Sunday, May 11, 2008

On Gold Rails (pt 2)

Satisfied, we headed deeper still, to Miyama and the primeval forests of Ashiu. This area has been leased by Kyoto University since 1921, their forestry students living and studying up here. Another old unused small gauge rail line follows the Yura River deeper in deeper into the wild.

It took us a while getting up here. We'd boarded a bus from Demachi, packed with first year university students standing and yammering their way toward a party at some pork-barrel mountain lodge resort. Miki chatted with a 90-something man who was going mountain herb hunting despite his children's protests. My own neighbor was an old woman who was elated in her grandchild winning a Judo medal, now certain to represent the nation at this summer's Olympics. She narrated our passage through the northern part of the city, superimposing upon the modern blight a mental map of memory drawn more than half a century before. As her stories subsided, so did our forward motion. Somewhere in the curves above Kurama, a car had gone off the road, and own bus was too wide to get by. So we all got to unfold ourselves from our neighbors and pace the roadside awhile. Miki and I sat beside the streambank and laughed about how with the delays and overcrowding, this trip felt more like an Asian voyage than a Japanese one. After an hour we started again, the bus getting lighter and lighter the further north we went. For the last hour or so I daydreamed that I heard "Greensleeves" played over and over again.

The bus went no further than Hirokawara, so we grabbed our packs and set off up the road. It was a long slog up a narrow switchback road, us sweaty and weary on the hot asphalt. We had a couple more clicks to the trailhead, but got lucky in hitching a ride with a young business-type who'd left Nagoya that morning with hopes of getting to the sea by nightfall. Happy to finally get on the trail, we walked along the ridge, the steady increase in height bringing more mountains into sight. The trail then cut down a hillside so steep that it was tough to keep a steady footing. Halfway down, one of my (Platypus) water bags decided it could take no more, and hurled itself into the gravity. I stood slack-jawed as I watch a quarter of our water supply somersault down toward a stream far below, giving off a catherine wheel of water every time it came into contact with the forest floor. More impressive was how it came to rest nearly on the trail again. (Well, they do say that water always takes the quickest way down.) We eventually made it to the stream which we then followed toward the river beyond. Winter had been brutal here. This narrow valley was littered with boulders and trees, making it now impossible to find the trail. Half of the trail markers were on fallen trees, and so many others were marked with tape that the forest looked like a zebra. We followed a narrow path which climbed again. Hairy in parts, it finally got us to the river and a grove of cedars. We needed no more incentive to camp; we'd only been going a few hours but the descent left us spent. We sat on a narrow patch of earth where the stream met the Yura, watching the sun drop behind the ridge and the forest slowly lose its shape.

I hadn't slept too well. This area was infamous for both vipers and bears. I could swear I heard the sound of the stream change, as if something momentarily blocked its path. Miki made tea and I cut bread. The soft morning light played off the river in front of us. We stayed until it was time to leave. We followed the rail line proper now, keeping a pretty consistent height above the river. Where the streams ran down to join the river brought hazards in the form of bridges in various states of disintegration. I usually find great joy in the fact that nature always trumps the things made by man. But myself being man made, I found this less than heartening today, as the bridges swayed beneath every step. A couple had been lost entirely. After an mere hour's walk, we came to one that I just couldn't go over. The older(!) bridge crumbled into space, but portions had been lashed to a couple of logs that were crossed by wooden footholds, the whole thing tied to the crumbly rock cliff by wires. This newer bridge had once had six support beams, but five of them were visible on the rocks 15 meters below. The sole remaining beam was listing into the void. A sign had warned that the crossing was impossible, but we tried anyway. Miki went a few steps out and came back. I went maybe two, then panic overtook me. Even without backpacks, I couldn't do it. Leaving our packs on the trail, we went down to the river, trying to find another way across, but were afraid of getting off trail too much, especially in an area as wild as this. There was simply no way to get those packs across. Back up on the trail we sat deliberating for a long time. Just as we decided that it was humanly impossible to proceed, a man in his 50s came up. We told him the situation, and he agreed that the bridge's condition was worse than when he'd come a few years ago. We watched him crawl partway out on all fours, then come back. He said that yeah, with our packs he wouldn't do it, then he turned and literally strode across, impervious to the wobbling below his boots.

Dejected, we walked back toward Ashiu. I wish we'd never met that guy, and could be safe in our illusion that no one would have made it over. I had been concerned with bears or snakes, but what had really done me in was my own fear. Sure, our decision to give up was prudent, but this was the first time I'd given up on something because I was afraid. My taste of my pride as it slid down my throat was bitter.

From Ashiu it was easy to hitch a ride out. We took a series of rides south, occasionally getting out to walk through the countryside sunshine awhile. We had the our lunch in the shade of a small shrine on a hill beside the road. From far off, I again heard the ghost music playing "Greensleeves." Miki told me that out here, the buses played music loudly so that people could come out and flag a ride. The bus we'd ridden the day before had indeed had music. All along I'd thought it was somebody's cellphone, ringing and ringing and ringing...

Our last ride was with an ancient couple with poor hearing. Miki complemented the driver on his keen ability to negotiate the winding road, as he sped far too fast through turns. What Miki took for confidence, I saw as fear, a mad dash toward the safety of straight roads. And she continued to praise this old guy, who was totally oblivious to his hubcap flying off into the valley below during one turn, or of flattening an immense snake on the next. Safe in Kurama then, where the train took us away from snakes and bears and bridges, and toward Italian meals and films and clean sheets.

On the turntable: Count Basie, "Plays the Blues"

On the nighttable: Xi Xi, "A Girl Like Me"

On the reel table: "Fast Food Nation" (Linklater, 2006)

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