Highway 1131 winds up Halla Mountain, past universities and apartment complexes. I downshift to fourth, and then third. Jeju City expands in the rearview, covering the ground out to sea with a haze of concrete and skyscrapers. The view is very Korean—dense with construction cranes and traffic.
The road narrows from two lanes to one. Trees close around us. And the landscape changes. The narrow highway becomes a switchback, and I downshift again to second. The car wheezes, struggling up the incline. There’s a traffic light, another apartment complex. A sign announces the driveway for a university. But these features are fewer, farther apart. I’m concentrating too much on the road to notice when they stop altogether.
Until we burst free of trees onto an idyllic plain. Horses play beyond white wooden fences. Green mountains shoulder aside the horizon. It’s all so different from the world below, and yet so close. Ten kilometers back are buses and car horns and restaurants and shoppers. Here there’s silence, and the wind, and the sharp smell of trees.
We’re skirting the edge of Hallasan National Park, the wild green heart of Jeju. If we go far enough, we’ll come out the other side of the island near Seogwipo, the only other city of note.
But we’re stopping well short of that today. Saryeoni Forest Path starts high up in the hills and runs 15km through old growth trees. The trail is famous for Japanese cedar, as well as oak, birch, snowbell and cypress. It is also one of the few spots on the island to see wild Roe Deer.
The trailhead is disappointing: clotted with noisy tourists and food trucks. Couples lounge on picnic benches, eating corndogs, surrounded by swarms of shrieking children. Construction crews are busy building a new visitor’s center and parking lot. Chaos reigns.
Briefly, I’m put off. It’s like the city followed us and squatted across the trail entrance like a gross, noisy carnival. But we eventually push past, until the trees block out the noise. The trail is peaceful, long and winding. And the further we go, the quieter the world becomes. Hiking Saryeoni Forest Path is like hiking into autumn. The air smells like cedar, and the leaves are just starting to dry and turn.
At first, the paths wind everywhere. The ground beneath the trees is dark and atmospheric. I keep catching glimpses of hikers on parallel trails, but I can rarely hear them so the effect is like ghosts among the cedars. The woods are dotted with ruins. Old stone walls slowly crumble under moss and ivy. Square tombs appear in unexpected clearings.
But going deeper, the many paths become one. Wind rushes above us, sending the branches dancing. But the world is otherwise silent. We’re thirty minutes drive from our front door, and we might as well be on another planet. Even the hikers thin out, leaving just a hearty few who look like they’re out for the long haul.
Eventually we turn back. The returning hike seems to take no time at all. Ten minutes after piling into our car, we’re winding down the mountainside. Jeju City reappears at our feet, the angry traffic creeping toward us with depressing inevitability.
“We’re going back, right? To that trail?” I say. It feels like the first words I’ve said in ages.
“You try and stop me,” Erin replies. Then she grins. “Want to do the whole fifteen kilometers?”
I start to snort, make a wry comment. Then I imagine what that trail will look like as fall really settles in on the mountain. I look back out the front window at the grey city stretching toward the sea.
And I find myself saying, “Yes.”
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