"The beauty and charm of the wilderness are his for the asking, for the edges of the wilderness lie close beside the beaten roads of the present travel." –Theodore Roosevelt
Chapter Thirteen: The Hiker’s Tale
To the north of Manila are large swaths of land, undeveloped and free of the grip of urbanization. A simpler place from a simpler time, where the local fauna cheeps and shrieks from the edges of your hearing, only to go silent at the merest hint of humans trespassing on their domain.
At least, that’s what the trail brochure said. What it was really like was lots of hilly trails, streams, a chorus of birds all around us, incredible humidity, and trees. So. Many. Trees.
To escape the noise and bustle of the city, Thursday was going to be spent traversing some of the better known nature trails north of the city. Near the end of the expedition was apparently a hot spring well known for its natural beauty, but obviously that wasn’t a priority for me. Actually, Satomi seemed the only one excited about that. Then again, that might be because she was carrying all of Miya’s camera gear.
For whatever reason, perhaps Satomi’s not so quiet grumbling about another day full of walking, Miya had made Satomi her personal assistant. Which basically meant she was carrying all of Miya’s extra gear, which included pouches, lenses, data cards, a tripod, and not one, but two ancient looking old fashioned cameras that used film; one was color, one was black and white. Considering we were just going on a glorified nature hike, all the equipment seemed a tad unnecessary.
Since Satomi was loaded down with all the camera gear, Aunt Hana was on Refia duty, along with carrying most of our water and snack supply. They were sticking close to Satomi, as much as to keep a slow pace as to keep an eye on her, was my guess.
I decided to stick close to Satomi as well, both for moral support and in case she needed someone to carry something. Despite her energy, Satomi was at heart a sprinter, and carrying all the equipment on a long hike could become a problem. Which might have explained why every now and then Satomi would glare at Miya’s back from between her sunglasses and baseball cap.
We were taking up the rear of the group, while Miya led from the front, beckoning Satomi forward when she needed her. Uncle Hisao alternated between the front, middle, and rear, depending on how he was faring. The weather must’ve been terrible for his condition –and Aunt Hana’s, come to that- but neither one complained, and when they stopped, we all stopped.
Kenji stuck close to Miya, Hisato in tow as he carried the rest of our water and supplies. So did Akio, who probably wanted to stay as far from Satomi as possible.
So far, it had been an interesting day. And we hadn’t even had lunch yet.
As we walked up one of the gentler sloping hills, I noticed Aunt Hana seemed to constantly be looking up and around her. It seemed like she was looking for something she knew was out there amongst the wilderness, but, whenever she looked, it was just out of sight.
Her constant movements and searching were making me nervous, and after a while I had to ask what she was doing just to ease my own nerves.
“They’re out there,” Aunt Hana replied, “Watching us. Mocking us. Waiting,” Aunt Hana looked down at me, the look on her face suggesting she was just now realizing how much she was creeping me out, “Sorry, I’m making you nervous, aren’t I?”
I nodded, “Sorry.”
“I’m sorry,” Aunt Hana stated, “It’s just… we’re surrounded by monkeys.”
Satomi was the one to answer that, replying, “Some macaques gave them trouble during a road trip to a concert back in college. Dad saved the day. Talk to Auntie Emi if you want the whole story, but Uncle Kenji probably tells it best.”
“If by ‘best’ you mean inaccurate,” Uncle Hisao called from the front, “I did not gun down a troop of knife wielding monkeys with a Gatling gun, nor did Kwan use the Power of Rock to become the new troop leader.”
“Artistic license,” Kenji retorted.
“We’re stopping,” Miya declared, apparently oblivious to the conversation around her.
“About freakin’ time,” Satomi muttered, leaning against the nearest tree and wiping her forehead with her hand.
“Satomi,” Miya called, “I need the tripod and some lenses. And the panoramic card, and maybe the film camera… wait, you’re carrying everything, so it doesn’t matter.”
Satomi groaned and marched over to Miya. Aunt Hana and I watched her go, while Refia looked around her at the surrounding trees.
“I really should be the one carrying all that,” I muttered, mainly to myself.
“She can handle it,” Aunt Hana said. Looking down at Refia, she added, “Be careful. This is monkey country, so watch where you look.”
Refia looked up at her mother, “Why?”
“Most primates consider eye contact a challenge,” I stated.
“Miki the Cat learned that the hard way,” Hisao remarked.
We weren’t spread out very far, so it was easy for people to hear each other if they were paying attention.
Refia looked over at me, “Can I have a ride for a bit? I’m tired.”
I looked to Aunt Hana, who smiled and nodded. I lowered myself and Refia immediately scrambled onto my back.
“Thank you!” Refia chirped.
“You’re welcome,” I said.
Aunt Hana handed me two water bottles and a pack of crackers. I handed one of the bottles to Refia, drank half of my own, and split the crackers with her. There were six, and while I probably should have taken another one for myself, I figured Refia could use the boost. She was just a little girl, and once she was out of energy, somebody would be carrying her back to the resort. I could keep going. She couldn’t.
Satomi seemed to be determined to keep going, too. Sprinter or no, she had the stubbornness of a person who would keep going until she either got where she was going, or collapsed from exhaustion. Miya had that air about her, except she seemed more likely to get herself hurt rather than worn out.
While we took our break, Miya took advantage of a clearing in the surrounding trees to take some panoramic shots –the apparent source for our stop. We weren’t that high up the mountains, but the view was pretty good anyway, and thanks to the near noon sun and clear sky, the lighting was pretty good, too. Which was why we all had on sunglasses and plenty of sunscreen. And bug repellent.
“Hey guys, you might wanna look at this view,” Miya said, a camera propped on a tripod, her digital camera in her hands, and another camera and her bag strapped around her short frame.
I glanced at Aunt Hana, who smirked and started walking over to Miya. Everyone else was starting to gather around as well, so I made sure Refia was secure against my back before following suit.
Once Refia and I got there, Miya, apparently done with the camera she was holding, was handing it to a Satomi, and giving her instructions on how to use it. It struck me as unwise to give something that hefty and expensive to someone who was upset at having to carry it for the better part of several hours, but Satomi was actively listening to Miya’s instructions. Perhaps the eye coordination of photography appealed to her fashion sense.
“Pretty!” Refia chirped.
I turned toward the clearing, slowly taking in the scene before me.
“Pretty” seemed the best description, actually. We were maybe halfway up one of the smaller, rolling hills around, which was certainly plenty high for Aunt Hana and Uncle Hisao. Despite that, the view was still impressive. Mountains rising and falling, a valley filled with trees, the sounds of nature all around us, and a clear, bright blue sky. Since the opening was bracketed by trees, the view wasn’t open enough to make me too nervous. Though I made sure to look at it in bits and pieces, and definitely not to look down anywhere near where we were standing.
Miya was visibly twitching with excitement, probably regretting not having her painting supplies with her as she observed Satomi taking pictures while she alternated between the one she was holding and the one on the tripod.
After a while it became pretty clear Miya wouldn’t leave until she had at panoramic and still life photos of the entire valley and surrounding mountains in digital, film, and black and white. That would take a while, and we were sort of on a schedule, so eventually Kenji put a hand on Miya’s shoulder and whispered something in her ear.
Miya grimaced, muttered a reply, and started packing up.
“We’re a couple hours from the top of this hill,” Kenji declared, while Satomi reluctantly resumed her role as pack mule for Miya, “we can lunch up there and then it’s a nice easy trek down the mountain to the springs. Any questions?”
I wanted to ask if I could carry the equipment after lunch, but decided to do so privately. No one had any spoken questions, so once Miya was finished loading everything up, and had Hisato safely on her shoulders, we resumed our trek.
Satomi had drifted closer towards the middle of the group, to be nearer Miya, I guessed. I stuck close to Aunt Hana in the rear with Refia. Uncle Hisao had drifted towards the back as we ascended the hill. He looked pretty worn out, but his pace was steady and he was still moving, so hopefully it wasn’t serious. Yet.
Aunt Hana wasn’t looking much better, and whenever she thought someone wasn’t looking, she scratched at the edges of her scar tissue. The humidity must’ve been making her even itchier than I felt.
Maybe there was something to this hot spring idea, after all.
Refia, at least, seemed to be having fun. I could feel her head darting around as she tried to catch a glimpse of the birds that flittered around us, and occasionally she’d give an awed gasp as something bigger and most definitely not a bird moved above us.
Behind us, I heard Aunt Hana mutter, “They don’t seem happy we’re here.”
Uncle Hisao chuckled and replied, “They’re used to it. They’re probably waiting for us to stop so they can try and steal some food.”
I made a mental note to email Mrs. Kotobuki about that road trip as I ducked under a particularly low branch.
“You okay?” I asked Refia.
“Uh-huh!” Refia replied, “Thanks for the ride, Hee-neesan.”
“No problem,” I replied, “Though when we start going downhill you’ll have to walk, okay?”
Up we continued, Miya pausing every now and then to grab a few quick pictures through a gap in the foliage, or to spin around and sneak a photo of the rest of us. Kenji gave her a wide berth, while Hisato seemed to enjoy the ride.
Hisao took up a pace next to me after a while, although it took Refia a while to notice.
“Hi, Daddy!” Refia chirped when she saw him next to us, “Are you and Mommy okay?”
Hisao grinned and nodded, “We’re fine. This hill’s not so bad, and we’re almost to the top anyway. You’re not giving Soon-hee a hard time are you?”
“Nu-uh!” Refia replied.
Hisao smirked and looked at me for confirmation.
I returned the smirk, “Little Albatross isn’t any trouble. I like her there. Gives me something to do. Less time for thinking.”
Hisao’s smirk faded and he nodded, “Yeah, it always gets you when you’re on your own, not doing anything. Just thinking, letting your mind wander….”
I nodded, surprised at how serious he looked. Even married to Aunt Hana, there was no way he could have that haunted look unless he had something that kept him up at night, too.
Well, the constant worry of dying and leaving your family behind certainly qualified. Even so, there seemed more to Uncle Hisao’s discomfort than that. Maybe the hike was getting to him worse than he was letting on.
I was used to dealing with bravado in the face of pain or injury, and even in only a few months had to state very firmly to more than one student that if the limb was in a cast, they couldn’t spar. Even if it counted as improvised weapon training.
Maybe that’s why I asked if he was okay, even though Hisao had told Refia he was not a minute before.
Hisao nodded, “Yeah, although this humidity doesn’t help. What I wouldn’t give for a dry heat right now.”
“Can we visit the Grand Canyon next year then?” Refia asked.
Hisao chuckled, “We’ll see. I’m gonna talk to Uncle Kenji, so be good and don’t make trouble for Soon-hee, okay?”
Refia nodded, “Don’t worry, Daddy; Nee-chan makes enough trouble, so I don’t have to.”
“I heard that!” Satomi snapped.
Hisao sighed and moved up ahead, while I slowed my pace to match Aunt Hana’s. She was still looking above her, watching the occasional flits and jumps in the overhanging branches from under the brim of her cap. A half-empty water bottle was in her hand, and when she saw me she smiled and offered me another pack of crackers.
I took the pack and split it with Refia, “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome. Holding up well?”
I nodded, “So far, so good. How are you, if I may ask?”
“Fine, although –Refia don’t do that!”