Disclaimer: This is a long post with no pictures. I had a lot of time to think while hiking for two months, and I wanted to distill my thoughts on through-hiking here. No hard feelings if you don't make it to the end.
I've been a hiker for as long as I can remember. Growing up in rural northwestern Connecticut afforded my family abundant and easy access to the outdoors. The small town of Barkhamsted is an unsung, beautiful New England gem where roughly half of the town's rolling hills and river valleys are State Forest land. A surprising network of trails provided seemingly endless opportunities for hiking and exploring on weekends and long summer days. My parents' enthusiasm for the outdoors was contagious, and after years of family outings, I found myself heading out into the woods on my own. Sometimes I would venture into new territory, continually looking for the next great secret of Litchfield County, and other times I would return to the same loop hike high above the Farmington River that we'd walked hundreds of times. I still do this same hike almost every time I am in Connecticut. It never seems to get old, and it has become a pilgrimage of sorts.
In high school, I got into backpacking and then during my college years at RPI I spent many weekends exploring the mountains of upstate New York, Vermont and New Hampshire. During all that time, and after living and hiking in Washington for four and half years, the longest backpacking trip I'd ever done was six days.
Walking the Baekdu Daegan in South Korea was my first foray into the world of through hiking, and it proved to be quite a different experience than all of my previous backpacking endeavors. The long duration of our trip brought to light new facets of walking in the woods that I may not have ever conceptualized without experiencing them.
Perhaps the most enlightening realization I had was that it is best to approach each day with no expectations. Almost every day on the trail came with surprise events and occurrences. Altering plans was frequently required due to inaccuracies in the maps, changing weather, our fluctuating energy levels and other unpredictable factors. The unknown initially threatens the mind's sense of control. But after a couple weeks of low-level anxiety and concern about what events might transpire, I stopped trying to anticipate the day. I came to view our plan for the day as merely one possible outcome. I would just wake up and walk, and let the day happen. Strangely, this attitude and mindset seemed to leave me better prepared for adversity.
Getting started on a large project can often be overwhelming. The first five-day section of walking forced difficult adjustments that felt more like boot camp than the beginning of a hiking trip. The packs were far too heavy, and after spending summer in the comparatively cool conditions of the Cascade Range, the heat and humidity were stifling. The terrain in Jirisan National Park was rough, making for long days, slow progress and tired bodies. The end of the day rarely brought relief; sleeping was an unpleasant affair, as I stuck to everything--clothes, sleeping bag and pad. Looking ahead to the next two months, I could not fathom doing this everyday. In actuality, this was all acclimation to a new way of life.
When you wake up and hike every day for two months, it becomes something quite separate from a three or four day trip. At home, the scope and length of a four day outing can seem monolithic from a planning and an endurance perspective. But after about two weeks on the trail, we settled into a routine of hiking for five or six days that seemed to go quickly by comparison. The sense of four days composing an entire trip dissolved into the greater scale of the Baekdu Daegan, with any particular multi-day segment completely disassociated from the beginning or end of the whole. On many occasions, it seemed that we had been walking for what felt like a year. Quick memory checks reported that I had been in Seattle just a few weeks ago, though my internal clock suggested that a much longer duration had passed. The reverse effect was also a recurrent perception--sometimes it felt as if we had been walking for days and had not made any northward progress. I have experienced these phenomena at other times in life, but the extent of the effect on the Baekdu Daegan was astonishing. Time is truly relative.
A benefit of having all this time and hiking every day, sometimes through unremarkable terrain, was that I came to enjoy walking on its own accord. Historically, open ridges and summits with views have comprised my hiking motivations. Over the course of this trip, I was able to sit back and enjoy the ride, taking in the quiet of the forest and enjoying being alone with just my thoughts for extended stretches.
Walking across the countryside along a footpath allows the hiker to experience the land at a much slower pace than even a Sunday drive. Yet while travel is slower, the longer duration fosters a feeling of movement over the landscape. Looking back towards where one began and ahead along the ridge to the terrain of the next few days played part in constructing a mental image of the trail from a bird's eye view. This sense of movement--slow, yet progressive motion through the land--brought me a rich sense of enjoyment and accomplishment. Each new section that we covered was added to the existing image, slowly building my own view of the Baekdu Daegan.
Liz handled just about all of the planning for this trip, and as a result I was unfamiliar with almost all of the terrain we hiked through until we were walking through it. There were countless days when we arrived in new territory, and I was so stunned upon setting eyes on it for the first time. My guess is that this is because I had no idea what the land looked likepreviously--it was a complete surprise. On one particular section, it was as if I had hiked three weeks to stumble upon the Yosemite valley, having never heard of or seen photographs of it. The experience was remarkable. Seeing terrain for the first time with absolutely no preconceived notions is something I never intended, but the results were brilliant. I suppose the entire experience of hiking along the Baekdu Daegan is similar. We went out for a walk and found what we did.