activity that is sort of reminiscence inspiring, transporting me to my high school years, when I did the most of it. I always loved the challenge of it, and the unique sort of bonding it promotes. I still do. But I think one other reason I decided to join this trip was that I needed, at this point in my life here, some sort of grounding activity—something that would give me hope of doing this thing, of living this life, here, now. So I did it, initially simply saying “Sure,” with a shrug, at the invitation. Then, as the venture neared, I let the thought of it settle in, and I grew more intentional about it. Nervous, albeit, about the unknown, as well as about the fact that I was [hopefully] fighting off a cold that my students had kindly shared with me the week before break began.
On the van ride up to the trailhead, we had a pit stop at a prayer lookout station on the mountain. There were blank slabs and markers available for visitors to write on. Though wondering if it were slightly sacrilegious, we decided to go ahead and add ours into the mix, wrongly religiously-inclined for the setting though they might be. “Hope for the future” is what I wrote, feeling those words epitomized my feelings about life right now.
The first day was the hardest one, so far as hiking intensity goes. In the guidebook we were warned about one section called the “28 Bends.” Since we had gone significantly faster than most of the estimates thus far, I had initially waved away the warned to “take it easy.” But as it turned out, it was in fact a very grueling stretch of steep bends. Musing at the name of it, once we had lost count of the actual number of bends we had passed, K commented that the Chinese word for “28” is actually a curse word in Korean. I wondered out loud if that was maybe the reason for the name: rather than indicating the actual number of bends, perhaps it is simply intended to be curse-word-provoking as you go? At one point in the stretch a roadside vendor offered snacks, drinks, and little bags of “mary jane.” The woman clearly indicated that we were not supposed to use our cameras here—we should simply buy. We turned her down, I’m afraid, and then laughed at the logic of the selling point, unanimous in our suspicion that reefer would not enhance one’s ability to conquer the peak.
At another section of this challenging stretch, as we encouraged each other along, one in our party suggested that we needed a team name. “Team VALECK?” I suggested, using the letters of each of our first names. Not a terribly inventive one, but it gets the point across. Later in the day, we had paused for a snack and drink break. As rain began to sprinkle on us and we wondered how long we had until reaching the stop for the night, “E” decided it was time to go. He gave a 30-second leaving warning. I was halfway through my rice-crispy-ish snack, enjoying how surprisingly tasty this street-shop find had turned out to be, so I was rather unwilling to rush on just then. “Can I request a 1-minute extension?” I asked. Begrudgingly, it was granted. Once we had started out again, I joked that I was going to be kicked off the team for delaying us. “E” considered this, and then decided that I should remain. “We need your vowel for our team name,” he explained. Whether or not this was a good reason to be kept on, I figured I should accept it.
Later on in the hike, we were to discover more important reasons for sticking together as a team. At some point during the night, one in our group got quite sick. Not wanting to disturb any of us, or the traveling companions sharing our backpackers’ hostel of 10 beds, she spent the night quietly getting up and going outside to the squatty. By morning she was weak, and still unable to keep anything down. We started out that morning but before long she just laid down by the side of the path and closed her eyes. During a quick pow pow, I mentioned that I had seen a road that looked like it came all the way to the place we had stayed the previous night; the reason it had stuck out to me, in fact, was that it was the first time I had seen anything other than just mountain paths. I thought maybe if we went back to the hostel, we might be able to get someone who could drive her out. Another in our party and I headed back to see, while the rest stayed there and waited. Sure enough, I was able to get a driver there within the half hour, before we even managed to get her back from where we had stopped. She was able to rest at the next stop until we hiked on to meet her, and by the end of the trip the bug had almost passed.
It’s funny the sorts of moments that stick out to you as memorable during excursions like this. The bulk of the time is actually spent, oftentimes, pushing oneself physically, for various reasons, be it the nature of the activity itself, the elements, or the cross-cultural challenges. But that parts that I tend to remember most vividly are the silly moments. Singing Disney songs together as we walk, for instance.
Or having a baby goat latch onto my fingers in suckling intensity—so much so that I was musing on the practicality of smuggling it home with me. Surely my cat wouldn’t mind too much having a household companion . . .
Or laughing with childlike glee at the sight of our thrown rocks cascading down the cliff, gaining speed as they bounce off each promontory.
Whatever one’s own variety of memorable moments may be, it is, I think, the moments that make a life. You spend the great portion of your moments, days, years, in mundane activity. But you cannot afford to pass up on special activities or events, no matter how impractical they may be. It is in the extraordinary that we find the meaning, and the relational community, that makes it all worthwhile.