Chuseok fell in early September that year. In Korea, it is a day for families to gather together and celebrate. Like Thanksgiving, it is a harvest festival, but unlike Thanksgiving, it lasts three days instead of one. Since it is a major holiday, Wonderland, the school in which I was teaching, closed for a week. Many of my American colleagues, teachers who had already been working several months, had booked flights to awesome places, places I’d have loved to travel to myself: Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. But having only arrived three weeks earlier and having very little money, I intended to stay in Seoul. There I planned to get better acquainted with the city that would be my home until mid-summer. However, my new friends, Jake, Lauren and Lindsey, were intent on a vacation and they chose Jejudo—an Island off the Southern coast of South Korea—as their destination. When they first invited me to join them, I was hesitant, uncertain that I’d have enough money to last me until my first pay check. But the thought of going somewhere different—somewhere close enough that the airfare wouldn’t break me—proved to be too much of a temptation, and I quickly relinquished my plans to stay behind.
I don’t remember who initiated the trip, who conceived of going somewhere inexpensive, but Jake, who had backpacked and camped extensively through Europe, suggested that we camp in order to make the trip even more cost efficient. So one Sunday, our one day off from work—our school ran on six-day work week—Jake and I ventured out searching for a tent large enough to accommodate all of us. It was no easy feat. With each store we visited, Jake grew increasingly frustrated and disgruntled.
“Cheap! Cheap! They’re all cheap.” His fingers poking, prodding and slapping the nylon and polyester of every tent in every store. “If it rains, we’ll get soaked. And if we have to take it down and put it back up, it will fall apart.” He found not a single tent acceptable. Then finally, after a long day of walking through much of the city, he settled on a green four man tent. It would shelter us until it fell apart, and if that happened before our holiday ended, we’d figure something else out. Though there was no point in worrying about it just yet, Jake continued to grumble as he pocketed his receipt—certain the store, the manufacturer, the sales clerk had ripped him off. He continued to vent as we headed to the subway, the tent tucked tightly under his arm.
In our group, only I traveled with an oversized duffle bag. I felt conspicuous walking through the airport since all my friends carried backpacks. But a duffle bag was all I had. Of the five of us boarding the plane, I had the least amount of travel experience. Except for Canada, Korea was the only other country I had ever visited. The others had at least experienced parts of Europe. They knew how to feel their way through unfamiliar cultures and foreign cities without having the right words with which to communicate. I wore my naiveté like a bright scarlet letter stitched across my chest—and face. Whenever possible, I tried to dissolve into the crowd, make myself invisible. I didn’t want to be seen, not the way I saw myself: confused, unsure and anxious. I had never been to an airport alone and so I had never been forced to pay attention. I didn’t know where to go. What to say. And so I followed my friends, letting them guide me while doing my best to mask my ignorance. If they caught on, they were gracious enough not to call my attention to it. If perchance we got separated or if they got tired of me and cut me loose, I’d most certainly be lost, scrambling blindly to feel my way. No, I didn’t have confidence in myself nor my abilities, a fault that has always infected me.
The flight was short, about an hour, which left me no time to get bored. It seemed we barely reached our cruising altitude when the pilot began his descent. None of us had thought to make reservations anywhere for our first night. Even if I had thought of it, I’m not sure how I’d have gone about doing it. In 1996, almost no one had a cell phone, and Google was a future convenience. As a kid, I remembered my parents pulling out the AAA books before a vacation and combing through the listings. Once they settled on places that seemed acceptable, mom or dad would call to make reservations. Sometimes, if our plans changed mid-trip, we’d stop along the way at a tourist information center, and someone there would make suggestions and call around until they found a place with a vacancy. But there were no AAA books for international travel—or were there? And it would be another six or seven months until I walked into a bookstore and discovered the Lonely Planet, the backpacker’s Bible.
We collected our luggage from the baggage claim carousel and then stood around staring at each other, all wondering the same thing, “Now what?” Jake, always the most outgoing, randomly started talking to a couple of Canadians, and we knew they were Canadian because of the flags stitched prominently on the front of their rucksacks .
“We’re looking for a place to crash tonight; any idea where we might go?” Jake cornered them, beginning the conversation as he so often did, as if he and whomever he addressed had been friends forever. “Nothing fancy—a bed, a shower.”
“Are you here for the holiday?” The shorter of the two guys asked.
“Yeah, we’re teaching English at Wonderland. No school this week.”
“You’ve heard of it?”
“We have. There’s a Wonderland on the other side of the Island. That’s the crazy school with bathrooms for classrooms—right?”
“Yeah, sort of.” Some genius thought it would be a good idea to put non-functioning toilets in classrooms to encourage kids to say “pee” and “poop” in English.
“Friend of ours teach there,” the taller guy added.
An announcement echoed through the airport and the Canadians glanced up at the monitor, “We have to go.” They started to walk towards the terminal, then the shorter one looked back over his shoulder, “Grab a taxi. Go to the center of Jeju City. You’ll find plenty of places to stay.”
The taxi line was easy enough to find. Communicating where we wanted to go presented more of a challenge. But somehow, with the aid of a phrase book and charades, we conveyed where we wanted to go.
It was late in the afternoon by the time we found a hotel. We dropped off our things and then reconvened to begin our exploration of the island. Stepping back outside, I inhaled deeply, relishing the smell of salt carried by the sea breeze. It reminded me of home, summers spent on Long Island, swimming in the bay, walking on the boardwalk. I would miss that next summer. It would be my first summer away, my first summer off on my own, and though I was excited to be seeing the world, I couldn’t ignore the subtle pang of loneliness lodged in my consciousness. If I hadn’t made friends, the loneliness, I knew, would be far more pronounced.
“Where to?” Jake asked, as we started to walk without direction since none of us had thought to bring a map.
“How about a noraebong?” Someone else recommended to a consensus of agreement. A noraebong is a singing room. Like karaoke, music plays and lyrics scroll across a screen. But instead of singing in a large public group, participants rent a room for an hour, two, or however long they wish to hang out. Beer and soju (hard alcohol made from rice) are a crucial part of the experience, especially for people like me, people who can’t sing at all and are painfully aware of how much they suck.
“How will we find one?” I asked, still unable to read the oddly shaped Hangul letters, all of which blurred into a pile of what looked like broken sticks.
Lauren again pulled out her phrase book and looked up noraebong. We took turns examining the angular letters, committing them to memory, so that we could attempt to look for a match on the signs hung on the buildings we passed.
After walking a few blocks, we zeroed in on a word that appeared to match the one in the book. In a single file, we entered the front door. Music played in the distance, but the music sounded somber and slow, not the sort of music half-drunk people rowdily sing along to.
Ascending a flight of stairs, the music grew louder. An arrow pointed to the door. Jake grabbed the nob and yanked it open, jovially entering a room full of sobbing women and stoic men. We stumbled in after him, our smiles deflating as it slowly dawned on us that we may have just crashed a funeral or some other somber event. Embarrassed, we whispered our apologies, tripping over one another as we rushed out the door, down the stairs and back into the night.
Eventually, our persistence and a little bit of luck led us to where we wished to be. That was the night I learned that Lauren could sing, that she was quite talented. And not wanting to embarrass myself with a voice that sounded like a flock of sea gulls descending on a cluster of abandoned French fries, I sat in the corner, listening to the others, content to not be alone.
In the morning, we tasked ourselves with finding a campsite to set up our tent and to act as a base from which we could further explore the island. At a complete loss for where to even begin, I hung back while the others discussed our dilemma. They settled on hailing a taxi, and miming, if necessary, where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do. One of us must have had a protective guardian angel hovering nearby since the cab driver who stopped to pick us up spoke a bit of English. We released a collective sigh of relief, then sat back to watch the scenery fly by the open windows. For all we knew, he took us the long way, a route that added miles to the drive, so that the meter earned him a generous fare.
Eventually, the taxi pulled into an empty field. Not a single tent had been pitched anywhere. We—or perhaps only I—were dubious. Had he brought us there to rob us? Kill us? How easily he could abandon us, taking what he wished. But he simply pointed towards a cluster of trees, “There is waterfall. You swim.” We handed him our fare and he drove away, leaving us alone, skeptical and skittish.
Assessing the area, we selected a place to set up the tent. I busied myself helping the others as a wave of discontent, a flood of swear words swelled around us. Jake resumed his offense against the quality of the tent. The poles were flimsy and as we pushed them through the loops we had to take extra care so that they wouldn’t tear the material.
Once the tent was up, we settled our things inside, changed into our swim suits and went off in search of the waterfall. It was small, but somewhat picturesque—aren’t all waterfalls? Large rocks—boulders—surrounded the watering hole and, like kids, Jake and I had to climb them. The sun glinted off the surface of the water, giving off an illusion of warmth, an invitation to enter. Accepting the invitation I dove in, my head freezing immediately upon contact. I hoped that swimming, treading water would warm me up, but it did not. Too cold to remain in the water, I pulled myself up onto the rocks and stretched out so that the warm sun could melt the ice in my bones.
Not long after we arrived, a lone figure, a young Korean man with tattoos spread across an arm like a detailed map and a ring finger missing on his right hand, emerged from the line of trees in the distance. Wearing only swim trunks, he approached the waterfall, and without acknowledging our presence, he dove head first into the water. Seemingly immune to the cold he stood under the waterfall, the water beating against his head. When he’d had enough, he climbed back onto the rocks and with his arms hung loosely at his sides, he surveyed us from a distance.
“It’s Chuseok,” Jake reminded us, his voice low as if he were conveying a secret.
“Yeah, so?” Lindsey snapped.
“There is no one else here. Koreans are supposed to be with their families. Why is he here?”
Lindsey shrugged, Lauren looked up from the rock where she was perched, logging her journal. “Perhaps he doesn’t have family,” Lindsey offered.
“Did you see his tattoos? He’s missing a finger.” Jake’s eyes widened, a fearful scenario taking shape in his mind.
“Yeah, so?” Lindsey repeated, irritation rising in her tone.
“I’ve never seen a Korean with a tattoo or a missing finger. Have you?” Jake stole a furtive glance at the stranger. “Do you think he’s a North Korean spy?” He asked, turning back toward us. “Or does he belong to a gang?”
“Or maybe he’s just a guy who wanted to get away,” Lindsey, now bored with the conversation, yawned. Lauren released an exasperated sigh and my mind wandered. Would he kidnap us? Kill us?
Regardless of the stranger’s purpose, he didn’t leave. He seemed rather interested, too interested, in us. After a while, I could feel his eyes. Though the others said nothing, I could tell by their covert glances, the tapping of their fingers, the pacing that they too were growing apprehensive. When the silence between us became heavy, like storm clouds on a summer afternoon, we retreated to our campsite.
It was Jake who noticed the small single man tent not far from where ours stood. When he started to speak, a shiver ran through me. “If he’s part of a gang—”
“Jake, hush.” Lauren commended.
But he couldn’t help himself, he leaned towards me and whispered, “If he’s a spy, I wonder if he’s part of a nearby cell. Could they have us surrounded?”
“Are we important enough to surround?” I asked, but I didn’t wait around for an answer, worried that I might not be as insignificant as I wanted to be at that moment.
By mid-afternoon, we were all hungry, so we walked up a paved walkway to the main road and caught a taxi into town. None of us were terribly enthralled with Korean food, nor did any of us care to pick our way through town searching for a place to eat. Therefore, when we spotted a pizza place, we collectively turned toward the door and entered. It was relatively empty, but since it was an off hour, somewhere between lunch and dinner, we didn’t overthink it. We ordered a pie and were shocked and dismayed to find it covered in corn. Corn, I’d later learn, was a staple on pizza in Korea. I never did figure out why, but after some time, I at least grew to expect it and did the best I could to ignore it.
Back at the camp site, the temperature cooled and sitting outside, we started to shiver. Someone, I don’t remember who, suggested we build a fire. A marvelous idea and so we set out to scavenge for firewood. Aside of a few sticks, there wasn’t much, and we started to lose hope. Then out of the lengthening shadows, the stranger from the water hole emerged. He tapped Jake on the shoulder and beckoned him to follow. Startled, Jake jumped and swallowed hard, scenarios of scattered body parts flashed through his mind, and desperation flickered in his eyes. But unable to turn away from a good story, a possible adventure, he disappeared behind the mystery man into the woods.
After forty minutes or so they returned, arms laden with wood, enough to start and sustain a fire for a few hours. Setting the wood down, the stranger gathered together a few small sticks and an empty cigarette box. Using his zippo, he started the fire. Once the wood crackled and flames licked the air, the five of us sat on the grass staring at each other until Lauren and Lindsey remembered the Korean phrase books they had packed. Reaching for them, rifling through the pages, they attempted a conversation. Lauren introduced us and then the man pointed to his chest, “Me, Mr. Kim.” Was he for real? Kim was like Smith in America. The most common surname. If he had a need to hide behind an alias, Kim seemed too perfect. And so this introduction did little to put us at ease.
Soon the phrase books grew cumbersome. Our bastardized pronunciations made comprehension impossible. Jake, unwilling to give up, resorted to charades. But even that was a challenge—flapping arms, mimed actions and shadow puppets uncovered nothing. Silence settled around us and when it grew tense and uncomfortable, Mr. Kim reached into his pocket and extracted a cell phone. Don’t forget, this was 1996, years before cell phones became the ubiquitous possessions they are today. I didn’t know anyone with a cell phone, none of us did, and this only seemed to lend credence to Jake’s theories. Dialing a number, Mr. Kim waited impatiently for someone to pick up. A voice answered, and he launched into what sounded like a detailed monologue. When he finished, he stuffed the phone in his pocket and stared meditatively at the fire. We looked around suspiciously, uncertain as what we should do, how we should react.
Then Suddenly, with no warning Mr. Kim jumped up, grabbed Jake’s arm and started running toward the road. Afraid that he was being led to his death, Jake reached for his Swiss Army knife, pulled open the blade and slipped it into his back pocket. The moon cast an eerie glow, as we apprehensively watched Jake dissolve into the night.
Later, Jake told us that once they reached the road, Mr. Kim stopped running. His heart racing, Jake anxiously stood next to him. Within moments, he heard the rumble of a car. The noise grew louder until the vehicle pulled into view, then stopped. Jake held his breath. The doors opened and men began piling bags of food—dried squid, beef, rice, kimchi, lettuce—and alcohol—soju and beer—in Jake’s and Mr. Kim’s arms.
Incredulous, no longer knowing what to think, Jake ambled back to camp where Mr. Kim immediately set to work preparing a feast. We watched in silence, confused as to what was going on while we drank, alternating between soju and beer. A bad idea. The food was decent, the alcohol potent. Mr. Kim kept our plates full and our glasses even fuller. We ate as though we were famished, drank as if we were parched, and somehow, during the course of our meal, we communicated our desire to hike Hallasan—a volcano in the center of the island.
When I finally lay down to sleep, the world spun rapidly around me. I slept restlessly and at some point in the middle of the night, my stomach lurched as a wave of nausea descended upon me. Jumping up, I raced outside to expel the contents of my stomach.
In the morning, we woke up at sunrise. I didn’t want to get up, but I also did not wish to miss Hallasan. I drank a liter of water and still felt ill. My friends ate apples and peanut butter for breakfast, but I knew better than to fill my stomach. It would take a few hours before I could hold down anything substantial.
We were finishing breakfast when Mr. Kim emerged from his tent wearing dress pants and a button down shirt. Weird. But we assumed he was off to work. Then biting into an apple he mimed something about a mountain, and the truth, rather uncomfortably began to settle in. He had been more than kind the previous night, a gracious host and gentlemen, but despite his generosity and eagerness to be friends, none of us could shake the awkward feeling that accompanied his presence. Lauren placed the blame on the language barrier, but I couldn’t shake the fear that Jake had planted: was he a North Korean spy? We pretended we didn’t understand his attempt at charades, but when we turned to head toward the road, he followed. It’s hard, damn near impossible at times, to dismiss someone who makes your life easier.
Mr. Kim negotiated a taxi ride to the base of Hallasan. When we arrived, the sky was blue, cloudless, except for a large cottony one that appeared to be devouring Hallasan’s peak. I looked up in awe; the sight of the volcano, what we could see of it, was breathtaking. It was the first volcano I had ever seen. Jake and I wanted to hike to the summit, but if we understood Mr. Kim correctly, and that was extremely questionable, reaching the top would not be possible. Part of the trail had been closed off to enable the vegetation to restore itself. Oh well, I sighed. Part of the trail was still better than not hiking at all.
Jake, Lindsey, Lauren and I each carried a backpack with a few choco-pies—cream-filled chocolate cakes—and lots of water. Mr. Kim had a pack of cigarettes in his breast pocket, nothing else. As soon as we exited the cab, he lit a cigarette, glanced around to gather his bearing and then charged forward towards the volcano. Jake and I trudged alongside him, but Lauren started to fall behind, and Lindsey kept pace with her.
“Can we stop?” I called out to Mr. Kim, who seemed oblivious to our presence, so focused was he on speed and our intended destination. But my words, to him, were gibberish. I stopped anyway, extracting my camera to take a few pictures. Catching Mr. Kim’s attention, Jake forced him to stop and wait for me. His posture, the tapping of his foot, and the deep drags on his cigarette radiated his impatience, but he never scolded us.
Halfway up and breathing heavily, Lauren had enough of walking and decided to stop. Encouraging us to go ahead, she pulled a book out of her backpack, settled down in a shady spot and commenced reading. We would have moved much more quickly from that point on, but I refused to put the camera away. Someday, I figured, I’d want to remember. Someday I’d want to relive that moment and so I kept as accurate a record as possible.
By the time we reached the end of the trail—the marker allegedly declaring that it was closed from that point on—the single cloud in the sky broke apart, splintering into dozens of smaller ones. The peak, surrounded by lush green plants, emerged, and I felt a pang of disappointment that we could not go any further. After taking a final picture, we turned around. The descent, as always, beat up my joints, especially my knees, far more than the ascent.
Several bottles of water, coupled with the physical exertion, washed away my hangover, leaving me with a grumbling stomach. Famished, I needed to eat. Since I was not alone in my hunger, Mr. Kim led us to a makeshift building in the middle of nowhere, which turned out to be a restaurant with outdoor seating. Without inquiring as to what we might like to eat, he left us resting at an outdoor table and then scrambled inside to order. Considering the language barrier, I suppose asking us what we preferred for lunch wouldn’t have made much difference. After a few short minutes, he returned carrying a tray filled with various types of kimbab—rice wrapped in seaweed and stuffed with vegetables and meat, tuna, kimchi or cheese.
Our hands dug in, and Mr. Kim signaled that we had to eat quickly. He pointed to Lindsey’s nose ring, the tattoo on her shoulder and then back at the proprietor. Wagging the same finger in the air, he made a giant X. We translated his gesture to mean that the owner disapproved of Lindsey, and therefore, he didn’t wish us to hang around longer than necessary. Pissed off about being singled out, Lindsey asked why his missing finger and his tattoos weren’t an issue. He shrugged before she finished speaking, obviously not understanding what she was saying. I couldn’t fault her, but I also took note of Mr. Kim’s long sleeves which conveniently hid his tattoos, and the fact that whenever possible, he kept the hand with the missing finger stashed in his pocket.
On the way home from Hallasan, Mr. Kim stopped for bulgogi and ramen noodles. Before he could cook, he needed a fire. The night before, he and Jake had scavenged all the fallen wood. To have enough for a second fire, he used deadly force on trees that were still standing, trees that were very much alive. At some point in his life, he must have studied some form of martial arts, because his kicks cracked tree trunks—trunks that weren’t too thick, but were solid nonetheless—and his hands chopped the wood into smaller segments. If he used that force on us, we’d be dead. I tried not to envision it, but every once in a while, images flashed in my mind, and I winced. Jake and I followed in Mr. Kim’s wake, collecting the carnage and piling it up near the tent.
Mr. Kim cooked, and the rest of us conversed. We couldn’t have asked for a kinder, more enthusiastic host or guide. But Jake’s suspicions persisted, and the rest of us could find no evidence to contradict him. How much longer would we be safe if we stayed where we were, relying on Mr. Kim?
While we ate, slurping noodles and wrapping beef in lettuce, Mr. Kim lifted a glass of soju, toasted our friendship—or so we hoped—and swallowed the liquid. Placing the glass on the grass, he deliberately pointed to each of us, then hugged his heart, “Love you.” He smiled, his eyes moist and glistening in the light cast by the fire. Perhaps his overt emotion should have endeared him to us, and maybe it did on some level, but mostly it freaked us out. If there had been no language barrier, maybe things would have been different. But not being able to pry into his life and get a sense of who he was, why he was with us and why he had opted to spend a family holiday alone, skepticism successfully reinforced the wall between us. Later that night, laying in our tent, we began whispering about whether we should stay where we were or search for a new campsite.
We slept late, or later than we had the previous day, but when we stepped out into the cool morning air, breakfast awaited us. Mr. Kim, rising earlier than we had, had prepared kimbab along with a sesame-onion potato soup. The soup was delicious and the kimbab better than it had been the previous day at the restaurant. Sipping my soup, guilt wiggled its way into my consciousness. So when we finished eating and Mr. Kim suggested—via charades—that we go to the beach, none of us could find the words, or the heart, to say no.
Following Mr. Kim, we took a bus into town and there he borrowed a car from a friend to drive us to the beach. It was late September, and the water was cold, but I enjoyed swimming. Beaches were very much a part of my childhood, and splashing in the water always transformed me back into a child. While I swam, Lauren and Lindsey sat in the warm sun, reading. Mr. Kim, perhaps searching for ways to enhance our visit, summoned Jake to walk with him along the beach. Carrying a bucket, Mr. Kim searched for snails, plucking them from the sea and dropping them—if alive—into the plastic bucket. He insisted that Jake do the same. Grumbling, but falling into step and doing as told, Jake joined in with the collection.
When Mr. Kim assessed that they had enough—two buckets which they filled together—he sat down on the sand, selected a snail and sucked it from its shell. The look of ecstasy on his face was as stark as the look of disgust on Jake’s the moment Mr. Kim handed him a sail, indicating that he too should eat and enjoy. Jake, generally as adventurous in his eating habits as he was in other aspects of his life, felt so repulsed he found it impossible to acquiesce. Holding out his hands, he shook his head. Lindsey, Lauren and I reacted in a similar fashion, so Mr. Kim, completely unfazed, jumped up and disappeared into one of the snack bars on the beach. Much to our surprise, he persuaded the kitchen staff to steam the snails.
Returning with dead cooked snails, he tried again to feed us an early dinner. Jake feeling as though he owed the guy something, munched on a few. Lauren’s manners were also intact. Like Jake, she politely forced a few snails into her mouth, doing her best to keep her face neutral, and her smile from wilting. Lindsey and I were not so gracious. The thought of ingesting the slimy creature caused us to gag before we could even attempt to be curious. Mr. Kim didn’t seem to mind, or if he did, he didn’t express dismay or disappointment. Instead, he suggested we stop at a pizza joint for dinner. Even though the pizza was soggy with wax like cheese and runny flavorless sauce, it was far preferable to snails, which Mr. Kim, enthusiastically, and Jake, grudgingly, continued to gnaw on throughout the evening.
Back at the campsite, we solidified our plans to jet the following morning. Jake couldn’t handle another round of snails, and we were afraid if we insulted Mr. Kim in any way we’d regret it. Fear, lack of trust, and overly active imagination defeated Mr. Kim’s good intentions, his eagerness to befriend us, and his unselfish generosity. When we explained our desire to see another part of the island, our interest in moving to another campsite, sadness creased his brow as understanding dawned on him. But he didn’t beg us to stay; he didn’t threaten. Instead, he woke us up early for one last expedition. He knew that Jake and I wished to go horseback riding, so before allowing us to depart, he ushered me and Jake onto a bus and took us to the stables.
I hadn’t been horseback riding in a few years, and excitement filled me as we drew close. The horses were small, more like ponies. Jake settled into his saddle and looked like Gulliver in Lilliput. Reaching for the stirrups and realizing I could either let my feet dangle or tuck my knees under my chin, I too felt conspicuously large. Too big for the toy horses that should have been relegated to a child’s park, my excitement instantly withered. I regretted having left camp.
My frustration exploded when a worker, dressed in jeans and a stained white tee-shirt, grabbed the reigns of both horses and gently, slowly, as if we were toddlers out for our first ride, led us around a small track. Two, three, four times the horses slogged around in a circle. I glanced back at Mr. Kim, furious, wondering how he could possibly have thought this would be fun, an adventure to remember. Much to my chagrin, he smiled, beaming at the both of us, completely obvious to how ludicrous this excursion had been. Was horseback riding in Korea always this lame? By the end of our forth rotation, I felt dizzy, nauseous and when the worker led the horses led back to the platform for us to dismount, I felt relieved.
“Let’s get out of here.” As soon as Jake’s feet hit the dirt, he hustled toward the bus, eager to put the awful experience behind us. “What a way to waste our time.” Disgruntled and agitated, he spat the words, his heels kicking up dust, and I struggled to keep up his pace. “We should have stayed at the tent. This sucked.”
I couldn’t argue. I agreed completely. Since Jake expressed my feelings so adequately, he saved me the trouble of having to voice my own complaints.
When we returned to the campsite, and the girls asked us how it was, Jake grunted, curling his lips and baring his teeth like an angry dog.
“That good!” Lauren smiled.
“Let’s get out of here,” and with those words, Jake yanked out the stakes that anchored the tent to the ground.
We helped Jake break camp and then said goodbye to a teary Mr. Kim. He walked with us to the road and waited until the bus squeaked to a stop. From the window, we waved goodbye and watched as he turned, shoulders hunched and head down, to return to the empty site.
The bus ride to the other end of the island felt eternal. I tried to read, but found it impossible. My eyes would scan a few words, but my mind would drift back to Mr. Kim, wondering what he was doing, if he was missing us.
It was dusk when we finally reached our campsite. The sun brushed the tree tops out on the horizon and shadows stretched across the landscape. Small hills dotted the campground and after speculating for some time as to what they were, we convinced ourselves that they were ancient burial grounds. Whether it was true or not was irrelevant. The story we told ourselves, that spirits hovered nearby, roaming the grounds and eternally haunting campers, kept us entertained. At least until we tried to sleep and found that we couldn’t. The absence, or rather our abandonment of Mr. Kim haunted me the most. I pictured him alone, making a fire and thinking of us. Perhaps we shouldn’t have left, but we did, and there was nothing I could do to undo the hurt we might have caused. But leaving eventually, was inevitable. In the morning, we’d pack up once again, board another bus and then a plane in order to return to Seoul and our new—temporary—lives as teachers in Korea.
Top photo by Elizabeth Jaeger.
Oh, oh, Alabama.
Can I see you and take your hand?
Make friends down in Alabama.
I’m from a new land
I come to you and
see all this ruin.
What are you doing, Alabama?
“Is this the way they do business in Alabama?” I grab the black plastic knob attached to the end of the lever, shift the transmission into gear and bounce the truck forward. I check the mirrors to confirm that my crippled vehicle follows. Finding myself behind the wheel of a large tow truck, I look over at its owner slumped against the passenger door, head tucked into the corner, already beginning to snore.
After exploring the small towns and back roads south of Montgomery this weekend, I had navigated to the nearest northbound interstate highway and pointed my black Pontiac Fiero toward my temporary home in Birmingham. I had never lived in the south before and weekend drives through the countryside helped get me oriented. This weekend, I got a closer look at one particular slice of Alabama.
Sometimes things are perceived but not comprehended. While driving on the Interstate, a dense gray cloud extends from the sky to the ground. I am intrigued but foolishly drive onward. As I approach, it becomes apparent. This is an isolated deluge of rain. Floodwater covers the road surface to a depth of an inch or more. I try to slow down in time but it is too late. When I hit the water, my wide rubber tires skim across the surface and lose all traction. “Help me, Jesus” escapes my lips as the car does a slow counterclockwise rotation while waterskiing at fifty miles an hour and bounces off the guardrail. When I roll to a stop with “a wheel in the ditch and a wheel on the track,” I face backwards pointing south. Fortunately, the northbound lanes are deserted. The rain cloud now moves to the east to dump on someone else.
I shift back into gear and nurse it to the outside shoulder while a hollow thumping sound vibrates from below. The steering wheel pulls hard to the right. My shoes soak up water as I retrieve a couple pieces of car body parts at the scene of initial impact. A brief inspection of the little sports car concludes that it is unfit for duty. The view to the south is nothing more than a narrowing line of asphalt that disappears into the horizon between the trees. Turning north, an overpass is visible through the twilight. I walk the half-mile to the exit and up the ramp. Across the bridge that spans the highway, a couple lights pierce the gathering darkness. The lit sign says “Auto Repair” and includes a critical word: “Wrecker.”
The evening light is all but gone. I gravitate toward an electric flood lamp that shines from a tall pole above a mobile home with a couple bright windows. Encouraged by this sign of life, my feet approach the door but hesitate, not knowing what to expect. I knock. The scent of fried food wafts out through the screen door that is soon shadowed by the figure of a thirty-something man with a five o’clock shadow and a wide smile set below concerned eyebrows. “Kin I hep ya?” he says, while hitching up his pants. The man sports a white tank-top undershirt with thin vertical lines woven into the fabric, and it wraps tightly around his protruding abdomen. His belly droops slightly over his belt that barely holds up his worn blue jeans.
“Your sign says you have a wrecker. I’ve had an accident and need to have my car towed to Birmingham.”
“I might could hep ya after we eat here. Come on in and we’ll talk ‘bout it over dinner. Ya hungered?” He invites me in without hesitation, as if we were familiar neighbors. “I’m Gopher, and this here’s my wife, Twink. She’s got food ready. Tain’t much, but you can join us.”
Twink is a thin young woman wearing gray sweat pants and a faded green top. Her stringy blonde hair is pulled back in a loose ponytail and she is only mildly embarrassed about not being prepared for a visitor. When she smiles, I see a gap where a tooth used to be. Twink offers me a fried hotdog and some pasta. I pass on the dog but accept a bowl of mac n’ cheese. Between bites, Gopher looks up at me and asks, “Where abouts ya from?”
“I’m from Colorado…,” and prepare to explain specifics. He interrupts with a chuckle and says, “I figgerd ya was from out west by the way ya talked.”
After dinner, I decline a bowl of ice cream and glance at my watch, fidgeting in my seat with my elbow on the edge of their Formica table, fingers in hair. Gopher releases a low rumbling belch as he gets up from the table and walks toward the back door pulling on a light jacket. “Give me a minute and I’ll be ready to go hep ya.” While Twink clears the table and moves dishes into the kitchen sink, I hear the crank and then the roar of a diesel engine vibrate in through the thin walls. I thank Twink for dinner and she says goodbye with a distant look in her eye.
Hoisting myself into the passenger seat of the wrecker, I inhale the background scent of fuel as we rumble out the driveway. Before we get to the highway, he says he has hardly slept in the last two days and is very tired. I say nothing, worried that he might change his mind. We head down the ramp onto southbound I-65. My gaze locks onto the black silhouette of the car in the northbound lane as we pass. He loops around at the next exit, and soon we approach the disabled Fiero.
I had bought this sports car after a few months on my first job after graduating from college. It was only a few months later that buyer’s remorse set in. That was 1983, nearly ten years ago, and I was determined to drive this car to its death just to get my money’s worth. Now it sits wounded and inoperable on the side of a highway in the southern part of Alabama.
Black grime rubs off the straps and onto my hands as I help Gopher sling them around the wheels. The electric winch whines as it pulls the front end of the car up onto his ramp. He adds a couple backup chains that hook onto parts of the suspension that probably wouldn’t hold. Pretending to inspect, I walk around the rig, but it is too dark to see much.
I climb into the passenger seat while Gopher opens the driver’s door and steps up onto the sideboard. He gives me a weird look, grabs the steering wheel and pulls himself up with a groan. He puts the transmission into gear and slowly accelerates. Before he gets into fourth gear, he again starts talking about how little sleep he has had. Was it three hours last night and two hours the night before, or the other way around? I can’t remember, but he seems pretty sleep deprived. He doesn’t explain why he hadn’t slept, and I never ask.
Amid frequent yawns, he repeats his saga of sleep deprivation. I do not hold a Commercial Drivers License, but I can take a hint… “Gopher, do you want me to drive so you can rest?”
“Well, sir, if you don’t mind, I’d be mighty obliged,” and immediately the engine decelerates as he veers toward the shoulder. I walk around the front as he scooches across the bench seat and collapses into the passenger door. I know the feeling. When the body needs it, there is nothing better than sleep.
Driving a tow truck, or any vehicle this large is a new experience. I am looking out the window on the second floor of a moving building, but after the first couple miles, I start to enjoy the feeling. The flashing roof lights reflect off the passing trees. Loud uneven snoring fills the cab. Interstate 65 passes Montgomery and as we rumble north toward Birmingham, my mind wanders. A month into my one-year contract job for the power company here, I have only begun to explore the Deep South where I encountered some shocking opinions about the relative value of races and colors of fellow human beings. Unusual characters have crossed my path, but Gopher and Twink stand out. This evening’s drive proves to be particularly memorable.
I had never approached the city from this angle, but with luck I take the right exit and begin to see familiar landmarks. Navigating this large, awkward rig through the city drips adrenalin into my arteries. I expect Gopher to jolt himself awake at any moment, especially when the truck jerks us away from a traffic light, but he is out cold. After turning into the parking lot of my apartment complex and maneuvering around the parked cars, I raise my voice, but he does not stir. After a significant prodding, he raises his head and gives me a dumbfounded, “Where-am-I-and-what-is-going-on-here?” look. He rouses himself, opens his door and nearly falls out onto the pavement. He has loaded and unloaded vehicles hundreds of times and can do this in his sleep. Soon enough, my car is nestled into a parking spot. I write him a check and point him back toward the highway.
Gopher rubs his eyes and asks, “Anywheresa guy can get a cupacoffee roundhere?”
While walking up the steps to my apartment, Gopher drives west on Valley Avenue and I think, what an odd individual—but I catch myself. How many times have I overextended myself until I was unable to do what needed to be done and trusted a complete stranger to fill the gap—even, perhaps, a couple hours ago? As his empty rattling tow truck disappears beyond the streetlights, I wonder in how many other ways we might be fellow pilgrims, very different yet very much alike, and maybe even kindred spirits in a strange sort of way. I also consider with how many other people, seemingly different, I might share some common pool of human experience.
Top illustration by David B. Such.
I sit on a hotel’s tile balcony, halfway to my destination. The midday sun lies hot on stucco walls and tile roofs. Between the buildings I see a sliver of sea; across the bay, a spine of green-sided mountains cuts the sky. Around me gulls call. All colors here are bright, clear, and strong: white like bleached bone, green the color of cactus, tiles brick-red, and the sea as blue as only blue can be described. Blue.
I am on my way from Barcelona to Arles, France, where Vincent van Gogh spent two of his final three years. In Arles he famously went mad, cut off part of his ear, and finally checked himself into an insane asylum in St. Remy de Provence, fifteen minutes to the north. In this region, also, he painted many of his best-known works: Sunflowers, The Night Café, Irises, Starry Night. The landscape of the region now surrounding me belonged, and in some sense still belongs, to him, who gave it some of its most memorable and permanent expression.
Vincent van Gogh is a writer’s painter. When I was younger, I struggled to connect to visual art. Paintings felt static and limited to me – they had no words in them. Then, browsing aimlessly in the library one afternoon, I happened upon van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo, in a fat volume selected and edited by W.H. Auden.
“From the window of my studio,” wrote Vincent to Theo, “the city, with its towers and roofs and smoking chimneys, stands out as a dark, somber silhouette against the horizon of light… That streak of light, however, makes the wet roofs glisten here and there in the dark mass of the city … and enables one to distinguish between red tiles and slates, though the whole mass has but one tone. The Schenkweg runs through the foreground like a shining streak through the water; the poplars have yellow leaves; the banks of the ditches and the meadows are a deep green; the little figures are black.”
Describing an urban landscape as vividly as Dickens’s Great Expectations or Wordsworth’s “Composed on Westminster Bridge,” this was someone I could understand. I devoured the selected letters, then bought the three-volume set, each chunky as an encyclopedia.
I showed my mother an excerpt. “He writes like a painter,” she said. I took exception. “He writes like a writer,” I said, affronted. But of course she was right. By using words as if they were paint, he brings the world of painting to those of us who love words.
So when I had a chance this summer to travel to Arles to seek his former world, I jumped at it. From my trip’s outset, I began to grasp why the region inspired painters, painters, painters. Barcelona itself is a town of artistic sensibilities. Its artists—Picasso, Gaudi, the Modernists—left their mark not only on its physiognomy but on its psyche. The city is decorated to its flagstones. Its benches are covered in mosaic and topped by ornate ironwork lanterns. Its intricately-shaped balconies spill over with plants. Friezes by Picasso decorate one square. The shops proudly display wares of weeping shapes, line sketches, mosaics, and mad curves. Even on the city’s outskirts, the buildings, in geometric washes of orange, red, blue, green, resemble some Cubist painting.
Still farther, in the countryside, one begins to better understand van Gogh. Squares of farmland lie quilted together in shades of yellow, green, green-yellow, red, red-green. Poppies blaze among fronded yellow seed-heads. Men work in the farm fields, sleeves rolled up, wearing straw hats, pulling a cart, exactly like figures from a van Gogh landscape.
Arriving in Arles, I find a curious excrescence of the modern within the still-existing structures of the ancient. Tawny stone houses rise along a warren of tiny crooked streets. These open abruptly into the stately squares of Arles.
The broad Place de la Republique. The Forum with its massive Roman amphitheater. The regal Roman Theater. Two thousand years later, all three are used for purposes almost identical to their original ends. The Place de la Republique houses the City Hall. In the amphitheater, bullfights à la camarguaise—traditional southern French bullfights—take place. The Theater, meanwhile, outfitted with a modern metal stage among the crumbling marble pillars and stone seating, holds shows and concerts.
Today’s Arles, in fact, has resulted from continuous inhabitation throughout the twenty centuries of its existence. So in a way, it’s easy to imagine van Gogh walking these streets, because nothing in the basic architecture has changed.
I visit l’Espace van Gogh, the former hospital that took him in when he cut off his ear. The city keeps the courtyard filled with the same flowers he depicted in his famous 1889 painting. The archways remain yellow; the beams and doors are still blue. This evening, the city’s ateliers, or art schools, are having an exhibition. The interior walls bear paintings and charcoal sketches from nude models. A crowd has gathered for a graduation speech. In the garden a bevy of children run and shout while waiting for their parents. They are playing tag, racing down the avenues around the central fountain.
Here, at the old hospital, I expected a quiet space for contemplation. But the shouting children and the talking crowd within the doors seem fitting, as right as the yellow black-eyed Susans, crimson impatiens, white begonias, and deep blue-purple petunias. What van Gogh craved in life, he found in death. He wanted his works to sell—now they rank among the most expensive paintings worldwide. He yearned for a community of artists: now that community displays its work in his spaces. He craved friendship, and now many thousands of us who have read his words or pondered his paintings find a friend in him, identifying with his struggles and wishing him well.
So van Gogh, in a way, seems nearby—yet in others he remains a ghostly and separate figure. That’s brought home to me two days later, when I drive to St. Remy de Provence.
Away from the center of St. Remy, past stucco residences, the streets give way to a tiny, sandy path along the monastery wall of the St. Paul Centre du Santé. We wend our way through the courtyard garden and make our way up a deserted staircase of plain stone. Here, in the monastery’s asylum, van Gogh produced some of his greatest work.
Van Gogh’s bedroom is barren. A four-poster iron bed takes up most of one whitewashed wall. A desk and chair occupy the other. Between the iron bars of the window, a view of gardens and fields presents itself, nodding with poppies and irises planted in van Gogh’s memory. The mountains lie shrouded in fog.
Two paintings adorn the room. One, an artist’s rendering of van Gogh’s face, depicts madness and confusion by a halo of manic dark colors around his head. The other print—a van Gogh landscape—could not differ more. It’s bright with wheat, showing golden fields beside wavy blue mountainsides that climb off to the side of the picture. A caretaker’s hut anchors the scene, settled stolid and workmanlike on the warmly colored hill. A figure of a reaper works the fields. It’s a serene, though sorrowful, view, grandly somber as in so many of van Gogh’s works.
Van Gogh painted this scene beyond his window many times, sometimes with a figure, sometimes without. Van Gogh obsessed over his figures, repeatedly claiming he had to make more drawings of the figure and paint from models more often. His recent biographers, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, suggest he craved interacting with models as much out of loneliness as artistic integrity. Van Gogh, they imply, might have found success in his lifetime if he’d stuck with landscape from the start.
“Figure drawing would always energize him, even as success at it always eluded him,” they write. “As a way of touching the sentiments he prized and of making the human connections he longed for, he never found any subject as satisfying as the figure, even as he created some of the most sublime landscapes in Western art.”
Yet van Gogh’s figures, eked out with such effort, offer indispensable symbols of basic human concerns within the landscapes whose power he depicts so effectively: man’s loneliness in nature, the setting of arms and hands against earth that must be forced to give up its bounty, the individual’s anonymity in a crowded park. Van Gogh knew instinctively how figures would humanize his landscapes. Without his figures, his canvases might not be placed in the ranks of the great—and certainly not without van Gogh’s passionate interest in human struggles, making his works speak to some both shameful and exalted part of us.
In his bedroom a careful silence reigns. A handful of other visitors trickles by in twos and threes. Each of us instinctively gives the others a few minutes alone in the room, for solitary communion with the austerity of this moment in van Gogh’s life.
We step from the monastery out into the small, tree-lined roadway in front. The earlier rain has declined to a drizzle and a scatter of tourists has gathered. Their umbrellas float along the avenue. Beside us, olive trees stand in a grove of little knots, like rope twisted around some inner secret.
Looking at the small, stunted olive trees, I find they fall somehow short of the olives van Gogh painted so memorably in his 1889 Olives. His trees, wild and contorted, dance across an undulating gold and purple landscape as though they can walk. These ones, by contrast, sit crowded and shrunken in the chill mist. Beside them the asphalt road is flat and plain. Cars pass in a wet sweep. No birdsong can be heard, but no deep quiet reigns here. A modern hum from an indiscernible source fills the air.
It is strange that I think of van Gogh as near me, as an exponent of modern sensibilities. We know him now as the “trailblazer,” in the words of art critic Sue Hubbard, “of modern art.” Like modern painters, van Gogh painted not reality but real things as processed through the imagination of the painter. “[R]eal painters do not paint things as they are … They paint them as they themselves feel them to be,” wrote van Gogh to Theo. And he suffered, as his letters show, from thoroughly modern alienation and loneliness. His depressions and melancholies resemble intensified versions of our own.
But van Gogh died before the 20th century broke upon the earth. In his time, even the car had not yet been invented. Though his works are somber, often wild, even garish, rarely are they discordant, and often they express extraordinary serenity. No doubt he imbued his images with imagined qualities that even in his time no reality could match. But the peace in van Gogh’s paintings, I think, reflects something real that no longer exists in St. Remy or Arles.
It is Picasso’s world, not van Gogh’s, that we live in now. Though we have appropriated van Gogh as our own, a gulf lies between him and us. Picasso survived into the bewildering underpinnings of our age—World War I’s death count, World War II and its bomb, the beginnings of modern environmental crises. Van Gogh’s conception of nature, though it presaged our modern view, disintegrated in the heyday of Picasso into squares and triangles and blocks, a more broken age.
Though van Gogh’s fame has grown, and though his letters seem to bring him to us, we can’t reach the world he lived in, nor the completeness of the sensibility he brought to his art and writing. We live in a faster time. So many of us, writes Sylvia Plath in her chilling poem “Mushrooms”—so many of us. Perhaps, though van Gogh’s eye feels modern in its escape from the exact and in its personalized vision, that is what makes us love him so much. He invites us to imagine our own selves, but within an atmosphere that has fled. He brings us an atavistic sense of natural serenity—one that in its fullness, along with van Gogh himself, we and the world have lost.
Top photo by Naila Moreira.