Let’s think structurally.  The quest consists of five things: (a) the quester, (b) a place to go, (c) a stated reason to go there, (d) challenges and trials en route, and (e) a real reason to go there.  Item (a) is easy; a quester is just a person who goes on a quest, whether or not he knows it’s a quest.  In fact, usually he doesn’t know.  Items (b) and (c) should be considered together: someone tells our protagonist, our hero, who need not look very heroic, to go somewhere and do something.  Go in search of the Holy Grail.  Go to the store for bread.  Go to Vegas and whack a guy.  Tasks of varying nobility, to be sure, but structurally all the same.  Go there, do that.  Note that I said the stated reason for the quest.  That’s because of item (e).

The real reason for the quest never involves the stated reason.  In fact, more often than not, the quester fails at the stated task.  So why do they go and why do we care?  They go because of the stated task … but we know that their quest is educational. … The real reason for a quest is always self-knowledge.

A few weeks back, I made a string of very bad decisions.  To be clear, as a recently-minted “”””adult,”””” I make relatively bad decisions all the time.  It’s not uncommon in my life.  But these were some particularly cringeworthy ones, ones thatwould make your parents want to come right out on the next flight to Incheon and ship you and  your stuff all back stateside.  First, I thought it’d be a cute idea to go hiking far away from where I live in Seoul, hiking in Bukhansan National Park, which I’d heard was beautiful.  It’s about an hour train ride there.  But I also thought it’d be really cute to go alone.  And at dusk.  The coincidence of all these things?  Well, it had the potential to be disastrous.

This very same weekend, a solo female hiker was murdered in Seoraksan National Park (I do not include this beautiful tidbit when I call my parents later).  The stakes—which seemed very trivial for me—were actually quite high.

I get into the town at about 6pm.  Even in summer, this unfortunately only gives me 1-2 hours to summit and get back down before sunset, a bit more before it’s truly dark.  But from dusk-runs in the park with hyung I remembered that it’s scary being in the forest at sunset because the full dark sets in fast.  The hike started out innocently enough.  It was pleasant being alone and having only my thoughts to accompany me.  I should probably mention that my sense of direction is about as awful as it can get.  I followed the trail signs and it was fun at first.

As the light started to die, I decided that I had to get to the top of something before I returned home.  I only met one person on the trail, and he was on his way down from the top as I was still making my way up (not a good sign).  At the top of something (I think it was one of the lower mountains of the ridge, but it was the tallest summit I could reach), I took all the requisite selfies and scenic panorama shots and then proceeded to basically bolt down the mountain.  I love trail running, but this was a bit scary because I was literally chasing daylight.  When I get lost, I get frustrated and cry.  This is about the worst defense mechanism a person can have and rarely ever works to my advantage.

Finally, a car drove by and after a bit of deliberation I decided to follow it on the road.  I have a phone, but there are barely any trails or roads on the map and I don’t want it to die if I need to call for help (there’s phone service even at the top of those mountains).  I’m heading toward what I think is a road, and after it seems to be the town so that I can find my way to a subway station.

I’m about to go through this tunnel, after which I think is the town, only to get stopped… by a Korean army guy.  He asks me what I’m doing, and at this point I’m tired and sad and frustrated and scared… all of my Korean speaking ability just goes up in smoke and all I can say is that I was walking, the name of the station, Mangweolsa, and “Sorry!!!” and basically “How did this happen?”  I have apparently tried to wander into a Korean army base.  He sits me down on a rock.  I try to look appropriately contrite (I really do feel bad about the imposition, but he was not about to send me back into the forest to walk the 3km back to the station) and unobtrusive.  He goes in the outpost to talk to his supervisor.  They radio to their supervisor.  20 minutes later, an army jeep pulls up and they drive me back to the station.  No reprimand on their end, copious amount of thanks on my end.  (it was really, really cool, riding in the jeep)

Things like this don’t happen to me.  I never get saved from my mistakes.  I’d still be wandering in the forest and having missed weeks of work without them.  People are always telling me to distrust people because they’re dangerous and out to hurt you but… when you have times like those… the kindness of strangers always bolsters my faith in humanity.

In America, hiking is not really something that you do very casually.  You might bike casually, go swimming at your neighborhood casually, go to the gym on occasion, play pickup soccer or basketball.  Hiking is not for the faint of heart in America.  You’ve gotta plan a lot, drive there, know the trails, be prepared with all the stuff in your bag.  Hiking is for serious “”””athletes”””” only.

In Korea, everyone hikes.  It’s the national pastime here.  I didn’t really know that I liked hiking until coming here and getting to go all the time, but it’s really a wonderful thing to have as a national pastime.  All the ahjummas and ahjusshis are always gathered of a Friday afternoon in the subway station in their full-on hiking gear, head-to-toe with the poles and big backpacks and everything (this is Korea’s version of “athleisure”) and I’m always so jealous that they get to be up on the mountain instead of working.  It’s a very common weekend activity, even more common than going to Han Gang (Han River) with some chimaek (chicken and beer) and a blanket on a weekend evening.

You take the subway out the mountain town.  The crowds of the train peel off  the farther you go out.  At the approach to the mountain, there are lots of the little stalls selling the mountain food like pajeon (green onion pancakes), bibimbap (mountain vegetables and rice and fried egg with a spicy sauce), ramyeon, and copious amounts of makgeolli (Korean rice wine).  The stalls thin out as you get closer to the trail head.  There is usually a temple at the base of the mountain, so you stop to pay your respects, sit and relax, and have a drink on the way up or down.  The way up is steep, but the people you meet on the way are good natured and love to say hi to everybody and make conversation.  Everybody is in a good mood on the trail.  At the top, you pause for selfies and another drink of the makgeolli.  After, you eat a ton and drink some more (not that Koreans aren’t drinking all weekend anyway).

But anyone can hike in Korea.  There are girls in wedge heels and carrying an umbrella for shade in one hand and a cup of iced Americano coffee in the other and they’re on the same trail as the die-hard ahjusshis with the 20-kilo hiking pack.  It’s hard to take the girls seriously, but that’s the way it is.  Hiking is far more accessible here.  It’s more egalitarian, and I really like the way that everyone smiles and greets each other on the trail.

It’s really easy for foreigners to dismiss what the natives do as “wrong” or “stupid” or “weird.”  But I find this hard to believe when I see the ahjummas smile so easily and so kindly when somebody greets them, when I see how nice the moms are when I wave and play hide-and-seek with their child from the back of the train compartment where I’m sitting, when the shop owner gives us seobiseu (free stuff just for being nice customers).  This one friend here is always preaching not to trust strangers because they are always up to no good, but I find I’m just the exact opposite.  How can you just automatically distrust so many well-meaning humans?  You burn so many bridges that way.

I’m learning how to work nicely with a lot of different people.  The coworkers and I have formed a nice rapport and I seem to have fallen in well without even meaning to.  Between “girls night” with board nights, monthly chimaek dates, language exchange with my Korean co-teacher, and a fierce Duolingo language competition, the atmosphere is really nice these days.  I was pursuing this boy at the butcher shop in the supermarket on the way home from work, but he’s stubbornly refusing to text me after many weeks.  Luckily my university friend, Sam-sshi is on his way out as the Yonsei University friends are on their way out.  Tag-team.  I’m trying to make lots of friends as that seems to be the key to happiness here.  It is a kind country but only to people who are with friends or love interests.  It’s not a very kind country to the perpetually single.  But we’ll work on that.

We learn that all trips, all quests teach us something, whether it’s about love or life or friendship or not to go hiking alone at dusk in a park you’ve never been in before.

A toast to hiking, new friends, and hiking with new friends.

 

 

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