Okay, okay, I’m being dramatic.
But, then, it was dramatic.
Mark and I were hiking up Wonmisan as usual, except we found a couple of new features on our dirt trail. Now, if you don’t know Wonmisan, you should be informed that, unlike some mountains in Korea, it has both stairs and a diirt trail to the top. If you ask me, stairs are for shopping malls and apartment buildings: I don’t go out into nature just to climb stairs. Especially crappily-built, unevenly-sized stairs like you see on a lot of mountains. So Mark and I, we usually take the dirt trail to the top.
We’re far from the only people who used the dirt trail, though, yes, the stairs are more popular. Part of that is just because stairs are “safer” — the dirt trails can be slippery — but anothe part of it is this very Korean sense by which nature can be “improved” by being hedged in, fenced up, controlled, and humanized. If a mountain is nice, then a mountain with stairs is nicer. And a mountain with stairs and piped in music is even nicer. (One cannot help, in darker moments, to imagine that the eventual endpoint is mountains with roofed-in escalators that go to the top.)
I should have known that this aesthetic of improvement would slap me in the face eventually.
You see, it seems that guys working for the city have been tasked with preventing the ostensible mountain erosion that is going on along the dirt trails. I haven’t noticed much erosion, mind you, and I think it’s really just big talk for an “improvement project,” but anyway, I have no objection to preventing erosion. I just don’t think the way to do it is the way they’ve chosen, which is simply to block all the dirt trails and make everyone take the stairs. What’s wrong with reinforcing the trails? They’re there, after all, because people use them.
Anyway… the method they chose is piling timbers just high enough so that one cannot get by along a dirt trail. So when Mark and I encountered the first such thing, we simply took all the timbers and chucked them aside. The problem was the second blockage we found. When we were disassembling that, passersby jumped into the fray to try and stop us, and finally summoned the city workmen to come yell at us.
Now, to be fair, one of the workmen was , well, okay. Sure, he tried to make it out to be a foreigner thing — how dare you come and screw up our mountains, don’t you understand Korean people love and want to protect nature? — but at least he was talking. One of the guys, when he turned up, was shaking a handsaw at us and shouting, till I told him if he didn’t want to talk, I wouldn’t listen to him.The other guy, though, was asking me questions like, “Which country are you from?” and “How old are you?” and “What’s your name?” and my response was, “Why don’t we talk about this problem? Let’s talk about the mountain. I’ve been hiking this trail for a couple of years now, and now I can’t? Why?”
The gist was, these guys were saying, “If you wanna climb the mountain, you have to use the stairs, like everyone else. Nobody can use dirt trails. The dirt trails are not okay.” We were saying, “But we are among the people who prefer the trail, and some of them really need to use the trail instead of the stairs. We want to walk in nature, not on stairs.”
Well, when I said, “Are all people the same? Is every person the same?” All three guys shouted, “Yes!”
There’s reasoning with a crowd like that. No point explaining how for a lot of people climbing stairs aggravates injuries and so on, while climbing natural dirt trails is much more healthy and comfortable. No point in explaining to someone why natural trails are a better way to walk in nature than poorly-designed flights of steps.
By the end of it, they were busting out their phones — as if we were going to stay around for their supervisor or the police or whoever it was they were calling to show up. In exasperation, I said, “I can’t really hike if I have to use the stairs. I love this mountain. Are you saying I can’t come here anymore?”
The prick with a saw shouted, “Yeah! Don’t come here anymore!”
My fantasy is to go up on the mountain nightly and diassemble whatever barrier they put up, until they give up. But the reality is, that’s unlikely to happen. The reality is, I’m losing my beloved Wonmisan, as it slowly gets turned into a stair-climber’s zone. Which is sad. The mountain has been a refuge for me in hard times, given me somewhere to work on my health and fitness for a couple of years, and been a place of near-religious importance to me in the past year. Since the beginning of the summer, it’s been one of the most important places for me to go on a regulaer basis, almost at the level of pilgrimage.
But I’m losing it slowly, I guess. Mark suggested we find another route up to the top. I guess that’s what we’ll do… till they block that, and the next, and the next.
Until Wonmisan is nothing but covered escalators and men in suits, looking upon what they have done and pronouncing it good.