Deer Mountain

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Photo by Grant Wadley

Hiking embodies a natural form of traveling. There are no planes, trains, or cars that will take you to your destination. You have to get there with your own energy and will – and with your own two feet. On a lucky day when it is not raining, the sun cascades over the quiet fishing town of Ketchikan.

The ocean tides lay low. The salmon escape the fishermen for a day. And on these rare sunny days, people take the opportunity to go on hikes. The first time that I ever hiked was in Ketchikan. The destination was a cabin on the foot of Deer Mountain, a beloved trail that many locals recommend for novice hikers. I was certainly a category below having never physically put myself through a physically draining hike.

Deer Mountain is geographically located in the Tongass National Rainforest on the island of Revillagigedo: the island that Ketchikan is located on. It is visible on any given day, because of its high altitude and snowcapped peak. The hike to the top of Deer Mountain is 2 to 3 hours in duration depending on the person’s experience. I first embarked on the journey with a couple of companions. The moment we arrived at the beginning of the trail I saw how immense and expanse the vegetation looked. The trees shot up towards the skies. Their branches blocked the view of the sky, creating a meandering pattern. “The Redwoods has a competitor” I thought. I had a great first impression of Deer Mountain’s trail. Surprisingly, the animals that seemed at home with such an environment were nowhere in sight. There were neither bears nor eagles in sight. My expectation of a Bambi-esque parade was a long shot. Trees at the side of the trail stretched towards the canopy, an area that many birds rested. I whistled intently on getting their attention. No answer came back.

I also started thinking about the many people who have hiked the Deer Mountain. It must have been years since the first person embarked on this journey. Each step I made was a recreation of their first hike. I seldom dragged my feet to respect the forefathers of the trail. I clutched my backpack as we started on the trail. And then it happened: I took my first step. The first step of any hike is always the most daunting. Many thoughts go into your head: How long until the top? Will we see anyone else? Will we find a place to camp? The first few thoughts I had were different from these concerns. I felt ill-prepared. I felt intimidation. I felt pressure. Every ounce of earth came down with that first step. But it was the most important one, because it was a choice that I consciously made. It was my contract with nature to trek on and reach the summit.

During the first hour of the hike, we trailed along the man-made path that had a mixture of dirt passages and wooden bridges. The trails zigzagged continuously like a staircase to heaven. I soon started to use my friend’s golf club as a walking stick. I followed my friends’ every step as they trekked on, hoping to learn a few things from the seasoned hiker. Our first major breakthrough while hiking to Deer Mountain was when we reached the first lookout. This occurred about an hour and a half into the hike. My friend stopped abruptly. He pointed out at an opening of the trees, which was near the edge. From where he pointed, I could see the nearby islands sitting idle. They looked like motionless ducks in God’s earthly pond. For a few minutes, we sat down and enjoyed the momentary view. I was amazed to be at this height. For the first time ever, I was taller than any person in town.

With this opportunity of rest, my friends and I regenerated in nutrients. Afterwards, we blazed the trail with Trail mix in our stomachs. The final leg of the hike made me itch to get to the top. The path started to become narrower. It was rockier and less vegetated. If we were to slip, the convenience of grabbing at a branch would be to no avail. I paid attention to my steps, focusing on mine more than my two companions. We carefully surged on for the next hour attempting to reach the campsite by the late afternoon.

It was now a little past two. The sun started to descend from its zenith. We were able to still feel the rays envelop us. A narrow, steep path along the edge of the mountain was our final obstacle. The path was about 14 inches in width, ascending towards the foot of the mountain. We slowed our pace to carefully navigate our way up. I made the mistake of looking over the edge. I saw the pebbles beneath my feet crumble and fall into the daunting forest. The forest never looked so terrifying. But then when I looked beyond I saw a big blue lake. The lake was shaped like a pair of sunglasses. It was fitting for the weather considering that the sun was pelting down on the body of water. The rays reflected onto it, producing a mirror image of the sky and its clouds. My fear diminished at the sight of the wonderful lake.

Sooner or later, the slope we hiked up flattened out. We had finally made it up the rocky edge where the narrow path laid. As we stood for a moment, I looked at the setting ahead of us. And what I saw was absolutely refreshing. There were pastures of greens as if we were in the fields of Edelweiss. Purple flowers sprouted at our feet. I felt them tickle my ankle. Little ponds were scattered nearby. A brown cabin nearby waited to welcome us. We had finally reached the foot of Deer Mountain.

Walking through the pasture, with the flowers still tickling, we arrived at the log cabin. Chatter emanated from inside as we opened up. Three of our girl friends were in there having hiked up earlier in the morning. We all embraced the surprise and smiled, knowing that this was an unplanned and mystical reunion. We chatted and talked about our journey. One of the girl wore flats. “I was bred in this land, so hiking up without boots is no biggie.” After a few shared moments, the girls bid their farewell and journeyed back down before the sun set.

My two friends and I made sure to leave our packs in the cabin, a way of claiming the cabin for the night. With the bags finally free from our backs, we easily made it up to the top. Finally at the peak, my tall friend knelt to touch the metal marker that showed we had made it to the highest point of Deer Mountain. On it showed the elevation:3000 feet. I knelt down to feel the marker as well. Our hike was officially complete. In celebration, we exchanged stories and laughed at the reality of them. We hit golf balls off the peak. We snacked on our rations. We sang songs. We were in the thick of nature, away from a noisy civilization. It was fitting day for our escape.

When the day started to end, we walked back to the foot of the mountain. We gathered twigs and branches to make a campfire outside of the cabin. But before we returned to the cabin for a campfire, we walked towards the hilly edge at the foot of Deer Mountain. My friends and I lied down and enjoyed the view. Lying on our backs, we saw a chemistry of colors in the sky. We watched the sun dip between the thin clouds, producing a red and orange glow; the fading blue sky provided a natural backdrop. The green pastures were in shadows while the purple flowers swayed in the evening wind.

The sun had finally set in paradise that is Ketchikan, Alaska. Though I am not an expert in nature nor travel, the hike to Deer Mountain was the first experience that taught me a few things. We are all born into the wild. We all have an odyssey. We all have a desire to travel and wander where we may see the sun set and rise. And if the hike is well worth it, you might one day set foot in paradise.

Scratching at the surface of a dream

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Int. Dreams. Night 

Last summer I hung out with a group of teenagers that skated. We lived in Seoul and had nothing but time on our hands. Some had quit earlier but started picking up skateboarding again. Some had been skating for years without having to quit. I in the former category. And as an unemployed 21 year old, I had nothing to lose. 

These guys had the ferocious appetite to jump down ten-stairs and thrash the grind box. They were miles better than me and I taught myself to get back onto my feet after a nasty slam. I became a more resilient person. 

Last night, I encountered them once again. 

It was a sunny day in Ketchikan, Alaska. I had no idea why I was in Alaska other than the fact that I used to live there. I heard that a new skatepark was built there recently, so maybe I desired to check it out. More specifically, my old high school was in Ketchikan, a low populated school known primarily for its basketball and dreary location on a city upon a hill – as if it were one. 

The only change that the school had was its appearance: a parking garage built in the gravel carpark that sits right out front of the school. The same guys from Korea that I skated with were sitting atop the new construction, jumping off of it with their boards.

I instantly had a flashback to one particular kid, a 12 year old that was the best of the lot (if you look closely, he’s the one with khaki pants and a trucker cap). He jumped off casually, letting the rare sun be his guiding light. He was the only one able to jump down the wide five-stair set at Colt Park in Seoul. However, we were far from Seoul from what I could tell. 

Then I heard chants. 

“Kris! Kris! You have to jump down this! It’s 21 feet, and since you’re 21 it’d be like a champagne birthday!”

“But a champagne birthday is when you turn the same age as your birth day. I was born on the 11th! I already had my champagne birthday”

“A champagne jump then. . .”

I felt fear looking up at the drop. The medical bills, the pain, and the risk was not worth the cost of looking cool. I’m not teenager anymore. Pain comes more easily. But what struck me the most was that I was afraid to jump.

Sooner or later, I decided to run up the stairs that led to the top of the parking garage. I start to push off the board towards the edge.

*

Even though it was a dream, it seems that the absurdity of observing it is similar to the absurdity of the past. Trying to document an experience continues to be an endless excavation that leads me deeper into the morning. It’s backbreaking to say the least. 

The shared absurdity lies in this idea: to look to deep into both dream and past is sometimes as absurd as interpreting what the doubloon in Moby Dick means. The past is a dream, the dream is in the past. You could even bookend the discussion by saying “Life’s a 21 foot drop” and expect to add significance to what that means (which is a normal thing to do). 

As a matter of fact, it is the environment and the way it changes that seems less absurd. In dreams, in the past, and in the present, it is the scenic environment that collides with others like the stroke of a paintbrush. One moment you’re young, the next you’re old. One moment you enter the forest, the next you’re lost in it. One would have a better chance at observing the environmental change that occurs when moving from one dream sequence to the next, or from one place in the past to the future. It’s a basic way of describing what plot means. 

On a skateboard, the scene changes fast enough as it is. The least of my concerns when I am riding one is the gravel left behind. What matters the most is the thrill of feeling like I have a place to skate to with a group as lost as I am. 

And of course, the last thing I’d want to do is break my bones. 

Full Circle

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I just finished watching the final Harry Potter, and I felt a great amount of happiness at how the story had come full circle. Full circles are a funny and strange thing in life. An event in your life happens one time when you are young, then later you encounter a familiar feeling, place, or person that you somehow forgot about. As a military brat for 21 years of my life, I feel justified to say that this world is too small to carry in the palm of your hand. 

Speaking of Harry Potter, in the “Deathly Hallows” there are many examples of this idea of full circles such as when Hagrid carries Harry; in the beginning book “The Philosopher Stone,” Hagrid carries a baby Harry toward the stoop of his aunt and uncle’s place; at the end of the book series, “The Deathly Hallows,” Hagrid carries a grown Harry towards Hogwarts, one that is presumed to be dead. 

One example that I can think of in my own life, one that sometimes feels too fiction to be reality, is when I reunited a person that I remembered from my elementary days in Naples, Italy. This person that I met was a musician known for family music such as providing songs to Winnie the Pooh. A musician that is known for touring all over the world from school to school – public or DoDDs. The only problem was that I did not remember his name as a 10-year-old boy.

Fast forward 11 years later, I am living in Seoul, Korea. More specifically, outside the Army base Yongsan, located just north of the Han River and a few train rides away from the heart of Seoul. I had been volunteering as a librarian at the elementary school on base, a gig that I mustered up the energy to commit to. I was unemployed and felt that I needed a purpose that would be cemented as a “life experience.”

After a few months of volunteering at the American school, I had the opportunity to write a features article on a musician named Dan Crow. I had been writing a bit, finishing a novel in November for NaNoWriMo and freelancing articles for the Stars and Stripes Korea. I gained the opportunity through the librarian I assisted – a kind young lady that was good friends with this Dan Crow. When I looked at his flyer that advertised his concert, I realized that I was looking at the face I saw about a decade ago. It was the same musician known for his family songs, the one without a name all of these years. 

When I went to his concert, he played the same songs that I heard when I was 10 years old. I sat with the row of children near the front, criss-cross style, looking up at amazement of his “humazoo,” an instrument that made humming noises. It was the same kind of humazoo that blared through the cafeteria of that modest Italian school. 

After the concert, I approached Dan Crow. I interviewed him a bit, which eventually turned out to be a pure discussion on music from the past and present. I learned that he lived in the Appalachians as a young man; while living there, he learned how the true roots of folk, often participating in hootenannies to play his original songs. I even was able to pitch in some ideas of how I felt about music nowadays and some of my favorites in from the past – some Pet Sounds era Beach Boys, Scott Walker gone baroque, and early Paul Simon. The starstruck child in me felt equal with a musician with a history as rich as the natural landscape. 

Our conversation lasted an hour or so, turning more into a discussion than an interview. I mentioned to him “Dan, it’s strange that I finally got to meet you after all these years. I saw you before yet I did not expect to encounter you again.” He agreed with me when I mentioned how humanizing the experience was. 

And you know what? Full circles are a humanizing experience. They are everywhere: like the unexpected encounter of an old friend or the familiar feeling of being in a place like the library. Once you recognize them, the familiar feeling that you sense becomes an answer in your life. You realize that even though you are becoming older, there are ways to feel young again. It’s a magical return to the feeling that you felt when you first read your favorite book.

 

“What’s up?”

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Well, that’s certainly a loaded question. I remember when I’d casually ask that question without any second thoughts to old neighborhood friends. I was a kid in Naples, Italy  and I lived just a skateboard ride away from my friends’ apartments. They’d usually tell me “We’re going to go play a game of pick up basketball. Want to join?” In response, I’d gleefully respond “Yes!”

Nowadays when I ask this question the usual response is “Nothing much.” In response (now), I ask “Yeah same here.” And deep down, I know that the only person that I am bullshittingis myself.  What is nothing much? Is it a self-defense mechanism to express the modesty of a pretty awesome life? Asides from being pretty deaf in my right ear, having to commute an hour everyday to school, and living in many places throughout my entire life; there’s more to that nothing much. In fact, it’s awesome to know that I can mute out most of the bullshit that happens on my right side. An hour on the train gives me time to read and wonder what other people are thinking. Not living in one place helps me not to get too attached to an environment that perpetuates natural change. 

The only realization that I keep having as I keep growing up is knowing that things are far away. Friends, family, and life. Perhaps, that’s why the meaning is tough to find. It’s too far away to reach. For now, I’ll crawl my way to it if I have to.

As an act of posting this, I must warn you, all of this is a figment of imagination and nonfiction. My life is filled with both real and unreal moments. What’s more real than knowing you’re broke as a college student? What’s more unreal than losing your mind in the woods after a day trip? My life is filled with shades of gray, not because I am sad or depressed, but because there are inexplicable things that happen. So I’ll just sithere with my feet in the stream trying to claw at whatever the hell this means. Keep in mind, I’m neither right nor wrong.

This is my only way to humanize such an experience and enjoy the ride.