My first hike in a South Korean national park was enchanting — Seoraksan National Park, in the northeast corner of the peninsula, on a snowy weekday. The walk began along a broad, manicured promenade, past a gigantic black statue of Buddha, across sculpted stone bridges, past ornate temples lined with topiary. Snow sifted down. Mist draped the mountains.
Eventually, the walkway dwindled to the width of a sidewalk, and then to more of a trail, still wide and well traveled, bending steadily uphill. Several kilometers along, another small temple, a hermitage, hewn out of massive granite boulders, lit by candles, with a clear spring collecting in a basin. A soothing male voice broadcast Buddhist teachings over subdued speakers.
The trail steepened. Ice coated the trees, steps, and railings in a slick, transparent layer. There were no switchbacks. Instead, flights of steep stairs, some almost ladder-like, were bolted into rock faces. Hundreds and hundreds of stairs, each one sheathed in treacherous ice. Mist tore past crags, revealed sheer cliff faces, glimpses of monolithic granite walls. Despite the dangerous conditions, there were other hikers picking their way to the rocky summits.
It was the kind of day that made me think, with naive envy, about Buddhist monks living solitary, meditative lives. The phrase, “snow falling on cedars” kept repeating in my mind. We topped it off with a visit to nearby public baths, which were segregated, nude and incredibly refreshing.
We were in South Korea for a month. Our son was in the Paralympic Games as a guide for a visually impaired skier. Our strategy, once the games ended, was to spend several weeks hopping from national park to national park. South Korea has 22 national parks, as well as dozens of provincial parks and cultural sites, including a remarkable “penis” park along the craggy eastern coast — who knew?
South Korea is mountainous, more or less the size of Iceland, and 51 million people live there. Much of the terrain is too steep to build on. Even so, the country has preserved panoramic and culturally significant landscapes for all to enjoy. In addition, even in densely populated areas, trails wind through cities, punctuated by exercise and stretching stations that get used a lot, by young and old.
South Koreans love to recreate, by the busload. School groups, older couples, and troops of weekend hikers, all with trekking poles, sun hats, and daypacks. They are out there, even off-season, even on weekdays.
It turned out that our Seoraksan experience was typical. Many parks open with manicured walkways bordered by flowering trees and meticulous landscaping, leading to temples or pagodas on ponds with backdrops of foliage that draw hundreds of thousands of picture-takers each fall. Then the trails bend up to the peaks and ridges, following brutal stair-master challenges up flights of steep steps. Not a switchback in sight.
Hiking is social. You are almost never alone. People play music. There are stations along trails selling drinks and snacks. We were never on a peak with fewer than 15 other people, and often it was more like 50, all picnicking, taking pictures with selfie-sticks, shouting to each other. In more populous spots, or on a weekend, trails might as well be conga lines.
So much for enlightenment. So much for solitude. So much for the possibility of wildlife. In South Korea, there are interpretive signs featuring bear and tiger and deer, but I doubt there are ever sightings of anything more feral than woodpeckers and squirrels. Still, you have to love the enthusiasm, the urge to get out, get exercise, to walk. More power to them.
Somewhere during those weeks, I reflected on the future of recreation in North America and the rest of the world. Yes, we have more landscape to lose ourselves in. Yes, we have relatively clear skies and clean water and more abundant public lands, and more opportunities to encounter wildlife. But incrementally, those qualities are eroding. Most of us go to popular destinations where the parking lots overflow on busy weekends, where hiking is as much a social experience as an encounter with the wild. We are shedding species just as fast as the rest of the world.
Little by little, our sense of what is normal in the backcountry is evolving. Imagine what the mountains and forests and coasts we visit today were like 50 years ago, 100 years ago, even 20 years ago. Are we destined to become more and more like South Korea, where the backcountry is full of enthusiastic humans, but stripped of everything else except the views?
Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer in Montana. Photo by Chris Campbell