[NB: this is my final post on this blog. I hope you enjoyed the adventure!]
My walk from Incheon to Busan took 29 days: four weeks and a day. Almost a month, and a day longer than I had planned for. Twenty-four of those days were devoted to actually walking; five days were spent resting. I've had over three weeks to rest and to think about my long trip, so here are some final, scattered thoughts grouped under topic headings in random order.
Differences Between the First and Second Walks
The 2017 walk was a major learning experience, not just about Korea—and the Four Rivers bike path in particular—but about my own limits and my own resourcefulness. Luckily, the bike path was well marked and well traveled; while I did goofily miss a few turns and have to backtrack (as I also did this year), there was no question of becoming permanently lost, and I never had to rely on old-school navigation skills, except perhaps in the most commonsensical way, e.g., Keep the river to my left if I'm heading south or If the sun is over there, and it's still morning, then that's east. Basic things like that.
Doing this latest walk now allows me to ponder differences and similarities. While the two walks were similar on the large scale, they did vary, sometimes to a surprising degree, on the small scale. I did the 2017 walk in the spring; this latest walk took place from early to mid-fall, so the weather was certainly different, although not radically so. As I remarked several times during this walk, the weather was often disappointingly warm for October. Naver led me on different paths several times during this walk, and that was one major difference. I was happy to see some new scenery, but there were moments where I was nervous that I might be veering off into the unknown. I needn't have worried, though: Naver plotted each day's course in a clear and trackable way, so however different the details might have been, I knew, in the end, that I'd be hitting my intended waypoints each night.
On October 19, the night I camped in the "wild," I was able to gauge approximately where I needed to camp by using Naver to help me deduce how far I needed to walk the following day. Once I saw I was X kilometers from the next day's waypoint, I knew it was time to find a campsite. So that was easy enough. I'm pretty sure that the campsite I found wasn't really all that far from the one I had stayed at two years ago, but because I was carrying water bottles and didn't need to draw any water from the river, I had no need to camp beside the river. This didn't prevent the local growling predators from coming uncomfortably close to my bivy bag, but all I did was lie still, and the animals eventually went their own way. All of this is to say that hiking along a well-established bike path presents the hiker with a number of conveniences and advantages that he wouldn't have were he out in wilder regions, e.g., the Pacific Crest Trail or someplace like that. Distances are laid out (with admittedly shaky accuracy) on various mile-markers (well, kilometer-markers); plotting my route was never hard, and that's one reason I've enjoyed walking this path.
Using bottled water, this time around, felt very different from relying on my hydration bladder like last time, but I got used to my circumstances, and perhaps thanks to the somewhat cooler weather, I never consumed enough water to worry about running out. I also never had to worry about hygiene: when I cracked open a 500-milliliter bottle, I knew I'd be drinking the whole thing within a few seconds, probably downing some pain pills while I guzzled. In other words, I knew I'd be throwing every bottle away once I'd used it, so there was never a question of stowing a half-empty water bottle—loaded with germs from my mouth—inside my backpack for later consumption.
Figuring out how to avoid camping, this time, was also a welcome thing. As I wrote before, if I can puzzle out a way to avoid camping altogether, I'll seriously consider hiking this route without any backpack at all. As for the act of camping itself: I'm thinking that I'd like to return to using a tent as opposed to using the bivy sac. The bivy isn't horrible; I got used to it over time. But I'd rather have the breathing room that comes with being inside a well-ventilated tent like the old Big Agnes I used to own (I gave that tent to my buddy Mike's son, along with another $400 worth of other camping equipment). Not that the Big Agnes would have helped me this time around: you'll recall that my October 19 campsite was on a concrete surface that would have provided no purchase for tent stakes. The bivy bag was the better option in that situation.
The final day of hiking felt somewhat different this time. In 2017, there was a deeper feeling of quiet triumph, possibly because that had been my first time ever walking across a country. This past October 26, I did feel a fleeting moment of victory, but the end of the hike also seemed a bit anticlimactic. I had no one to celebrate with except for my readers, and most of my readers were reading the blog only sporadically. That said, I don't know how I'd feel about having a travel companion, someone to celebrate with. I wonder, sometimes, whether my introversion would make me irritable and sullen were I to hike with someone else. That person would have to be someone I've known for years, someone who knows me as well as I know him or her, someone with whom I am utterly comfortable. I can think of less than a handful of people who fit that bill.
That said, the final day of this latest hike was great before it became anticlimactic. I walked with more energy and enthusiasm than I had on any other day, and I went surprisingly fast—almost 5 kph, which is my speed when unencumbered. My feet didn't bother me much during that walk, maybe because I had gobbled my painkillers, or maybe because my brain knew that that was the final day of the hike, so it was flooding my body with endorphins. One way or the other, it was a feel-good kind of day.
So there were differences and similarities between the two walks. This walk was more painful, overall, than the previous walk had been, and that was disappointing because I had thought I'd be more conditioned this time around. I definitely have to look into getting much better footwear, and if I do more of these walks in the future, I have to get serious about losing at least ten kilos before I even begin a trek.
Unruly Facial Hair
Ah, the beard.
Electing not to shave made life a bit simpler, but I never got used to the constant itchiness of all that facial hair. My beard was certainly fuller this time around, and when I got back to Seoul after the walk was done, all of the lady cashiers who knew me at the stores I frequent said the beard was a good look for me. (So did the local pharmacist.) But those compliments aside, I was being driven crazy by the itchiness. Having all that hair on my face also felt like acquiring another bodily sense: whereas before, when I was clean-shaven, I would feel the wind only in my scalp's hair, I could now feel the wind as it rushed over my dang face. That was both interesting and a bit disconcerting. In the end, my default mode is clean-shaven, so when I finally had the opportunity to shave (I kept the beard a few days to scare a coworker first), I grabbed my razor and hacked away at my face for fifteen or twenty minutes until I had restored myself to normalcy.
I used to be curious as to what a half-Korean beard would look like. Previous attempts at growing a beard, including my attempt during the 2017 walk, all ended in failure: I had little to no beard to speak of. This time around, I started growing a beard about a week before I even began my walk, and the result was a bit more impressive. The beard became full enough that, after I showered and toweled off, I would still feel a bit of water on the tip of my chin—water stubbornly retained by my thick beard.
Pooping, Digestion, and Survival Tabs
WARNING: skip this section if you don't want to read some very personal information about bowel movements. Here—I'll create a "skip" button for you to click. It'll take you past this section and over to the next section. [SKIP]
One thing I noticed this walk, even more than I noticed it during the previous walk, was the change that occurred in the way my intestines processed what I ate. If I recall correctly, I actually had a good bit of soft—even runny—stool last time around, whereas during this most recent walk, my stool firmed up to the point where it was sometimes a struggle to push anything out—almost as if I were passing a golf ball. I had at least two or three days where I had to sit on the toilet for nearly a half-hour before a mass would pop out. I could feel the shit-boulder inside me, and I did what I could to flex the major sphincter and persuade the crap to pop out, but it took a long, long time for anything to happen. This is probably the closest I'll ever come to understanding what a woman goes through when she's giving birth. (And, granted, a baby is much larger than a turd, and it's coming out of a much more sensitive hole.) You can try pushing the turd out, but you'll quickly discover that that has a limited effect. Ultimately, it's time that matters most: the sphincter needs to come to its own conclusion about relaxing and allowing the hard ball of feces to exit the ass.
Is rock-hard stool any better than soft, runny stool? I'd actually say yes: it's not ideal, but it indicates that the intestines, jolted into life by all the walking I was doing, were doing what they could to absorb every bit of nutrition I was ingesting, no matter the quality of the food, as well as to absorb every milliliter of water from the food. This super-absorption is the cause of my turds' dryness and hardness, and I'd much rather suffer from that condition than from runny turds because, obviously, having dry, hard turds means that you don't need to shit as often. That fact cuts down on the probability of experiencing the hiker's nightmare: having to shit at a random moment where it's not convenient to just drop one's pants and let fly into a cathole.
So once again, I'd contend that heightened physical activity is the gift that keeps on giving. It makes you regular (something I knew already from my long-ago jogging days), it solidifies your stool, and it keeps you from having those sudden, awkward, gotta-drop-a-load moments while on the trail. In 2017, when I was out camping, I had to take a shit three or four times during the night. I dreaded having to do that this time, but guess what? I didn't shit once on either night that I camped. I was able to wait, in both cases, until the next day to take a dump.
I think the consumption of Survival Tabs may also have helped in this regard: I ate Survival Tabs on the day before I knew I would be camping as a way to keep my stomach empty and minimize the need to shit. While the Survival Tabs weren't particularly tasty, they did their work. If I had this walk to do over again, I'd definitely bring along Survival Tabs one more time.
Conclusion: physical activity firms up your shit and gets you into a better digestive rhythm.
Cardio and Strength
I did far less step training, this time, in preparation for the walk, but the walk itself proved to be good conditioning when it came to cardio. Especially toward the beginning, the hills were few and far between, but even on flat ground, I could feel my cardiovascular fitness improving such that, by the time I was tackling the two major hills of the Saejae Trail, I was ready. There was only one hill, this time, that was so steep I was forced to stop once or twice to catch my breath. All of the other hills were doable without stopping.
Of course, trudging uphill is as much a matter of strength as of cardio. While this walk did nothing for my upper-body strength (I wasn't blasting out pushups and/or pullups during breaks or motel stays), it certainly improved my leg strength. The feeling of strength gave me the confidence to face any nasty hills with grim determination. While it's true that I did experience a flood of relief each time my Naver GPS routed me around a major hilly obstacle, I also didn't shrink from the challenges that came my way, including that extra hill that appeared thanks to Naver's rerouting.
Footwear, Damage to Feet, Foot Pain in General
The topic of my feet is as big and broad as my feet are, but I'll try to be succinct, here. My New Balance walking shoes, as much as I loved them, were a major cause of foot pain during this walk. It could be that buying size 13s would have solved that problem, but I'm not convinced my feet are quite that big. Maybe they are, but it's hard for me to tell. The feet have certainly increased in size over the past few years, ever since I became an active distance walker sometime during my year in Daegu (2013-14). Wrapping my right pinky toe in Leukotape was, as it turned out, a costly and painful mistake: the tape took up room and caused my toes to be squeezed even more tightly inside my shoe's toe box, which in turn caused the toe to swell painfully, all while it was gathering fungus inside the Leukotape, which I didn't take off until the final day of my walk. I'm not convinced that Leukotape is really worth the hassle; I already take a dim view of moleskin, which is the hiker's go-to product when dealing with blisters, and after this latest experience, I'm more convinced than ever that Don't fuck with it is the best rule to follow when dealing with blisters. If the blister pops, then fine. If the blister doesn't pop, then also fine. Simply walking straight through the pain of a blister strikes me as the best policy, and by not wrapping the blister up, I can keep washing the affected areas on my feet without risk of jungle rot. (I exaggerate, of course: whatever fungus may have gathered around my pinky toe is long gone: it was gone the very night I peeled off the Leukotape and swabbed and washed and de-callused my feet. So this wasn't a case of trench foot.)
I did what I could to manage my foot pain by taking my pills—ibuprofen during the day, and aspirin at night. My feet would never be totally healed the following morning, but the pain tended to recede once I got going. After nearly a kilometer of walking, I was generally able to go at a steady pace. The best solution to this problem, from what I know, is to remove as much weight from the equation as possible, which means a combination of (1) reducing backpack weight to something negligible and (2) losing a significant amount of weight off my body. I'll be looking into more minimalist backpacking as I continue to delve into the world of YouTube vids for avid hikers. I've learned a lot from this crowd of veterans already, but there's a ton more to learn. Some of these guys cross thousands of miles along trails like the Pacific Crest or the Continental Divide with barely ten pounds of gear, food, and water on their backs. I'd like to reach that level of hiking expertise.
I would massage my feet, sometimes, during my breaks. I made an effort to take breaks about every 12,000 steps, but that wasn't always possible: there were often long stretches where there would be no benches or no shwimteo, thus no place to sit except straight on the ground, something I only rarely did because of the bug factor: critters like crawling into your clothing the moment you're on the ground. But whenever I could, and assuming I remembered to do so, I would massage my feet.
As a diabetic, I have to consider purchasing walking shoes made for diabetics. I think, too, that my condition militated against me this time around, which is why I ended up in more pain than in 2017. This trend is reversible; I know it is. But reversing diabetes is a herculean task requiring herculean will, and I'm not exactly known for being Mr. Willpower when it comes to food, especially sweets. It was reassuring to discover, after the walk was done, that my HbA1c numbers had dropped from nearly 10 (absurdly high blood sugar) to around 7 (close to the high-normal reading of 6). I managed that feat without letting go of my precious sodas, which I ended up drinking pretty much all along the trail, except on the days when I was out in the middle of nowhere and had to camp. If only I had been able to keep walking for another month: the doc might have been shocked to see by blood-sugar level at around 5.
Other Health-related Issues
I had worried that catching a cold would be a potential problem, but as I've noted several times, the daytime weather was unwontedly warm pretty much the entire way down. The early mornings would be cold, but once I got going, I would warm up from the mere act of walking while encumbered. I did put on layers a couple of times, but those layers would be stripped off within a couple hours' trekking.
Despite the annoying level of warmth during the day, I didn't sweat as much as I did in 2017. I did, however, seem to sweat just enough that I avoided needing frequent piss breaks. In 2017, I would stop and randomly take a whiz at the edge of the path rather frequently; they say that frequent urination is a problem for most diabetics. I wonder if the drop in frequency of the piss breaks might also have to do with water-absorption, discussed above in the section on pooping. There were other factors at work as well, such as my diminished need for water (no more than 1.5 liters per day consumed while on the trail, compared to routinely drinking 3 liters in 2017).
I didn't suffer any injuries during the walk, either. Part of that stemmed from the fact that the Four Rivers Trail isn't a very difficult walk in terms of terrain (made for bikers, it's over 90% flat), and I had picked a good time of year in which to do the trek. I also knew to take breaks whenever I was tired, so I never repeated my stupid mistake from 2008, in which I ended up stepping into a pothole, falling, and injuring one knee because of fatigue and concomitant loss of balance. I was also mindful of the ground beneath my feet at least most of the time; that awareness certainly didn't hurt. I didn't get into any fights, fall off any bridges, slide down any embankments, or engage in overly risky behavior.
So: no colds, no frequent piss breaks, and no major injuries.
Lodging With and Without a Bed
Most of the motels where I stayed had Western-style beds. When I camped, I was either on soft ground or hard concrete. A couple places had more traditional, Korean-style bedding, i.e., thick blankets that you fold in half, lengthwise, and pile up to form something fairly soft. Jangsu Pension's bedding felt hard and uncomfortable, but part of the reason for that was that Jangsu was early in the trek, and I hadn't had time to get used to sleeping on floors or hard ground again. Libertar Pension, despite being so expensive and luxurious, also had traditional bedding; by the time I had reached Libertar, I was used to sleeping on hard surfaces again. The second night of camping wasn't too bad, despite the concrete (I had my foam roll to soften the ground beneath me), and Nakdong-jang Yeogwan wasn't bad, either, despite the lack of a bed.
I had trouble with some of the Western-style beds early in the walk: at one or two motels, the beds' mattresses were far too soft, which isn't good for my back: I'm a big guy who needs a firm mattress. I noticed, though, that after a certain point, maybe somewhere after the first third of the walk was done, I had no more trouble with any of the beds I slept in: they all had firm mattresses. Fancy that.
Relative Friendliness of Bikers
Back in 2017, I noted that bikers who passed me tended to be friendlier—i.e., more ready to greet me when I greeted them—when I was outside of the big cities. As I approached Busan, though, the bikers became less outwardly friendly and more reserved, perhaps reflecting a standoffish, big-city mentality. This time around, the percentage of friendly bikers was lower, even when I was far from any major urban areas. Go figure. The stoniness of the bikers outside of Busan was still the same as last time, but there was less of a contrast between that and the rural stretches this time.
I found myself, at several points, wistfully remembering some of those 2017 encounters—the woman who shouted "¡Buen camino!" in Spanish as she whipped by me on her bike, for example, and the bikers who handed me a bunch of food when I arrived at the Sang Gwa Gang Pension. With some sadness, I even remember the dog I had met a couple times before. True: the dog wasn't a biker, and I've been talking exclusively about the comportment of the bikers, but I missed the little pooch all the same.
Overall, though, random Koreans are more likely to greet you when you're on the trail—especially if you're wearing a big backpack, which almost always becomes a conversation piece. This time around, there was more to talk about thanks to my tee shirt which, despite not being marked entirely correctly, nevertheless showed all the basic information about my trip: travel dates, total distance, cities visited, etc. When you're just another schlub walking along a city sidewalk, by contrast, no one pays you any attention unless they're racist foreigner-haters, and those bad apples are pretty rare. Racism might still be a problem in South Korea, but overt, aggressive racism is fairly uncommon these days.
Meeting Fellow Walkers
I didn't meet only bikers, though: I met a few fellow walkers this time around. In only one case did I meet a couple who were walking from Seoul to Busan together, but I did meet another walker or two who were doing a section of the total path. With most of these good folks, I spoke in Korean. With one or two of them, I used English. Meeting these people was unplanned; I simply took such encounters in stride (walking-related pun not intended), and we had a pleasant time, even though my foot pain sometimes detracted from the experience.
Nature: Flowers and Wildlife
I'd like to think I paid more attention to the natural loveliness surrounding me this time. Korea really is a place of great beauty, and a large part of that—along with the endless agriculture—was the flowers that adorned so much of my path. I did start to think of the cosmos flowers, in particular, as something akin to Mom's spirit or presence or memory accompanying me during my journey; there were times when that feeling was strong enough to alleviate some of my foot pain. I felt reassured, watched-over; I knew everything was going to be all right. The cosmos plants faded out a few kilometers before the very end on the final day of walking, but that in itself felt like Mom letting go, the way she'd had to let go whenever I went on an overseas trip as a much younger man. And it's funny: if you look at the pics I took on my final day of walking, you'll see that another species of flower, stubby but somewhat cosmos-like, took over the job of seeing me to the end. Go back and look at my last-day pics one more time, and you'll see the flowers I'm talking about. Like regular cosmos plants, these flowers' stems had thin, spiky-looking leaves instead of the large, flat leaves you'd normally associate with, say, roses. Were these, in fact, a relative of the cosmos? I have no clue. Perhaps a plant-savvy commenter can tell me more.
As for other wildlife: I met a few possibly feral house cats along the way, as you saw in my photos. I saw a few small, wild deer bouncing through the high brush on a few occasions—rushing by too suddenly for me to take any pictures. Like the deer in the States, these animals weren't always afraid of human civilization; they lived and foraged just at the periphery. During an utterly random moment, I saw a couple goats that had been tied up in an area of tall grass. There were those mysterious, growly-yowly predators that I encountered—the same ones that screeched in the night back in 2017. And we can't forget the myriad spiders and insects that lined my path: the fat caterpillars, the mantises, the ants, and everything in between. There were some snails again, this time, but I think I managed to avoid killing any of them. When my foot crunched on one snail shell, I looked back and saw the shell was empty. No bad karma that day.
Tackling Hills and Being Rerouted
Days 2 and 3 on the Saejae portion of the path saw me going up some big hills. When I say "big," what I really mean is long: Day 2's hill was somewhere around 2 km long, and Day 3's hill was a full 5 km long. Neither hill was too difficult in terms of its slope, but both hills were quite a trudge. Later hills along the Nakdong River portion of the path were fairly nasty, but none of those hills were five kilometers long. Naver rerouted me past two particularly steep switchbacks, and I admit I was relieved. I don't miss those stretches of the path at all, and if I were to do this route again, I would allow Naver to make the same choices for me. No regrets.
Meals, Eating/drinking Habits
I ate one meal a day, although I did snack on many occasions: if I passed by a convenience store or a small-town grocery, I would often buy a Snickers or some other chocolate bar along with my usual drinks: a 500-mil of Coke and a 600-mil of Chilsung Cider, Korea's answer to Sprite and 7-Up. As I've mentioned a few times already, I drank no more than 1.5 liters of water every day, which made me wonder, toward the end, why I kept insisting on carrying 3 liters of water with me. It wasn't until the very last day of walking that I decided to proceed with the 1.5 liters of water remaining to me, without buying any extra water bottles at the local convenience store.
Eating one meal a day is pretty much the intermittent-fasting schedule, which normally involves taking in a somewhat reduced number of calories during a six- or eight-hour period, then drinking nothing but water (and/or maybe some bone broth) for the remaining 16-18 hours of the day. For me, this was more a matter of practicality than a dietary regime: I knew that, if I ate too late in the day, I'd pay for my mistake by needing to poop while out on the trail. So I learned, back in 2017, to time my meals a certain way so as to avoid that particular inconvenience. It worked out better this year than it did two years ago: I experienced not a single poop-timing-related problem during my walk, and I'm bizarrely proud of that fact.
Disappointing Weight Loss
Coming home to discover that I had lost only 6.5 kilos was a huge disappointment, only somewhat assuaged by the doctor's visit during which I learned I had reduced my blood pressure and radically reduced my blood-sugar levels. It's been three weeks since my return to civilization, though, and I know I'm rapidly regaining my lost weight and re-sugaring my blood. At this point, I have a crystal-clear idea of what I need to do to get my numbers in better order; it's just a matter of buckling down and doing it, however unpleasant that prospect might be.
Age/diabetes as a Factor
What made this year's walk more difficult than the one done two years ago? I'd say that age was one factor; I did just turn fifty, after all, a realization that tends to send one over a psychological cliff. If the body follows the mind, then that at least partly explains why I had a harder time on the trail this year. Glib reassurances notwithstanding, age isn't just a number: it's a real indication of how much time you've spent on this earth, and an actuarial indicator of how much time, give or take, you have left on this earth. I half-joke with people that I'm going to be dead by sixty; the Korean side of my family has never been very long-lived. Mom didn't make it to 67; her mother died in her fifties, and her father died in his forties. I never had the chance to meet either of my Korean grandparents: they were both dead before I was born. On my father's side, my grandparents were alcoholics. Dad refused to touch alcohol as a result, and he's currently 77, the same age as Harrison Ford (they're both 1942 babies). Still, Dad's side of the family, like Mom's, has a history of cardiac problems, and Dad had a heart attack in 2006, so I've inherited some bad juju from both sides of my family, which makes me think that, either I won't make it to 60, or I won't make it much past my 60s. The diabetes and obesity don't help matters, either; I'm a prime candidate for all sorts of maladies ranging from stroke to fatty-liver disease to God-knows-what-else. I've had moments where my Korean doc would look at my numbers, then give me a look that said Why haven't you exploded already? The fact that I'm alive now is miraculous. I'm on borrowed time. Every breath is a reason to be thankful that my number hasn't been called.
Things I Regret Not Photographing
I took a ton of pictures during the walk, but there were a few missed opportunities. In some cases, I failed to take a picture because that would have meant having to cross the street, expending precious energy and wasting precious time. There was one shwimteo whose pic I had wanted to take: the thing was incredible. It had two full-sized couches on it, a thing I'd never seen before. It was utterly alien and utterly decadent, and it completely violated my aesthetic sensibilities: shwimteo are already for sitting, so why put chairs or couches on them? Seems kind of redundant. Another photo I failed to take was on the very last day of walking: as I hiked along a packed-earth portion of the path, I came across a human footprint. I surmised the footprint had been made when the ground was soft and muddy, then the ground had dried and hardened, turning the imprint into something vaguely reminiscent of a fossil: early homo Koreanus. The strangest thing about that footprint was that it meant the walker had been barefoot—and Koreans almost never walk outside barefoot.
There were times when I'd wished I could have taken pictures of large pelotons of bikers. Whenever huge trains would whip by, whether KTX bullet trains or regular ones, I'd think that it might have been nice to take pictures of them. I missed the chance to take pics of various dogs and cats and chickens along the path, and while I did catch one live snake on video, I missed a few others. Same goes for some tiny lizards I encountered. Some photos weren't taken because I was low on battery power and too lazy to switch out the battery or recharge the phone with my power pack. I deeply regret not getting a picture, early in the hike, of a shwimteo that looked like a rectilinear bus stop made of rainbow-colored bricks: that had to be the happiest-looking shwimteo of the entire walk.
Handling Camping Differently (& Eliminating Camping for Future Walks)
Bringing along bottled water and Survival Tabs radically changed some aspects of the little camping I did this time around. I didn't have to collect water from the river, so there was no need to bring a filtration/purification system—no Grayl, no tablets, and no hydration bladder. All I had to do was pack out whatever trash I packed in. I also didn't bring along any food, relying on whatever I could find in town, and that turned out to be fine. All of this saved me several kilos of weight in my pack, and it also meant that camping was merely a matter of spreading out the groundsheet; unrolling the bivy sac, the foam roll and my sleeping bag; and then deciding whether or not to pop out my contact lenses before going to sleep. Protected by the bivy, the sleeping bag, and the foam roll, I never had an overly cold night, although I did feel a bit squeezed-in thanks to the coffin-like shape of the bivy. Yeah, I really want to go back to using a tent. Camp meals were simple: just eat some Survival Tabs long before even reaching the campsite. As fat as I am, I could afford to starve a day or two with no ill effects.
If possible, I want to see about finding a route along the Four Rivers trail that would eliminate the need for camping at all. This time, I was able to reduce the number of nights camping from a projected four to an actual two. This makes me greedy: I think it might be possible to reduce two nights to zero, and if I manage that, then I can, in theory, walk the entire country without a backpack. Dedicated hikers and distance walkers sneer at this sort of thing, calling it "credit-card tourism" because you're using your money to motel your way easily across long distances, but since my purpose, in walking the bike trails, isn't the same as a hiker's purpose in crossing, say, the Pacific Crest Trail, I'm not bothered by the credit-card aspect of such a walk. Doing a true hike is a major step up in terms of difficulty, and such a hike would mean a shift in both degree and kind: not only would a true mountain hike be more intense, but it would also be a different animal entirely in terms of goals, raw experience, etc. I'm not sure I'm ready to do such a hike. For the moment, I'll stick to distance walking.
No Unpleasant Guest House
In 2017, arriving in the Sangju area meant staying at (or, rather, trying to stay at) that awful Sangpoong-gyo Hanok Guest House. This time around, I went almost a kilometer up the road from the guest house to stay on the grounds of an art school that was listed on Naver Map as a campground, even though I saw no camping facilities when I got there. That was a bit of a surreal experience, and getting up early the following the morning was equally surreal: the path was dark and cold and foggy thanks to the thick blanket of mist covering the nearby river. I met an old man walking the path while it was still dark; we didn't do more than greet each other, but it was strange to think that that guy had probably left his house earlier than I had left the art school, just so he could walk the riverside path in Lovecraftian darkness—a darkness that reminded me of the French marais when I was in Le Vanneau-Irleau last year. That walk, too, was an eerie one in the early morning. Easy to imagine huge, silent, tentacled creatures from a next-door hell-dimension slipping into our reality and collecting a few isolated souls before returning to their home universe.
Anyway, eerie ambience aside, it was a pleasure not to have to deal with that guest house and its ditzy, scatterbrained proprietor this time. A real relief.
The Infinite Importance of Naver Map
And here is where I sing the praises of Naver Map, the phone app that got me out of several pickles whenever I blundered off the proper path and had to turn around. True: the path was generally so well marked that, even had I not had Naver Map, I could have found my way back to the true route on my own. But having Naver Map was a real comfort—not merely for its GPS-nav capabilities, but also for its distance-measuring feature, which I've come to trust far more than any of the silly distance markers I walked past on the way to Busan. I used Google Maps while navigating in France, but Google is problematic inside of Korea. Google doesn't make updates anywhere near as frequently as Naver does, and I suspect that it was these Naver updates that ended up rerouting me past those two nasty hills in the latter part of my walk. I did pay a price, though: one rerouting put me onto a roadway which, while not exactly dangerous because there was so little traffic, was nevertheless uncomfortable whenever a car or truck would pass close by me. The other price I paid came when I had to climb that surprise hill (see previous link, above), which was added to my route thanks to Naver's rerouting. Hill or no hill, though, Naver never did me wrong: I always arrived at whatever waypoint I aimed for. What more could a man need?
What To Do Differently Next Time
I'm not even sure there will be a next time, but if I do walk the Four Rivers Trail again (perhaps two years from now if I can finagle permission from my boss), there are things I will want to do differently. I'm only beginning my education when it comes to reducing pack weight, but the next time I do this hike, I hope either to have no pack at all or to be using a pack weighing no more than 5 kilos (that's the base weight, which includes the pack itself). If these hardy dudes on YouTube can walk thousands of miles with under ten pounds on their backs, then I can, too. It's just a matter of studying what these guys do and trying their strategies out for myself. Now that I have PDFs of other walkable routes (thanks again, Paul Carver!), I can test these strategies out via section hiking.
I also have to lose a significant amount of body weight. There's no getting around this. No pro-level hiker is overweight, and all of these hikers move fast. My buddy Mike proposed that he and I walk one of the paths of the Camino de Santiago when we turn sixty, which motivated me to begin studying up on the Camino. I recently found an article humorously titled "10 Reasons Why El Camino Santiago Sucks" that details many of the problems of walking the Camino. The article's author is a super-experienced hiker, though, which partly explains his scorn for us little people, i.e., the slowpokes and the tourists. He writes of walking 60-some km in a single pop, which to me is a herculean achievement, and not something I'm likely to do, say, twice in a row during a single trek. Anyway, most of the hikers whose videos I've been watching on YouTube are at about that level as well—easily walking 50 or so kilometers in a single day, and on mountainous terrain, no less. That's a level of athleticism that I'm far, far from attaining, but I'm going to have to think about improving my own game if I plan to incorporate distance walking (and eventually distance hiking) more fully into my life.
So those are the two biggies: lose pack weight, and lose weight.
Lastly: Equipment Performance
I've probably written a bit about my equipment, here and there, throughout this latest walk, but in this final section, here are my thoughts—all in one place—about how well my equipment performed.
Let's start off by talking about the equipment that I brought along but didn't end up needing. Anticipating late-fall, almost wintry conditions in the latter half of my walk, I brought along gear that I thought I would need to keep my fingers, face, and neck from freezing. I never used this gear, so it was silly to bring along gloves, a neck-warmer, and a winter cap. The only real cold I experienced was in the very early morning; once the sun came up, the earth warmed fairly rapidly, and my own body provided plenty of warmth because I was moving all day. Thinking back on the walk now, several weeks later, I feel rather silly about taking winter gear along with me. Some other gear that I didn't end up using: my spare nylon cord, my lighter, and my reflectors.
Then again, if we're talking about cold-weather gear, my winter vest—a gift from my former boss—proved very useful on a few cold mornings. It was the perfect insulation to wear beneath my windbreaker, which was another useful bit of gear. My windbreaker has a label inside it that claims the jacket's material is waterproof, but that's bullshit, as I've long known. The windbreaker tends to protect me for the first few minutes of a rainstorm, but once it's soaked, it lets the water right through to my skin. This time around, in anticipation of rain, I carried a poncho that I had ordered from Amazon, and the poncho worked great. It was easy enough to put on, and it didn't interfere with my backpack whenever I had to put the pack on. The shape of the poncho's hood, which struck me as weird at first because it looked like a widow's peak, proved to be perfect for keeping most rain out of my face. I felt much better about walking in rain thanks especially to the poncho. And while we're on the subject of rain gear, I'll note that my backpack's rain shroud did a perfect job of protecting the pack from all rain. I was lucky this time: the shroud could fit around the pack because I was able to stow my foam roll inside the pack instead of under it.
So let's talk a bit about my backpack, which is an 85-liter Gregory Baltoro, replacing my older and larger Gregory Whitney 95. Although smaller than the Whitney, the new pack proved to be a workhorse. I generally ended up liking the well-thought-out system of straps and zippers and pockets, all of which allowed for easy access to the pack's main chamber... except for two rather annoying diagonal straps on either side of the pack, which had to be unbuckled if you wanted to open the large, U-shaped zipper to get to the pack's main chamber. I was slightly annoyed by those straps the entire hike; I never got used to them. While I understand their utility and their purpose, I hope Gregory finds a better way to deal with the structural issue that these straps are supposed to address. One thing that surprised me about the Baltoro 85 was the chest strap, which never failed despite my dire predictions that it would. I'm still not convinced that the chest strap is a good design; the design hasn't changed from the 2008-era Whitney 95's chest strap, which was a shit-show. I did carry along an extra band to serve as a replacement chest strap in case the Baltoro's strap gave out, but as things turned out, I didn't need to use the spare. That said, I will always bring that spare with me on every hike because I remain thoroughly paranoid about Gregory chest straps in general. Everything else about the backpack worked great: the pack aligned nicely with my back without too much pulling and tugging; the hip-belt assembly worked well once I jury-rigged it with my own belt (which also proved tough, thank Cthulhu), and the shoulder straps were much more comfortable than those of my old Whitney 95. All in all, I'd say my new pack is a keeper, and I'm glad to have put some miles on it.
My shelter system worked fine, although as I've said several times, I'm going to change back to a tent. The bivy is good, and it fulfills its purpose well, but it's a bit too confining for my taste. I'd rather go back to my old Big Agnes tent, which I used in 2008 when I was trying to walk across the US. A tent is a pound or so heavier than a bivy, what with the stakes and support poles, but I'd be willing to take on an extra pound if it meant a better night's sleep.
What else? My first-aid kit proved useful on more than one occasion, especially when I finally tended to my right pinky toe. My trekking pole's goat's-foot began to wear out in a weird diagonal pattern, as you saw from the photos of the final day of my hike; my shoes wore out significantly as well. My "tech kit" saw plenty of use: the portable power pack, the charging cord, and my spare batteries. Fortunately, the weather never got cold enough for me to worry too much about power drainage in the batteries. That was never an issue. I had also brought along a month's worth of meds and other pills—blood pressure, blood sugar, vitamins, psyllium fiber, etc. I began running out of vitamins and psyllium around the final week of my journey, but by then, my intestines had developed their own rhythm (read the section on pooping, above, unless you're faint of heart). I used my trowel exactly once to make a cathole into which to poop while camping, but the poop never came out. "Empty promises," as my buddy Mike calls such situations. I kept myself supplied with ibuprofen throughout the journey; when I was in the Suanbo area, the lady at the pharmacy kept emphasizing that These are 400-milligram pills, so take only one at a time. 400 milligrams! She kept saying that over and over, trying to impress me with the danger I was in. I, of course, nodded impatiently, knowing full well that whatever effect she thought the pills would have would be blunted by my sheer body mass. And sure enough: I didn't suffer any ill effects at all from constantly OD'ing on ibuprofen. No brain bleeds. No rectal bleeds. Nada.
In sum: I took a few ounces of equipment that turned out to be unnecessary. In terms of supplies, the heaviest thing I carried was water—an unnecessary 3 liters when all I really needed was 1.5 liters, given the time of year. Aside from that, I made good use of most of my gear, and a lot of that gear proved sturdy and trustworthy, often performing better than I expected it would.
In the end, I'm very thankful to my bosses at the Golden Goose for allowing me to go on this trip. It hurt my wallet and my bank account to take two unpaid weeks of vacation, but it was worth it. I'm in love with the Korean riverlands, and it was great to be back on the Four Rivers path, which feels now like an old friend. There were aches and pains along the way, but not enough to make me conclude that the trip wasn't worth it. I think that, even if I had to drag myself along by only one arm, I would cross this beautiful half-peninsula again. I'm fifty now, so I don't know how many more of these trips I have in me; if I can do them only once every two years, then I don't have many trips left. If I can somehow figure out a way to do these trips yearly, well, that would make me a much happier guy.
I don't know that an experienced distance hiker would find the Four Rivers path to be very interesting or challenging. One's standards depend greatly on one's experience and fitness level. People like the aforementioned guy who wrote the article disparaging the Camino de Santiago are at a fairly rarefied level of athletic ability and accomplishment; I'm still down in the valley somewhere. And while I'm looking to improve myself, I'm not looking to become an Olympic-level hiker. I appreciate these paths not for the fitness they cultivate, but for the vistas they show me and the lessons they teach me about this, the country I live and work in. Doing these walks is a way for me to get to know South Korea better. This is my home for now; why not show an interest, right?
And you know what? I think I finally figured out a hiking poem:
my friends, my friends, the stick and pack!
now in my hand and on my back
we step into the morning dark
and on a journey we embark
the path ahead is long and rough
but morning sun will be enough
our pace, so eager, knows no slack
we walk across the dragon's back!
we focus on the road ahead
we go where others may have led
their bravery a guiding star
their deeds defy us to walk far
and so I walk, but ne'er alone
my friends, who hear my ev'ry groan
in balmy sun or rainy wrath
with stick and pack, I find my path
for what is life if not a walk?
a chance to hear the cosmos talk?
we set ourselves a goal each day
but more than goals, we prize the way!
a million steps through time and space
the flowers shine and waters race
but when we reach the journey's end
the path is now another friend
we step into the breaking dawn
the path is here but leads us on
so forth we go, friends: stick and pack!
we walk across the dragon's back!