Friday, December 31, 1999

mountain misadventure (featuring shite!)

So I checked out the other mountain—the one that's just a few hundred yards away from my studio—in the hopes of finding a closer mountain that I could hike.

No dice. Nope. Not gonna happen. Here's why.

The mountain's trailhead wasn't hard to find. I took a fairly direct route from my neighborhood to the main road behind it. I crossed the main road, turned right on instinct, and found an access road breaking left and uphill. Guessing that this road would take me up the mountain, I followed it into a scrub-brush-y neighborhood—the mountain's slope to my right, the scrub to my left. Some dogs barked at me as I neared their ramshackle dwelling; a couple puppies, unleashed, ran over to me, tails wagging. I did what I normally do when I find myself on an unknown dog's territory: I avoided eye contact and kept walking (this is what kept me from getting mauled during a three-day Fribourg-to-Thun trek in Switzerland, a land in which the farm dogs are huge).

A random glance to my right, uphill, showed me a path that led to a shadowy set of stairs (you'll see the photo below). This was the trailhead proper. I left the road, went up the path, climbed the steps while the puppies' yapping receded behind me, and suddenly found myself on holy ground:

The above picture is of a sanso, or mountain gravesite. Each site has a family attached to it, and family members come out at special times of the year to bow to the graves and tend the area. I felt deeply guilty, as though I were trespassing, but not guilty enough to resist taking a naughtily surreptitious picture. If the dead were offended, they didn't say.

The trail was overgrown and covered with leaves; the cold air kept the ground hard, though, so even a heavy guy like me could find some traction as I worked my way upward. Some parts of the trail became steep, and I regretted not having brought along a walking stick. I puffed my way to what I initially thought was the mountain's summit, but when I looked to my right, I saw that the trail continued on to another rise that was even higher than the ground I was on. Korean mountains are often tricky that way: you think you've reached the top, but no: there's another, higher peak along the crest ahead of you.

What was remarkable was how empty the place was. Perhaps there would have been people had this been a different time of year, but today, in the bleakness of winter, there was no one at all, nothing to accompany me but the occasional halfhearted gust of wind. So I followed the lonely trail upward to what was definitely the summit this time, and as I noted the sun's position in the sky, I debated whether to turn back or continue on. Curiosity won out, and I decided to continue on.

That proved to be a mistake.

Cold weather tends to make me want to shit. I'm not sure why; I talked this over with another friend of mine, who confessed that cold weather made him want to piss for some reason. I don't know what it is about the cold, but if I feel cold, my bowels start to squirm. Add to that the fact that I was exerting myself by climbing this small mountain, and I could sense something beginning to build up inside me. This will be relevant later in the story.

The trail went downhill after the summit: where else could it go, after all, right? From the humble mountaintop, I found myself wending downward and leftward until I reached an imposing metal chain-link, razor-wire fence, behind which was a building. I recognized the building because I'd seen it from a distance, back when I had been in my neighborhood. Up close, I saw it had signs on it saying "Yuk Gun," i.e., Army (pronounce the "u" as "ooh" in both syllables). The fence was to my right, but the path I was following was just outside of the fence, so I assumed I was outside of the base's grounds and thus wasn't trespassing. I followed the path as it hugged the fenceline, but at one point, the path suddenly opened into a deep ditch in front of me. I could have hopped into the ditch and struggled up the other side, but I saw a different way to cross this obstacle: to my right, the fence sat upon a concrete wall, and the wall had a skinny, three-inch ledge projecting out from it. If I could grab the fence and keep my toes on the ledge, I could shuffle over and across the ditch unscathed.

The only question was whether the fence was electrified.

I'm nothing if not careless of my own life, so I eventually ended up touching the fence tentatively, then grabbing it in earnest like ill-fated Timmy in "Jurassic Park." Nothing. No current at all. (I hadn't heard any telltale humming, either, which would have been the first big hint of true danger.) So I took hold of the chain links, placed my toes on that concrete ledge, and shuffled ten feet across that ditch. The path picked up right there, and I continued walking as if I'd encountered no obstacles at all.

Eventually, the path began to edge right. It was still hugging the fence, but I noticed that the fence was about to end, and an access road leading up to a gate in the fence had become visible. My scruffy little trail led rightward and upward until it met that access road, which caused me to breathe a sigh of relief: I hadn't wanted to keep scurrying, like a criminal, around the base's perimeter, forever unsure of whether I was trespassing. The appearance of the access road, along with the way the fence angled away at ninety degrees to the right to form the gate, convinced me that I was technically on public ground. I walked onto the access road and turned around to look as the base's gate, closed off by that fence. I reached into my coat's pocket to pull out my cell-phone camera... then a voice in my head whispered that that might be a very, very bad idea. Photographing a military facility could be dangerous.

So I turned back around and continued downhill, now walking on a concrete access road. As I walked along, I passed some signs. Here they are:

The above sign's MOPP (with the attendant Korean translation) stands for "Mission-oriented Protective Posture." I looked it up. By contrast, the sign below was puzzling. If I'm translating it right, it says something like "Tips in case of enemy nuclear attack." But it doesn't list any actual tips. As I stared at the sign, I kept expecting to see small print somewhere—some clue as to what to do in case of nuclear attack. But there was nothing—no supplementary information. It didn't occur to me, at the time, that this might not be the sort of sign that the general public is supposed to see, but you can bet your ass I thought about that afterward.

By this point, the urge to shit was becoming impossible to ignore, and I was beginning to flip, Terminator-like, through my possible courses of action. I didn't know how long the access road was, so I didn't know whether I'd reach the bottom of the mountain before my ass exploded. I didn't know whether there'd be any public facilities for a bloke in my current urgent gastric condition, and given that this was obviously an army base and not a regional or national park, I didn't see the existence of such facilities as likely. So, as if I were hiking in the Shenandoahs, I began sizing up the forest for potential shit spots.

Then I came upon this sign, which hung at the border of another gravesite:

Very roughly, the sign warns you not to step upon the ground of the gravesite beyond, for if you do, you defile (literally, "damage") it. This had practical implications for me, as I now badly needed to take a shit and couldn't do it anywhere near someone's sacred grave. I mentally asked my colon to calm itself and continued downhill.

Here's a photo of the road I was walking down:

And that's when I ran into a major problem. The access road didn't go all the way down the mountain: it stopped at another gate that stood in my way, blocking the entire drive. As I stared at and through the gate, I saw more military buildings to my right, and a pair of SUVs. In the distance, I heard the hrrrgh sounds of two men playing tennis in the cold. They apparently didn't see me, and in the late-afternoon glare, I couldn't see them. An angry-looking sign on the gate said "No photos of military facilities" in English. I peered around the fence, but the wooded path I had traveled was gone. The way is shut, whispered Legolas. and it was at that point that I realized I had probably been trespassing on this base the entire fucking time. That realization helped my bowels not a whit.

With my colon now pulsating to the cadence of war drums, I had no choice but to about-face and march back uphill. I walked past the gravesite until the voices of the tennis players had faded, and I was alone again. I saw a path that split off from the main road; a tall, wooded berm blocked most of the path from view, and I knew that, if I was going to take a shit, I'd better do it here, where I'd be out of sight of the main road. I ducked onto that path and found a tree that I could grab on to to hold myself steady while I squatted. I removed my coat, hung it on a branch, undid my belt, and "dropped trou," as they say. I squatted while using one hand to hold on to the tree... and right as I was about to fire my payload, I heard the jingling sound of a chain collar. A dog was running toward me.

Fuck, I grated as I hurriedly pulled my pants up. Are people really walking their dogs here? NOW? This was a classic case of Murphy's Law. Attempting something awkward and private, in a public space, is a guaranteed way to summon people to your location. I had to see how many people were heading my way, so I casually stepped onto the road, into view.

It was just a stray. The dog, a dirty jindo, hurried past me at a lope, looking as nervous as I did, obviously aware that this wasn't its territory, and that it didn't belong here. I stared at the dog as it ran past, then listened for people. Nothing. The dog had been alone. I went back to my off-road location, squatted again... and this time, I triumphantly blasted out a pile of shit that, when I stared at it moments later, looked like oatmeal heavily sweetened with brown sugar. Almost appetizing. Thanks to the breeze, there was no odor. I had worried about the question of toilet paper, but the local mountain god had provided me a solution: some young-punk Army polluter had tossed fast-food napkins onto the ground; I dusted them off and deemed them perfectly serviceable, which they were. My ass agreed, smiling vertically. I wiped until I was sufficiently clean, buried my pile under some dead leaves, then plopped a rock on top to hold the leaves down. Satisfaction level: sublime.

I continued back the way I came. Right before the big ditch and ledge, I took a photo of an ROK Army balisage:

After that, it was just a matter of wending my way downhill. I found a stick that helped me with balance as I navigated the steep parts of the trail, eventually popping out at the trailhead, which you now see below:

Once I was back at the main street, I took stock of my situation and decided that this local mountain wouldn't be worth it for hiking: that second gate convinced me that I had been trespassing the entire time, and the last thing I want to do is face nervous guards who are pointing firearms at me. Plus, the mountain was simply too small to offer much of a workout, and the trails struck me as too steep and potentially dangerous, especially in rainy weather, for any sort of routine hike to be worthwhile. So, sadly, I decided to strike this mountain off my list of potential hiking spots.

But there's one more mountain that I'm going to explore, and it's within sight of this one:

So I was wrong when I had initially thought there was only one mountain in the area. In fact, there are three: the first mountain (Gobong-san, which I'd been calling The Lonely Mountain before I learned its Korean name), this second mountain (whose name I still don't know), and that third mountain in the distance. I know that Gobong-san has a military base on at least part of its surface area; I don't know whether there are any hiking trails on it that are open to the public. I'll ask some local taxi drivers. As for this third mountain... I don't know anything about it. But I soon will. One of the cool things about moving to a new area is discovering its delights. This adventure may have ended in failure today, but it's not over.

Not by a long shot.



Charles said...

I suspect that the sign by the grave is talking about the land itself being damaged, not the grave being defiled. As you know, those very steep slopes they build up have nothing but grass on them, which means they collapse very easily when people walk up them. Apparently that is what had been happening with this grave.

John (I'm not a robot) said...

Great post, although it did almost make me late for work this morning. So much that could have gone wrong didn't. Count yourself blessed.

Kevin Kim said...


Thanks, and sorry to have almost made you late for work.

I do count myself blessed. I basically took an illegal shit on ROK Army property. And somehow got away with it.

Kevin Kim said...


Interesting. I guess I leaned toward the "defilement" theory because the first time I ever encountered the term "hwaeson" was when my boss counter-sued me for libel in 1995 after I had written an article about him that got published in the Korea Herald. (I had already sued him for illegal firing, and that court case was in process.)

Thanks to that suit, I learned the term "myeongyae-hwaeson," which I took to mean something like "besmirching one's honor" as opposed to a more literal "damaging one's honor." This led me to think of "hwaeson" as a sort of abstract kind of damage, besmirching, or defilement.

Upon reflection, though, I suppose we use the term "damage," in English, in reference to a person's reputation, so I guess the literal sense of "damage" is applicable to actual earth as opposed to the more abstract notion of a sacred site.