I woke up on Saturday morning from a night of poor decisions. I could feel the heaviness circling my body: the sadness of missing a friend who had left, mixed with the uncertainty of watching other friendships shift around that absence. Tectonic forces were at work in my life, and not just in the lava rock beneath my feet.
I needed motion.
I took a bus to the west side of the island in the hopes of catching a ferry to Gapado, a smaller island off the coast of Jeju. Two women from Seoul were walking in the same direction, so I followed them to the ferry terminal.
“Are you happy?” one woman asked, in a laughing sort of way.
“Most days, yes,” I smiled. “But today, no.”
The ferry was sold out, so I walked out to the jetty instead. Well, I thought. I may as well start walking.
I found the blue ribbons marking an olle, or walking course, and started down the road. The path led across a beach, and past the harbor, where I ran into some friends as they packed up their campsite.
In the fields a bird swung with a sound like castanets. A brilliant orange butterfly rested on a farmer’s refuse.
I saw stairs leading into a hill, and followed them down into a bunker from the old Japanese airfield. It was dark within the long half-cylinder of concrete, but I didn’t mind the darkness. Not, at least, until I stepped into the far room and realized the ceiling was crawling with centipedes.
I beat a hasty retreat into the sunlight, and blinked my way past the rest of the airplane hangars.
On the top of an oreum, or volcanic hill, circles of concrete stood where they had once served as gun mounts during the Japanese occupation. Their shape was the exact same as the round foundations which I had seen protecting a similar airfield beside my old home in California. It was an eerie feeling to stand on the reverse side of an old conflict, staring across the Pacific with my feet on the relics of war.
I stood on the oreum and gave this walk a name: The Walk of Sadness and Confusion.
The name had hardly settled when my view of the trail shifted. I started to notice the yellow flowers hanging on either side. A lightness sprung into my shoulders. My fingers trailed the branches as I walked, then pulled back as my fingertips learned the sharpness of the pines.
I walked quickly now, wearing my sadness like a cloak. Wearing it like the hills wore the concrete and the fields swelled over the empty hangars. Colors flowed together, blues and greens and yellows, tied together through the solidity of the eyes that looked out over this hurt landscape and chose honesty.
I passed caves blasted into a peninsula by the forced labor of Jeju residents, home to the boats of Japanese suicide soldiers. Or so the sign told me in its broken English. Purple flowers grew along the slope.
I kept walking. The stone dome of Sangbansan loomed larger, bisected by the peninsula of the Yeongmori coast where the bright colors of jackets meandered along the base. Beside me the coast crumpled, crumbled, flattened.
A sign told me that this coast was an important archaeological site, where human footprints had been found as many as 15,000 years ago. I paused to let the fullness of that number sink in. How many private sorrows, I wondered, had those ancient people admitted to this sea. And how many of those same sorrows rested within the bright jackets of the hikers trailing this rock-hard coast.
“Are you happy?” The question haunted my steps. I knew what the answer was meant to be: “yes.”
But beneath that ghostly answer, the honesty of the stone footprints still remained. Their heels were a message, not of false colors or polite smiles, but of pure existence. An existence, I extrapolated, colored by bright days as well as by dark ones. Lives that were too real to simply be happy.
As real, I knew, as the lives walking ahead of me and behind. And even more real than their smiles.
Ahead of me, the mountain grew. The rough sand stung my tender feet. The waves tore in a toy’s imitation of the ocean to which they belonged. I waded out knee-deep into the water, thinking of hot soup.
And then I returned, stepping back into the bustle of a restaurant, and eased my way into the bright jackets of the Yeongmori coast.