In the weeks that follow my dog’s death, I punish myself–for whatever culpability I might claim for his demise–on progressively higher climbs into the mountains of South Korea. I’ve committed myself fully to the pursuit of the most impressive peaks this country has to offer. This is how I grieve. It cannot be overstated how beneficial the exercise and scenery is for my state of mind. A greater medication I haven’t found. Each weekend I’m hopping from big buses from big cities, onto smaller buses in smaller cities that serve as the disparate gateways to these majestic monsters looming above them all. I reflect on my first month here spent in a kind of trepidation at the thought of attempting to make my way from one location to the next in this insane, confounding carnival. I still get lost, but never for very long. Reading the language is almost effortless now, and fortunately the Korean term for bus terminal is “bus terminal.”
The reception of English-speaking foreigners in the more rural locales I’ve visited is even warmer than what I’ve already come to expect in the larger cities. On the trails, entrenched in the belly of the Korean hiking subculture, it’s even more so. No one is surly or disagreeable on the slopes of Songnisan, not even after climbing a thousand meters into the sky. I encounter no discourtesy on the Cloud Bridge spanning one of the many chasms of Wolchulsan. It’s a pleasure to see you, an honor that you’ve taken the time to visit this part of the world. Are you hungry or tired? Rest, please, have something to eat.
I behold such sights on these excursions as to almost believe that by tossing a rock into the distance I might expose the whole scene for a well-constructed forgery or illusion. One such vision can be found from the highest point on Mt. Songni, or Songnisan, situated in the center of the peninsula. I begin the hike later than anticipated, and start out from one of the larger Buddhist temples in the country, heading towards the second highest peak called Munjangdae. It takes a little over two hours of pleasant but demanding exertion, under cover of foliage just beginning to flaunt its reds and yellows, before I reach the rock for which the peak is named. The weather is perfect and I pass hordes of Korean hikers heading in both directions. It occurs to me that I never tire of this: the sunshine, the white clouds hanging in a blue sky, casting their enormous shadows over green treetops. On how many days have I woken to the exact same thing? I’m grateful that it still has the force to steal my breath.
From Munjangdae, it’s another two and a half hours across the ridge to Cheonhwangbong, the highest peak. Hiking through bamboo as tall as I am, I’m occasionally granted a glimpse of the landscape beyond, and am reminded of the weirdness of precisely where I am, where I’m from and how I came to be here. I’m aware that the day is growing late, and have come to accept that at least part of my descent will be made in the dark. It’s been more than an hour since I’ve heard another human being, let alone seen a fellow hiker. You have to have hiked in this country before at some point to fully understand how alarming this can be. The tall, wet bamboo eventually gives way to a meadow of brown and green grasses that blankets the saddle between the peak known as Birobong and the summit just ahead. For what might be the third or fourth time in the last five hours, I tell myself that I have never seen anything so beautiful in all my life. Another half hour up a comparatively gentle slope, and I’m clambering over the last few boulders on hands and knees to what feels like the zenith of the world. It’s a modest piece of land, not much to it really, and yet at this very moment, I am certain it must command one of the prettiest, most quieting views that this planet has to offer. And it’s mine and mine alone, save the large flock of cawing black birds I scare into the fading orange light of the sky. So much sky … and an infinite ocean of verdant hills and valleys coupling beneath me to the limits of my vision. I feel exposed, vulnerable, stripped of all pretense but comfortably so, like being judged and not found wanting for anything. I stand above all that can be seen, above the mountains afar, above all other souls that have long since begun their descents, above all that is civilized and the worries of men. It’s a tiny, private heaven on Earth, and I can stay but only briefly.
Climbing down this mountain would be treacherous in the light of day. At dusk, it is a whole other beast entirely. My feet ache and I half expect to find them swollen, misshapen and black when I next have the luxury of removing my boots. My legs are weak and wobble as they do after sex. Nearly halfway down, I notice a curious give in my left knee, something beyond mere fatigue that would maybe worry me more if I weren’t so giddy from the joys I’ve just experienced. Night falls and I hear rushing streams and waterfalls but fail to illuminate them with my little flashlight. I don’t, however, miss two giant, pink slugs as long as my hand and as thick as my forefinger, scumming and sliming their way across my path. After seven straight hours of hiking, I finally limp into the small gathering of restaurants and shops that serve the visitors of Songnisan. I find a cheap motel room, and enjoy a hot shower, a change of clothes and a meal of barbecued duck across the street. The only road leading into the temple I mentioned earlier becomes a strip of neon lights at night. Street vendors and other travelers and backpackers shuffle about, looking for entertainment or sustenance. It’s all here because the mountain is. The people are kindred spirits, and I enjoy their company before retiring to my room, exhausted, to watch an episode of Shark Week with Korean subtitles.
The last time I hiked Mt. Mudeung I admired one of its neighboring peaks from a distance, a large rock outcrop featuring a number of sheer cliff faces. I later learn that it has been given the name Saeinbong. I set out this time to find my way there. It’s a beautiful September afternoon and at times a difficult climb, at others it’s downright grueling. I am rewarded, however, with one of the most enthralling views I’ve ever seen. An ocean of green mountain waves undulating out into the bend of the horizon. I take so many pictures that I begin to feel foolish. The beauty is limitless, almost redundant. I realize that I am never more in the present than when I am humbled by the magnificent vistas of unfamiliar destinations. Too bewildered at how insignificant and small I am, to be concerned with yesterday or tomorrow. Or, perhaps, it’s the entire process. The climb, the exertion. In pursuit of the difficult yet attainable, the prospect of something hard-earned and worthy of all that it cost. A metaphor for the very undertaking that has brought me here in the first place. I have yet to be disappointed when setting off to explore these remote, exotic mountaintops, and I am quickly becoming acquainted with more and more of them.
The following weekend I grab a bus to Busan again. On Saturday I visit the world’s largest department store (seriously, it’s in Guiness) and I buy a book on impulse because it sounds fantastic and the very first line sinks its hooks in deep. When I step outside I see a mountain in the distance covered in craggy spires of rock. There also appears to be a giant golden statue of Buddha peeking above the treetops halfway up its side so I decide to start hiking in that direction and see where it takes me. The first road that I attempt leads me to a dead end but I quickly find another that appears to go in the same direction. This one takes me up steep switchbacks through tightly packed rural hovels that become more and more sparse the higher I journey. After about an hour, thankful for the exercise but close to giving up the pursuit of a noteworthy perch from which to view the city, I reach a temple which is home to the aforementioned Buddha. From here I locate another path that seems to wind back out towards the face of the mountain and continue climbing for another hour or so until I discover what I was looking for. It’s remarkable this countryside. On foot, I can walk from the largest shopping complex on the planet to a mountaintop where I can then overlook the second largest city in the country in just an afternoon. The mountain is called Jangsan, and I never actually make it to the peak but do manage to find myself a view of the coastal city of Busan that I won’t soon forget.
The temperature is beginning to drop, autumn is preparing to roost before the onset of less accommodating weather. I resign myself to spend each of the remaining weekends exploring a new, unplumbed mountainside or national park or other Korean gem I have still to lay eyes on.
Yesterday, as is my habit, I roll over before rising from bed to begin the long, hard-fought process of starting up my antiquated laptop. I nod off while waiting for the internet homepage to load and then direct the browser to my email inbox when it finally does. I see that I’ve received a message from my step-sister who has been selflessly caring for my dog while I am away. Yet again, I’m confronted with heart-breaking news regarding his condition. He is having difficulty standing and getting around, and has of late been refusing food and water. The loss of muscle mass and connective tissue is beginning to warp his spine. He does not whine or cry out, I’m told. But then he wouldn’t. There is talk of putting him down and two days later it’s done.
I try to come to terms with this knowledge that the last time I saw him is the last time I ever will. All those times I grieved for him, believing that I was losing him, and this time it’s real. I am mourning the loss of my best friend in this place where I have none. My sorrow is compounded by the punishing certainty that I’ve abandoned him when he needed me most. For over nine years I was all that dog knew, his constant companion, and in the last–assuredly the most difficult–five months of his life, I was nowhere that he could find me. I was in such a goddamned hurry to leave. Was that precisely the instrument, then? Was my leaving the coup de grace? Perhaps, I’m erring a little into the melodramatic but this loss unmans me entirely.
Work is a chore requiring great effort and better composure than I possess. I am unfocused and vacant, and it is obvious. My employer inquires as to the nature of my disposition. When I explain, she looks at me like I’m a sentimental idiot, like some sad, weeping lunatic becoming overly emotional about the death of a plant. She smiles politely and says, “We had pets growing up.” I attempt a smile in return and that seems to conclude the conversation.
One of my more perceptive students asks, “Teacher? Sad?”
“Yes,” I say, “Teacher sad.”