Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Walk Thoughts #222: 2008 versus now, and other thoughts

In 2008, for a period of three months, I went on a long walk. It first took me from Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, to Portland, Oregon. I then walked east from Portland along the Columbia River until I reached Umatilla and Irrigon, Oregon, after which I turned north and ended my walk in Walla Walla, Washington. In all, I went about 600 miles (967 km). The walk's original purpose had been to explore American religious diversity, and the idea was to rely on people's charity along the way. I received a good bit of support from people who wanted to help me manage my walk from stop to stop, and from blog commenters who suggested lodging strategies like Couchsurfing, which I ended up relying on quite a bit.

Looking back on that walk, I'm actually surprised it went as well and as long as it did. I had originally wanted to walk all the way to the US east coast, but a knee injury forced me to stop in Walla Walla and fly back home to northern Virginia. I also had to contend with dire warnings from commenters that there were large swaths of the United States that were simply empty, which meant my very survival would have been in question. Had I ended up in such an empty region, the whole "relying on people's charity" strategy would have backfired. Still, despite the injuries and mistakes, that walk provided me with valuable experience hiking, camping, hotelling, and dealing with (mostly friendly) strangers. It was, in many respects, great preparation for the walk I'm on and am about to finish.

What's different between then and now? Quite a few things, actually. Here are some.

1. Planning. Never let it be said that thorough planning takes all the spontaneity and novelty out of a walking adventure. What planning does, in fact, is keep you alive. I'm glad I planned my current walk as thoroughly as I did; this was very helpful. If I were to change anything for a future bike-path walk, it would be to plot my course using motels as my waypoints, not certification centers. As things stand, the distances that I recorded from Naver were all calculated from cert center to cert center, so I've actually walked several miles more, per day, than I've let on. Having a plan also gives you a framework from which to improvise if necessary. Without the framework, it's just random flailing, and that's dangerous when you're out by yourself. Even though this route was a well-traveled path with plenty of the trappings of civilization along the way, there were still relatively empty areas where, had I been without a plan, things could have gotten bad.

2. Packing wisely. I'm embarrassed when I think about the amount of unnecessary garbage I brought along with me during my 2008 walk. My backpack weighed sixty pounds (37.2 kg), which was almost twice what my current pack weighs. Thanks in part to improved smartphone technology (only just becoming popular in 2008: I had a BlackBerry back then, and it had trouble surviving the outdoors), I was able to cut down on carrying heavy paper maps. I also didn't bring along stupid accessories like thick ropes, heavy carabiners (what the fuck was I thinking?), and other gear made more for mountaineering than for mere road-hiking. Perhaps I was too in love with a romantic notion of what a cross-country backpacker needed to have with him. This time around, guided by realism, I kept things lighter and more portable. The result has been a far more comfortable hike over 350 miles (565 km). This is one reason why I haven't had to stop for week-long and two-week-long rest breaks, the way I did in 2008. And as I predicted, eating my way through my food supplies lightened my load, as did my own weight loss. If I regret anything this time around, it's taking along MREs, which were a mistake. MREs are indeed good for a rib-sticking meal, but they're far too heavy and bulky. As I wrote before, I feel sorry for US troops who have to carry MREs in their packs. If I were in charge of supplying soldiers with food, I'd recommend going full-on freeze-dried.

3. Walking safely. By this, I mean walking without trying to push myself to exhaustion, which can cause problems. Pride and fatigue are a toxic mix, and I'm pretty sure that that's what led to my knee injury in 2008. Digression: I'm surprised that my knees and hip joints have uttered not a single word of complaint this entire hike. I hope I'm not jinxing my final hiking day by saying that. My walks this time around have left me beaten down, but never to the point of being cross-eyed and utterly unable to think. I'm also thankful for the training I did before the walk: staircase training, in particular, has proved especially helpful for handling those hills.

4. Setting reasonable goals. This walk, according to Naver, comes out to around 550 km. Compare that to an open-ended walk that ended up being over 960 km. I'm nearly ten years older, and walking across South Korea, along a safe and well-established path, seemed feasible when I began planning this project. True: there were days when things didn't feel feasible at all, but I managed to march through to my goal almost every single time...except for when I recently stopped early in Namji-eup, thus creating a fourth dragon to conquer. This is the sort of thing I'd love to do at least once a year, but I don't know whether I can take more three-week vacations unless I get back into university teaching. (The problem there is that the vacation months would be terrible months for hiking: either way too hot or way too cold.)

So in terms of both the big picture and the details, I did a lot that was different this time. This walk was much less nebulous in its planning, and the focus was simply to get from A to B along a set of established paths. I don't know the history of how the Four Rivers Project came together (maybe that's something to research), but I'm thankful that someone chose to give citizens and almost-citizens like me (I have an F-4 visa, now, remember!) a chance to tour the Korean riverlands, which truly must be seen to be believed. People steeped in big-city culture should definitely take the time to leave the hubbub and appreciate the big sky, the river-valley winds, and the sights of villages and farms slowly scrolling by.

Were there mistakes made this time around? In terms of items taken that proved unnecessary, yes. I haven't even touched my package of Soylent, with infuriates me because, had I known I wouldn't need it, I'd have ditched the excess weight before even setting out on the trail. Same goes for my huge package of alcohol swabs: I ended up using wet wipes and regular tissues far more often than those swabs, which I shouldn't have taken along. Soylent + swabs = at least 2 pounds shed. A kilogram. I haven't had to use the cord that I'd brought, but I'm actually glad to have it just in case, and besides, it weighs almost nothing and never gets in the way. I do regret purchasing the wrong size backpack cover; next time, I'll buy extra-large so I can cover the entire pack, including my foam bedroll. I also took along a second Grayl filter cartridge, but I never needed to use it.

Other mistakes involve items I wish I had brought with me. I think I mentioned my bamboo back-scratcher, which would have provided an enormous psychological boost, given how itchy and rash-ridden my back has been this whole trip. I also wish I had brought along something to keep my feet warm inside my bivy sack: cold feet were a problem, especially during my most recent camping experience at Mirpia. When your feet are achy from walking all day, then cold when you try to sleep, they'll be achy in the morning when you wake up. That's how I started my 61K-step day yesterday: with still-aching feet. Not fun. Another item I now wish I'd brought was an actual CamelBak. My CamelBak-ripoff water tank was doing just fine until it temporarily died on me yesterday, at which point I lost all trust in it. CamelBaks, by contrast, are popular in part because they're so well designed. With my ripoff (the brand name is Baen Sendi, by the way: yup, it's B.S.), I had to make some, uh, alterations along the way before I could use it the way I wanted to. First, the stupid bite valve was chucked because it wasn't allowing more than a thin trickle of water through. Second, the ridiculous valve cap had to go because all it did was keep popping off while I was walking. If a cap can't perform the function it's designed for, then what good is it? This is probably the same logic that Darth Vader followed when Force-choking useless Imperial officers. With the valve and cap gone, the tank worked fine until yesterday's catastrophic failure. I think the tank will be fine for tomorrow's hike, but I'm wary.

I'm glad I took readers' advice on three fronts: getting a hat, getting toshi, and eating in town. I ended up doing all three, and my trip across the country improved remarkably because I chose to listen to my readers. I'm still going to visit the skin clinic across the hall from where I work so I can be screened for skin cancer, but I think the hat and the forearm protectors did a great job of protecting me from the worst the sun could throw at me.

As for the rest of my equipment: I used all of it, and more than once. The camping equipment waited in the wings for two-thirds of the trip before it finally sprang into action, but once deployed, it all proved effective. My bivy, once I learned how to crawl into and out of it, was mostly fine (except for my feet); the groundsheet did its groundsheet-y work; the sleeping bag was a warm, comforting hug when nights were cold. My simple chemical-briquette camp stove performed admirably, boiling water with crisp German efficiency; my multitool and pocketknife helped me handle boiling-hot pots of water; my filtration and purification systems both kept me pathogen-free and drinking decent-quality water.

Speaking of drinks: the local Nonghyeop Hanaro Mart here in Yangsan did indeed have plum juice, so I'll be filling my tank with that for tomorrow's final hike. Oh, how nice it will be to sip my favorite juice all day long. Sure, the tank will dry up and get sticky, but I'll wash everything once I'm home and re-settled.

My feet are tingly, but feeling largely better. I'm looking forward to my final 17 miles (27.4 km) on the trail. As a guy near 50, who has seen a lot of the world and who is now a bit jaded, I've found this walk to be educational, enriching, and enlightening. I didn't think it would be possible to surprise me, but Korea has shown it has plenty of surprises in store for those who choose to break from routine and explore a bit. This is a land of simple things hidden in nooks and crannies; the treasures are there for the asking, as long as one is willing to make an effort.

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