To Katahdin and Back Again: A Hiker’s Tale

A friend recently told me that I was Frodo, and Mt. Katahdin was my Mt. Doom. I’m a huge LOTR fan, so naturally I grasped firmly onto that metaphor, and I don’t plan on letting go any time soon. Picture it: I’m fighting my way to Katahdin, through blizzards, bloody and broken feet (albeit less hairier), a continuously empty stomach, and treacherous mountain passes. Fortunately there will be no orcs to contend with, or megalomaniac wizards attempting to take over the world. And then, when all seems lost, I stagger my way to the top of the mountain and triumphantly stand with the ring in my hand….

Typical Frodo.  Image Source:

Typical Frodo.

As an honorary Frodo, I think I will call this past weekend my first step out of the Shire, and onto the official road to Katahdin.

I have to admit, before this weekend I was still wary of my journey. As Confucius said, “Every journey starts with a single step.” No matter how cliché this quote is, the situation calls for its honesty (and I’m not adverse to cliché as long as its used with caution). Yes, I had started planning the logistics of it all, but I hadn’t had that moment: the moment where you know you’re fully committed, you’ll do it even if it kills you, and you’ll kick ass the whole way. My moment was this past weekend.

My first step out of the Shire was towards a mountain called Mudeungsan (pronounced MOO-DUNG-SAHN), situated only about 5-10 miles away from my neighborhood in Gwangju. Standing at 1,187 m (3,894 ft), and with 20+ trails to choose from, it can be quite the challenge given the opportunity. Once revered as a mountain of God, the national park Mudeungsan resides in has a few famous temples scattered among its peaks.

One of many temples on Mudeungsan.

One of many temples on Mudeungsan.

Expecting throngs of people swarming the mountain like bees, I was pleasantly surprised and quite shocked to find it mostly deserted on the trails.

The hiking culture in Korea is quite a surprise if not properly prepared for. North America’s people-to-trail ratio pales in comparison, and I’m assuming this has to do with the enormous population of a country that’s roughly the size of Pennsylvania with 4x the population (roughly speaking). Every weekend, and especially holidays, the country’s urbanites swarm to the mountainsides, dotting them with their shockingly bright state of the art windbreakers, moisture wicking shirts, boots, backpacks, anything and everything related to hiking.

Seeing as every other time I’ve gone hiking here I’m never lacking for traffic jams and a consistent buzzing noise in my head, it was nice to finally have the serenity of nature to myself. Maybe it was the 90-degree weather putting them off, or just a lucky day. The mountain (or at least my trail) was mine for the day.


The way up….


The way down… feeling an awful like PA.

This was my first hike for a few months, and knowing it would be a struggle I welcomed the alone time. I stopped when I needed, cursed when said breaks didn’t relieve the strain, and sang to myself to pass the time. There were a few things that dawned on me on this hike I never typically thought about while hiking with people.

1)    Chaffing will happen and it will hurt like hell. It’s not that I’ve never experienced it hiking before. It’s that normally I at least have someone to complain to about it, someone who feels my pain. When your alone with your thoughts, the constant burn is that much more uncomfortable. It led to some very one-sided muttering—which leads me to point number 2.

2)    I may go crazy on the A.T., and not just crazy for a little while, but full-blown anti-social crazy that will last past the moment my feet step off the A.T. It’s a definite possibility. By the end of my 6 hour, 12 km hike I was singing my thoughts out loud, whistling in response to birds chirping, and bonding through some insightful one-on-one time with bugs. Don’t get me wrong, I love nature and I love being alone; however, pretty sure I’ve never actually been that alone in nature. We’ll see what happens after 2,100+ miles.

3)    I need to prepare more. I had hiked Mudeungsan before and while that may have been 8 months ago, I was determined that I knew what trails to take to successfully complete it. I started on the backside of the mountain and went up and over ending in the front. The problem with hiking in Korea is that when you don’t speak the language (or read it), its kind of difficult to read trail signs, or have any inkling of comprehension. So using my amazing powers of deduction, I assumed that if I kept heading in a downwards motion through the valley I was in, I would eventually end up somewhere near my city limits at the end of the valley. Congrats Sarah! I lucked out. I made it were I wanted to go (albeit in a roundabout way) by randomly choosing the most downward looking trails. But hey, makes life more interesting right? That being said, I’m not a planner. I tend to make rash decisions with little or no thought. I change my mind more than a chameleon changes color. And I don’t foresee myself changing that side of me any time soon. Life is built on the experiences you don’t plan; the ones that take you by surprise and spiral you into a magnificently deep mysterious hole with no apparent ending. So, take this third revelation with a grain of salt. It may not come to fruition. We will see.

4)    I will hike the A.T. and I will finish. Looking past all the bumps and scraps and jello-y legs, all claimed in just one day of hiking (I never said I was graceful), I know that the moment I top the next mountain, breath in the fresh air, and marvel at the beautiful views surrounding me, I’ll never want to stop. I won’t allow myself to stop, because that instant you know you’ve made it to the top, time freezes and it feels like nothing terrible will every happen again. There’s a flash of clarity that reveals itself to you as you stare out at the surrounding landscape, it’s one of sheer bliss that makes you truly believe you’ll finish—you’ll succeed. That is what will get me to Katahdin.

At the top! It's a little hazy though.

At the top! It’s a little cloudy though.

A well deserved cool down.

A well deserved cool down.

Until next time…(a 2 day 45 km marathon along a ridge and up the 2nd tallest mountain in Korea…hmmm)

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Comments 1

  • Bolivar : Aug 22nd

    Well, not knowing a language will bother your hiking tour not only in Korea I believe that there are lots of places which are better to visit with guides or with people who know languages well.


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