Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Walk Thoughts #236: antepenultimate thoughts

I know you're getting tired of the Walk Thoughts, Dear Reader, especially now that the major part of the walk has drawn to a close. Take heart, for I have only three more of these posts to go: (1) this "antepenultimate thoughts" post (which would normally be the absolute final post were there not a need for two more posts), (2) a post showing the map of my total route in one big image, and (3) an "epilogue to all the epilogues" post describing my makeup walk. Hang on, then—we're almost there. After today's post, there are only two more to go.

What It's Like to Be Back

Coming back to Seoul conjured a host of mixed feelings. I was relieved the walk was over, but also sad that it was done. I felt a certain fullness and thankfulness that I had gained so much knowledge about a Korea that I'd never experienced before. I felt disjointed and dislocated to find myself back in big-city civilization again.

Finding my urban circadian rhythm again has been a strange process, and it isn't complete yet. Today, for example, I woke up super-early, as I'd become used to doing on my walks, but then I put myself back into bed and didn't wake up until 12:30 in the afternoon, making me way late for work. Luckily, I have a lenient, flexible boss when it comes to my office schedule, so I knew I wouldn't be in trouble. I'm guessing that today's snafu came from the convergence of my body's contradictory urges: the wake-up-at-5 urge that had become my habit over nearly a month, and the sleep-to-recover urge that had taken hold when the walk was done. So I'm in a weird place right now, both wanting to wake up early and wanting to sleep until all my deep fatigue is gone. Eventually, if I let my work schedule take over my life once again, I imagine I'll be back to my old routines and habits.

But do I want that? There's something to be said for waking up early, even though I know I wasn't waking up as insanely early as some people on my blogroll. I still instinctively rebel against going to bed before midnight (I had trouble with that on the trail as well), but old Ben Franklin was on to something with his "early to bed, early to rise" proverb. I'll talk more about the implications of my inner circadian conflict below.

Being back at the office is both a relief and a bit anticlimactic. Settling into the office routine has thus far proven easy enough, mainly because so much of what I do in the office involves a sort of muscle memory. Sure: what I do is somewhat creative in nature because I'm in the business of making textbooks. But it's a low-level sort of creativity that doesn't really engage my deeper faculties and capacities. If anything, the desire is growing in me to branch off and do some work of my own. I have, as a result, several projects currently on the back burner that will be front-burnered later this year. In the meantime, I can already feel myself re-plugging into the rhythm of my job. One thing I haven't done since coming back is go on any long walks. That might change tonight: I need to remain in shape for this coming weekend.

What I Learned About Myself and Korea

Over the course of twenty-six days, I learned I can be resourceful. When my chest strap failed, I found a solution for that. When my shoulder straps became painful, I used the materials I had on me to blunt the pain. When I had to fetch water from an awkward part of the river, I conscripted my trekking pole, hanging my plastic bottles off it and using the pole to dip the bottles into the water, sweeping them across the water again and again until they were filled. I rediscovered my ability to build and maintain campfires using local deadfall.

I also learned that I can endure hardship. When my hip belt failed late in the walk, and my pack began slipping down, I did what I could to minimize the compression on my shoulders and spine, but mostly I endured. On the disastrous day that it rained, I simply soldiered on until I reached that day's goal. (I wish I could add the adverbial phrase "without complaint," but that would be a lie.) I watched the kilometers ticking downward as I made my way closer and closer to the Nakdong River's estuary, and I wasn't driven crazy by the slowness of it all. I walked through blisters, aches, and various irritations, physical and psychic. Over 550 kilometers later, I'm proud to say that I'm still here. I can stand anything.

Korea is a land of mountains and valleys and rivers, and I had the privilege of learning about one particular path: the great path from Seoul to Busan. A fanciful legend began to form in my head as I walked. In this legend, the sky used to be filled with dragons—clouds of them, massed in the air like millions of starlings. Dragons have, of course, their own individual personalities, so it was inevitable that many dragons would clash. In the skies over this peninsula, the dragons fought each other, ripping and twisting and tearing and killing, and when a dragon died, its snakelike body, the size of a small mountain range, would plummet heavily to the earth. The impact would create mountains on either side; the dragon's body, being magical, would bury itself deep in the ground, and a river would form above it, following the shape of the carcass and thrumming with an energy that echoed the dragon's former power. Thus were the mountains and river valleys formed, through the splendid deaths of hundreds upon hundreds of dragons, inadvertently blessing the land with their magic even as their impacts sundered the ground. And to this day, if you fly over the peninsula, you will see the shapes of these dragons in the proud rivers that memorialize their existence. To walk a river is to walk alongside ancient power.

I felt that eldritch energy as I walked. There really are no words to describe what I saw and sensed and breathed as I moved slowly southward down to Busan. Whenever the bike path swung away from the river, I always felt disappointed: I was feeding off the river's quiet, natural force—its ki, if you will. Living in Seoul as I do, I now realize that human activity conjures up its own style of solipsistic, self-celebrating energy, but this energy is scattershot and frenetic, nothing like the evolved, deliberate, stately might of a river and its valley.

On a practical level, I began to wonder why people are so obsessed with beaches. Rivers provide many of the same pleasures: the water, the living creatures, the breeze, the natural beauty. It's all there, and yet I saw so few campers and riverside sunbathers. Maybe the occasional signs declaring "no fishing or camping" were part of the problem. Maybe the tall, untamed plant life along the river's banks was another problem. I can't say. But from what I saw, there were plenty of places where a person could settle down and enjoy the slow passage of the water, and plenty of manmade campgrounds and parks and picnic areas where people could lay out a spread of good food and let their kids have the run of the land. In fact, I began to wonder about why there were so few kite-flyers. I recall seeing only one little girl, with her American dad, flying a kite just south of the Chilgok Dam.

My walk also reinforced my impression that Koreans are ambitious when it comes to building large structures, whether they be skyscrapers or bridges or tunnels or dams. The brute thusness of those dams was quite impressive. Humans can literally move mountains if they so choose, and Korea is shot through with evidence of humanity's strength and determination.

The people you meet along the way can be kind. I never received any offers for a ride, the way I did in the States in 2008, but I did receive food from some folks, and travel advice from others, and one-upsman stories from yet others. I heard a lot of "Daedanhashineyo!" ("That's/You're great!") and "Sugohashimnida!" ("You're working hard!"), plus the occasional "Jinagamnida!" ("I'm passing you," said as a polite heads-up). Plenty of bikers were doing the entire Gukto Jongju path from Incheon to Busan. For the most part, they all dressed for the role, as Koreans do: they wore sleek helmets, sunglasses, Tour de France-style Spandex clothing, and those silly, foreskin-looking wraparound pieces of cloth that shade the face and neck and make you look like a member of ISIS. Most of the bikers had water-bladder backpacks; some of them had packed more supplies, but I gathered that, for the most part, the bikers already knew they could use yeogwans instead of camping, which is why they had almost nothing with them, supply-wise.

I could go on for thousands of words, or talk for hours, and I'd still never be able to convey what this experience has meant to me. Suffice it to say that, from late April to mid-May, I Went Out and Did A Thing, and in some subtle way, That Thing Has Changed Me. I want to return to the riverlands, maybe as a walker again, or maybe as a mere tourist this time. Now that I know such places exist, I wonder why more people aren't out there, drinking in the ambiance and clearing their heads. Maybe that's for the best: I can have the rivers to myself.

A thought did occur to me: were I ever to get married in Korea, I'd like to be married at the bank of a river. What better place to sanctify a union?

What Happens Now with My Weight and My Health

I lost ten kilograms, i.e., twenty-two pounds, in twenty-six days. I think most of that weight came off during the first half of the walk. That weight-loss rate averages out to almost a pound lost per day, or about six pounds a week, which is three times the rate at which you're supposed to lose weight on a normal diet. If I had the free time and money to walk all year long, I would, as my buddy Tom recently joked, walk until there was none of me left. But let's regain some perspective: I'm still fat. I still have my double chin, my man-boobs, my huge love handles, and my fat ass. None of that has changed, and to change it visibly, I'd need to lose at least another 20 kilos.

Over the past weekend, I misbehaved a great deal and regained a kilogram (NB: a good portion of that regain is just the gunk sitting in my intestines, not the actual return of body fat). Can't say I feel too guilty about that, especially as I plan to buckle down over the coming months. One thing I'll be doing within the next couple of weeks is joining the gym in my building. You may recall, if you're a dedicated reader, that I tried joining this same gym many months ago, but that I ended up canceling the membership and getting a refund because of my finances. I'm in a much better place now, financially speaking; I'll be paying off my third major debt this coming June, which is going to bring my bank account down low for a month or so, but by December, I'll have rebuilt myself back into robustness again. This blow-and-recovery has all been factored into my gigantic, detailed budget. A gym membership, while not something I had planned for, will do little damage to my finances, in part because I'll have KMA and Seoul National gigs that I also didn't include in the budget: the unanticipated income and unanticipated expense will cancel out.

I can't reasonably expect to continue exercising the way I had been over the past month, so something's got to give. To some extent, that's going to mean cutting back on calories, but incorporating cheat days. Specifically, I'm going to have to cut down on carbs, and I need to keep my daily caloric intake under 2600 so that I'm always at a deficit, and thus always losing some weight. Dieting isn't enough, though, for someone with as slow a metabolism as mine is, so the walking will continue, but the point of going to the gym will be to build muscle, which will in turn increase my basal metabolic rate because muscle burns more calories than, say, fat (which actually stores energy). I've been toying with the idea of trying the Atkins Diet once again, but I have horrible memories of becoming depressed while on that diet, and I just proved, over the course of the past month, that it's perfectly possible to lose a good bit of weight while not on Atkins.

So for the near future: walking, gym, and dieting, plus occasional cheat days. You'll recall that I mentioned my "inner circadian conflict" above. While I've got momentum on my side, I should take advantage of the fact that I'm naturally waking up early to hit the gym at 6AM on alternate mornings. If I wait too long to start such a program, I'll revert to my original sluggard's schedule and end up exercising later in the day. I'll continue what I started with the jump-rope program, too, and I'll throw in plenty of building-staircase climbing. If I can find a weight vest in my size, I might wear that while doing my creekside walks as a way to simulate what it was like to walk with a backpack. I might have no choice but to order a weight vest from Amazon. We'll see. Oh, and as for the creekside walks: I'm going to try walking my fourteen staircases in both directions from now on: twenty-eight staircases instead of fourteen. As I've mentioned in previous Walk Thoughts, stairs training is great preparation for hiking up steep slopes. I'm now a big believer in such training. And if it's 1100 steps up Namsan, then walking twenty-eight staircases will have me walking up over 1800 steps, which beats Namsan. Three walks up my building's staircase also beat Namsan.

One last thing: my recent visit to the doc proved disappointing. My blood-sugar results were great (odd, given how much soda I drank along the path), but my blood pressure was, according to the doc, still high (about 140/90). I do wonder, though, how accurate that reading is: the doc seemed hasty and distracted. I need to buy a BP monitor for use at home. In any event, as long as I continue to lose weight and exercise, my overall BP ought to trend downward. The doc says he might not see me the next time I visit, as he himself has to undergo some sort of surgery ("Physician, heal thyself," right?). I may be faced with a different doc in July. We'll see.

I've got my work cut out for me in the short term. Long-term plan: get back into martial arts. There's a taekwondo training hall in the building where I work, and there's a geomdojang (Korean-style fencing hall) in a building close to my apartment. If I can find a place to get into boxing, I hope to add that into the mix.

Will There Be Future Walks?

I've been asked this question by impatient commenters who are already primed for the next adventure. It's a bit too soon to say, but Korea offers a host of different paths aside from its most famous one. There's a trail that exclusively follows South Korea's eastern coastline, for example; I have to wonder how different it is from the Gukto Jongju. Will it have rest areas, motels, and other facilities sprinkled along its length at roughly the same intervals? How hilly might that trail be? What's the weather like along the coast, should I decide to tackle that trail at the same time of year in the future?

Of course, that too is a practical problem: there's no guarantee that I can ever do something like this again. Korean corporations aren't known for doling out one-month vacations, and what I did was mainly the result of a special arrangement between me and my boss, who saw the insane number of comp hours I had built up over the course of my work marathon in January and February, and who kindly granted me a huge amount of time off to realize my peripatetic ambition. I also had to sacrifice my trip to America and Europe this year in order to realize this hike; I've rescheduled my international travel for next year, which means I won't be able to do a long hike next year.

But it's not as though I'm not thinking about future hikes. I've looked online and seen that my Gregory Whitney 95 backpack is still being sold at some outlets for its original price of around $250, US. I'm also tempted to re-purchase my old Big Agnes tent, but I may need to try camping in the Outdoor Research bivy some more before I elect to go back to tenting. So, yes: I'm thinking about hiking again. Once you have the walking bug, you can't get it out of your system, and Korea has so, so many paths to explore.

The story of the Imjin War-era man who walked from Busan to Seoul in only fifteen days—told to me twice by two different people—has stuck with me, and I've been wondering, lately, whether it's possible to plot my own Seoul-Busan route that would allow me to connect the dots between those cities in the same amount of time. I doubt I can match that man's athleticism, but what I lack in speed I can make up in distance walked per day. Such a walk would be painful, though: it'd be little more than a stunt to prove that I can do what some guy in the late 1500s once did. Do I really need to undertake such a walk?

So the future is open. As far as what the corporation will allow, vacation-wise, I'll play that by ear, and in 2019, the year I turn 50, we'll see about returning to the trail. There are many trails to choose from just here in South Korea, but I might expand my horizons, later on, to projects like walking across Switzerland or walking along a French mountain range. There's much to see, much to do. The world is wide, and the future isn't written.

Some final pics:

The Samsung service-center guy who repaired my phone basically ripped the phone's whole face off and replaced it with a spanking-new display. He gave me the option of keeping, or not keeping, the original display, so I asked him to box it up for me. Here's what my cracked phone looked like, and now you can see why I was worried about the possibility of humidity affecting the phone.

Below: me with hair gel and no more beard. Sorry, beard, but you had to go: way too damn itchy. Shaving that monster off was a project in itself: the hairs were so long that the razor couldn't scrape off more than a centimeter-long swath at a time before it got clogged. Eventually, though, I whittled my face back down to its normal proportions, and I'm back to being my ugly self again. (The pharmacy lady who doled out my meds told me she thought the beard looked good.)

Finally: one last, loving shot of my foot, six days after the walk's end. The blistered skin finally ripped open in the shower on Friday (a day after my return to Seoul); after that, it was a matter of using a nail clipper to remove excess skin, then swabbing out the smelly areas where the dried blood had collected and begun to rot. I dipped some Q-tips in rubbing alcohol and went at my foot with a vengeance, eventually getting everything nice and clean. The new skin under the blister was already quite tough. So, yes, Poison Girls, you can indeed walk through your blisters, and they'll heal on their own, and your feet will be all the tougher.

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