There is a game I play. I think back to exactly where I was, and what I was doing 365 days prior. I work my way back until I either run out of years of memories. If I can, I try and place myself to the very second. Its a game of nostalgia of course and its easiest when played on significant days – namely holidays.

I don’t know what prompted me to play this while in the mens locker room at the gym last night, but it was one of those days that was easy to place given that it was Christmas Eve.- A year ago I was wandering around the sleepy frozen village of Jinjeop South Korea, the year prior I was home with family in Eau Claire WI. The year before that I spent a quiet lonesome night in my cabin on the southern ridge of Oahu’s Waianae Mountains. The game last night confirmed that I’m living the unconventional life I had decided to strive for at some point while in University. But a life lived abroad of course comes with its compromises and that too my little memory-jaunt exercise confirmed.

So what do you do on a significant holiday when friends and family are on the other side of the world? You take whatever opportunity crops up. And last night that was the “12 pubs of Christmas”. I joined an English friend whom I had just met on a ski trip 2 weekends prior and 2 of his friends – another English bloke and a Canadian. The beverages and venues were just as diverse and eclectic as our little band of Christmas revelers. By 4:30am I didn’t even know where in the city I was any-longer. I was only 9 maybe 10 pubs in and simply had to call it quits. Fortunately I was able to split a cab back to familiar grounds.

And so begins a nontraditional Christmas. With the urging of my cat I finally found it in me to roll out of bed around 1:30pm. After hours of diddy daddlying (food making, laundry, cat entertaining and an episode of my favorite history podcast did happen in there) I mustered the energy to hike the mountain (Garaksan) that has been so nicely framed by my bedroom window for the past 2 months. It was just after 4 when I finally got underway. My co teacher had mentioned that there were multiple routes to the summit varying from 3 hours to just 1. I fancied the idea of watching a Christmas sunset from atop the peak and I figured I had just over an hour before I lost that opportunity.

Korea is a small place with a relatively large population. Land values are a premium and plots are generally either allotted as residential, commercial or agricultural. Korea is also extremely mountainous. While its difficult and costly to develop a mountain, many of these are left untouched. They become hiking havens for the Koreans looking to escape the concrete jungle that is their country. They also acquire the graves of those hoping to be buried in the traditional way. It is this fact that makes hiking one of my favorite pastimes here. The number of trails on any given mountain are numerous. They vary from paved – lit paths all the way down to simple deer trails. Its the latter that I tend towards. I feel a bit like Indiana Jones when I’m on a trail such as this – bushwhacking through the forest suddenly to have the trees open to a small clearing. The space is usually terraced and the graves (large mounds of earth) are impossible to miss. Its the statues that really do it for me though. Sometimes chess-like pieces carved of stone, other times human figures or animal-like creatures.

The sun had sunk low by the time my tomb-raiding (I took nothing more than photos) was finished. As I neared the summit I could see a stone wall beyond the tree line. A fortress I joked. It turned out the wall was actually quite formidable at about 12′ high. Two ends of the wall opened to rough hewn steps. A sign at the top informed me that I was in-fact standing in a fortress that was built sometime in 600AD. After I spotted my apartment and had my fill of photos, I continued on along a ridge trail that ended at a picturesque raised pagoda facing west. A man was already inside audibly praying with eyes closed toward the setting sun. A Christmas prayer? The wind was brisk but I had a good 5 minutes left before the sun would set behind the distant mountains. A young man was also with me. I asked if he wouldn’t mind taking my picture against the fading pallet of color. He obliged and was then kind enough to share his thermos with me. After some chit-chat we parted with a “Merry Christmas”. Him off the way I had come, me traversing the steep western face – keen on making the most of the dwindling light.

At my first opportunity I was off the main artery of the trail and back to bushwhacking. I walked with eyes down cautious of the leave-laden boulders of which I was treading. An abrupt scramble – the flash of beige in an upcoming cemetery alcove. Over a year an a half ago my boss had taken me on a nighttime drive. It was one of my first nights in Korea and to impress, she drove me and a coworker to a nearby reservoir. It was a quiet weeknight and the narrow mountain road was empty apart from a small deer that dashed out in-front of us. Unexceptional for a Wisconsinite but shocking for my Korean boss who had lived in the area closer to 40 years and had never seen a wild deer. The land to people ratio has driven mammals to near nonexistence on this small peninsula. Honestly just seeing a squirrel gets me excited. You can imagine my feeling on this near dark Christmas evening.

After a while the trails started to contradict my instincts on where I needed to be. I pretended I was the deer and made my own way through the forest. It wasn’t long before I was sliding on my butt down the steep grassy terrace of yet another leaf covered mortuary. Almost like Christmas Day sledding back in WI. Sans sled. And snow.

It was fully dark by time I had arrived back home.

The rest of the night entailed a Jeonbokjuk (abalone porridge – a favorite of mine -a delicacy often gifted to kings of Korea) dinner followed by a green tea icecream mochi from Baskin Robins. As Christmas dinner digested I watched a BBC documentary on dreams. The night wore on and I decided it was time to partake in the most Christmasy event of the day. Time to open those presents and letter Mum had sent a few weeks prior. I was happy to come away with a new pair of “local” mittens, socks, a scarf and chocolate. My cat was happy to frolic in the aftermath – bows, paper, boxes and ribbon all became predators. My apartment finely dusted in gold glitter reminiscent of shimmery Christmases past. I was soon happy to crawl into my warm bed. The thought of sugar plums dancing through my head.

Despite the absence of family, friends, snow and familiar holiday grub, the day I deem a success. Thanks in no small part to the thoughtfulness of my loving family, a kind young man with a thermos and a lone Christmas deer. I shouldn’t have a problem placing myself 365 days henceforth.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Barb Baumgartner on December 26, 2014 at 9:29 pm

    Beautifully written. Glad you had a good day! We went to Aunt Linda’s Christmas Eve (after Mass.) I worked that night, then to Uncle Marty ‘s Christmas Day. We all missed you!


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