I’m glad I’m going to Crowduck next year. Another summer of missing it like this might make me completely lose touch with reality and just live there in my imagination the whole week.
For example: on Sunday night while you were probably having some fried fish with tartar sauce, I was just about to wake up to another Monday at work. But for the moment I was having a dream about Crowduck. My dreams are hardly ever on topic like this. (For example, in another recent dream, I followed the story of Giant Bo Peep, about 30 feet tall, as she rescued a herd of cows from witches who had trapped them in a sinkhole full of their own milk; she took them to a majestic walkway along the edge of a world that was shaped like a thousands-of-miles-long flattened hot dog suspended underneath a giant archway of a sky, and met eagles bigger than houses, who told her what to do next on her quest.) But there I was at Crowduck with everyone. Micah and Mom were there too. Micah climbed down a little wooded hill and got in a shallow sand-bottomed bay of the lake, and started fishing with his bare hands. And he was catching fish, too—little flat ones that sometimes buried themselves in the sand. I wanted to go down and try it too, but then another part of the dream started. I was out on the lake in an outboard boat that was sized maybe halfway between a real Crowduck boat and a Camp Manito-wish canoe, which made it tippier than the real ones. I got stuck in a massive weedbed, which happened in real life last year, and when I pulled the motor up to unclog it I nearly capsized the boat. When I got it upright there was a foot of water in it, and I was nervous about getting it back to camp like that, but I figured I had no choice, and hopefully the bilge pump would help me out.
When I wasn’t dreaming of Crowduck, sometimes I was daydreaming. Mainly it happened like this: I would look at my watch, subtract fourteen hours, and think: “Everyone’s playing poker now, except me.” Or: “Grandpa’s probably just made a BLT and now he’s getting ready to go out on the lake for the morning.”
But I suppose I had enough things going on back here to distract me. There was another cookout, for instance, with Sean and four other folks from neighboring towns and lots of swimming and sunburn. I’m getting better at making hobo packs. These are something that my friend Molly from college described to me that I thought sounded like the perfect food to make while on the road. You lay out some foil; put on a bunch of potatoes, onions, pork, and whatever other vegetables are on hand; then add lots of pepper, butter, and salt. Then you stick it in the smoldering coals of a campfire. What I’ve discovered is that campfires are kind of a hassle, especially when you have to wait for them to die down to coals and then wait another forty minutes for the hobo pack to cook. But, provided there’s foil, hobo packs would be fun to make some night if I’ve just made a bunch of friends somewhere in Europe and we all feel like heading out into the woods to sit around a campfire and chitchat and then eat dinner when we’re good and ready. I’ve been trying to practice my camp cooking, but it’s tough because I don’t have ethanol for my ethanol-burning stove yet, so I have to use my wood-burning stove, and that one requires really dry wood, and Korea is currently firmly in the grip of the rainy season. In all this humidity my shoes still haven’t dried out from three days ago.
The reason they’re wet is that I climbed Hwaaksan on Sunday, with Sean. If you look at it properly, this was probably our most “adventurous” mountain climb yet, and it probably won’t be surpassed either, since there’s not much time left. Hwaaksan has been looming over us since we got here and first looked at a map of all the mountains in the county, waiting for us to finally get around to conquering it, weighing on our minds. It’s the highest one around here, at 4800 feet. And maybe more importantly, it’s not popular. At the beginning of the year we climbed Seoraksan, which was taller, but aswarm with gaggles upon gaggles of sightseeing Koreans. On Sunday, as far as I could tell, we had the whole mountain utterly to ourselves. I guess that’s what happens when you climb a mountain in a rainstorm.
The night before, everyone (except Amanda, who tries to never spend a weekend here because she goes stir-crazy when there are no parties) got together and played euchre, and we all decided that we’d hike together in the morning, even Ben, who smokes at least a pack of Camels a day and eats pizza for maybe half his dinners. But when we got up it was looking like the ultimate soggy day. I had invited everyone up to my room for biscuits and gravy. I was making these so as to teach the British people what the word “biscuits” really means. In Britain they use it to mean cookies. But the word “cookies” already exists there too, so they’ve had to invent some kind of weird contrived distinction where a biscuit is hard and a cookie is soft, most of the time, except when I ask about some certain kind of cookie because I think I’ve got the hang of it, at which point the definition always switches. Sean was the only one to come up for them. He agreed that real biscuits with gravy are tasty, but perversely insisted that they’re more like a scone. Come on now, scones are sweet. While we were eating, we got word from everyone that we were the only two still planning to climb.
But Ben was awake anyhow, so he offered to drive us to the trailhead, which was damned nice of him, I thought. It was in an especially deep pocket of the middle of nowhere. Out here, close to the DMZ, the definition of the middle of nowhere isn’t quite the same as other places in the world. Sometimes it means forest and undeveloped mountains, but just as often it means mountains covered in army bases. Such was the case; we drove past two or three bases on the way to the trail. Ben let us out at a muddy turnaround next to a sign that said 개조심 (Beware of Dog) and we started walking uphill along a nice cobblestoned trail.
Within three minutes we ran out of cobblestones and ended up at someone’s house with no trail in sight and some unchained dogs getting steadily more pissed off at us as we wandered around looking for a way up. There was no obvious trail along the mountain brook rushing past us, or across the patch of tall, wet grass, or even on the other side of the brook where things looked very promising at first but turned out to be nothing once we waded across. Then Sean’s predator-instinct seeking of high ground that offers a view paid off, because on the little rise we summited, a trail magically appeared. Signposts would have been nice, but we just figured that as long as we went generally up, that would be the right direction.
The trail was steep. It didn’t mess around. Some trails might switch back and forth to make things easy on you, but this one was like: “The peak? This way. Hurry the hell up. You’re tired? You asked me to take you to the peak. Quit bitching.” Which is admirable, but the thing is that it was still raining, and the whole world was made of mud. Whatever. We soldiered on.
After maybe an hour and a half, Sean piped up: “We must be getting close to the top.” I shrugged as noncommittally as I could and said, “Mountains have a way of deceiving.” When we got to the top of what we could currently see, sure enough, there was another peak further on. We couldn’t see any further than that because we were inside of a cloud. This became a pattern. The first couple times, I allowed myself to hope that the peak wasn’t all too far away, but every time we hoisted ourselves triumphantly up some rocks, it turned out we were just at a flat spot and there was some more climbing in front of us. So I gave up on wondering about the peak and just resigned myself to the fact that I’d probably be climbing Hwaaksan for the rest of my life. On my deathbed as an old man I would be able to open my backpack and pull out the corn dog I’d gotten myself at the market earlier as a lunch to bring, and it would taste like the culmination of my life. Meanwhile, Sean kept hoping for the summit at every crest. “Ah, this must be the peak,” he said, at one that looked particularly promising. “Nah,” I said. “Just don’t worry about the peak. This mountain feeds on dashed hopes.”
We emerged into an ethereal realm of low alpine plants and wizened old rocks, and peaked the mountain several times only to find further peaks awaiting us. Then I rounded a corner in a corridor of bushes and saw the army base. Our research had advised us that the peak was occupied by an army base, so we were actually heading for the second-highest peak, but that must have been on the other side of the base, because we didn’t see the rock that marked it. Instead we just stood there, a ways back, and looked at the fence of the base, and failed to fathom what it was that soldiers actually did there. And then I had my corn dog, and Sean had his sandwich and then, nearly hypothermic, quickly insisted we get up and head back down now or he might never be able to move again. So we did.
We’d tried to keep an accurate account of where we’d turned, but there were no signposts, and Korean mountain paths often branch out with nonsensical profusion. So we ended up coming down the mountain on basically the exact opposite side from where we’d gone up. We found ourselves on a deserted road with signs indicating two different military bases. We walked downhill on this road forever. There really didn’t seem to be any limit to how far it could go down. But eventually it emptied onto an almost equally deserted main road. This was a recently paved, wide, two-lane road, with crisp yellow stripes and modern guardrails and such, but it was ten minutes before we saw a car, and another ten minutes before we found someone going the right direction who was willing to pick up two sodden hitchhikers. But I was able to have a little chat with the driver and find out that he was visiting Sachangni for the first time so he could see his son, who had just started his mandatory two years of army duty a month ago and been posted at a base here. No idea which base. When the guy dropped us off he even insisted that I didn’t need to wipe off his seat, it was fine. Two for two with incredibly nice drivers when hitchhiking here. With spotlessly clean cars, come to think of it.
One other thing I’ve had that’s taken my mind off of Crowduck is daydreaming about all the traveling I’m about to finally start. My anticipation is sort of running away with itself. Last winter while I was planning my trip to southeast Asia, a lot of the time I was thinking, “Man, Mongolia’s going to be awesome when I go there in August.” Now, I’m planning Mongolia, but on the back burners of my mind I’m thinking, “Can’t wait to meet Grandma and Grandpa in Lisbon,” and also “Mexico is going to be so amazing and I’m going to eat so many tacos.” I like to think I try to live in the moment, but right now apparently I need to come back one giant step to even be living in the future.
You may have heard my travel plans changed. It turns out that, as the internet tried to warn me, it actually is impossible for me to get a visa to China while I’m living here. Maybe I could have if I’d been more careful to make my signatures match, or if I’d warned Dad to keep quiet about me being in South Korea. But it’s too late now, so I’m spending a couple hundred more dollars and flying straight to Ulaanbaatar on August 26th. That money would’ve been useful, but the issue kind of got forced, and on the plus side, I get a few extra days to stop on my way from Moscow to Munich so I can see Krakow and Prague. And I’ll probably also spend a day or two at Lake Baikal, which is thirty million years old and contains a fifth of the world’s liquid freshwater, which is to say: it’s pretty special. So I guess on the whole it works out okay. Now if only I can find some fried pike with tartar sauce there.