The tension was too much, everyone! With an aircraft carrier heading for the Korean peninsula and Kim Jong Un threatening a nuclear strike, my mom was in peril! As soon as I could, I was on the long flight across the Pacific, back to Incheon, where it all began. No longer was I a scared little kit stowed away in cargo. Now, I was a seasoned traveler with my own paper slippers and bibimbap! Still, it had been so long. I wondered what had changed.
I was born in a small park in Incheon called Neungheodae, which means “crossing the air,” that was once an important port for Korean envoys traveling to China! No longer connected to the sea, it’s now a lovely park with a pond where my mom settled after escaping the Russian trappers that turned my dad into a hat! The thought of it being blown to smithereens by North Korea made me very sad!
When I arrived, I was in for a shock! The pond had been drained, and Mom was nowhere to be found! I ran around, calling for her. I told her I was coming, didn’t I? Suddenly, a cry of “Looking for someone?” pierced the morning air. I wheeled around. It was Master Sae!
Master Sae, the tiger shrike, was my mentor! He taught me the Five Deadly Arts to help me on my journey to find George. He gave me my first adventure hat. It was so good to see him! He had aged a fair bit, but he was still a spritely old fellow!
According to Master Sae, Mom had gone to run some errands but would be back soon. The pond drainage was standard maintenance, which was a relief. Meanwhile, he wanted to hear all about my adventures and whether my training had come in useful. I told him about my close calls with the Gor stone demon and a bunch of coyotes, but he was most interested when I told him about a Sixth Deadly Art, the Durian Belch! He didn’t believe such a thing existed and wanted to make sure I had kept up on my training on the other Arts. So he challenged me to a practice duel on the steps of the pavilion where we trained ages ago!
I hadn’t had an official duel in so long, but I held my own! I have to hand it to Master Sae, though. He has stayed sharp after all these years, and I still have a lot to learn!
When at last, we took a break, even Master Sae started to wonder where Mom had gotten off to. The worry crept up on me again. Master Sae could tell, and with a promise to find her, he took off into the sky!
Meanwhile, I had my own hunches for where Mom might have gone. With all the trees blooming around Incheon, my first thought was that she could be flower watching for Firstbud! So I headed north to see if she’d gone to reflect on the fountains of Songhyeon Neighborhood Park.
I searched up and down, a little woozy from the flight and the yucky brown air of this industrial city. But the Jogye Buddhist temple had arranged lines of colorful lanterns in honor of the Buddha’s birthday coming up on May 3rd, and the flowers were blooming all around the waterways.
Yet, lovely though this park was, I found no trace of Mom anywhere. Maybe she went to another colorful spot by the water.
I searched for Mom along the Gyeong-In, or Ara, Waterway, which was teeming with carp! Here, the flowers were also blooming, the humans were out biking and jogging, and there was a whole hillside covered in colorful pinwheels. Mom loves exercise, and pinwheels, but she was not here!
I kept walking, all the way to the Ara Lighthouse, the most unusual lighthouse I’d ever seen! There were a lot of bikers resting here, but no beavers!
I had reached a conundrum. Maybe Mom had wandered even further than I thought! As I walked and branstormed, Master Sae reappeared. He had found Mom! She was waiting for me at the Baegundae trailhead in Bukhansan National Park! Without further delay, I headed for the Gyeyang train station and hopped aboard!
South Korea’s trains are very efficient, and it shouldn’t have taken me very long to get to the park entrance. However, during the 704 bus transfer from Gupabal Station, I got distracted by an old lady offering for me to sit on her lap and an old Japanese man complaining about his injured shoulder, and I missed my stop! I had to reorient myself, catch the 704 going in the opposite direction, and get off at Bukhansanseong, where I hustled along the row of high-end outdoor retailers and came at last upon
Mom! She must have been warming up here for hours! Gosh, she scared me, but she wasn’t worried at all about North Korea. She said it was pretty routine to be threatened with death from the North, but she was confident that Kim Jong Un wouldn’t dare to start a nuclear war.
I felt a little foolish, but you know what? After all these years, I got to see my mom again! She’d been following my national park adventures and wanted to show me one of Korea’s. Apparently, the messenger albatross carrying these plans had gotten lost over the Pacific. I really need to update her communication methods. But we were here, and without further delay, Mom, Master Sae, and I headed into Bukhansan National Park!
Completely surrounded by the city of Seoul, Bukhansan is home to the mighty three-horned mountain, Samgaksan, with its three peaks, Insubong, Mangyeongdae, and the 2,743-foot (836-meter) Baegundae! Normally, this is one of the most crowded trails in Korea, but late on a Friday afternoon, there were only a few die-hard hikers like us!
The trail started off as a series of ramps and stairs leading to the Bukhansanseong, or fortress, built in 1711 under King Sukjong, who was rebuilding Korean strength after two invasions: one from Japan in 1592 and another from Manchu in 1636! It took six months for the 30-40,000 workers to complete it!
The day was grayish brown, but there were patches of blossoming cherry trees that reminded me of the old days celebrating Firstbud as a family. Mom had never taken us as far as Bukhansan when we were younger. It was only after we had all moved out that she became so active. In fact, it took all kinds of effort to keep up with her!
We followed the river along a metal walkway for a while until we came to a rest area with a Buddhist temple decked out for the Buddha’s birthday. I wish we had been around for that. I’ll bet it would have been spectacular!
From here, the trail started sloping more steeply. Mom advised me to slow down and save my energy a bit, but I assured her that I’d run up and down all sorts of mountains before. Plus, we were chasing daylight! Little did I realize that Baegundae was not like any other mountain I’d tackled!
We took a brief rest at another mountain temple, which left out a table full of drinks and snacks in exchange for donations. Mom took some snacks, but I was feeling pretty good and decided I didn’t need any.
Boy, was that ever a bad decision! The last two kilometers were nothing but steep stone steps, each 1-2 feet high! My legs started cramping before we even got halfway up, and if Mom and Master Sae hadn’t been there for encouragement, I might have turned back!
At last, we reached the saddle and passed through the Baegunbongammun gateway. I had to sit here a while and consider the wisdom of venturing further. By now, a chilly wind was gusting, and Master Sae told us to go on without him, because he could not fly in such wind!
The last leg of the journey was perilous! With the wind gusting and my limbs aching, the trail reduced to a chain leading up over solid rock! With Mom guiding me along the way, mere feet at a time between breathers, we inched our way up the rock with dazzling views of Insubong and Mangyeongdae on both sides!
Then, at last, after a final push, we were there! Seoul spread out below us as crows circled around us! The evening sun through the toxic air cast the cliffs into relief, and though the wind was whipping the Korean flag on top, we had overcome the odds and reached the summit!
Like Wasson Peak, we’d started this hike late, and after painfully easing our way down the mountain, we finished the Baegundae trail by headlamp! Navigating the subways back to Incheon, we returned to my kithood home, built into the rocks of Neungheodae, and Mom treated me to a hearty meal of tofu soup, rice wrapped in lotus leaf, and even the dreaded kimchi, which I must admit, after all these years, didn’t taste as bad as I remembered!
I was so tired tonight that I didn’t have the gumption to ask Mom to come back with me to the States, but that will be my first priority tomorrow morning!