The Density Debate: Infrastructure (Part 2)

Find Part 1 here.

If I am understanding the anti-density advocates arguments about the sewage system (and infrastructure) in general, then they predict that, if San Francisco’s population increases, either the degradation of our sewage system will accelerate, or if more resources are put into maintaining/upgrading the sewage system to accommodate the increase in population, diseconomies of scale will cause sewage bills to go up (i.e. the costs will be so high that, even with a larger base of ratepayers, the SFPUC will still have to charge more PER PERSON).

But what do I know? While more people means more stress on the sewage system, it also seems like a lot of the costs of the sewage system are fixed, not dependent on population. Even if San Francisco’s population does not increase, having a bunch of 100-year old sewers failing would still be a problem. Maybe having a larger base of ratepayers to cover the fixed costs will help even out the marginal costs incurred by a larger population. I’m definitely not enough of an expert on sewage systems to judge this one.

And then there is transportation. Traffic is bad in downtown San Francisco, and the streetcars / buses going to downtown are quite crowded during rush hour. I think the problem of crowded streetcars and buses could be solved by hiring more drivers and buying more vehicles and increasing frequency, but I know that is expensive, and that there are also logistical obstacles to buying more vehicles (even when the public transit agency tries to buy more vehicles, they sometimes fail, and have to repair the old vehicles instead – it’s complicated). The pro-density people say that increasing density would help alleviate congestion because more people could live close to their workplaces, and the anti-density people say that more people means more congestion and overloaded public transit.

Does population density increase or decrease congestion? Methinks the devil is in the details. It is true that there is a correlation between population density and congestion within San Francisco. Chinatown, which is densely populated, is also one of the most congested neighborhoods, the buses tend to be full, and I don’t even want to think about parking in Chinatown. In Forest Knolls, one of San Francisco’s least densely populated neighborhoods, I do not recall ever seeing a traffic jam, the buses tend to be less than half full, and parking is not so hard to find (by San Francisco standards). But that does not mean I think transportation is better in Forest Knolls than in Chinatown. In Chinatown, the buses are frequent, whereas the buses are not frequent in Forest Knolls. Also, Chinatown has a lot of grocery stores and restaurants, whereas I cannot think of a single convenience store, let alone a grocery or restaurant, in Forest Knolls, so one basically has to leave the neighborhood to buy food, and that is a transportation problem (and one of the main reasons I would rather live in Chinatown than Forest Knolls). I’ve seen some people from Forest Knolls protest against building more housing (i.e. increase population density), and while I think some of their concerns are valid, I do not think their concern about how it would impact public transit is valid. I actually would like to have more people living in Forest Knolls because then there would be more an incentive to increase the frequency of the bus lines there (and the buses going through Forest Knolls almost always have plenty of seats anyway) (and if you’re wondering how I know so much about buses in Forest Knolls, it’s because I used to use those buses to get to school).

I’m not talking about gas or electricity because I know even less about electrical grids and gas delivery than I do about water and sewage and transportation.

I do agree with the broader point of the anti-density activists that at some point the diseconomies of scale outweigh the economies of scale, and that increasing population density beyond that point means either paying a lot more for infrastructure or living with crappier infrastructure. And maybe San Francisco is at that inflection point, at least for some infrastructure systems.

I have lived in Taoyuan, a city in Taiwan. Just about any city in Taiwan with a population > 150,000 people is much more densely populated than San Francisco, and infrastructure in Taiwan, including Taoyuan, is generally crappier than the infrastructure in San Francisco (is the infrastructure crappy BECAUSE the population density is so high? I don’t know – I’m just saying that the population was much higher AND the infrastructure was crappier). I’ll be more specific – I drink water straight from the tap in San Francisco, whereas I did not dare do that in Taoyuan (I did not even take showers in the tap water in Taoyuan, I used a shower filter, the water is that bad). After hearing all of the horror stories about how crowded BART (a transit system in the San Francisco region) is during rush hour, I tend to be pleasantly surprised when I do end up riding BART during rush hour, because it is not as packed as the trains going in and out of Taoyuan. I can only recall one occasion when I took a bus within Taoyuan city (as opposed to an intercity bus) because the bus system in Taoyuan is much more limited than the bus system in San Francisco. And during all my decades of living in San Francisco, I have never encountered awful traffic like the awful traffic of Taoyuan (to be fair, Taoyuan appeared on a list of five Taiwanese cities with the worst traffic, so it may not be representative of Taiwanese cities). Sewage – well, the sewage system in Taoyuan could not handle toilet paper. Garbage? In San Francisco, garbage gets sent to a landfill outside the city. In Taoyuan, because Taiwan has a much higher population density than California, there is no space for landfills, so garbage is incinerated, which reduces air quality. Electricity – actually, in my experience, electricity was more reliable in Taoyuan than San Francisco, so I guess maybe Taoyuan did not ~always~ have inferior infrastructure.

Taoyuan was also lacking in some of the less obvious types of infrastructure. For example, San Francisco has a system to limit the number of stray cats, and the few stray cats who live in San Francisco tend to be relatively healthy. If Taoyuan had any kind of system to limit the number of stray cats, it was failing badly, and while I generally enjoyed watching the stray cats of Taoyuan, I could see that some of them were suffering.

Heck, the sidewalks of Taoyuan were so thoroughly awful that, even as an able-bodied person, I sometimes felt they were an obstacle course (and it is worse for people who are not able-bodied). I now have a much better appreciation of San Francisco’s sidewalks, and the local ordinances which require that sidewalks not be obstructed. I am also aware of the cost of such ordinances, since when the sidewalk outside our home was in such bad condition that it violated ordinances, my mother, as the property owner, had to pay for the repair.

And yet, the crappier level of infrastructure in Taoyuan did not ruin my life. Though it definitely helped that I lived in downtown Taoyuan, which meant that groceries, restaurants, my workplace, the library, and the train station were all within walking distance of my apartment – that allowed me to ignore most of the traffic congestion (though I still got tripped up – sometimes literally – by the crappy sidewalks). I was just as capable of attaining happiness and fulfilment in Taoyuan city as in San Francisco. I do not consider relatively crappy infrastructure to be as unspeakably awful as some of the anti-density activists imply. At the same time, I think it is something which needs to be considered, and something which the pro-density activists tend to not pay enough attention to.

In short, I agree with the anti-density people that increasing population density may lead to a crapification of at least some types of infrastructure. If increasing the population density of San Francisco brings enough benefits, I would be willing to accept a crapification of infrastructure – but the question of whether or not increasing population density brings substantial benefits is beyond the scope of this post.

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Sixth Year Anniversary Post

As of today, this blog is six years old. To quote the very first paragraph of my very first post on this blog:

I had been thinking about starting a blog for years. However, I never had ‘enough time’ to maintain a proper blog. Finally, I realized that I will never have ‘enough time’ to blog, so if I am going to blog, I have to do it now, when I don’t have ‘enough time’.

Six years later, not having ‘enough time’ still has not stopped this blog. Huzzah!

While I was writing and posting that very first blog post, I was reading the novel Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ for the very first time. Since it was only the second book I had ever read in Chinese, my reading speed was very slow, and since it is more than 1500 pages long, it took a lot of time to read. I spent about 2-3 hours per day reading, and it took me several weeks. On top of that, I was also spending about two hours a day studying Chinese in other ways, such as watching the classic Taiwanese TV show Meteor Garden, so that I would develop my listening and speaking skills, not just my reading skills.

The first time I read this novel, this was the edition I read. I preferred the editions which came in smaller sizes and only about 250 pages per volume rather than the editions with thicker books and fewer volumes because a) the smaller volumes were easier to carry around b) I was not confident in my Chinese reading skills at the time, so being able to complete a volume faster (because it was much shorter) gave me an extra motivation boost.

The fact that I was reading Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ and studying Chinese (as well as working at my job, sleeping, taking care of chores and errands, etc.) was one of the main reasons I did not have ‘enough time’ to start a blog. Somehow, I started this blog anyway.

At the time, I would not have predicted that I would be referencing Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ so often in this blog, even six years later. Heck, the post which was published yesterday mentions Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ. Meanwhile, I rarely (or even never?) reference Meteor Garden in this blog, even though that was the TV show I was watching when this blog started.

Do I reference Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ so much because of the Jin Yong Jolt? Partially, perhaps, but if that were the case, I would probably be referencing The Deer and the Cauldron, which is without question the most WTF???!!!! of Jin Yong’s novels, even more often. Yet I rarely mention The Deer and the Cauldron in this blog.

Do I reference Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ so much because I headcanon the protagonist as ace? That definitely has a lot to do with it, but I also have brought up Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ in a lot of posts which aren’t about asexuality.

Something about this specific novel really stays with me in a way that few novels do, and it’s been reflected in this blog for six years.

Oh, and I recently watched the 1983 TV adaptation of Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ. That means there are going to be even more blog posts referencing Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ in the near future.

Odyssey of a New Bed, Part 1

I wrote this post about my tent having toxic flame retardants. As I was writing the post, I was dimly aware that a lot of furniture in my home probably has toxic flame retardants too, and that objectively, the flame retardants in my home were probably harming much more than flame retardants in my tent. However, I had a mental block. Why? Because I’m not used to choosing furniture in my home.

Until now, I’ve basically never exercised any choice about furniture in my home (except maybe something on the scale of moving a chair). I currently live in my childhood home, which means that pretty much all of the furniture was chosen by my parents, not me. I’m used to having them make decisions about adding or removing furniture, not me. In Taiwan, I only lived in furnished apartments, which meant that my landlord chose the furniture in my home (which I liked because it saved me the bother and expense of having to buy and move furniture).

By contrast, I’ve generally picked out my own camping gear, so I am used to taking responsibility for whether the camping gear suits my needs and preferences.

Until very recently, my bed was literally five different mattresses piled one on top of the other, all on top of a metal bed frame. I did not even know how many mattresses there were until I removed them one by one. Those mattresses have been there ever since I returned to the United States in late 2014. Were they there before I left the United States? I don’t remember. I didn’t pay attention to what my parents did to my bed when I was absent.

When I returned home after my big trip this summer (2017), I noticed that the top mattress has springs which were poking through the fabric and thus poking me. This made it difficult to sleep. So I did the rational thing and … piled some extra sheets on top of the mattress to cushion it, and then pulled out my lightest sleeping bag to sleep inside it on top of the sheet pile. It was a decent kludge for when I wanted to go to sleep and didn’t have time/energy to do anything about the mattress. However, instead of trying to change the mattress, I just kept on using the kludge for more than two months.

I took this photo while I was in the process of paring down my old bed. The mattress which was poking me in the back is leaning against the wall on the left side. Inside that mattress protector in the back of the picture was the bad feather mattress. The red thing in the foreground is a quilt which I am still using now.

It eventually sunk in that, if I were concerned about exposing myself to toxic flame retardants, I could do a lot more to reduce my exposure by changing my bedroom than changing my tent. And it sunk in that changing mattresses would probably lead to better sleeping than just keeping the sheets piled on pokey bedsprings. So I finally decided to get rid of ALL of those mattresses I had been sleeping on and buy a brand new mattress.

Fortunately, I made this decision just in time for Black Friday. Thus, I was able to get a traditional Japanese futon mattress (also known as ‘shiki futon’) that was made purely from organic cotton grown in Texas for less than 300 USD (including taxes). If you have any idea how expensive organic cotton is, then you appreciate what a bargain this is. Specifically, I bought this futon (Twin XL size, 3 inch, organic cotton case).

Why organic cotton as opposed to ‘conventional’ cotton. This explains the difference in environmental impact. In addition to the general environmental reasons, if I’m trying to avoid toxins, it makes sense to avoid the toxins used in processing ‘conventional’ cotton. I’ve also noticed, when I compared organic cotton fabric to equivalent conventional cotton fabric, that the organic cotton fabric is higher quality and lasts longer. I think it’s worth paying triple the price to get organic cotton (I have seen a new conventional cotton shiki futon for sale for about 100 USD).

I was surprised to learn that this futon is made in San Francisco. I was even more surprised to find myself visiting their factory and showroom in order to buy the futon. I have since learned that there are several businesses with mattress factories which operate in San Francisco, not just this one. Like must of the United States, San Francisco, which once had a lot of manufacturing, has been deindustrialized. Though this was not the deciding factor, I think it’s cool that I now sleep on a mattress which was made in the very same city where I’m using it, which is also the city where I’ve spent most of my life.

The factory, of course, is in southeast San Francisco. I consider southeast San Francisco to be part of the rust belt. First of all, there is literally lots of rust – people who love rusty abandoned industrial buildings can have a great time in southeast San Francisco. Deindustralization has hit southeast San Francisco hard. When I hear or read about cities such as Detroit, Youngstown, Buffalo, etc., I imagine them as being like southeast San Francisco but with more land area, cheaper housing, less gentrification, and worse infrastructure. My mother expressed concern about me going to the factory/showroom – especially since it’s just a block away from Potrero Terrace, one of San Francisco’s ‘most distressed’ public housing projects – but I wasn’t worried, especially since I’ve never had a problem when I’ve walked through Potrero Terrace before (you can see what Potrero Terrace looks like in this video). Like the rest of the rust belt, southeast San Francisco has a reputation for being full of poverty and crime.

Anyway, back to my new organic cotton shiki futon. Why that and not some other non-toxic mattress?

First of all, it was the second cheapest new non-toxic/organic mattress I was able to find (I will discuss the cheapest, and why I decided against it, in a future post in this series).

Second, it’s consistent with washitsu style. During my extensive travels in Japan, I slept in washitsu-style rooms many times and became rather fond of them. I don’t intend to converting my entire bedroom into an authentic washitsu room, but for years I’ve thought it would be nice to incorporate some of that aesthetic. And now I have.

This washitsu room is actually in Rueisui, Taiwan, not in Japan. However, this inn was built when Japan ruled Taiwan to serve Japanese guests, and the innkeepers have maintained its original Japanese style. I remember that I had to pull out a futon and blankets from the closet and lay them on the tatami floor myself.

Third, it did not have wool. A lot of the nontoxic mattresses use wool because it is naturally fire-resistant and a way to comply with federal fire safety laws without using toxic chemicals. However, I do not want wool because a) I do not want to exploit sheep that way and b) I don’t want a repeat of the moth infestation I experienced in my bedroom as a child.

Fourth, it does not contain latex. I am only allergic to synthetic latex (or more accurately, the chemicals which are sometimes mixed with synthetic latex), not natural latex, but I still feel more secure avoiding natural latex.

Fifth, I like the idea of having a portable bed. My new shiki futon only weighs about 30 pounds (14 kg) so I can easily move it without assistance. I’m going to discuss why portability is important to me in the third post in this series.

The next post? I’m going to talk about what the purpose of a bed actually is.

Does My Palace Cause Cancer? What Can I Do?

Is my palace (tent) spreading toxic chemicals?

I’m working on a draft of a blog post about Leave No Trace and my experiences with camping. Working on that draft, I started thinking about the chemical impact of tents on the environment, so I decided to do some research, and then decided that this topic was important enough to merit its own blog post.

Spoiler: My palace (i.e. tent) is probably carcinogenic.

Most backpacking tents contain toxic chemicals. There are different types of toxic chemicals they may maintain.

One types of toxic chemical is fluorocarbons. They help waterproof fabrics, including tent fabrics. They also wash off fabric when it rains or water is otherwise applied to the fabric, and they damage the ecosystem, and since they are persistent (i.e. it takes a long time for them to break down) they can spend a lot of time damaging the ecosystem. Lovely. Oh, and fluorocarbons are also bad for humans because they are hormone-disruptors.

I had already been aware that many rain jackets / shells / etc. contain fluorocarbons, that they are a toxic pollutant, that fluorocarbons have been found in even the most ‘pristine’ wilderness areas, and that was one reason I chose fluorocarbon free rain gear for my big hike in Washington (which I ended up not using much because it only rained twice, but if it had rained a lot, my rain gear would not have poisoned the trail ecosystem with fluorocarbons).

However, I had not thought about whether my tent contained fluorocarbons.

Does my tent have fluorocarbons? I do not know, and I have not asked the manufacturer (Big Agnes). Based on my research, my guess is that my tent probably does not contain fluorocarbons. However, that is an educated guess, not a certainty, and maybe I’ve guessed wrong.

Another common type of toxin found in tents are PVC and VOCs (volatile organic compounds). They cause cancer and mess up the ecosystem. The manufacturer of my tent says that my tent is PVC and VOC free, so I don’t have to worry about that, hurray! I will have to pay attention to that if I ever get another tent.

And then there are flame retardants. You can learn many of the gory details by reading this article. The TL;DR is: flame retardants cause cancer, do NOT improve fire safety, and for legal reasons, are found in the vast majority of the tents sold in the United States and Canada. Lovely.

I did contact Big Agnes (the manufacturer of my tent) to ask about flame retardants. Their answer was: ALL OF THEIR TENTS CONTAIN FLAME RETARDANTS. They have not told me which flame retardants they use, but the range for flame retardants (in terms of toxicity and effectiveness in fire safety) is not good thru bad, it’s bad thru horrible, so if I get a list of the specific fire retardants they use, all that would tell is is whether they are on the bad end of the spectrum, or the horrible end of the spectrum, and I do not think that information would affect my decisions.

I repeat, BIG AGNES HAS TOLD ME THAT ALL OF THEIR TENTS CONTAIN FLAME RETARDANTS.

I understand that they probably do it for legal reasons, and I thank them for telling me.

Though I did not get this information from Big Agnes, based on my research, it seems that the flame retardants are most likely in the PU coating. If this is so, that means that they are probably not leeching much into the environment (like fluorocarbons, flame retardants are bad news for the ecosystem). On the other hand, they are in the area where I sleep.

So now what? Here are my options:

OPTION 1: REPLACE MY PALACE WITH A NEW TENT

I love my tent! This would make me sad. But knowing that my tent might give me cancer will definitely affect my love for my tent, and will possibly make it harder for me to sleep in my tent.

This would also raise the question of how I would dispose of my tent. Landfill? Let it sit in my closet indefinitely? Sell it – “Hey, I’ve stopped using this tent because it causes cancer – want to buy it?”

Also, this means I would have to get a new shelter. High-quality shelters tend to be expensive, so that would hit my wallet hard. Or I could get a tarp shelter, but they require a lot more skill than tents.

Oh, and I would have to make sure my new tent was also fluorocarbon and flame retardant free, which would exclude most of the tents sold in the USA and Canada because of the legal requirements to poison campers. What tents are fluorocarbon & FR free? The Moonlight tents are fluorocarbon and FR free – and the lightest one weighs about 5 pounds. That weight is a dealbreaker for long-distance use (and I don’t use tents for short-distance purposes often enough to justify buying a tent just for short-distance trips). It looks like, based on the description, that the tent has a lot of cool features, but I would be happy to get rid of some of those features to reduce the weight.

Based on this, its seems that for legal reasons, any tent sold by a major retailer in the USA (such as REI) will have the flame retardants. A tent manufacturer based in the USA but not located in any of the states which require flame retardants in tents and which does not sell through retailers in those states is not legally required to use flame retardants, which limits me to tent manufacturers who do not distribute through retailers across the USA/Canada.

I do not know whether cuben fiber tents contain flame retardants or not. If I ever decided I wanted a cuben fiber tent, I would ask the manufacturers about this. Since I do not want to buy a cuben fiber tent, I am not going to research it at this time. However, one manufacturer of cuben fiber shelters, Mountain Laurel Designs, says that all of their bug netting fabric has flame retardants. That rules out any shelter with bug netting, cuben fiber or no cuben fiber.

It seems the best way to get a lightweight shelter without flame retardants is to import from the UK or the EU. Their laws do not require tents to contain flame retardants, so most tent manufacturers there do not use flame retardants. Which means I may have another option…

OPTION 2: USE MY TAIWANESE TENT

I have used my Taiwanese tent on my PCT section hikes before I received my palace, so I know it can work on the PCT. It is also a brand which is not sold in the USA or Canada at all, so the manufacturer did not care about US/Canadian law. Does Taiwanese law require putting flame retardants in tents? I have no idea. I would have to do more research. I also do not know if my Taiwanese tent contains fluorocarbons. It is unlikely to have PVC or VOCs, but I would have to do additional research to confirm that. And doing research would be challenging since the tent model I have has been discontinued (which does not surprise me, since it is a pretty weird tent).

However, while I CAN use my Taiwanese tent on the PCT, there are reasons why I was willing to buy a new tent for use on the PCT (I continue to use my Taiwanese tent for all non-PCT camping trips). The most important reason was weight, though it also has less interior space and I think the tent poles are annoying (I prefer the 12 stakeouts on my palace to putting up the tent poles on my Taiwanese tent, which tells you just how much those tent poles annoy me). If I put my Taiwanese tent to serious use again, I would also want to buy new stuff sacks, because the current stuff sack sucks.

Nonetheless, if I did the research, and found that my Taiwanese tent had no fluorocarbons / PVC / VOCs / flame retardants, then that would be an option which would not require me to spend any extra money (beyond a new stuff sack, which is a lot cheaper than buying a new tent).

OPTION 3: CONTINUE USING MY PALACE, AND BE CAREFUL

As I said, the most toxic chemicals are probably in the interior coating, not the exterior coating, so continuing to use this tent may still be consistent with the principles of Leave Not Trace (I wouldn’t be leaving a trace on the environment, I’d just leaving a trace on my own body by exposing myself to carcinogens).

Research shows that the flame retardants rub off on hands when pitching a tent (you can read more about that research in the article I linked above), and that if those hands are later used to, say, eat food, the flame retardants can enter the body. However, when I am pitching my palace, I am mostly touching the exterior of the tent, not the interior, so I may not be getting into direct contact with the flame retardants. Finally, I usually pitch my tent with my gloves on (even in summer, I do all long-distance hikes with gloves), and I usually eat with my gloves off. I could make it a rule that I ONLY pitch my tent with gloves on and ONLY eat with gloves off.

When I’m inside my tent, I do put my gear in contact with the fabric. Research shows that flame retardants can rub off on gear too, but I would expect touching gear which touched flame retardant to be less bad than directly touching flame retardant. I do not directly touch the interior tent fabric often, and I can try to limit my direct contact with the interior tent fabric even more.

Not enough research has been done to show if there are other ways the flame retardants in tents can enter the human body. It is possible that it may coat dust in the tent, but AFAIK, this has not been proven. Just because is hasn’t been proven does not mean it’s not happening.

I have read that old PU coatings will flake, and I guess that the flame retardants would be in the flakes.

SO, WHAT AM I GOING TO DO?

For now, based on what I know, I am going with option three. If I ever see signs that the PU coating is flaking, then I will retire the tent, but until then, I will continue to use it with caution.

Another thing I’m going to try to do is bring more attention to this issue in the trail community. Even if I am successful in taking care of myself, I do not want tent manufacturers to poison my fellow hikers, nor do I want my fellow hikers to spread toxins around the wilderness. And if the trail community does not pay attention to this, then the situation is not going to get better.

My Fellow Hikers, Part 4

Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

HIKER OF SECTION J – SNOQUALMIE PASS TO STEVENS PASS: NO ENGLISH
Origin: Yangmei, Taiwan
Hiker Type: Northbound Thru-Hiker
Trail Resume: Has summitted 99 of the 100 peaks of Taiwan

I had ended up at a small, undesirable campsite near Spinola Creek because I wanted to get in a few more miles (thus leaving behind a much more appealing campsite several miles behind) yet I didn’t have the time and energy to get to the desirable campsite a mile and a half ahead. And even though it was so close to Spinola Creek that I could hear it running, there was no safe access, which meant that it was a dry camp too (dry camp = campsite without a water source). I thought for sure I would be camping alone that night, because who else would choose this campsite over the better campsites nearby?

My tent at that small campsite by Spinola Creek. You can see the corner of No English’s tent in the lower right corner of this picture. Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Central Washington.

Well, a few minutes after I reached the camp, another hiker came in. She thought there would not be room for her at the prior campsite, she had assumed that I was going to the desirable campsite a mile and a half ahead (we had seen each other, yet not spoken, at the prior campsite), and like me, she no longer had the time and energy to keep going. Fortunately, even thought it was a small campsite, there was still room for two tents (and if there had been space for only one tent, I would have probably offered the option of sharing a tent so neither of us would be forced to press on that evening).

When I tried talking to her, she told me she doesn’t speak English. So I asked her 「你會不會講中文?」 (“Can you speak Chinese?”) It turns out the answer was yes. I then told her that my trail name is 池有, and her response was “Oh, so you’re 池有, I was so surprised when I heard you were in Washington!”

I’m going to rewind a few months.

The Mount Laguna Lodge, Mount Laguna, San Diego County, California

As it so happens, during my Southern California PCT section this year, I heard two women speaking in Mandarin with Taiwanese/Fujianese accents (I say Taiwanese/Fujianese because I still can’t distinguish those accents, so I was not sure at first whether they were from Taiwan or Fujian). While one was in the post office getting a package, the other was waiting outside. She had avoided talking to me because she spoke no English, and when I started talking to her in Mandarin she was surprised. I told her that I was just hiking about a hundred miles of the PCT, which was true at the time.

Fast forward back to my hike through Washington.

The Bumping River, William O. Douglass Wilderness, Southern Washington

When I crossed the Bumping River, I met a southbound hiker from Tainan. I didn’t spend much time with him because we were going in opposite directions, but when I told him that my trail name is 池有 he seemed baffled, even after I told him how to write it in Chinese.

The hiker from Tainan met with that hiker I met at Mount Laguna (which makes sense since they were going in opposite directions). He told her that he had encountered me, and said that I had a 神奇 (mysterious) name. She explained that it’s the name of a mountain in Taiwan, and even though he was Taiwanese, he had not recognized the name because he had not done high-mountain hiking in Taiwan.

This is a photo taken on one of the slopes of 池有 mountain in Taiwan. Specifically, the tree in the lower right corner is the Famous Tree of 池有 (that particular tree is a landmark listed in the mountain maps).

In was a pleasure to finally meet with No English again at that campsite near Spinola Creek. She told me that she had taken ‘No English’ as her trail name because it was very convenient for conveying that she could not speak English, though by the time she reached Washington, she could speak a little English. She said someone had suggested finding a ‘better’ trail name for her, but she says that, even if she eventually becomes fluent in English, she will still keep ‘No English’ as a trail name to remember how it was when she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail.

I explained to No English that I got my trail name by talking to a PCT hiker about mountains in Taiwan, and since he couldn’t pronounce 池有 correctly he named me ‘Cheerio’ (but I use 池有 as my trail name when I’m speaking in Mandarin). She said that ‘Cheerio’ has a nice sound, but it’s difficult for her to pronounce, so she’s happy that I use 池有 in Mandarin conversation. It was lucky that I got a trail name which works (and has an interesting meaning) in both English and Mandarin, especially since I followed the tradition of letting someone else name me rather than choosing my own name, so I just happened to get a trail name which has an interesting meaning in both languages.

She has hiked 99 of the 100 famous peaks of Taiwan (a peak must be at least 3000 meters above sea level to be one of the 100 famous peaks, so that is a lot of sub-alpine hiking). She came to the Pacific Crest Trail because one of her hiking friends had done a thru-hike last year. She told them that she could not speak English, and they said that it didn’t matter “you don’t need to speak English to hike the Pacific Crest Trail.” She says that her friend is a liar, that you do need English. She told me that, aside from Taiwanese/Chinese hikers, she had only met three people on the Pacific Crest Trail who could speak Mandarin, and I was one of them.

(Incidently, I met a white guy at Lake Sally Ann who could speak decent Mandarin. So far, he’s the only non-Asian I’ve met on the Pacific Crest Trail who can speak Mandarin, though I admit that I may have met hikers who can speak Mandarin without realizing they were Mandarin speakers).

Lake Sally Ann, Henry M. Jackson Wilderness, Northern Washington.

Not only is No English from Taiwan, she is from Yangmei – in Taoyuan County. I lived in Taoyuan City, which is also in Taoyuan County, for about three years. So we happened to be from the same region of Taiwan (okay, I’m not really from Taiwan, but you know what I mean).

I asked what happened to her companion in Mount Laguna (her companion could speak English). She said that they split up in Southern California because their hiking styles were not compatible.

No English said that she spent quite a bit of time in Ashland, Oregon and was ready to quit, but the other hikers at the hostel encouraged her to keep going. “How did you talk to them if you can’t speak English?” I asked. “We used a lot of smartphone translation,” she said.

At the camp, No English complained about ‘mosquitoes’ – she used the English word. I found this surprising because even native English speakers find the Mandarin word for mosquito (wén​zi​) to be easier to say than ‘mosquito’. No English said that she has heard so many hikers moaning about mosquitoes that even she knows this English word.

No English skipped the Sierras, but otherwise had hiked the entire PCT up to that point. She planned to continue to Canada, and then return to California to finish the Sierras.

No English wants to thru-hike either the Continental Divide Trail or the Appalachian Trail next year, and eventually become a Tripe Crowner. But first, when she returns to Taiwan, she wants to study English so that she will be able to speak English on her next thru-hike.

I found No English’s entry at the trail register at the USA/Canada border, and her entry at Manning Park in British Columbia. She reached Canada four days before I did.

The next entry will be about my designated hikers of Section K: Square Peg & Can-can.

Transcendence at the Summit of Pintianshan

This is the summit of Pintianshan, with the south side of Dabajianshan in the background. Most people see only the north side of Dabajianshan (which is also the face shown in most photos of Dabajianshan), so seeing the south side of Dabajianshan felt special to me.

I recently read A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways into Judaism by Rabbi Mike Comins. In chapter four, “Finding God in Nature”, he says:

It’s so difficult to talk about the who and what of God. Often the same words mean different things to different people, and our conversations get bogged down in contradictions and misunderstandings. But when I say that I have “God-moments” in wilderness, people know exactly what I mean.

I’m an atheist, and I knew exactly what he meant, even though I would not use the word ‘God’ to describe it.

Specifically, what came to mind when I read that was my memory of being at the summit of Pintianshan in Taiwan. It’s called ‘Pintianshan’ because the boxy shapes of the rocks look like the Chinese characters 品 (pǐn​) and 田 (tián​).

Here is a picture of Pintianshan. Imagine trying to hike to the top (hint, even the safest approach requires scrambling up/down nearly vertical rock right over a very long drop).

Pintianshan is, without a doubt, the most difficult mountain I have ever successfully summited. I have met hikers who are much more experienced than I am who, when they saw what they would have to do to reach the summit, decided to turn around and give up. I almost gave up too. It’s dangerous and scary (I did not take a photo of the scary part because I did not want my parents to see how scary it was). And of course, once I pressed on to the summit, I committed myself to going through the scary section a second time during the return hike.

But it was worth it! The view from the summit of Pintianshan is one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen in my life. Pintianshan is right in the middle of the ‘Holy Ridge’ (聖陵線), which was named by a Japanese mountaineer who was completely convinced that he was in a sacred place. The indigenous people also believe that these mountains are sacred – Dabajianshan is possibly the most sacred of all mountains in traditional Atayal culture. Furthermore, one section of the Holy Ridge is known as ‘the four beauties of Wuling’ (武陵四秀). Pintianshan is one of those four beauties (the other three beauties are Chiyoushan, Taoshan, and Kelayeshan).

One of the things I thought to myself while I was at the summit of Pintianshan was ‘I can die now because I have seen this.’ This was not a suicidal thought – I had no intention of dying. Instead, I felt that there was no such thing as intention. I was so overwhelmed with the magnificence of the world that I felt myself completely submit to it, including submission to my inevitable death.

Snow Mountain, as seen from the summit of Pintianshan. Yes, Taiwan, a tropical island, has a place called ‘Snow Mountain’ (it snows on Pintianshan in winter too). Snow Mountain is the highest point of the Holy Ridge, and the second highest mountain in all of Taiwan. It is higher than Mt. Fuji in Japan.

Looking back, I think the scary experience of reaching the summit of Pintianshan put me in an emotional state which made me especially receptive to being awestruck by the beauty of the landscape. As Rabbi Mike Comins says in A Wild Faith:

Statistically, I am much more likely to die from a car accident than a grizzly attack, but I’m constantly aware of potential hazards when I’m far from a hospital. Outside the human comfort zone called civilization, I am less prone to falling into routine. The risks prod me to greater awareness.

In the city, I employ a different strategy. I avoid anxiety by “forgetting” what I know about accidents. When I drive, I’m rarely thinking about driving. Neither wilderness nor the freeways are forgiving, but in the city, I deceive myself and act otherwise.

In nature, the awareness of mortality is constant. Unlike the sanitized world of the supermarket, birth and death are encountered together in the natural world. Yet most of us see beauty, not terror.

By the way, the #1 cause of death on the Pacific Crest trail is being hit by a motor vehicle while crossing a road. There is no recorded instance of a human being killed by a bear on the Pacific Crest Trail. This implies that motor vehicles are actually much more dangerous than bears.

Nanhudashan and Zhongyangjinashan, as seen from the summit of Pintianshan. Some people say that Nanhudashan is the most beautiful mountain in Taiwan, but sadly I’ve never gotten close to it.

Hopefully, at the time this post is being published, I am hiking through Washington on the PCT and all is going well with me. I’m not expecting experiences like I had on Pintianshan on this backpacking trip because I think it would be a self-defeating prophecy. But I’m sure I’m having other kinds of interesting experiences.

The Valley of Life and Death: An Wuxia Novel with a Female Protagonist who May Be Aro-Ace

The cover of The Valley of Life and Death

I have found something amazing – an wuxia novel with a female protagonist who is not at all interested in romance. If you haven’t read as many wuxia novels as I have, you can’t appreciate just how amazing that is. It’s called The Valley of Life and Death (《生死谷》), by Zheng Feng (鄭丰). Did I mention that it’s amazing?

Anyway, before I continue, I’ll offer a brief overview of the story…

What Kind of Story Is This?

The story is set during the late Tang Dynasty (in the early 800s A.D.) when the imperial government of China is unstable.

Fei Ruoran is the daughter of a high-ranking minister. At the beginning of the story, she’s seven years old, and she’s friends with Wu Xiaohu, the bastard son of the prime minister. They are both captured, and thrust into a valley with about two hundred other children. They are trained in skills such as climbing and martial arts, and over the years, they have to pass the ‘three tests’. For example, the second test is that all of the surviving children are left in the valley for winter without food, and they will be kept there until only eight are still alive – and the most readily available source of food is each other’s bodies. Fei Ruoran and Wu Xiaohu just want to go home, but after years of being in that valley, will they be able to return?

If this sounds like The Hunger Games set in China in the Tang Dynasty, that’s because it sure feels like that (though, for what it’s worth, I think The Valley of Life and Death is better than The Hunger Games). in fact the preface specifically mentions that it’s like stories such as The Hunger Games, Lord of the Flies, and The Drifting Classroom (and a few other examples which I don’t remember).

But Back to Talking about Fei Ruoran and Her Lack of Interest in Romance and Sex

The story starts when Fei Ruoran is seven years old, and (if one excludes the epilogue) ends when she is nineteen years old.

One would not expect a seven year old to be particularly interested in romance or sex, so at first, I had no idea that she would continue to be uninterested as a teenager, especially since this is an wuxia novel. As she grew older, I kept on expecting her to start showing interest in romance (though not necessarily sex because, again, this is wuxia), and it was not until the end that it turned out that, nope, she never becomes interested in romance at all in her entire life.

At the beginning of the novel, it seemed there would be two co-equal protagonists, Wu Xiaohu and Fei Ruoran, and that Wu Xiaohu (who is may) may even become the top protagonist. Thus, I was also surprised when Wu Xiaohu gradually became a less important character, and while he retained major character status all of the way to the end, the finale of the story is really about her, and not much about him. Though there are other wuxia novels centered on female protagonists (as well as Tiān​ Xiāng Piāo by Wolong Sheng in which the male protagonist dies halfway through the novel so the women who were in love with him are suddenly promoted to protagonist status)​​, this was still a pleasant surprise.

It is stated over and over again that Fei Ruoran only considers Wu Xiaohu to be a friend and a brother, and that she has no romantic feelings for him. At one point in the novel, (when she is about 15 years old IIRC) another character assumes she must have romantic feelings for Wu Xiaohu because she is so close to them, and she thinks that, not only is she certain that Wu Xiaohu feels like a brother to her, she does not even know what romance is. This is strongest evidence in the novel that Fei Ruoran may in fact be aromantic.

Zheng Feng’s afterword to the novel is very interesting, but I am just going to focus on the part where she talks about the lack of romance in the novel. She says in the afterword that she did try to work in a romance for Fei Ruoran, but it did not work, so it was taken out of the story. She also says, and this is a quote:

《生死谷》是我唯一一本沒有牽涉太多愛情的小說,大概因為我的人物都是整日在生死之間掙扎的殺手,愛情對他們來說,實在太過奢侈了吧?

The Valley of Life and Death is the only novel I’ve written which does not involve a lot of romance; that’s probably because the characters are all killers who spend the whole day struggling with matters of life and death; wouldn’t romance be too much of a luxury for them?

I am relieved that Zheng Feng put a question mark at the end of that sentence, indicating that she’s not really sure why there is not much romance. To me, and an aromantic, the explanation that they do not engage in romance because it’s a ‘luxury’ not make much sense. It could explain why they do not pursue romance, but it seems to me that alloromantic people will experience romantic feelings whether or not they can or want to pursue romance. Furthermore, since a lot of people compare this novel to The Hunger Games, I will say that the characters in The Hunger Games have even less opportunity to pursue romance, but that does not stop them.

For me, the most plausible explanation is that Fei Ruoran is simply aromantic. Especially since, unlike Katniss Everdeen, she never has anything to do with romance during her entire life.

At this point, I suppose I ought to say a few words about the major male characters, Wu Xiaohu and Tian Shaxing. I don’t know what their sexual or romantic orientation is. They both develop strong feelings for a female character other than Fei Ruoran, and it is not clear whether or not these feelings ever become romantic or sexual. Furthermore, Tian Shaxing is never a viewpoint character, which makes this kind of thing harder to judge.

By the way, did I mention that this is a great novel, possibly my favorite novel that I’ve read in 2017 so far? I’d love it even if there was no sign of the protagonist being aro or ace.

Anyway, more about the implications of Fei Ruoran being aromantic.

A good portion of the novel is about Fei Ruoran trying very hard to protect/help/keep alive her friends Tian Shaxing and Wu Xiaohu. I do not want to spoil the novel, so I’m going to have to find a very vague way to say this … you know how some aro people feel like there alloromantic friends accept the benefits of being their friend without investing as much in the friendship as the aro person because they do not value the friendship as much? That arguably happens in this novel, in that Wu Xiaohu and Tian Shaxing do not always invest as much in Fei Ruoran as she invests in them (again, my point would be clearer if I were more specific, but I do not want to spoil. If you can’t read Chinese but really want to know what I’m talking about, you can ask me and I will respond in the comments).

Unfortunately, I don’t think this counts as aro ace fiction.

Even though Fei Ruoran being aro ace makes way more sense to me than any other interpretation, and I will hella recommend this novel to anybody looking for an aro-friendly wuxia novel, I would not go so far as to put this on a list of fiction with aro ace characters. I don’t think fiction necessarily explicitly state that a character is aro or ace, nor do I think Word of Ace is necessary, but I think that, short of an explicit statement that a character is ace or aro, the experience of being ace and aro needs to be described clearly enough that it is recognizable. I think this novel is one step short of that, but it is still short of that. Thus, I would not, say, use it as an example for the ace tropes series.

That said, I will still see if any of the ace tropes described so far apply to this novel and … none of them apply.

Nonetheless, I am still super happy with this novel. And I would like to point out that I’ve have previously written about another Zheng Feng novel in the post A Novel Featuring a Non-Sexual/Non-Romantic Intimate Relationship, which goes to show that even Zheng Feng protagonists who do not seem to be aro or ace can have intense nonromantic personal relationships with someone of a different gender.