On the Bukhansan Mountain

I was really not suicidal. But in that murderous instant, I was trapped. And the way, as I saw it, after long harried minutes of despair, was to just jump and end it all. Release me from this pressure cooker of torment!

It was only two hours before that I was proudly striding, upright, shoulders back, snorting in the morning air and starting my walk at the hem of the Bukhansan Mountain. At little less than three thousand feet high, hikers at its summit can see the city of Seoul below. Hikers may choose a variety of difficulty level routes up the mountain since one may walk up or one may take a route where ropes are involved and necessary. In the second of a two-year leave of absence from my university to teach counseling courses at Sahmyook University in Seoul, I adjusted to the basics of living in this country and relating to the people. I felt safe in these mountains.

I had walked this path many times before and followed many of its seductive and ensnaring detours. Living less than thirty miles from the Demilitarized Zone, and at the edge of Seoul, I had survived ignorantly ignoring the signs written in Korean, and wondering into the often empty training grounds of the South Korean army, peeping down into bunkers with lookouts through slits to the other side of the mountain. I met kind Koreans who had, many times, redirected me to my path home. I even met one who insisted that I drink some water to be more hydrated. Demonstrating to me his breaking of the seal on his new bottle and then tilting his head way back, aiming skillfully without the bottle touching any part of his face, he gently poured water into his mouth. He then smilingly handed the bottle for me to imitate him. Once, I was assisted by three ajummas who showed me how to grab the fat rope with my two hands and repel, easing myself backward with sure-footed steps down a baby rock of not more than twenty feet.

It was not quite spring this day that I started up the mountain. It was cold enough to discourage any brave insect or tiny animal from appearing and crawling around. It was cold enough to quicken my steps. Although I was alone, I did not worry since the mountain would be pounded and thumped by the boots of many Koreans who were cordial enough, and yet with a

language barrier between us, it was ideal for my introverted self to enjoy the soothing solace of a solo climb. Waving to them from a distance, I could watch them sporting the most fashionable walking gear, complete with appendages of slim and stylish walking sticks. We were like four-legged spiders, low center of gravity, legs and arms with sticks crawling up the mountain, black and brown hoodies over cargo and spandex pants making a lattice pattern between the trees. A peninsula and smaller than some medium-sized states in America, there is minimal flat land in South Korea. Mountains abound in this small country, and Koreans have taken full recreational advantage of them. Gallop Korea reported that hiking is the most popular physical pastime of Korean youth and adults.

Long ago enchanted by the life of Simone de Bouvier who walked the hills and moors of France to settle her mind, I had walked many miles near Lake Lure, North Carolina, and parts of the Smokey Mountains in Tennessee. I spent many days walking in the Berkshire hills near Lennox, Massachusetts. I embraced this Korean popular pastime.

The pathway on the mountain was easily followed, furrowed by walkers long before my time. The pine trees provided some shade and helped to make interesting patterns on the path with the sun shining through wherever it could. There was minimal underbrush, just the way I liked it, since no person, animal or ghost could lurk out of my sight. My Kipling backpack was light, being more suited for the Seoul subways than the mountain, but I did not carry much, mostly my newly acquired addiction, Korean green melon candy. I also had a six-ounce bottle of water. I hated big and heavy bottles sloshing on my back. In addition to small miscellaneous necessities, I carried a little bag of the sweetest strawberries in the world that always appeared in February up to May, and only in Korea. This would be my reward for the day’s climb. With my hands all cozy and warm in the pockets of my fleece hoodie, I was ready for the perfect day.

But that early chirpy coziness was uncorked by this moment of alarm. What had possessed me? Fruitless questions spewed from my mind. I began to review my journey up the mountain straight to this unnerving moment. As the path grew steeper, I had ceased sightseeing, of taking in the happy waving of leaves to me, encouraged by the chipper breeze. I had by then started to ignore the undulating folds of terrain on either side of me. My head was bowed low. I saw only the next step. I focused on keeping steady. Further up, my entire body made an upright horseshoe hoop easing up the  ground, not quite crawling but fixed on each step. How did I not notice the absence of the familiar trees? Why did I not check the path more carefully? So focused on the carrot of a firm stone here to step on and a sink in the ground to hook into, it seemed I wore the blinders of a horse.

My quads had registered strain, and my back muscles’ elastic were wearing loose. I was tired but not stopping. It would have been very hard for me to start again if I had stopped. I sweated just enough in the March temperatures to keep me cool. My gloved fingers were out of their warm pockets in full talon formation. My lungs were gusting up a ruckus.

Bending, stretching further, my right hand reached out to the next little bush two or three feet up ahead. A tug assured me it was securely fixed  enough for me to grip and pull myself up. With a quick lounge I was level with the bush. A glance a foot or two ahead yielded no next hand or foothold. And then it was that I paused and looked around and saw no more bushes and no clear path upward. I could ‘not pass go!’ An earthquake of dread shook me as l looked back from where I had come. It was like staring over the sheer concrete of the Hoover Dam that slid down to the distant river! I felt like those misguided cats who climbed a tree but could not get down. There was no way up that my trembling body and frantic mind could see, and the way down seemed more treacherous now than on my way up. And with not even the echo of chatter or laughter from climbers remotely nearby, I knew I had lost my way.

I loved being up high in the Sears Tower, safely looking down. I enjoyed looking through glass out at Paris from the Eiffel Tower, and I relished being strapped into rides at Great America. But I had seen videos of busses on narrow paths in China and South America and had felt waves of fright pass over me just from the viewing. I have been driven in and out of Jerome, Arizona, where constantly, the mountainside threatened to muscle the car off the narrow ledge construed as a road, to plunge down what seemed to be thousands of feet below. To survive, I had to put my head down below the window, closing my eyes, feeling force-fed with thoughts of my imminent death.

With no sense of safety on the mountain that morning, I crumpled on the narrow little mound, with the bush a wedge between my body, and the dizzying openness before me. I closed my eyes hoping it would all go away. I tried to breathe out more slowly. But that quiet only made a vacuum in my mind for the again resurrected thoughts of my mediocre self. So many times in the past, while driving in the snow, with slippery roads and determined winds, and uncontrollably jumping knees while barely patting the breaks, I was tempted to just make a drastic turn of the wheel while pressing the gas and end my miseries and everything else. 

My little eleven-year-old self, unlike her big brother and younger sister, had to take an exam twice for a scholarship to high school because on the first try she received only a half scholarship; the thirteen-year-old, who although selected along with only six out of approximately eighty students to try for an extra scholarship, did not win it. Always just below par! My early elementary school self was beaten up by my younger sister when, in our panties, with our socks for gloves, we climbed on the bed, the boxing ring, and were made by laughing young teenage boarders living with us to fight like Sunny Liston and his opponents. I soon learned to fall on the soft ‘canvas’ of my bed in order to end the fight. Early, I embraced and exercised my talent for self-doubt and surrender. So again I resorted to what I knew—fear and failure, and it was spreading over me.

Collapsed on that tiny mound on the mountain, like a child, I bawled, unselfconscious of whoever could hear, my tears curtaining off the expanse of peril in front of me. The trees I had walked through seemed a fuzz of green so far off now. On my left was a blur of blue sky meeting a gradient of green like the head of a big bunch of smelly broccoli. On my right was another nearby wrinkle of the mountain. I breathed out slowly and wiped my eyes on my sleeves. I did not dare move enough to get paper from my backpack. I prayed to the previously discarded God of my childhood. I waited. I was forced to absorb the brightness and warmth of the sun. I was forced to admire the immensity of the sky and bumps of mountains on to the horizon. I looked up with dread and resentment but respect and awe on the rocky top of the mountain that I would never reach. And this same mocking and unkind mountain drained even my courage to jump and end it all.

My inner dirge of defeat was interrupted by distant chatter, as there were climbers seemingly climbing up but veering off to the right and disappearing into the crease of the mountain. Their heads were positioned up and right, and no one noticed me. But I watched and grasped onto the simple idea of trying to move sideways on the mountain rather than up or down, and finally, a dawning of escape cheered me.

My body engine revving up, my mind buttressed with slabs of hope and solution, I eased my cramped self up and searched for a foothold on my right that had the possibility of providing support. Slowly, my soles almost scraping the surface of the ground, I eased on over to the right and eventually found the footpath that others had taken. I would not follow them around and up the mountain. I was done with mountains for a while. I followed the clear track down to familiar paths. I plodded home, relief oozing from my pores to mingle with the chill breeze sweeping the mountain, the flareup of self-doubt cooled, and I again switched my alarm to snooze.

Joy Alexander

Joy Alexander is a licensed Psychologist and Professor Emeritus from Indiana University South Bend, and is a novice writer living in Tucson Arizona.

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