Fifteen letters
[ Fifteen Letters ][ Introduction ]
1954: [ June 5 ][ June 15 ][ June 26 ][ July 10 ][ July 27 ][ Aug. 1 ][ Aug. 11 ]
[ Sept. 18 ][ Sept. 30 ][ Oct. 29 ][ Nov. 3 ][ Nov. 11 ][ Dec. 13 ]
1955: [ Jan. 23 ][ Feb. 20 ]
[ Epilogue ]

23 January 1955

Greetings from the Wanderer

Burial mounds on a knowl in Korea Typical peasant house -- Korea Peasant village away from main road Power line over paddy lands Sleeping paddy land Scrub pine planted to stop erosion Looking up at the peak from away down low Stone walls high on mountain to hold soil Playing with sand, snow, and shadows Sand, leadge, and sky Papsan with leaves from mountain Papasans with A-frames on mountain From the mountain north past Seoul A vertical shot at the peak Boulders on the top of the mountain Haze in late afternoon -- I was shivering Bony ridge of a mountain Top The temple on the top Within the temple

Today is Sunday, the day of leisure and sometimes of boredom. By mathematical calculation then, it would appear that yesterday was Saturday; and it was. So be it. Yesterday I was off duty at noon. Soon thereafter I was with camera in hand on the way out the gate. Out into the village to snap a few black and whites of the church and of other interesting oddities. Soon was out of black and white and added color to the camera. Then on down the road away from Seoul in an unexplored direction. For no particular reason and in no particular direction. Simply to see what was there. Across the bridge spanning a stream used for paddy irrigation, on around the winding road picking out it's way over the soft ground, through the dust stirred up by passing vehicles and then off a divergent road that held more promise than the dusty traveled one I was then on. Up around a corner of earth and upon a small village quietly resting in the sun and less quietly reeking of odors that can best be termed Korean smells. A group of about five teenage boys were playing with a raggedy volley ball, batting it to one another until it fell to the ground. When I hove into sight they immediately invited me into the ballgame. What the heck, the ball was rather clean and I was out for enjoyment only, so I stepped in ,and we played for a while, they awkwardly in teenage clumsiness, I more awkwardly in heavy clothes and senile stiffness (and that's no joke either). Before long the ball with sublime indifference bounded into thepigpen and I felt the time ripe for an exit. Laughing goodhumouredly about the incident, I walked back up to the road and waving goodbye, continued on my way. Passing a few pedestrians, some with A-frames, some on bicycles, others merely plodding along on their devious errands, I went through valleys, over rises, down small hills, chatting ("hello, moola -I don't understand- goodbye") with the kids, smiling and giving a friendly "Enyahashamika" to the older folks, wondering where I was headed and not caring particularly as long as there was plenty to see and experience. As I went on further, I realized that the mountain had a grip on my shoes and that I was heading for it. Realizing this gave another exhilaration because now I knew that I must reach the summit.

With theblossoming of this realization, I started plotting my course as best I could, not knowing what lay beyond the hills betwixt myself and the mountain, but knowing that whatever it was, I'd get past it somehow. So away, pausing occasionally to snap a picture or to inspect theland ahead. Still passing occasional villages, I presently struck off the road and out over the dry paddies in what appeared a more direct route of approach. However, the valley curved away from themountain so I had to take to the foothills, where were growing small- 2 feet high and scraggly-pine trees, and on which were dotted little peasants raking up the dry organic matter, leaves, straw, anything that would make fuel and building material. Passing some returning to their homes with A-frames filled high, others still raking up loads, I went on, then headed directly up to thetop of one small hill to see what lay beyond and to reorient myself with the mountain which was hiding beyond thehill.

Reaching the summit I saw behind me the valleys, some villages, a few peasants busily raking or walking, and a hill slightly larger than the one I was then on which was the "Mountain" thatwe had climbed one previous weekend. Such a small hill it was and yet so big when we conquered it. Then turning around I beheld the mountain, not bursting into the sky right before my eyes, but rather reaching for the blue a long, long ways away. Egads, it was still miles to the base of it, beyond more foothills and more valleys.

However, there were no more villages to pass, no more roads or paths, simply thetrails left where peasants had traveled from the sites of their brush gathering to their homes. So away I went up and down, marvelng at the rolling hills, apparently frozen in the midst of a high boil leaving them topsy turvy, and yet still smooth and quite easily surmounted. Down, down into a valley, up again to the top of the next small hill, down and up, passing an occasional peasant, seeing an occasional hut where some poor family made a home, past eroded gulleys, past great washed basins of rock and silt, over hills of shale and weather rock dust onto stretches of sand, separated from theshally deposits by only a few inches or feet of transitional material as if layers of a cake had been piled side by side and stacked on edge. All this time going up a little higher than the next drop would be down until I could see in the far distance the hill once so bravely conquered, and now a foothill in it's own right, but serving as a foot to nothing, simply the highest point of a bony ridge far below and nearly in the back yard of the 121 hospital. And then before me and thrusting itself into the sky as in a mad convulsive dance was the mountain, my goal for the day.

And yet here, less than amile from thepeak I could see that it was a problem; the apparent way up, the way looking most passable, would require me to go in a very circuituous route to avoid the great gorges through which I would have to otherwise pass. But this way was also the route by which I'd get the best views of the terrain below. So this was theway up. And away I started, getting only a short distance up when some Korean peasants called me to come back down. Thinking that they might tell me of an easier way up or of the presence of land mines, or of some religious significance making climbing unwanted, I returned to where they were cutting the brush for house-building material. But I was wrong, they merely wanted to talk, to be friendly, to visit awhile with a stranger, one of theboys having in the past been ahouse-boy for some GI unit and thus being able to speak a bit of English. So we talked a bit and then I went on again, up to a near hunk of jagged rock. Then down another small valley and in earnest up the main part of the mountain. It was not easy going now, some of the way being slippery gravel, some just too steep for good traction, but by using all fours and by choosing my route, I was able to reach the first leveling off area, to rest and look around. There way below was the valley where I had talked with the two Koreans, beyond was the little hill on which I had stood to look down on the even littler hill which was a montain a month ago. And still in back of me wasthe mountain as high as ever.

Between myself and the main peak was the gorge,and the route around was very noticeably longer than it had appeared to be at first. But for a distance the way was not too steep, the route runnng along a boney ridge for a way until it came to the next leap up to another level.

Taking a last look and gritting my teeth I went on, following the ridge up to another small promontory. There to rest, to relax my aching knees, the darned things have given out soon after leaving the boys. Then up again to another resting spot to stop and recheck the route ahead. By then I had to split the climb to thenext part into sections and to view each section as a victory in itself. Three spurts would bring me to the next summit, the last one before working my way around the gorge over to the main ridge on which rested the main pinnacle. Away, up two of the three steps to rest, and MY GOD!!! what is coming over the ridge but six papasans with A-frames laden with brush and weed stalks. Good Lord, how did they ever do it! They had swell worn path right over the boney ridge, up here next to the cloud line. And watching them start down a narrow valley, I marveled at the speed with which they descended around boulders, down slippery patches of snow, over shale and weaving in and out without ever missing a step and crowded together with less than five feet per persons. Should the last one stumble, all six would plummet downward to the valley, but none slips – ever. Recovering from this and inadvertantly laughing that I should be so exhausted from lugging a 2 pound camera around while they went speedily over as rough a course carrying 150 pounds of brush balanced delicately on their backs, a final spurt on what appeared to be a path brought me to the peak of the “junior” ridge. A breather, time to take a shot, to smile at the promontory far below that had appeared so high above the hill that in it’s turn had appeared so high above the hill that had been amou ntain just amonth ago. Then on, following this strange path, skirting one secondary peak looming high over my head, nearly gasping at the gorge screaming away down below me, and being confused by the path. Possibly thepapasans went this way, but it didn’t seem likely because of the way it was too narrow to afford passage for an A-frame, and some of the way it was too steep, too jagged for a laden person to travel – I thought. Then above me loomed another peak while the path went off around it. So I, assuming this to be the main peak – I couldn’t tell because I was on the reverse side from whichI had known it and also because it went so straight up that I couldn’t tell what was it’s appearance – left the path and started up the snowy side, clutching onto small brush, using tree stumps as foot-holds, being careful to at all times have a good footing; thus did I struggle up the peak, only to behold anotherpeak beyond, one even higher – across a valley. There was but one thingtto do, go to it. So I did,slithering down the steep but snowless southern exposure into the valley and then clawing up to the next peak in the snow again. A trick here; ledges to swing up over. So I started up, sweeping off the snow to get a firm foothold, then brushing it off to get a good hand-hold, not looking back because it was an awfully long ways down at roughly a 75 degree angle from the horizontal. Up part of the way andthen a problem, the rock cliff was too sheer to surmount, but I couldn’t go back. No schrubs to grasp so I grasped the rock where it made a little nub. Then I pulled myself up until with theotherhand I could reach a pine tree about 2 inches in diameter. Made it. The rest of the way was routine, simply walking, grabbing ahold of any brush thatwould afford it.

Ah, such joy to be nearly at thepeak, and there I was with sky on three sides and just a few more feet of earth in front of me. But suddenly from behind the peak appeared more land, another peak even higher, quite a bit higher, maybe fifty feet or so. Well, I’ll be darned. So near and yet so far.

No sense in hurrying, there's no hope of getting back in time for supper, -- supper, gee I'm hungry, what'll I eat when I get back; and then my mind stayed on food for almost therest of theday. Twenty minutes of four, I had left at twelve thirty, had arrived at the base at two thirty, and I stillwasn't at thetop. So down again into heartbreaking depths, not really far, -- not overthirty feet down, -- but this was rocky here even tho a south slope with no snow. So it was down,and there was the path again. I could see where it wound on around below a sheer wall of 90 degree cliff and on around the mountain out of sight. But I wanted up, not down, I had to get above the rock wall not below it. Looking up at a promontory just beyond the immediate peak, I saw theroof of some small building. Something to see when I get to thetop I thought to myself, whatever it is. Up again thru the snow, to a small ledge running quite smoothly above the rock face, about fifteen feet above the regular path. Made it before another steep place intercepted me. More brushing of snow, but with a small shrub to grasp to pull myself up over. Made it and was on a ledge running in thereverse direction from theone on which I had just come but above it still and going up so I knew that I was making headway. But then the ledge ended except for a good long drop down. Only a sharp turn and up a steep hunk of cliff would solve this one, so that is what we did -- my camera and I. And we made it, too as this little essay proves. Then up on thecrown to shining success. The peak. Even then tho there was another peak of equal height beyond, but I would have to forego it as this onewas as high, and the little building was, I thought somewhere around here, maybe behind that little hunk of ledge there behind me. If I remember right I took a picture or two of the area, and then started looking around for the building. The search brought me to theSouth slope that was sheer rock sloping away at about a 45 degree angle, to theridge running off to the south, and what was on that ridge but the path. Swept off with a broom mind you, swept off with a broom. Glory be, but I've seen just about everything. The building, the building, it ties in with this some way, but how. Stupid I! Of course, it must be a small temple of some sort, built somewhere here for prayer near the sky. Then walking down the rock face a ways, I saw it, the roof jutting above a high point of ledge on my left. I walked overtoward it, and saw it was across a narrow rock walk skittering between two precipices. Over this the devout had to travel? My word, but a religion is hard come by these days! So over I went, of course; if they could do it I could, and the climb had been too hard to not see everything. And there before me was the wall of rock and no way to get around it. To the right? NO, most emphatically no, that was amere elevator shaft and I had no desire to ride it to the bottom, and in addition it would put me on the wrong side of themountain. Before me, well, I hardly think so, that's the roof, and houses are not approached from the roof except by Santa Claus, and I have enough trouble believing in Toledo and Columbus, much less Santa Claus. In back of me? No that would be retreat and it was too early in the afternoon for retreat. To my right? Huh, yes in fact there is a way down between the two lines of rock, small footholes warn into the rock, so down I went, careful not to step on ice -- beyond the ten feet of steps or so was a goodly portion of nature's own elixir-air. With the rock on either sideof me high over my head in this three foot wide alley, I found a corner and good substantial hand-cut steps down to a firm base. Down and around a corner to my right was a small plateau, perhaps 15 feet by 30 feet in the shape of a semi-circle. Leading into it was a trellis gate much like some American flower-gardens have before them, and inside of this gate against the rock wall rested a little and seemingly very ancient praying temple. I walked into the area in front of the temple, read the sign, took a picture of it; and then after ascertaining thatno one was around, I opened up the two doors, held shut by a wooden peg through a ring. How they did creak and squeal with the ghostly sound of Buddhists in full rebellion at this intrusion. Only the sign in English indicated that this was visited by foreigners. Within I beheld several small idols and elaborately decorated surroundings of many figurines. Guessing at the light thatwas gettingin, I took two pictures, backed up to a small lantern at the very edge of the cliff. I hope thatthepictures come out that you may see the small figurines. I closed the doors, looked over the vast vista spread out before me, and started back to thetop again. Then deciding thatit was time to go,l picked out a more direct descent, one that seemed to have a path, even tho covered with snow.

So down I went facing into the fading sun away from the vista, from the peak, from the narrow ledges, the steep cliffs, the little promontories, and the mystic little temple on thetop. Down, down sliding, slipping, on legs that wanted to fold up and never open again, down, down to where the raging torrents of springtime were frozen into cataracts of ice, dripping with cold andpromise of more cold yet to come. All the way down were signs of papasans who had clipped the brush even on the most inaccesible points, to bundle them up andcarry them on A-frames to the homes miles below.

Before I go on, on a map of Korea, you will see that the North China Sea dips into the coastline of Korea somewhat south of Inch'on, and this part of the water I could see from the top. Yes, the mountain is Southeast of Seoul but the sea was still visible from there. Only theinland haze limited my view. Could see little west of Yongdung-po or north of Seoul, only great expanses of rice-paddy extending to the east of Seoul off into the distances to finally give themselves up to more mountains and mist. More mountains, as high but less rugged lay to theeast and the 121 was too far to be seen except i general environs with mountains of last month now only part of a boney ridge in the back yard of Taebong-dong, the village in which the 121 is located.

Well, I descended, tired hungry, and discouraged, not triumphant, not exhilarated, simply satisfied that I had climbed and the place left no unmet challange any longer. Down, with legs simply asking for some level ground to travel on, and after a while, after passing one small home, after going from late afternoon to twilight, I made it to the level paddy land. And yet it was still strange country on a different side from which I had approached it. Still plodding, talking with a few kids occasionally, wanting only to get back to food and a place to sleep, asking only that the trip be done, I walked on in the darkness, seeing only the light of what was now a road leading me onward. Later after passing another village I crossed a dry paddy river, and recognized that the buildings were in the village I had passed on the way out, just before leaving the road and heading out down a divergent valley. Then I thought, if I follow this road another quarter of a mile up through this cut I should be just across the paddyland from our own 121. Now whistling from sheer relief that I was again in familiar territory and within walking distance from home, I went on. Coming arou nd a turn in the road I beheld the most beautiful sight I've seen in a long time. There were the lights of the121, burnng so brightly that I could make out my hut, my laboratory, and even my latrine. Home! I left the road and cut across the dry paddie, over the frozen river to the road, up the road, in the gate and to the hut to eat some food that Bob Lutz had, and then to bed. I had returned at seven thirty, seven hours after I had left.

Now in retrospect it was wonderful, the most ambitious thing I have done since I arrived here. Also foolhardy because it is too much of a mountain to tackle alone,- but I didn't know it at thetime, -- as well as being too far to walk the entire distance and finally being an all-day job including a box lunch andsome water.

And now it is eleven PM Sunday night, after having spent my afternoon in Seoul, so I'll close this now and go to bed.

The time has sped by to Monday night. Just proofread it and made minor corrections. As I was writing it, I thought I was exaggerating, but now I still don't get the great variety of emotions from this that I got from the trip.

I only hope that it was worth reading.