Remembering Jiaming Lake and the Southern Cross-Island Highway (Part 3)

A little after sunrise, with one of my companions in the lower left part of the picture.

Continued from Part 2

Actually, hiking at 3:30 in the morning wasn’t as bad as I expected, and it meant that we got out of the forest right around sunrise, which was nice, and that we had plenty of daylight in the part of the trail with the best views.

We hiked up Xiangyangshan and then … well, there are two trails to Xiangyangshan. The recommended route is the western trail for both the ascent and descent, so I assumed that we would only use the western trail. Well, they headed off onto the eastern trail, and I figured that joining them on the worse trail would still be safer than going alone on the better trail.

In fact the eastern trail was … not as bad as I expected. Sure, it’s in worse condition than the western trail, but it has different views, and actually isn’t any worse than some of the trails around Taipei. In fact, I’m grateful that they decided to do the eastern trail, because I probably would not have dared on my own.

There are two of my hiking companions

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Remembering Jiaming Lake and the Southern Cross-Island Highway (Part 2)

This is continued from Part 1.

I should note that the eastern section of the Southern Cross follows the Xinwulu river. The river originates from Guanshan, Xiangyangshan, and Sanchashan i.e. the mountains I summitted during this trip (except Guanshan, which I didn’t summit). The Xinwulu river flows down into the east rift valley, where it flows into the Beinan river, which eventually flows into the Pacific Ocean at Taidong city.

I started this trip by taking a train to Guanshan (the town, not the mountain), and spent the first night there. Guanshan is a town in Taiwan’s east rift valley, at the southern end of Taiwan’s ‘rice bowl’ (i.e. prime rice-growing region), and relies on the Xinwulu river for much of its water. The next morning, I got on a bus, which went up to the Southern Cross-Island Highway. The bus passed through Chulai, about 300m above sea level, which is where the mountains meet the valley and is the last place along the highway where rice-farming is feasible. After going through Chulai, the next settlement was Xiama, then Wulu, and then Lidao, where I had breakfast.

Most of the road was in good shape, though there were a few rough patchs, and a flooded tunnel where the bus literally had to drive through the water. [UPDATE 2020: A year later, in 2014, bus service to Lidao was cancelled, which does not completely surprise me given road conditions and lack of population. I don’t know whether bus service was ever restored, or if there is currently bus service to Lidao].

Lidao is a Bunun village (every settlement past Chulai is a Bunun village) about 1000m above sea level, and is the last place with flat land. The people there apparently feel they don’t have enough farmland, so many of the mountains around Lidao have terraced fields. The Boss (I explain who he is in Part 3) claims that the people have taken the terracing too far. Continue reading

Remembering Jiaming Lake and the Southern Cross-Island Highway (Part 1)

A view seen near Yakou on the Southern Cross-Island Highway in Taiwan

I recently read the novel Yushan Spirits (玉山魂) by Husluman Vava. In the preface, he describes the incident which inspired the novel. He was traveling on the Southern Cross-Island Highway in Taiwan. At Yakou, the highest elevation point on the road, he was feeling the effects of the altitude change, so he decided to take a break at a parking lot, where there were two multi-story buildings. This is at the border of Kaohsiung and Taitung counties, so passengers going between Kaoshiung’s bus system and Taitung’s bus system would transfer there. Husluman Vava saw an old man waiting with other bus passengers who seemed to be looking at the mountains in a particular way. He addressed him in the Bunun language, asking him if it was going to Taitung. The old man answered that yes, he was going to Taitung to visit his daughter.

They got into a conversation, and eventually, the old man said (note: I’m translating this from Chinese, which was translated from Bunun, and I’m also abridging this, so the accuracy is questionable) “When I was young, I often went hunting here with my elders.”

“Here, in this parking lot?” Husluman Vava replied.

“The mountain forest here was originally our village’s hunting ground … I once shot and killed a deer in this area – just about there! There was originally a giant rock there, the smart deer would duck behind there to get out of our sight … it was rare that we hunted down such a big deer,” the old man continued as he basked in his old sense of glory.

“What? Inside that multi-story building?”

“Yes! But someone who doesn’t understand mountain forests, who doesn’t understand hunting, put a building in a place which belongs to deer … this place has changed, there are more and more things which don’t belong in the mountains. Sometimes when I pass by here, I wonder whether the things I remember actually existed.”

Husluman Vava was really struck by this comment. He pondered what would drive someone to stop believing their own memories were true, and what it meant when it happened to a whole culture. That was the starting point for the novel.

I myself have been to Yakou, in 2013, and I recall looking at the buildings mentioned in the preface. However, at the time I was there, there was no bus service; I had to hitchhike to get up there. The buildings were closed and not in use. When I was looking down at that, I also felt like they looked really out of place in their setting. Continue reading

Aloneness & (In)Security

This is a submission to the October 2019 Carnival of Aros: “Aromanticism and Aloneness”

In this post, I am going to use a very specific definition of ‘aloneness’. The definition of ‘aloneness’ specifically for this post is: you think it’s unlikely that there is another living human being within a twenty minute walk of your current location.

Obviously, this is different from how the word ‘aloneness’ is generally used, which is why I needed to spell out right at the beginning what I mean by ‘aloneness’ in this post. In my experience, ‘you do not think there is another living human being within a twenty minute walk, within five miles, etc.’ brings a very different feeling of aloneness than anything which I experience within physical proximity to other people.

I’ve spent a night sleeping a ten minute walk away from the nearest human being (that I knew about), and I didn’t feel alone (at least not in the specific sense I’m discussing in this post), which is why I decided to set the limit at ‘twenty minute walk away’.

I’ve discussed the experience of being alone before in the post “Something about Bedsharing”. When I wrote that post, I still felt fairly insecure about sleeping alone. Not as insecure as that first night at Walami Cabin, but still somewhat insecure.

Since I wrote that post, I’ve had a lot more experience with sleeping alone, and I feel a lot more relaxed about it. I think it is because I’ve spent so many nights alone where nothing bad happened, so my subconscious figured out that sleeping alone does not mean I will be harmed in the night. Continue reading

Sauntering to and down from Muir Pass

In the Evolution Basin

John Muir preferred the word ‘saunter’ over the word ‘hike’. Among long distance hikers, there is also a saying ‘it’s about the smiles, not the miles’. It is about a difference in focus – focusing on distance covered and speed vs. focus on the immediate environment.

I think this is Helen Lake, at the top of LeConte Canyon

When I hike, most of the time I combine both focuses. I keep track to some extent of how much distance I’ve covered and how much time I’ve spent, and how far I have left to go to the destination and how long it may take, but I also try to let in the environment around me (after all, that is the point of why I am out there, right?) I rarely go for speed, and almost never try to be faster than anyone else (I’m not good at racing).

Sometimes I tip more towards one side of the spectrum than the other.

Evolution Lake in the evening

Last month (September), I hiked the section of the Pacific Crest Trail / John Muir Trail running from Red’s Meadow to the junction of the Bubbs Creek Trail (about 120 miles / 190 km), and then hiked the Bubbs Creek Trail (about 13 miles / 20 km) to reach a road, for a total of about 133 miles / 210 km. I did not resupply. I also used a bear can (required) which limited how much food I could carry. Covering 133 miles / 210 km of John Muir Trail on a single bear can of food is tough, and requires maintaining a certain pace (lest one runs out of food). Continue reading

Is The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying-Up a Book about Ultralight Backpacking?

While I was reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, I was frequently reminded of ideas from ultralight backpacking. And as I follow various discussions of the ‘KonMari’ method online (and offline – no, I didn’t bring it up, other people mentioned it first), a lot of it sounds very similar to the various (and eventually repetitive) discussions around ultralight backpacking.

Here is a quick overview of ultralight backpacking: carrying weight on a long journey on foot, especially if it involves mountains / rough terrain / stream crossings / etc. really sucks. It takes more energy, it makes bodies feel more sore, it reduces mobility/nimbleness, it reduces speed, and generally, nobody wants to carry weight. However, people who are going to spend multiple nights on a trail need to carry some things, such as food, something to keep them warm while they sleep, etc. and since these things generally will not fit into pockets, one needs a backpack to carry these things. In short, weight increases the physical costs of backpacking, and generally people want to only carry things which bring enough value to justify the physical cost.

(Bulk also imposes a cost by taking up more space in a pack, but backpackers are generally more interested in reducing weight than bulk, especially since bulk and weight are often correlated.)

The ‘ultralight’ movement in backpacking got started in the 1990s – the beginning of the movement is often attributed to Ray Jardine. It was possible to reduce the weight of backpacking gear partially because of technological advances, but the main change is that backpackers asked what was really necessary or only being used due to outdoor cultural conventions, and then they systematically went through their gear, asking themselves whether or not they needed everything, whether a lighter thing could serve the same function, and so forth.
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Hiking the Ohlone Trail in June, Day 3: Journey to Livermore

Sunrise the morning I left Boyd Camp

At Boyd Camp, I only had a few miles left of the official Ohlone Trail, and they were all downhill! After the work my legs did the previous day, this seemed pretty great.

On the left you can see Mount Diablo, and on the right you can see Del Valle Reservoir.

It turned out that it was a viciously steep downhill on a road. I suppose it was still easier than trying to go up than hill, but getting down still required an effort. And in contrast to the previous day when I practically saw no people, this morning I ran into a few people who were doing early morning exercise things. Continue reading

Hiking the Ohlone Trail in June, Day One: Into the Wilderness of the East Bay Hills

Under a blue sky, rolling hills are covered by yello dry grass with some patches of green oak trees.

This is what the East Bay (that is, the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay) looks like in summer. Even though Alameda county has a population of 1.6 million people, a lot of it is still like this.

This June, I hiked the entire length of the Ohlone Trail. I had several goals: 1) I did not distinctly remember staying overnight in Alameda County even though I know I’ve spent many nights there 2) I had just finished sewing my net-tent and I wanted to test it out before hiking a few hundred miles with it and 3) I wanted to prepare myself physically for hiking a few hundred miles.
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My Most Physically Demanding 27 Hours of Hiking Ever

That mountain with snow on it is San Jacinto, the second highest mountain in southern California.

During my 400+ mile (640+ km) long hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in southern California, I went south, which meant that I was hiking from Interstate 10 -> San Jacinto, rather than San Jacinto -> Interstate 10.

This may not seem like a big deal if you do not know the terrain. However, countless hikers told me that, when they were going north from San Jacinto to the Interstate 10 freeway, they thought to themselves “gee, I’m glad I’m going north and not south.” Then they met me, the hiker who was planning to go south. One hiker, once it dawned on him that I was going south into San Jacinto, immediately told me that he could put me in touch with people who could give me rides so that I could go north through San Jacinto instead of south. I rejected the offer. Though I sometimes go northbound on the Pacific Crest Trail, this was a ~southbound~ hike, and for the sake of continuity, I wanted to go south through San Jacinto too.

Hikers take a break under Interstate 10. The local trail angels left water, cold drinks, and some snacks under the bridge – but most importantly, the bridge was the only place a hiker could get shade for miles in either direction.

If you are wondering what the fuss is about, let me explain. Interstate 10 is 1335 feet (407 meters) above seal level. Going south, the trail then dips down to 1251 feet (381 meters) above sea level over the next 2-3 miles, which is easy in terms of elevation, but it is through a hot sandy desert with no shade. Then, going south over the next 21 miles (34 km), the trail rises to 8947 feet (2727 meters) above sea level at the tributary of the San Jacinto river. That is a 7696 ft (2346 m) change in elevation. After taking into account the dips in the trail (because the trail is not entirely smooth), between Interstate 10 and the tributary of the San Jacinto river, I had 8883 ft (2708 m) of elevation gain in the space of 30 hours.

For those of you who do not hike, let me put that into perspective. Going from the 5th station on Mt. Fuji to the summit via the Yoshida trail (the most popular way to hike Mt. Fuji), there is an elevation gain of 4824 ft. (1471 m). Thus, going south from Interstate 10 to the tributary of the San Jacinto river is almost the equivalent of hiking up Mt. Fuji twice in a row – without going downhill. Mt. Whitney is the highest mountain in the contiguous United States (i.e. excluding Hawaii and Alaska). Hiking from Whitney Portal to the top of Mt. Whitney (the most popular route) takes 6,100 feet (1,860 m) of elevation gain. Thus, Interstate 10 -> tributary of San Jacinto river requires more uphill hiking than hiking to the top of the highest mountain in the contiguous United States.

And it gets worse better. There is a water source at 1721 ft (525 m) above sea level, and then there are no more water sources until the tributary of the San Jacinto river, which is 19.5 miles (31.2 km) south on the trail, and 8947 feet (2727 meters) above sea level. That means I had to carry enough water to get me through that stretch, including the 10 miles (16 km) where there was little shade and it was surprisingly warm. And this 19.5 waterless stretch also includes Fuller Ridge, one of the most notorious stretches of the entire Pacific Crest Trail, notorious because far more hikers have disappeared/died on these 4 miles (6.4 km) than any other 4 mile stretch of the entire 2650 mile trail (even Old Snowy/Knife Edge in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, which is notorious for killing horses/mules, has had very few human deaths. Meanwhile, Fuller Ridge seems to kill a lot more humans than horses/mules). On top of all that, the risk of being stung by a bee or encountering rattlesnakes was very high, but since I did not have any adverse encounters with bees or rattlesnakes on this stretch, that was not a problem for me.

For a southbound hiker (like me), this faucet was the last water source before the 19.5 waterless stretch to the tributary of the San Jacinto river. That giant rock was pretty much the only source of shade in the area this hot afternoon, though one hiker (not in the photo) did something creative with an umbrella to make more shade.

The more water I carried, the more weight I would have to carry very far uphill. The less water I carried, the greater my risk of dehydration. It was a tough tradeoff.

I’ve heard from the local people that they hear rescue helicopters several times a day, and that at this time of year, helicopters are generally sent to rescue PCT hikers. I also kept on hearing stories about how such-and-such hiker had just been rescued. This is the only part of the Pacific Crest Trail where I heard about hikers needing rescue with such frequency.

I left Interstate 10 at around noon. I left that last water source before ascending San Jacinto at around 3pm. I reached the tributary of the San Jacinto river at around 6pm the following day. That meant it took me 27 hours to get from water source at the base of the mountain to the to the tributary of the San Jacinto river.

Looking down at the private community of Snow Creek (that’s where the trees are growing) and the valley where Interstate 10 runs.

Of course I camped overnight on the trail. I definitely was not going to do the entire ascent in a single day. I camped 4.6 trail miles (7.4 trail km) south of the water source, at 3339 ft (1018 m) above sea level. That meant my next day was going to be physically intense.

The first stretch hiking up San Jacinto was just about the hottest hiking I did during this entire trip. It was not fair that it was so hot when I was doing a steep uphill carrying so much water, and that there was so little shade, even though I had made a point of hiking this part in the evening/morning. On the other hand, I was very motivated to hike so I could get to a higher elevation. I could see there were trees on top of the mountain, and I was eager to get to an elevation that was high enough for trees to go.

Finally, I reached a place where there were dead trees – the dead trees didn’t help me much, but at least I knew I was at a high enough elevation that I might find living trees too. And sure enough, shortly after I reached the dead trees, I reached a place which had living trees, and that meant I had REAL SHADE! Awesome! Also, the temperatures were significantly cooler around the trees, which was also very nice. I was still hiking uphill a lot, and had no water source, but at least I had shade, it was no longer hot, and my pack was less heavy because I had drunk quite a bit of water. Hiking became much more pleasant.

Trees! It’s amazing! I’ve never been so happy to be among trees in my life!

I reached the Fuller Ridge trailhead, which was the beginning of Fuller Ridge for me. And there was a water cache there! Usually, my policy is to disregard water caches. However, when I was at the faucet, I had to compromise between having more water and carrying less weight uphill, which meant I was rationing my water. I could have continued to ration my water all the way to the tributary, but that meant only drinking what I needed, not drinking enough to satisfy my thirst. Thus, I took some water (about 1.5 liters) from the water cache so that I would be able to drink as much as I wanted. It feels so good to be able to drink freely instead of just drinking the minimum to hold off dehydration. I also got to take a break at a picnic table in the shade and hang out with a couple of hikers.

Fuller Ridge sometimes holds snow well into May. When it is covered with snow/ice, a lot of people get injured, and some even disappear/die. Fortunately for me, even though it was April, Fuller Ridge was totally dry. The trail takes a bunch of weird little turns in the rocks in one part of Fuller Ridge, and I could totally imagine people getting lost in that stretch when it is covered with snow, or slipping off the rocks if it’s icy, but since it was dry, I could keep track of the trail as long as I paid attention, and I was at little risk of sliding down.

I’m surprised I don’t have any photos of Fuller Ridge. I guess I was too focused on hiking to take photos.

And then finally, I reached the promised land. Or rather, the promised tributary.

The tributary of the San Jacinto river.

I ran out of water just when I got to the tributary (though I had been drinking freely ever since I left the water cache – if I had continued rationing the water, I would have drunk less). The photo above does not do justice. This tributary was a series of little waterfalls cascading down the mountain and across the trail. It was a lot of water – a glorious sight for a hiker who had been worried about water for a day. There were a lot of hikers at the tributary who were busy filling up, since all of them were going north and thus would not have reliable water for 19.5 miles.

I was practically jumping for joy at the tributary. Reaching this water source was more exciting than reaching the Canadian border when I hiked the entire Washington PCT.

I would have liked to have gone to the summit of San Jacinto – but by the time I reached the turnoff (which was just pass the water source), I could feel that I had pushed my legs to the limit, and I was afraid that ascending an extra 2000 ft. (which does not seem like much after ascending 8500+ ft.) might push my legs past their limit, and I could get an overuse injury. I did not want to risk an overuse injury, so instead, I just hiked another two miles past the water source, and set up camp (though the fact that I was able to hike another two miles after all that shows you just how much energy I had).

This is where I camped in San Jacinto.

Strangely, though this was my most physically demanding day of hiking ever, it was also my giddiest. Here is my diary entry for the day I reached Fuller Ridge and the tributary (which I wrote at the campsite above):

This has been one of the most exhilarating days on the PCT ever. I made my legs do so much work, but they were up to the task. From hot exposed chaparral to cool pine forest. The views! And the knowledge that I did a mostly uphill 19.5 mile waterless stretch! (w/ a little help from a water cache).

Part of the euphoria was probably caused by endorphins flooding my body. It also helped that the worst part was the beginning, so it just kept getting better. And I think the fact that I was attempting something so ridiculous increased the giddiness.

I have no regrets about doing this segment of the trail southbound. Going south through here is definitely harder than going north, but I do not think I would have found it as memorable – or enjoyable – if I had gone north.

What the Shikoku 88 Temples Route and the Pacific Crest Trail Have in Common

I have read multiple books on the Shikoku 88 Temples Pilgrimage and the Pacific Crest Trail. I have also walked short sections of both, and talked with people who were trying to complete one or the other.

Obviously, there are a lot of differences. The Shikoku 88 Temples Pilgrimage tends to go through settled areas, whereas the Pacific Crest Trail tends to go through wilderness. Most people who do the temples pilgrimage have a roof over their heads most nights, whereas most people who do the Pacific Crest Trail for any length of time camp outside most nights. The temples pilgrimage is about 1,100 km (670 mi.) long whereas the Pacific Crest Trail is about 4,250 km (2650 mi.) long. The temples pilgrimage was created for religious reasons by grassroots level religious devotees, whereas the Pacific Crest Trail was created by the U.S. government because a group of dedicated citizens advocated for it.

However, for all of the differences, there are a lot of striking similarities, or at least parallels.

Both have their own associated culture and lore. For example, the Pacific Crest Trail has the tradition of ‘trail names’ – nicknames assigned to hikers by other people (supposedly, one is not supposed to pick one’s own trail name). The temples pilgrimage has many of its own traditions, such as the tradition of getting a stamp from every temple. Some of these traditions are very similar – for example, the Shikoku practice of settai (giving things to the pilgrims) is very similar to the Pacific Crest Trail practice of ‘trail magic’ (giving things to hikers – this tradition also lives on the Appalachian Trail and other long-distance trails in the United States).

Both have spawned memoirs of the loser woman who is a personal mess and totally unprepared for the long trek, yet they do it anyway and discover themselves. I am, of course, referring to the bestseller Wild by Cheryl Strayed about the Pacific Crest Trail, but also Neon Pilgrim by Lisa Dempster about the temples pilgrimage.

Furthermore, both are treated as national trails – an experience which represents Japan / the United States. The Pacific Crest Trail is officially a National Scenic Trail. A lot of people attempt to complete the trails as a means of better connecting to their country. And these two routes do, in some way, represent the mythos of their respective nations. The temples pilgrimage represents a link with Japan’s cultural and historical past, in a region of Japan which supposedly has changed less over the past two centuries than the heavily populated metropolitan areas where most Japanese people live. The Pacific Crest Trail represents making forays into the ‘wilderness’, a pageant replaying the mythos of the United States of being a frontier nation where white people explore and settle areas which white people haven’t explored and settled before (yes, that is a colonialist view, but I am not going to unpack it right here). In short, I think it says something about Japan’s self-image that its great walk is centered on 500+ year old temples, and it says something about the United States’ self-image that all of it’s great walks, including the Pacific Crest Trail, center on great mountain ranges.

And though the Pacific Crest Trail is secular in nature, some people do use it for spiritual purposes, just as the temples pilgrimage is used for religious and/or spiritual purposes (I also would be unsurprised if people use the Pacific Crest Trail for religious purposes, but I do not have evidence of that).

I think the greatest thing in common between these two great walks is that many people use them to escape from ‘modern’ life. A lot of people who attempt both feel adrift – the ‘ordinary’ life of going to work every day is unfulfilling, or otherwise feel like their life is lacking in meaning – and they try to find this meaning by walking/hiking these routes. They go out to both learn about the world and to develop their own characters.

Of course, these are hardly the only two great walks in the world – actually, the most popular great walk nowadays in the Camino Santiago in Spain. I don’t know much about the Camino, but here is a comparison of the Shikoku Temple trail and the Camino and here is a comparison of the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Camino.