Week 30: Olle Trails
(This is Part 1 of a two-part series. See Week 31 for Part 2.)
The trees shield this forest path from the sun, so even in broad daylight it is darker than the outside world. But as the sun goes begins to make its final descent, the path darkens and darkens. It's a path of the Olle Trail, a network of 26 paths that form a circle around Jeju Island, the biggest and most famous island in South Korea.
Some background: I'm here on Jeju for three weeks, sandwiched between a trip to Japan and some time in Seoul. I'm trying to make this freelancing thing work, and in the meantime, I found a substitute teaching job for two weeks in Jeju that doesn't require a tourist visa, so here I am. My job starts a week in, so I have the first seven days to explore.
The Olle Trails might be Asia's version of El Camino de Santiago...except it's much less well known and much harder to navigate guesthouses without speaking the local language - in this case, Korean.
The trails themselves are well designed and quite variant. Jeju has two colors associated with it, orange for its famous tangerines and blue for the ocean, and two ribbons in these colors mark the trail every 20 meters or so. Then there's the ganse, or little horse native to Jeju, that acts as the symbol for the Olle Trails. The beginning, middle, and end of every trail are marked with one ganse each, and there are some interspersed throughout the trails to indicate direction (the way the head is pointing).
Some trails are easy to access, in the wide open, and very popular (see thumbnail of Trail 10), Some are small paths through jungles that block out the sunlight.
I arrived here yesterday and completed the first trail today at 6 p.m., when I met another Olle walker attempting to finish all 26 paths. He's from Michigan but lives in Seoul, and he came here for the sole purpose of completing the trails. We had planned to meet - it wasn't spontaneous - and he greets me at the end of Trail 1 as I finish my final meters. We have a short dinner on the beach and I ask him about his experience in Jeju, and South Korea in general.
He's one day ahead of me - he completed Trail 1 yesterday - so I ask him if he thinks I have time to do the first 5 kilometers of Trail 2, which form an almost-loop that leaves me almost at my starting point, a perfect place from which to start out tomorrow. He tells me I have just enough light in the day to do it, and in this moment I make a mistake I will deeply regret within an hour: I start the first 5 kilometers of Trail 2.
The below image is part of Trail 2, but tonight there's a special addition.
I am unaware that tonight is the night of the eclipse moon - the blood moon - but I notice the moon's fullness and reddish tinge as I take a breath at the top of a small hill (you can see it in the upper left corner of the picture below) that overlooks Seongsan Ilchulbong, the island's famous tuff crater.
I reach the top of the hill just as the moon is rising over the crater, and stay the few minutes it takes for the the moon's bottom edge to perfectly touch the tip of the crater (alternative reading: I stay until the moon becomes tangential to the crater, for all you smart cookies who remember middle school math).
It's eerily beautiful.
That hilltop is the halfway point of my 5 kilometer loop, and as I continue on, it's still light enough for me to see the occasional spider web stretched across the path and duck underneath.
The webs owners are black, fat, and and sit right in the middle of their creations. They also like to spin their webs around my head level, or a little above, and - it seems - right across the trail. I notice many webs between trees lining the path, too. Because it's my first day, I don't realise that these spiders are not all over Jeju and that I will never see them again in my remaining three weeks here. Are they a figment of my imagination? I wonder later on, perplexed as to why I never encounter one again.
But while I'm on this path, as the sun is setting and the moon rising, they abound. They're sporadic at first, then, as it gets darker and cooler, common. These kilometers don't seem to end. My headlamp from Fuji is sitting in my suitcase in my room, and my phone flashlight doesn't work.
I can't see the webs anymore in this light. I look only for black masses suspended in the middle of the trail, and make an approximation of where I should duck (which means I end up almost crawling on the ground under these webs, for fear of touching the slightest tip of one).
It's too late to turn around, because there must be as many behind me as there are in front of me by now. Sometimes, it looks like the path is clear, then boom: a black mass in front of my face. I feel like I'm in a horror movie, especially because I feel my lonesomeness on this path. I'm panicking.
It gets darker still, with no sign of the forest path ending. They seem to be every few feet now. The impending darkness only means one thing to me: it's harder and harder to see if I'm going to walk right into one of these spiders.
I start waving my guidebook frantically in front of me, hoping to dismantle a possible web without touching one of their gigantic constituents. But as I hold my guidebook in front of me, I occasionally feel my bare legs runs into webs low to the ground. I start sobbing and shrieking. I scream for help, but can anyone hear me? Would they even come? Civilization seems so close - just a kilometer away, or less - but so far.
I have two impulses: 1. to run as fast as I can and 2. to freeze. I don't dare run, for obvious reasons. I will surely run right into a spider after two feet. I can't freeze because the night is only beginning. I'm not sure what would actually happen if I were to spend a night standing frozen on a trail, in the middle of a tropical forest, but in my mind, in that moment, it means spiders all over me.
I have to get out in a timely, but cautious manner, and to do so I must ignore everything my impulse is telling me to do.
This is a horrifying situation.
My arms outstretched, I'm just waving and waving and waving my guidebook for what seems like forever. On my arms, I feel the whispers of webs that my book has dismantled. But I'm not thinking, my mind is shut off. It's completely dark when an outlet appears suddenly: I see an offshoot of the trail that leads to a tennis court, and at this point, I do make a mad run.
As soon as I'm on a sidewalk, wild in mind, I drop my backpack and dance madly. Not out of joy, no — I am sure there are spiders everywhere and I want to get them off. I shake and dance and shake and hit my backpack repeatedly against the sidewalk. I don't see any spiders fly off, but I'm not paying attention. After I stop intentionally shaking them off, I'm still shaking.
It is the most miraculous ending I could have hoped for: finding an offshoot of the trail just as pure darkness hit, and finding no spiders on me or in my hair. I feel so fortunate.
I walk home quickly, shaken and so sure I will never step foot on another lonely trail alone.