Wednesday, November 18, 2020

epilogue

What a walk, eh?


Despite the horrible sunburns on my hands and wrists and face, despite the chronic foot pain and the minor inconveniences when dealing with bitchy motel managers, I'd have to say that this third trek along the Four Rivers bike path was the best walk yet.  I lost the most weight I've ever lost while on the trail, and I avoided the dishonor of entering a vehicle and being driven any distance.  Nothing but walking, baby.  My own two feet.

Stats

Total steps walked (including rest days):  1,011,249
Total steps walked (not including rest days):  981,730
Average steps per walking day:  44,624 (slightly more than last year)
Total distance walked (not incl. rest days):  610.14 km (379.12 mi.)
Average distance per walking day:  27.73 km (17.23 mi.)
Money spent (US credit card):  $270.69
Money spent (ROK bank account):  W2,257,730  (about $1986.45)
Average daily caloric deficit (according to My Fitness Pal):  9,997 (can't be right)
Total weight loss:  12.5 kg (27.56 lbs., or 1.25 lbs. lost per walking day)
Revised avg. daily caloric deficit based on weight loss:  4,384
Belt-hole "score":  from 7 belt holes to 3, i.e., a 4-inch loss around my waist

Differences Between 2020 and 2019/2017

This was my third time along the Four Rivers trail.  Above, I described this experience as "the best walk yet."  Let's unpack what "best" means.  First, this walk didn't see me get into a motor vehicle of any kind.  In 2017, I had no choice but to be SUV'ed from one guest house to another, and this caused problems because I had to perform make-up walks.  Last year, I stopped at a dam and got a ride to the Jeok Gyo Jang Motel, ten kilometers down the road, because I didn't think I'd have it in me to do those final kilometers after having already walked 32K.  This year, I bit the bullet and walked the full 42K instead of accepting a ride.

Second, I didn't camp at all this year, which did make me feel silly for wearing a backpack that proved unnecessary.  If I ever do this walk again, I'm going to figure out a way to avoid camping and wearing a backpack.  The resulting lack of encumbrance will mean a reduced number of calories burned, but the improved level of comfort will be worth it.

Third:  I had ordered Survival Tabs, thinking I'd need to eat them the day before a camping day (as a way to avoid having to take a squat), but (1) the Survival Tabs never arrived because of a Korean Customs snafu, and (2) it turned out I didn't camp, so I didn't need them.  Meanwhile, I tried and tried to contact Hanjin Shipping about the Customs issue, but I got no response.  The Survival Tabs are gone, as far as I'm concerned.  Money wasted.

Fourth:  I'll talk about this a bit more in the following section, but I experienced a lot less pain this time around.  This was surprising, given how little pre-walk conditioning I'd done.  In 2017, I took my conditioning pretty seriously, walking encumbered along the local Yangjae Creek, going up and down staircases and getting myself ready for what I believed to be a massive endeavor.  Last year, I conditioned myself even less, and this year, I was even lazier about prepping my body for the rigors ahead.  I think I was betting that the conditioning I had done over the years would have sunk deeply into my bones and could be brought back to the surface after just a few days on the trail.  And I think I was right:  the body does indeed remember and adjust itself to the effort of distance walking.

Fifth, the actual route I took did vary at certain points this time around, as you will have read if you followed my journey from the beginning.  I found a couple shortcuts, and I stitched together certain segments to avoid camping, and the result was, on occasion, different terrain and scenery.  Every single walk has been unique in that regard, and this is partly due to the fact that the Four Rivers path is itself not a single path so much as a network-like set of paths that all generally lead you down from Incheon to Busan.  There were choices and options, some of which took me along detours or alternate routes.  Except for my beast of a 44K day, I enjoyed every diversion.

Footwear, Damage to Feet, and Foot Pain in General

The new, foot-hugging hiking socks I wore proved to be pretty good—almost as good as my old, reliable REI socks that date back to 2008.  I think they may have contributed to the bruising under some of my toenails (bruising that always eventually ends up with me losing toenails), but there was little to no sock-related pain.  And my New Balance walking shoes, which I had thought might be a problem, proved to work better than anticipated.  I had thought the shoes' tongues would bunch up and abrade the tops of my feet, but that never happened.  I had also worried that the sides of the shoes would pinch my pinky toes, and while that did happen (my right pinky toe is only now shedding the thick, dead skin of a blood blister that had formed early in the walk), the problem wasn't as pronounced as on previous walks.  I suffered very little toe-pinching pain.  My third worry had to do with the "pre-wear" of this pair of shoes:  I had bought the New Balances sometime last year, I think, and they had already been through a lot of local distance walking, so I wondered whether the soles' treads might have been wearing down.  They were, in truth, a bit worn at the start of this walk, but I took a gamble and didn't buy a new pair of shoes.  Result:  the soles did wear through one layer of rubber by the end, but this wasn't enough to cause foot-support problems.  As things turned out, I was just fine.  And because I didn't wrap my right pinky toe in Leukotape, I didn't experience any of last year's horrific swelling and fungus.

Other Health-related Issues (Colds, Hay Fever, etc.)

I had brought along my pharmacopeia, which included things like painkillers and cold medicine, but the pills I ended up using the most, aside from my ibuprofen, were my Claritin allergy pills.  For the first half of the walk, I felt as if I were either suffering from hay fever or reacting badly to dust or microorganisms in the motels where I stayed.  The problem was annoying, but not debilitating.  There were a few days where I thought I might be catching a cold; aspirin and sore-throat meds took care of that feeling.  The latter half of the walk was largely free of all these problems, luckily.

Relative Friendliness of Bikers

The bikers I encountered along the way followed the general rule that, the closer you are to big cities, the more standoffish they become.  Being out in the middle of nowhere somehow correlated to more overt friendliness; I jokingly thought of the boonies as "the Greeting Zone" as a result:  I could nod in greeting to a passing biker, and he'd nod back or even utter a greeting.  But near cities like Daegu and Busan?  Forget about it.  The final day's hike to the estuary was one of the most unfriendly, standoffish hikes of the whole trip, and I finally gave up on greeting any passersby.

Recurrent Themes and Tropes in My Photos

There are certain things that catch my eye every time I do one of these walks, and I think those recurrent themes and tropes have solidified, somewhat, since 2017.  I obviously have a deep fascination with shwimteo (those pavilion-like or gazebo-like rest areas), and if I'm not mistaken, I've talked about that fascination in my previous walk blogs.  Shwimteo (pronounce it something like "shweem-taw") come in several polygonal forms—usually square, hexagonal, or octagonal.  They can be old-school or modern in design, and while the primary building materials are generally wood, they can be topped with roofing tiles that are wood, stone, or even plastic or metal.  The elements holding the struts and planks of shwimteo together can be wooden, metal, or practically anything else that's sturdy and fairly durable.  The more hilarious ones have chairs and even couches on them ("hilarious" because a shwimteo's floor is what you normally rest on:  the floor is your chair, so it's redundant to put chairs or couches on top of a chair); some also sport household appliances like refrigerators and electric fans.  It's not clear that a shwimteo has to have a roof; I've seen plenty of roofless rest areas that, to my mind, qualify as shwimteo given their obvious intended function.  Most important, though, shwimteo speak to me as a distance walker because they are both symbols and reifications of the very concept of rest—an important thing for a tired traveler-on-foot.  I've felt thankful, almost as if to a benevolent living being, whenever I've had the chance to enter a shwimteo, swig some water, take some meds, and then lie on my back for thirty minutes with my legs draped over my backpack.  I've experienced pangs, during some segments of my walk, when I've gone over ten kilometers without seeing a rest area; on such occasions, I have to force myself to remember that the Four Rivers path was designed primarily with bikers in mind; for that crowd, distances all seem more compressed, such that the distance between any two shwimteo isn't that long.

And I guess we need to talk about the trope that has become a running joke:  abandoned gloves.  Seen singly or sometimes in pairs, these sad cast-offs tended to appear along roads; very few gloves showed up when I was on a dedicated bike path.  My friend Tom asked me why these gloves were being tossed away; I guessed that, because they were all work gloves, they were being tossed aside by tired laborers who no longer had any use for them.  Some work gloves in Korea, like the famous red-rubber-dipped "string-knit" gloves, can be bought in large packs, which implies how disposable they are.  The resulting pollution, when people toss away their work gloves, is unfortunate, but when I was on the trail, I saw a weird beauty, and even some humor, in how those gloves looked—sad and forlorn, with their fingers often arranged in weird, arcane, or even vaguely vulgar gestures, like esoteric Hindu or Buddhist mudra (sacred hand positions).  The gods were talking to me through those gloves, a divine discourse of digits.

I also tended to photograph bridges.  Bridges are fascinating in terms of their form and function, and they range in size from the very humble to the colossal, from modest spans to near-unimaginable feats of engineering.  The smaller bridges allowed me to cross creeks; the larger bridges loomed overhead in a cathedral-like way, their pylons like the pillars inside a Catholic church, evincing an austere geometry.  Bridges lend themselves easily to the artistic aspects of photography; their angular nature allows the photographer to frame and compose shots without having to think too hard.  The issues of light and shadow and perspective intrude on the consciousness whenever there are bridges; these structures are inherently artistic.  They can also, in their own strange way, be sources of comfort along the lines of shwimteo.  If a bridge is wide enough to cast an impressive shadow, it can provide solace from harsh sunlight or from rain.  If such a bridge also has benches underneath it, the setup can be welcome, indeed.  Many bridges do, in fact, get used as shelters for things ranging from rest areas to parking lots to playgrounds for children.  Why waste all that under-the-bridge space?  I would often try to photograph bridges from an angle, whenever I got close enough to turn to the side and take a picture of the span stretching across a river.  In many cases, I would follow up my "approach" shot with a shot from directly beneath the bridge, capturing the cathedral effect of the many receding pylons.  Sometimes, I would even take a shot of the bridge after I had passed under it:  one last, longing look.

Then there's the amusing topic of roadkill.  Korea is full of life, but everywhere that there is life, there is also death, so I did my best to balance out my pictures of rice fields and gardens and forests and barking dogs with memento mori images of dead things—usually snakes or unfortunate insects, but also the occasional rodent.  As you saw if you followed this year's adventure, I got another shot of a "vampire deer," just like in 2017.  I don't know whether I was initially conscious that my photography was taking on an agenda—the agenda of balancing things out:  sky and ground, life and death, water and earth.  But once I started thinking about why I kept photographing roadkill, I began to realize that this wasn't simply a "just because" reflex:  I was tacitly expressing an awareness of the interplay of yin and yang around me.  Being in nature, even if you're following a relatively easy bike path and passing through towns and cities, makes you aware of how the world moves according to its own cycles and rhythms:  everything is in process, and once you look at things that way, you realize that death is merely a species of change.  And everything is always changing, like it or not.  Roadkill are a sign that death is not the end of the story for the material shell that houses you:  your physical elements remain part of a larger process, part of the Tao.  Life is all about flow, clumping, swirling, and scattering.  Rearrangement.  I was walking the Four Rivers path, but I was learning that every phenomenon was, in its own way, a sort of river, and as Heraclitus said, no man ever steps in the same river twice.

And then there were the rice fields, which I never tired of photographing.  Agriculture, agriculture, agriculture:  Korea is verdant and bursting at the seams with the products of agriculture.  My perception, this year, was that the rice harvest was late by maybe two weeks:  although the amber waves of grain I'd photographed last year also had a tinge of green about them, this year's crops looked a mite greener, and I saw far fewer instances of harvested rice on long, rectangular sheets, spread out and raked into furrows by the roadside to dry.  I loved it when I did see carved-out sections of rice fields that had obviously been harvested; it was obvious that not all rice fields were maturing at the same rate.  Along with the rice fields were the numerous plots filled with other vegetables:  mysterious leafy greens, squash (very prominent), chili peppers, and God knows what else.  A few times during my walk, I thought about what the harvest must look like in North Korea, where farmers often have much to fear from droughts or floods.  South Korea, by contrast, is a cornucopia when it comes to its produce, and that includes fruits:  I passed orchards and rows of apple trees, persimmon trees, and peach trees.  I'm now curious to find out what the records say about Korea's average agricultural productivity.  How does one even talk about such a thing?  What terms and units of measure does one use?  Tons of apples per year?  Sacks of rice?  Tarpfuls of drying chilies?  The mind boggles.

Spiders!  The ubiquitous, industrious orb-weavers could be found on certain trees and even along fences and railings.  Green on the tops of their abdomens and a combination of black, red, and yellow on the bottom, these spiders fascinate me, so I took many opportunities to photograph them during the walk.  I have to confess, though, that I made a horrible discovery at one point:  during a previous walk, I playfully finger-flicked one huge spider, thinking that I'd send it flying into the bushes where it would automatically start building a new web.  Instead, my finger hit the poor spider's abdomen and burst it, covering my hand in startlingly kaleidoscopic guts.  And that's how I learned how delicate these arachnids are.

One of my absolute favorite things to photograph had to have been any sort of road or path receding into the distance (cf. this blog's banner).  In this, I betray my American love of the open road and the big sky, which both represent freedom and futurity.  These are the sorts of photos that end up as computer-desktop wallpaper, the kinds of images that I can stare at and stare at for minutes on end, my heart filled with a deep longing to be back out on the open trail.  The concept of "open road and big sky" might seem foreign here in tiny little South Korea, a country squeezed into half of an already-small peninsula, but the road and the sky are here, and here in spades.  You just have to leave the big city to realize this.  Because I've done this trail three times now, the meaning of the receding path has evolved:  in 2017, I'd say it symbolized the excitement of an unknown future, but in 2020, such paths seem instead to lead to something familiar and comforting.

There were other things I liked photographing as well.  I enjoyed creeks, especially when they would run toward a river as tributaries.  I was attracted to road signs, which I often hoped might serve as a way for you, Dear Reader, to figure where I was at any given moment.  I mentioned barking dogs earlier; I didn't photograph too many of those because I didn't want to provoke them, but I did snap shots of a few such critters, faithfully guarding their masters' properties.  I would often joke out loud whenever I heard the barking start up:  "You're too late!" I'd call out to the dog:  "You should've spotted me two hundred yards ago!  Bad watchdog!"  Creeks, road signs, bad dogs—the list of tropes goes on.

When I think about hiking along the east coast next year, I have to wonder what sights I'll see.  Much of the route will be beachfront property, so there'll be fewer farms.  Based on some YouTube videos I've watched, I know that the east-coast trail does what I suspected it would do:  it often swerves inland, away from the water, leading through towns and over hills and such.  It won't be a flat trail by any means, nor will it be All Ocean All the Time.  I wonder if the "roadkill" I photograph will be forms of sea life that have contrived to get blown landward.  I wonder whether I'll get sick of seeing a long procession of sashimi restaurants from town to town.  One thing's for sure, though:  there will be a whole new set of recurrent tropes during that adventure, and I'll document as many as I can.

The Rattlesnake Issue

You'll recall I saw a tail-twitching snake on my way downhill from the Ihwaryeong gate on Day 13.  So I Googled "snakes that twitch their tails when threatened" because I was curious as to whether I had seen an honest-to-God rattlesnake, despite my buddy Charles's statement that rattlers are found only in the Americas.  Were there other snakes that twitched their tails? I wondered.

Here's what Animals.Mom.com says:

Most rat snakes, kingsnakes, gopher snakes, pine snakes, bullsnakes, milk snakes and kingsnakes [sic] vibrate their tails when frightened. While they're not as loud as the sounds produced by rattlesnake tails, they do often create an audible buzz as their tails contact substrate or cage fixtures.

That's enough to convince me that the snake I'd encountered was no rattler.  I'm still not sure what kind of snake it was, but I might follow Charles's advice and slap my images up at some site devoted to talking about snakes.  So:  mystery solved.  Sort of.  That was definitely not a rattler.

The Equipment Review

I ended up hiking with a lot of equipment that I ultimately didn't need.  This was because I had initially thought I would be camping at least one day on the trail.  Thanks to some rerouting via Naver Map that I did while en chemin, I managed to eliminate all camping days.  This proved to be a mixed blessing:  the 44K segment took me along local highways, forcing me to play in traffic.  That segment was also a slog:  it's one thing to walk 60K from Seoul to Yangpyeong with no encumbrance, but quite another to walk 44K with an 11-kilo pack on my back.  My feet had been relatively undamaged up until that day, but after doing the segment from hell, the blisters started appearing.  I am, however, now convinced that a person can hike across South Korea without a backpack if the route is carefully plotted out.  Upshot:  I'm going to talk about the performance of my equipment now, but keep in mind that, in reality, most of it proved to be superfluous.

We'll begin with my beloved backpack, the Gregory Baltoro 85, which I purchased in 2018 and used during last year's trek along the Four Rivers path.  The pack performed admirably; the chest strap remained where it was and didn't pop off.  While it's too soon to say, it could be that Gregory did, in fact, improve its chest-strap design.  We'll revisit this issue in a few years; my old Gregory Whitney 95 didn't develop a chest-strap problem until it was fairly old and worn.  My current Baltoro has great storage capacity, and its array of pockets makes it convenient to use:  everything is easily accessible, such that unpacking and repacking are both a cinch to do in a short amount of time.  The pack's hip-belt assembly remains problematic:  it's still not designed with us fatties in mind, so as you know from previous blogs, I've jury-rigged the thing by slipping in my own leather belt, with its old-school prong-and-hole setup.  The Baltoro also sits more evenly on my back than the Whitney ever did; the Whitney used to lean annoyingly in one direction or another.  On the rare occasions when the Baltoro wasn't properly settled on my shoulders, it was easy enough to tug on some straps to readjust the pack's position.  All in all, I'd say that, if you're going to go backpacking, you really ought to go Gregory.  (I wouldn't mind becoming a shill for the company, to be honest.  Gregory would be an awesome sponsor.)

My New Balance walking shoes are worth a few column-inches.  I got these shoes via Amazon; they're size 13s, and they're the widest shoes that Amazon sells.  As I mentioned earlier, I had purchased these shoes long before this walk, so they were already a bit worn in the soles when I started the trek this past September 28.  Luckily, the shoes performed well, reducing my overall foot pain and not developing any sole holes.  The PowerStep orthotics inside my shoes proved to be just what the doctor ordered, far outperforming the painful Costco orthotics that my boss had given me.

My Cascade trekking pole, purchased at Yangjae Costco back in 2017, somehow lasted the entire hike despite there being a very well-worn goat's foot at the pole's tip.  I was, in the end, too lazy to hunt down a proper replacement tip for the pole before the walk began, so my laziness led me to gamble that I could make the 600-plus-kilometer journey with what I had.  The gamble paid off, but the tip is now so worn that, if I use the pole for a subsequent long walk, I'll have no choice but to either replace the tip or buy a new pole for next time.

My hat and my toshi (sleevelets) both worked out fine.  As the photos at the beginning of this epilogue will attest, the toshi, despite being rather timeworn after years of use, were particularly effective at screening out the sun, leaving my hands to bear the brunt of Sol's unrelenting wrath.  My hat didn't entirely protect my face, but once the initial sunburn appeared on my nose, and once the initial peeling had occurred, my face was fine after that.

The Chinese-language Question

When I was by the Chilgok Dam on Days 17 and 18 (October 14 and 15), I took a walk up a local hill to a structure that seemed temple-like at first glance, but which proved to be little more than an observation tower.  There was a Chinese inscription at the tower's entrance that looked like this:


Commenter Brian, a reader who also who frequents John McCrarey's blog, offered the following observation:

Kevin, the Chinese writing on the pagoda structure you came across translates as “Guanyin’s Hands Temple.”  Guanyin is a famous goddess in the Chinese sphere, especially in Taiwan.

I didn't reply to this because something smelled funny about it.  I'm familiar with Guanyin, having written about the goddess long ago.  As I noted in 2009, Kwan Yin is a Chinese goddess of compassion.  When Buddhism arrived in China and was being Sinicized through a dialogue between Indian and Chinese holy men, the Indian bodhisattva of compassion Avalokiteshvara was "ported" into Chinese culture:  Avalokiteshvara became synonymous with Kwan Yin (full name:  Kwan Shih Yin, pronounced Gwan-sae-eum 관세음 in Korean: "observe-world-sound," often roughly translated as "hearing the cries of the world").  And so it was that the male Indian bodhisattva underwent a sex change to become the female bodhisattva of compassion Kwan Shih Yin, or Kwan Yin for short.  Buddhism, in its drive to gain converts, appropriated a local Chinese goddess and made her part of the Buddhist pantheon.  The power of marketing.

So there's the first problem:  the above picture shows three Chinese characters, and you normally need two characters to say Kwan Yin's name.  The next problem is that I know what the characters are for Kwan Yin's name, but do those characters appear in the pic above?  Kwan Shih Yin (or Gwan-sae-eum) is rendered as 觀世音.  Take out the middle character to get Kwan Yin (or Gwaneum):  觀音.  It could be that, in the picture, the rightmost character is gwan (觀).  Where's the yin (音)?  We also still need a character for "hand" and a character for "temple" for Brian's suggested translation to work.  That adds up to four characters, though:  Kwan-Yin-hands-temple.  The character for "hand" is pronounced su in Korean, and the Chinese rendering looks like this:  手.  This character also doesn't appear in the above pic... unless the middle character is a very poorly (or strangely) rendered su.  Finally, the character for "temple" is pronounced sa in Korean, and it looks like this:  寺.  As far as I can tell, this one definitely doesn't appear in the three-character sign pictured above.  Maybe that leftmost character is some sort of synonym for sa/temple, or maybe it means something more along the lines of "shrine" or "raised platform."

So there's reason for skepticism.  I can't dismiss Brian's comment outright, though, because Brian could come back with a source that definitively proves the three characters in the above photo do indeed somehow mean "Kwan Yin's Hands Temple."  But even if they do, the inscription makes no sense since the structure itself is most definitely not a Buddhist (or any other sort of) temple.  In Korea, temples have clearly defined spaces that serve specific functions:  there are altars; places for the monastics and the laypeople to sit, stand, pray, and worship; paintings like taeng-hwa (Tibetan thangka); statues and sculptures both large and small, depicting ranks of celestial beings; special shrines that stand off to the side, away from the main dharma hall.  What I saw in that tower was a simple, unadorned space that was painted with generically East Asian imagery:  cranes, dragons, flowers, etc.  There was nothing specifically temple-like there.  So even if, reading right to left, the first two characters are gwan (short for Gwan-sae-eum) and su (hands), I'm very skeptical that "Guanyin's Hands Temple" is the correct translation for the above-pictured inscription.  The third character is definitely not "temple" (sa/寺), and the structure itself—nothing more than a deck—isn't a temple at all.  No offense meant, Brian!  I'm just a Doubting Thomas.  Feel free to come back to me with a source for your translation, though, and prove me wrong!

Walking Without Resorting to a Vehicle

Death before dishonor!  Of the three trans-Korea walks I've now done, this walk was the first one in which I didn't have to stoop to riding in a vehicle.  In 2017, I was obliged to take an SUV from that one nasty guest house to a second nasty guest house.  Last year, I accepted being driven ten kilometers in a flatbed truck from Hapcheon-Changnyeong Dam to Jeok Gyo Jang Motel.  The following morning, a driver took me back to the dam, and I resumed my walk right where I'd left off.  This year, I bit the bullet and walked the whole 42K stretch to the motel.  It felt good not to rely on any vehicles this time.  It's a tradition I'd like to continue in future walks.  On a practical level, I suppose there's no real shame or dishonor in accepting a ride if you get dropped off where you were picked up, but I can't help thinking that not getting in a vehicle at all is the highest honor.

Walking Without Actually Needing a Backpack

Once I discovered how to avoid camping by stitching certain segments together and/or using shortcuts, it felt silly to walk with a backpack.  I credit the backpack with aiding my weight loss, but aside from that (and as much as I love my Gregory), the pack felt superfluous.  I haven't solved the question of which specific gear items I'd drop, nor have I thought through the question of what I'd use in place of the Gregory, but I have about a year to ponder these problems.

That said, I can engage in some tentative speculation.  John McCrarey had asked me, early on, what sort of alternative pack I'd use, and the design that keeps floating into my head is something custom-made and based roughly on a Scottish kilt:  my scaled-down pack wouldn't be a backpack so much as a hippack (if that spelling isn't too awkward).  The idea is to keep the weight of my gear off my spine and shoulders.  In my hypothetical hip-pack (yes:  let's insert a hyphen to make things less awkward), there'd be a system of large pockets and straps that would dangle from my waist like an exaggerated, saddlebaggy version of Batman's utility belt.  The hip-pack would be able to hold a foam roll (via straps), if necessary, but it wouldn't be built to hold other camping gear.  The pack would be secured by belting it around the waist, so maybe it should be called a waistpack instead.  The idea riffs off the hip-belt assembly of a standard hiker's backpack:  the idea is to keep the weight of one's gear firmly on one's hips, and never on the back and shoulders.  I imagine the various pockets dangling down to about knee level, but unlike a kilt, which is a unified skirt, each vertical "column" of pockets would be mounted on its own separate, independently swinging rectangle of tough fabric—maybe five such rectangles in total.  The pockets would be capacious, but they'd hang below waist level so as not to impede arm swing.  The end result might actually be pleasing to other hikers, too:  you'd have a much lower center of gravity once you loaded all your gear into the waistpack (or whatever we end up calling it), and no back or shoulder strain at all.  This is a pack, of course, not a clothing item:  you'd still be wearing your hiking pants, so you wouldn't have to worry about showing off your manly bits as you walked while wearing this thing.  What I haven't figured out is how the waistpack will behave once your legs achieve a steady hiker's rhythm.  Will the rectangular flaps rub annoyingly against your legs, possibly abrading your skin and/or the fabric of your hiking pants, or will they swing in a comfortable way that goes along with your stride?  Anyway, I have only the vaguest of ideas of how this sort of pack might work, and I haven't found anything like what I'm describing online anywhere, although that doesn't mean much:  I haven't done an exhaustive search yet.  The upshot is that I'd like to have a plausible design ready for my big walk next year.  Maybe I'll get it patented.  Stay tuned.  Whenever I create my Kevin's Walk 5 blog, I'll probably be talking more about this waistpack, or hiker's kilt, or whatever I end up calling it.

Fitness, Conditioning, and Weight Loss

If distance walking is when I'm manifesting my best self, then a life of distance walking would be ideal for me:  I'd be up before sunrise, walking all day at a slow-and-steady pace for nine or ten hours, and burning so many calories that I could afford not to cut back too much on what I eat.  Hill walking has proved great for cardio, although I have to admit that the Four Rivers path, which is over 90% flat, isn't the hilliest terrain by any means.  But walking, as a habit and a practice, can be done even when I'm not engaged in an ambitious trans-Korea project.  There are several local paths that I can access right from my apartment, so there's no shortage of places to walk to, and no excuse not to be out walking (except when it's snowy or icy—safety first!).  I've been back home for three weeks now, as I write these words, and I haven't done any ambitious walking since coming back, but I do plan to start up a walking regimen soon—perhaps one that involves using my backpack again, given how that increases my calorie-burn rate.  While home, I can never recapture the ambitious scale of a trans-Korea walk:  I have a job, so I can't walk 9-10 hours per day; I have to settle for much shorter walks of 3-4 hours.

That brings up the issue of conditioning, especially for my feet.  Early in 2020, on February 13, I suffered a stress fracture in my right foot.  After the foot healed, it remained achy and somewhat swollen, but even though I never went back to the orthopedic clinic for a second X-ray of my foot, I'm convinced the foot became even stronger than than it had been before the fracture.  The proof is that I walked for a month on a far more brutal schedule than anything I'd been doing in February.  As I mentioned before, I also didn't bother too much with training for the walk this time around, and that's partly because I trusted my feet to be, at this point, thoroughly conditioned to distance walking.  Even after a hiatus of several months, my feet would remember their conditioning and quickly adapt to demanding distance-walking conditions.  Although my right foot remains slightly swollen for some mysterious reason, the swelling was not at all an impediment during this latest walk.  So once I begin the above-mentioned truncated walking regimen, I trust that my feet will be fine.  They're always achy; I've been in constant low-level pain since I became a committed distance walker, and I don't expect the pain to go away unless I lose a ton of weight.  Will that happen anytime soon?  We'll see.  We'll see.

What I'll Miss About This Trail

It saddens me that I won't be back this way again for a long time, but there are other paths to explore.  This particular gukto-jongju has become a trusted companion.  While it's been somewhat different every time I've walked it, it's also become familiar to me, and I'll miss that familiarity.  Given how carefully I plotted out my walk in 2017, and how faithfully I followed that original plot both last year and this year, I can also say that I've come to appreciate this path's "rhythm."  As a walker, you're being proactive and pushing yourself along a given path, but at the same time, the path is "happening" to you as well, and the Four Rivers trail has its own special way of unfolding before you, changing mood and character with every kilometer, but also changing in major phases as you move from one distinct segment to the next—from the Ara Canal to the Han, from the Han to the Saejae path, and from the Saejae to the quietly dignified Nakdong River section that dominates the final half of the journey.  I'll miss the trees, the rice fields, the occasional hills, the wildlife, the sun, the wind, the curves, the straightaways, the mountains, and the big sky.  Even though it was sometimes a chore to be a shutterbug, photographing every little thing, I'm glad I have three blogs' worth of memories that I can keep coming back to as the years roll on.

What the Future Holds

The east-coast gukto-jongju beckons, and I have a lot to plan.  But beyond that path, there are so many others.  I must once again thank reader Daeguowl, a.k.a. Paul Carver, for having provided me with PDFs of comprehensive trail maps for just about every biking (and hiking?) trail across the country.  For my own convenience, I plan to compile those PDFs into a huge document and have them printed out in book form so that I can flip through the maps physically and see more closely what paths are available to me.  That ought to make for an impressive tome.  I do know, from a cursory reading of those PDFs, that it's possible to walk a path similar in shape to Abe Lincoln's beard (roughly, a "U" shape) that follows the peninsular coast from Incheon down to Gwangju, across to Busan, and up to Gangneung.  I'd like to do that trail someday.  At a guess, it's at least 1700 kilometers long.  That might take me more than a few days to do.

As for the future-future... I don't know.  I'm now 51, and as I'm sure I've written before, I don't know how many more of these walks I have left in me.  My buddy Mike has invited me to join him on a walk along the Camino de Santiago (The Way of Saint James), which is, in reality, not one single camino but nine different paths that vary wildly in length and difficulty.  Mike wants to do this walk when we turn 60, so he's got several years to get his own body in proper condition for such an undertaking, and I, meanwhile, have to make sure I don't get lazy and allow myself to de-condition.  If, at some point, I change jobs and go back to university teaching, I'll consider hiking during the summer months, but only in cooler northern latitudes (oh, Canada?).  There's plenty of hiking and distance walking to be done all over the world, so the sky's the limit in terms of where I might go.  Then again, I'm also perfectly happy just to keep exploring South Korea:  there are enough paths in those PDFs to keep me occupied until I'm a senile old cripple.

And that, Dear Reader, is all I have to say about this latest walk of mine—the third and the best of my Four Rivers walks.  It was fun; it was bittersweet; it was educational; it was humbling; it was inspiring; it was memorable, exactly like the walks before it.  I'll be back this way again someday... just not yet.

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!




Saturday, October 31, 2020

update: photo essays are up!

The photo essays are up—the photos, anyway, if not all the commentary.  If I do add remarks to the pics (which promises to take a million years), I'll do so quietly and unannounced, so it'll be up to you to decide whether you want to wade through a sea of photos a second or third time just to catch the added verbiage.  I assume most of you will not want to do this; it's hard to enough to slog through someone else's slide show without getting bored.  And truth be told, I'm not looking forward to adding tons of prose to twenty-some days' worth of visual narrative.  So the commentary will happen when it happens.  Don't hold your breath.  In the meantime, feel free to go through the photo essays as they are now; if you have questions about any of the pics, leave them in the comments, and I'll do my best to explain them.  Enjoy!

And now, I'll turn my attention to writing the epilogue to this adventure.  Look out for that sometime during the coming week.

PS:  I've learned that there are indeed snakes other than rattlesnakes that twitch their tails when threatened.  See more here.  This was an educational bit of research, and it's obvious—if it wasn't before—that the tail-twitching snakes I'd encountered on the trail were not rattlers.




Wednesday, October 28, 2020

quick health-related note

I'm always curious, when I come back from these walks, to see how my health has (or hasn't) improved.  So before going to work today, I swung by the doctor's office, having not been there since February—back when the pandemic was in its early stages, and we were all paranoid about what to do and how to act (which is why I avoided the doc's office).  As with previous walks, my numbers turned out to be a mixture of the delightful and the disappointing—mostly the latter.  My blood pressure turned out to be on the high side, as did my HbA1c (a very high 9.4%).  This is probably because I had taken most of my meds early in the year, then spent several months not taking anything, then started taking the last of my pills again during the final week or so of my walk.  Belatedly restarting my medicine wasn't a recipe for medical-stats success, as it turned out.  No shit, right?

On the bright side, my short-term glucose reading was 115, which is the lowest ever recorded for me.  I take this to mean that the HbA1c, which is a result showing a three-month average of your blood sugar, indicates that I was doing badly before my walk, while the short-term glucose reading shows that I'm currently on the path to having low blood sugar (keeping in mind that the short-term reading can fluctuate hourly throughout the day).  But compared to May 10, 2016—when my short-term was 285—I'd say a 115 reading is pretty damn good.  The other good news is that, after some trepidation, I stepped on my bathroom scale and discovered that I now weigh 116 kg.  You may recall that my pre-walk weight was 128.5 kg, so I'm ecstatic to discover I've lost 12.5 kilos (27.6 lbs.):  that's the most weight I've ever lost on one of these walk projects.  Of course, it's all for nothing if I do nothing to keep the weight off.  We'll see how that goes.

So as I said, it's a mixed bag this time around.  The doc has put me on the same regimen of meds as before, but he wants to see me again in a month to see whether my BP has gone down after consuming the prescription daily.  So I'll be back in the doc's office on November 28... which is only two days after Thanksgiving, right when I'll be stuffing myself like the turkey I am.  Shit.



Monday, October 26, 2020

Day 29, Leg 22

Let's talk about speed first.  I left Yangsan's Bliss Hotel at 4:40 a.m. and arrived at my final destination at 12:50 p.m., a total travel time of almost exactly eight hours.  During that time, I rested twice, for a total of an hour.  So if you were to calculate my average rate of speed, rest stops and all, you'd get a rate of about 3.6 kph.  If, however, you were to subtract the rest periods, my speed while walking would be 4.1 kph, which is, like last year, probably the fastest I've walked this entire journey (last year, I walked at nearly my full speed of 5 kph).  Chalk it up to feeling energized and ready to tackle the final leg of the journey; I'm pretty sure the reasons for my relative celerity are more psychological than physical.  

Next, let me treat you to what you've all been waiting for:  pics of my feet!  Yes, I can actually smell your nipples stiffening in anticipation, so let's get right into it with pics of my right foot's top, side, and bottom:



The most damaged-looking thing is probably my right pinky toe, which did swell up with a painless (and initially unnoticed) blister early in the walk.  The blister went away on its own, apparently bursting and draining while I was walking.  Aside from that, the toe's damaged appearance is a result of what happened last year, when I unwisely wrapped the digit in Leukotape and kept it that way for most of a month.  My right pinky toenail hasn't been the same ever since.  The rest of my right foot is generally fine, partly thanks to the Leukotape that I (correctly!) applied to blister-prone parts of my right sole.  I'll be talking more about Leukotape in my big-ass epilogue post.

Let's move on to the left foot:



Here's where most of the damage occurred.  Note the bruising happening under the nail of the big toe and the toe next to it.  The most annoying blister appeared on the pad of the foot just "behind" the third and fourth toes (counting forward from the big toe).  While not as bad as the huge blood blisters I've had in the past, this one was annoying.  The dark spot on the side of my heel is all that remains of the blister caused by those painful Costco orthotics that my boss had gifted me with.  To be clear, I don't blame my boss; neither of us knew how good or bad the insoles would be.  Lastly, you see the stubbornly inflated remains of the gigantic blister that had formed on the side of my left foot, right at the base of the big toe, where people often get corns. 

All in all, this is surprisingly little foot damage compared to that of previous walks.  And mainly thanks to the heavy meds I picked up while staying at the obnoxiously run Havana Motel, I can't say that I suffered to quite the extent I had last year and in 2017.  I remember what it felt like to finish a day of walking and to limp around in extreme pain like a cripple.  Luckily, that didn't happen this time, and that's partially thanks to the ibuprofen.

I have to confess that I paid pretty dearly for yesterday's celebratory dinner at Gino's.  While I don't think I ended up losing all that much weight over the course of the past month, I do think my stomach (the organ, specifically, not the whole abdominal area) shrank, and yesterday, it resisted the sudden avalanche of pizza that I forced into it.  The whole rest of the evening (and this morning, too, truth be told), I was on and off the toilet in my otherwise-comfortable motel room.  

Interestingly, a Western dude biked up to Gino's while I was seated at my halfway-outdoors table.  It became obvious that he spoke Korean very fluently.  I was sneering at his accent at first, but within a few minutes of listening to him talk to the wait staff and to unknown interlocutors on his phone, I realized the guy's skill level was way above mine.  A little bit of humble pie to go along with the pizza.

The walk itself was pleasant and perfect.  You couldn't have asked for better weather.  Early on, Naver Map once again led me to a nonexistent bridge when I wanted to cross the Nakdong, so I untangled the problem by choosing the same alternate path I'd found last year.  This took me only slightly out of my way, so it wasn't a big deal.  As darkness turned to dawn, I found myself already at the outskirts of Busan, and then it was just a matter of walking almost straight south while counting down the kilometers.  The final leg of the journey had distinct phases to it; I especially enjoyed the 6- or 7-kilometer portion that's tree-lined.  It's a simple and beautiful bit of path, and its only problem is that it's flanked by noisy roadways:  a freeway on one side and a highway on the other.  By the time the milestones were telling me that I had only 5 km to go, the comforting, tree-lined path had given way to the route's last phase, in which you march south with little to no shade and watch as the Nakdong River Estuary Barrage grows larger as you approach it.  

I had elected not to take a long rest break to charge my cell phone, and the phone's battery power dropped below 5% when I reached the one-kilometer mark.  That was both amusing and frustrating.  There was a park with a large, impressive shwimteo in it by the east side of the barrage (you cross from east to west to reach your goal), so I stopped there and allowed my phone to charge up to 12% so I'd be able to document my very last kilometer on the trail.  

I walked the last thousand meters with a mixture of wistfulness and eager anticipation:  it was an awesome feeling to succeed once again, but I also knew this would be my last trek on the Four Rivers path for a long while, for there are other paths to explore, and I'm not getting any younger.  My arrival at the endpoint was utterly without fanfare.  I took a few pics and selfies at the arrival site, then elected to take a long nap, while again recharging my phone, in the shadow of a cultural center.  I was, of course, interrupted:  a pair of workers drove up in a van and began loudly hammering and drilling not ten feet from where I  was trying to sleep.  By that point, my phone had over 50% charge, so I slowly gathered my things and left the endpoint.  The walk was officially over. 

Consistent with what I'd done at the end of previous walks, I walked out of the endpoint area, crossed the street, and hailed a cab.  When one arrived, I told the cabbie to take me to Busan Station, and he did so, driving me the same route taken by past cabbies.  What I saw out the window was a mixture of old and new buildings and districts; I noted how the signage for subway stations looked different from what you see in Seoul.  Soon enough, we arrived at Busan Station.

I went straight into the station to get my KTX train ticket.  As I got closer to the ticket windows, an introverted impulse made me glance to the side, where the ticket machines were.  Suddenly not wanting to interact with a ticket agent, I went over to a machine that had an English-language "Domestic Cards Only" sign on it.  The machine proved easy to use in Korean, and the one term I didn't understand wasn't hard to look up.  Now armed with a ticket for the next day, I walked out with the intention of hitting the Busaninn Motel for my overnight stay.  As you saw, Dear Reader, the motel was temporarily closed because of the virus, so I went next door to the Plaza Tour Motel (광장관광 모텔) and ended up with a decent room.  Check-in was done painlessly with the assistance of the calmest front-desk clerk on the whole peninsula.  I went up to my room, took a victory dump, relaxed a bit, then went out and caught another cab out to the Haeundae Beach part of town, where I stuffed myself with Gino's pizza and garlic knots.  Overall, I thought the garlic knots were better than the pizza itself, which wasn't up to the standards of Gino's in Itaewon.  The pizza wasn't bad, but I expect better from Gino's.

After dinner, I wandered over to the beach, touching the waves and taking in the magnificent view of both the ocean and Busan's impressive skyline.  As nice as Gwangalli is, I can see why people flock to Haeundae.  I'll talk more about my impression of Busan in my epilogue post.  That cross-town cab ride was educational, as was my time at Haeundae Beach.  Suffice it to say that Busan is worth exploring further.

I went back to my motel a bit after sunset and was too tired to write a lengthy blog post (which I'm now doing on the KTX).  I spent much of the evening contending with gastric issues caused by my prandial overindulgence.  Other than that, it was a quiet night, and all that remained was to wake up around 7:30 and be out the door by 8:15.  It was a short walk across the street to the station, and when Train 120 appeared on the departures marquee, I went to Platform 8, boarded the train when it showed up, and here we are.

My face is tanned or burned enough that I now have to wear my bandanna:  without it, my forehead is ghostly white, and I look ridiculous.  It's going to be an awkward few weeks once I'm back at the office starting tomorrow:  I don't plan to keep wearing my bandanna to work.  As for my beard... I normally shave it all off once I'm back because it's infuriatingly itchy, but I'm considering keeping it and growing it out further, which makes me no different from millions of men who are bearding up during the pandemic.

Expect a few more posts before I finish blogging at this address.  There's plenty more to say, and I need to slap up the rest of the photo essays.  In the meantime, here are some images from the final day of the walk to distract you.  It's sad that I won't be coming this way again for a while, but at least I'll have all these memories, both in my head and in the form of these images.

UPDATE:  surprise!  I've uploaded all my pics to Google Drive, so I'm posting the full photo essay below.  Enjoy.