We hated what was said by the young slender man standing behind the counter of the Visitors Center in the Taiwanese village of Fulen. “You shouldn’t walk the Caoling Trail because of the typhoon we just had. It could be dangerous.”
Two days ago a high wind and rain had shaken the balcony in the sky rise apartment where I stayed with a friend and her family. Large tree limbs crashed down and smaller trees toppled too. Schools were closed that day and also the following, although on that second day of closures no storm showed its face.
Now it was the third day and no wind or clouds warned of danger. Was it necessary to accept his advice? Getting to trail’s start had required a ninety-minute train ride as well as some bucks to travel there from Taipei.
We were prepared and eager. I’d equipped myself with water, snacks, umbrellas, asthma inhalers and a second pair of shoes incase the first got too muddy. Both I and my Taiwanese companion Karen had already cancelled on outdoor trip because of the typhoon. Today’s shorter alternative provided challenge as well seclusion within walls of green and blue. For me, it would be the first time walking a mountain forest of Taiwan. For Karen, a former athlete, it would be the first time to hike without a young child in her care in nearly three years.
The official stared at us earnestly through his horn-rimmed glasses. He wore a button-down moss- green shirt with a tie. Taiwanese are typically thin, but his girth seemed more so, less than many of the trees downed by the storm. He pointed to a map underneath the glass countertop. “You can bike instead hike. There’s many sites to see.”
We didn’t ask what. Asphalt streets with roaring motorbikes and honking cars would be no substitute for the cool, green arms of trees. Karen looked towards me. “Do you still want to go?”
“I do, do you?” She nodded.
I’ll admit, in retrospect, there wasn’t much basis for my trust in her judgment. Our whole prior relationship was based in a private conversational English conversation class I teach back in California. Since Karen’s visit to her family of birth with my planned trip to Taiwan, we’d decided to meet up. I did know she was smart and shrewd. And in Japan, where I’d lived for six years, taking physical risks–ones commonplace to me–were discouraged. Could it be so here?
The young official stared at us as if waiting for our answer. I plunged in. “I’ve had thirty years experience of hiking, both in California and Japan. I think we can keep safe.” My words–voice of deference to his–probably have shocked him.
“We have many people say they’ve had experience with beaches or rivers and swimming and then they cause themselves and us much trouble.”
“I won’t go near the ocean. I only want to hike.” Truth—I’d never contemplated going in.
He nodded as if to release us, assured him that he or others wouldn’t have to go searching for our bodies. When out of earshot, Karen explained, “Probably he was required to say that.”
“Yes. And I don’t mind stepping around or bending under downed trees. I’ve done that many times in California.”
Next lunch. In a small take-out place situated on the single main street, we picked a lunch box set that included an egg darkened with age and soy, and slivers of pork upon rice, and a tablespoon each of seaweed and cabbages. The colorful, cheap, and nutritious array came in waxed cardboard boxes with wooden chopsticks. Later, I’d find it tasted as good as it looked
Out we headed with Karen swinging by her hand the tied pink plastic store bag. Not a good idea to add it to our backpacks since the bag kept our tasty assortment in their thin boxes upright and prevented sauces from leaking out. Next stop: for yellow ponchos. Later, when we watched dark gray clouds slowly intrude on our presently blue skies and becomes a massive presence over us, we were very glad we ported those ponchos.
We first set off down an asphalt road, then on a path through a green like I never see in California. Deep, sprawling, dense, soaring, and profuse. The path was good—made of asphalt at first. And dry. Later patches of mud showed up. The path narrowed, then became dirt. About twenty minutes into our walk we had to step over our first downed bamboo rod. Then a few minutes later we encountered a four foot wide thicket of branches across our path. We lifted lift some up or stepped between others. We could continue with no obstacles for a few more minutes, then it became a near constant job to clear the path or step high around obstacles. Our trail descriptors said this one-way walk would take three to four hours (with a train taking us home from our end point). With such added work, would it be six?
“I am wondering if the young man had a point. If I believed that it would be like this the whole way, I’d turn back now. But I don’t think it will.” I said. Karen said nothing. “Let’s give it another thirty minutes.”
Within twenty, we’d reached a slope from where we saw a home and a driveway leading down to it. A large black dog barked ferociously ahead. He guarded the asphalt we needed to proceed down. I could see in my mind’s eye him rushing up to grab a piece of my thigh. That frightened me.
Another couple walking ahead of us seized the dog’s interest and he ran to within a foot of them, then turned away. But now he headed towards us. I know dogs, and bees, can smell fear. My own aroma was sure to be quite evident and would encourage him to take an ounce of flesh out of me. I wished the creature knew English.
I talked to him anyways. “We’re just walking past. We’re not going to bother you or your home.” He came closer—more scary than the downed bamboo earlier. I told myself to not be afraid.
We kept walking. He turned away to chase the other couple a bit and that gave us enough time to get past him. I counted it my good fortune to go onward unscathed.
“Now we’ll start the trail,” said Karen.
“What? I though we were on it?” It seemed we’d already walked a mile. “That was just the path to the trail,” she replied. Again, I wondered if we’d make our destination.
Fortunately, here on the real trail, no more downed trees thwarted our progress. Several challenges did make me wonder this would be more drudgery than joy. I never voiced those doubts.
Slick portions were the first and most frequent difficulty. I wondered at first if the ranger’s warning would prove true. Would the mud get thicker? Would the rocks we walked on get dangerously slippery? We forged on. The slick or sticky portions did not worsen or lengthen. After a near falling, I made an conscious effort to slow down when needed and watch for mud. I would half my pace for five or ten minutes at a time, and then speed up again.
We climbed stairs made of rocks that rose up and up and up, perhaps a hundred at a time. My right knees started to hurt and I wished I’d brought a hiking stick. Only nine months past I had a severe episode of arthritic knees that made climbing stairs impossible for a week.
We walked past a gorgeous roaring river with ferns on its banks for an hour or so. I kept repeating, “It’ so beautiful!” Sometimes we descended to a level where we could approach it and put our fingers into its cool clear waters. After the joy of the river, came many more steps, but finally a cliff from which we could look out point over a vast open space and saw a bit of gray ocean and clouds in the horizon.
“You can usually see the blue stretching on and on.” Karen’s thick brows were lowered—her disappointment I think more for me than herself. She’d seen it previousy and this was my one chance.
Clouds did have one benefit. They kept it somewhat cool. Yet the high humidity—what typically hangs on after a typhoon—made it incredibly humid. The waistband of my shorts was soaked with sweat. My arms and back were sticky and, as I drank to compensate for the sweat, my water was running out.
We walked on and down. At one spot inviting tables and benches of concrete stood under a covered porch. “Let’s stop to rest.” Karen studied a large sign. “No, there are Tiger Bees here. They can kill a person.” “How often does that happen?” I asked as we continued on down the trail. “Every month they sting someone or two, but probably only kill a person occasionally, like once a year.”
The gray clouds became fuller, even bulky, like steel petticoats that wanted to shed their heavy load.
“We may get rained on. I’m glad for the ponchos,” said Karen.
“Let’s try to outrun the storm.” I enjoyed explaining the idiom, before I started to run. We pushed ourselves faster and stopped less frequently for photos. Only for watrer.
And my quart or so of water was nearly gone. A sign told me not too long until a restroom. The vending machine at the rest stop was one of the highlights of the trip.
Soon after we left it, bottles of cold oolong tea in hand, we came upon two young people toiling up the trail: a blond-haired woman with a brunette haired man. “Is this the start of the Caoling Trail?”
“Yes,” answered Karen.
“Is it okay for walking?”
“Yes,” my friend replied ithout skipping a beat. I wasn’t so sure. “The trail that takes you into Fulen though has a lot of downed trees or bamboo cut off trail,” I added.
“So when you get to the road and a house and a barking dog, just go on the road,” advised Karen. I looked at my watch–2:30 PM–and added, “I’m more concerned about how late it is.” In October, the days were getting shorter.
“Yes, we got a later start than we meant to.”
At least they looked lean and strong. Maybe they could do it in three hours.
“And the rain,” added Karen. “Do you have rain gear?”
“I’ll give you my poncho,” said Karen, again with no pause and I joined in the giving. We’d had such joy in beauty and invigorating exercise and wouldn’t want them to miss it. Without protest, only sincere thanks, they took our unopened poncho packages.
Thirty minutes later, we boarded a nearly empty train to start our long ride home. “I’d like to call that ranger and tell him we made it!” I knew that we couldn’t actually do so. We didn’t know his number.
The hike had worn me out. It takes a whole lot of tiredness for me to sleep on a noisy, swaying train. I did just that. I was surprise to realize that our car had arrived in Taipei. I gathered my stuff together and as we got off, Karen said, “I hope that young couple made it.”
“Me, too.” Could we have erred in the opposite direction from the ranger and steered the couple into discomfort–or worse, danger?