The story changes every time I tell it. This time will be no different.
Today holds a cool January overcast as I sit outside drinking the local iced black coffee at a café in Ho Chi Minh City. I’m reading Jack Kerouac’s 1968 story “Alone on a Mountaintop.” I have my mountain too. The mix of gray and blue in the clouds (rain will come later) remind me of the train station in South Korea over three years ago.
Back then I was a bachelor. After a severe case of food poisoning on Christmas day, I found myself, as planned, the next afternoon taking the “slow” train, a four hour trip, rather than the “fast” train, a ninety minute KTX flash, from Daegu to Seoul. My body was worn from dehydration and exhaustion but as intent as I was to head to the snowy mountains of Nam Chuncheon, in the northeastern province of South Korea, there was no hurry. If anything my father, a Texan rancher, taught me to be mindful of the steps one takes while heading into the unknown, never to rush in. So there I was, the day after Christmas, broken on the inside, and lumbering along to spend a solitary week at a winter cabin.
In Seoul, I departed the train station to the sights of immense skyscrapers reminiscent of New York City, and found a taxi parked on the side of the station, separated from the row of other taxis waiting in queue. I hopped in and the Korean man refused to turn on the meter. “Sixty dollars,” he said. “Meter,” I said. “No,” he said. I hopped back out and went to the more reputable taxis waiting their turn in line over in front of the station. A new taxi sped me to Cheongnyangni Station across town. I gazed in double vision at the meter and thought it said 120,000 won (equivalent to roughly $120 usd). I held up the crisp bills and the taxi driver refused to take the money. He explained in broken English to me it was only 12,000 won. Relieved at such honesty, I paid the driver and went into the train station. My mind was a blur and I should not have been traveling, but I am a stubborn man.
Another slow locomotive, from the war era perhaps, rambled along the Gyeongchun Line a few hours to Nam Chuncheon, “The Lake City,” made famous in the drama Winter Sonata. Night had fallen and the mountainous landscapes filled with unseen rivers and hills clung beneath their black veil. Emerging from the platform at around eight that night, it was a scene straight from the end of Casablanca, steam curtailed against the frost and the passengers became traveling ghosts heading out into the basin between Soyang River and Han River, in a city housing approximately 265,000 souls. I quickly found a taxi and provided my directions, already transcribed into Korean by Mr. Lee, my humble friend to this day. The taxi driver at first refused to take me up into the mountains until we negotiated that I would pay double for his return trip. Forty-five minutes passed, winding upward slopes hidden among the immemorial trees, when we arrived outside a warmly lit two-story cabin. I paid 60,000 won and the man smiled in happy acceptance, nodding his broken teeth at me. I watched as the headlights backed away and turned around, sealing me to my fate.
Inside the cabin a Korean family was seated around a table eating dinner and drinking Soju. Wild stares of curiosity hung about them, seeing a white, bearded American man in an army green coat, brown flannel shirt, gray knit-cap, gloves, leather water-proof cowboy boots, and a black duffle bag. Not many foreigners in these parts, I reckoned; perhaps everyone thought I was a journalist. After handing Mr. Go, a short man with beady eyes and cropped black hair, my pre-written Korean note he led me to the reception cabin up a steep incline. Through gesticulation, he informed me that I could use the commonwealth bathroom. He disappeared inside and later returned with a key to my cabin. I had always wanted to be a writer of the winter, locked away in the snowy mountains, alone and free to write that great American novel. I ended up publishing a collection of short stories and moved to Vietnam.
In his jeep, Mr. Go drove me up the mountain into Jipdarigol Valley, the cold night air becoming close to zero, and perhaps colder. Next to a spiraling stream running off the mountain side, my small cabin awaited. He unlocked the door, we both went in, I had to duck down low, and he turned on the floor heater. My cabin consisted of one room about fifteen feet in length and ten feet in width, bathroom-less, and windowless. I knew all of this of course. I had done my research on the internet, but not quite enough. The winter resort was really a summer resort, mountain hiking being extremely popular in South Korea. I had expected a restaurant to be open for hot kimchi soup, kimchi jigae, and later found the restaurant was closed during the winter, their low season; either it was closed or the cook refused service. The restaurant, much like Mr. Go’s store, offered canned meats, chips, rameon noodles, and small chalky cups of instant cream coffee in an outside machine for the equivalent of a quarter. (Vietnam has much better, richer coffee, being number two in international coffee exports behind Brazil.) My sustenance for the next three days consisted of digging potato chips into cold spam for lunch, warm Marlboro red cigarettes for snacks, and hot Korean rameon and cans of beer for my supper; near suicide after having food posoining; but the mountains we climb quite frequently offer very little assistance, and when they do, we are much obliged.
Outside my cabin, too small ever to become warm enough, the soothing stream tumbled down in frequent miniature waterfalls. I headed outside to the wooden bridge, and saw the place lit up with brilliant white Christmas lights, sparkling wild against the snow and competing against the dying stars, filling the dark heavens with more suns than I’ve ever seen. My heart thawed a little. I smoked a few cigarettes, relishing the fact at having traveled so very far into a new land that none I knew of had ever been. North Korea lies only a few hundred miles to the north and the large mountains vaulted me into a safe valley. That night on a rice pillow I slept in my heavy winter attire and two blankets over me, too cold for sleep and too cold for anything else but scribbling into a composition note book.
The next morning, I refreshed myself down by the stream, washing my face and neck beneath the arctic waters. The constant sound of the stream remains beneath my veins. My routine over the next three days consisted of me having a morning breakfast of chalky coffee and a few cigarettes, departing the butts into small paper cups and filling it with chunks of snow, searching the mountain trails zagging upwards on the virgin snow banks, climbing to the peaks of the mountains of Jipdarigol Valley. At the top of my mountain, a metal staircase was implanted on its side, rising to its top. I climbed carefully, and sat, breathing heavily and tired, overlooking the world below as the mountain does to man. The morning sun had just stretched its neck above the opposite mountain side, and the valley below was draped in a dense fog. Alone I sat.
Alone. I thought of Lee Joo, an older, immensely beautiful Korean woman I was casually dating. She owned a coffee shop in Daegu and had another American boyfriend who was in New York for the holidays. We had spent Christmas Eve together, and celebrated a birthday for one of her friends at a restaurant. In laughter she had wiped white frosting from the cake onto my face. Her brown eyes still sparkle with the candles from our first date by the lakeside. After the party, nearing midnight, we walked down an empty side-street, and when we stopped to depart and say our farewells, she was surrounded by her much younger female friends, much like a fence or wall, and all I could do was wave good-bye, thinking it was the right thing to do, and on the mountain top thinking I should have gone home and spent Christmas in a cozy bed with her instead of alone, sick, and freezing.
Alone I sat, coming to the point of hyperthermia but not over the edge.
For three days I sat atop that mountain, climbing back down to the sparse cabin, eating scraps, writing in a journal, accepting Nature’s cold hand of chance, watching a little girl play on a red slide with her father. On her head was a hat in the image of a Siberian husky.
All the while on my mountain’s peak, I came to understand that we all have our mountains to climb, and I had climbed mine. It may have not been the tallest or the oldest, but in those ancient mountains which surrounded and vibrated beneath me, archaic words shaped my heart, pleading me to understand a language so very old that mankind has forgotten it in all the rush and excitement of modernization. Who still cares to sit on the earth? I do, I replied. My mountain spoke to me, along with the trees as its hands and the sun and moon as its eyes, and I have not been able to forget.
After three days, I had had enough and wanted to get back to Lee Joo, to Daegu, to a real meal, to a hot shower, to the things I knew of for certain. At six in the morning, unable to adequately sleep or eat for three days, I walked off that mountain, into the white-veiled valley, down into Mr. Go’s, and he gave me a ride to the bus station at the edge of the mountain. From there I had no way of knowing when to get off the bus. I rode for an hour, watching the landscapes of mountains, hills, rivers, and the lake unfold in the silent silver of dawn. Out the window, I watched and watched waiting for some sign to get off the bus. None emerged. Finally, the bus took a right turn and something inside me, the mountain perhaps, told me to get off. I jumped free at the next stop, walked back up the street and found the train station waiting around the corner. What luck!
In Seoul I decided to take the KTX back to Daegu. There I was, not having had a bath in three days, a heavy beard forming after a week on vacation, my flannel shirt rolled to my elbows, and sitting in Business Class with Korean men in their expensive suits reading The Korea Times. I felt warm. That same afternoon, back in Daegu, I stopped at Lee Joo’s coffee shop, ordered a gin martini, pounded it, ordered another and drank that one in a few large, satisfying gulps, feeling my body coming to a gentle thaw. She wasn’t there, would never be there again. Oh, we saw each other every now and again, but something had changed between us, or something had changed within me. Lee Joo is still there, somewhere, in South Korea; and I am married to a Vietnamese woman who I met seven months later, and our daughter is named Emma. Sometimes mountains are there for a reason and we need only to stand at their peaks and see what they see to know why.
CG Fewston has also written a couple of books. Under a pen name but it’s definitely him. Take a look at ‘A Father’s Son’ and ‘The New America’ at Amazon.