Don’t tell these kids to go take a hikeThe weather was cold and bitter and his foot was numb. It was a long and exhausting walk and his back felt like it was splitting in to two. But Hahn Du-ryu kept dragging his weary body along, right behind his teammates.
“If I were at home, I would take a rest or stop walking,” said Du-ryu,13. “But this is a group effort and if I fall behind so will my team.” He sucked in a deep breath and hitched up his worn backpack with the rolled-up sleeping bag tied at the bottom. The boy was small for his age, but his eyes showed unwavering determination.
Du-ryu and his 12 mates on Team 10 are in a program called Green Walking. Participants walk the length of the country, from Tomal Ttangkkeut, which in Korean literally means “land’s end,” to Seoul, following along a midwesterly route.
This winter 180 youngsters, from elementary to high school students, volunteered for the 15-day trek, which covers about 440 kilometers (265 miles). The trip is organized by the Youth Green Camp Volunteers of Korea, a nonprofit group that educates Korean youth on how to live harmoniously with nature and cherish the environment. The organization has been holding such cross-country walks twice a year since 1996.
Glorious nature or not, cross country trekking isn’t easy for young bodies, however strong their determination. “Forty percent of the children have gotten blisters on their feet. We cover about 25 to 34 kilometers at the most per day,” said Oh Kil-san, 37.
The long file of children with fatigue written on their sunburned faces resembled a platoon that had just lost a battle. “On a daily basis four to five students fail to keep up with the rest, and they are transported to the next location in an ambulance that follows us throughout the course,” Mr. Oh said.
This is not Du-ryu’s first cross-country hike. Three winters ago he walked for 15 days from Busan to Seoul. “Back then it was worse,” reminisced the young veteran. “All we did was walk and the places we had to spend the night were mostly deserted schools. We had no heating system and the food was terrible. This year it’s much better because they have special programs such as train rides and visits to historic relics. The food, well, it’s not top quality, but its better than what I had three years ago.”
That winter, Du-ryu’s mom added, the entire peninsula had its worst snowstorms in years. Her son had told stories of plowing along under heavy snow, walking most nights until midnight so they could cover the required distance. This year the leaders were much more lenient and most marches ended before nightfall, which was about 6 p.m.
It was Du-ryu’s dad who first made his eldest son participate in the cross-country trek. “Living in a city [Daejeon] I felt that children nowadays were getting weak,” Hahn Il-soo said.
The spring after Du-ryu’s first snowy hike, Mr. Hahn ventured off on a solitary 20-day trek of his own and covered 720 kilometers. He denied that his inspiration came from his son’s feat, but he did cover a similar route from Tomal Ttangkkeut to Seoul and on to the Imjin river.
“My wife was definitely against my trip, but my will was much stronger,” Mr. Hahn beamed with pride. “It was my long-lasting dream to take a trip the length of the country. It was something I had to do.”
Mr. Hahn at the time was working at a Korean oriental-medicine university hospital, but after resigning he had some time before opening his own practice. Mr. Hahn now is planning a family walkabout that would start from China and move on to Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, Spain, Italy and Greece between 2006 and 2007. His wife is less excited about the idea, especially because such a trip would cause the children to miss school for a couple of months or more.
But this year was Du-ryu’s glory. “I wanted to participate in a cross country before I moved on to middle school in March,” he said.
“I was so against it,” said his mother, Kang Jung-sook. “My son is moving up to middle school, and I wanted him to take extra courses at a private institute this winter.”
Du-ryu’s bull-headed determination subdued his mother’s resistance.
The boy especially has enjoyed this year’s trip because of the new friends he has made. Du-ryu’s best friend, Choi Seung-jae, 13, is participating in the trip along with his younger brother Choi Gwang-il, still an elementary school pupil. Both brothers were on the same team with Du-ryu.
' I am very proud of these guys,” said Yoon Heon-hee, 23. Ms. Yoon is a college student who volunteered for the program with a friend. Moving into their final year in college, they wanted to experience the cross-country trip, hoping that it would somehow help her to build confidence when school starts. She felt nervous about her uncertain future in the precarious job market.
“It was much harder than I expected,” Ms. Yoon said of the hike. “Controlling 12 boys was not easy. They never listen to me and they were fidgety and disobedient. Still they never got into fights like other teams or any sort of trouble ― except once.” Ms. Yoon turned and threw a sharp look at two boys who quickly dropped their eyes and fluttered their hands shyly while the rest of the boys broke out laughing.
“Those two broke a window while they were wrestling,” Du-ryu explained. “It was hilarious because they were trying to hide the broken glass, hoping they wouldn’t get caught. But someone on another team ratted on them and they were punished, made to do squats in the hall.”
On another occasion Ms. Yoon had to throw her hands up in distress because of one child in Team 10. “Because we have to walk a long distance, restoring strength is an important part of my duty, so I would often order some kids to buy chocolate. Once this kid bought bread because that was what he preferred,” Ms. Yoon said. “That day no one in Team 10 was permitted to lay hands on the bread.”
The chubbiest teammate was another problem. He lost several personal items including clothing and even the most important tool of the trip, his spoon.
But unruly urchins were not Team 10’s only problem. Ms. Yoon, on her first cross-country hike, constantly got confused trying to find the road. The children had to tell her, “We should go this way,” or “We should make a right turn here.” Still they never got lost or fell behind, except once when had to reach their destination by bus.
At night after the long walk, the kids still had plenty of energy for pillow fights. Not Ms. Yoon.
“Each day I noticed how they grow and mature,” Ms. Yoon said. “They may be still kids but they now know what responsibilities mean as well as what team effort means.”
No matter how mature they may be, the members of Team 10 are kids and near the end of the trip most of them really began to miss their parents. “I now know how valuable my parents are,” Du-ryu said. “I took too many things for granted.”
That’s not all Du-ryu missed. He longed for galbi, seasoned beef ribs, and video games. He missed his younger brother. He even missed a classmate he had a secret crush on.
Because the trip fell a day behind schedule, the marchers were not able to enter Seoul. “We had a problem with our accommodations,” Mr. Oh said. “So we had to take another longer route to find other accommodations. Then, to meet our planned arrival we had to take the bus to Seoul from Cheonan, South Chungcheong province. But we will walk from Seokcheon lake in Jamsil to the Jamsil Han River Park.”
On the last day, the parents were standing in the middle of the park with bouquets and banners reading, “I’m really proud of you son,” or “Next time it’s the entire planet!”
Du-ryu’s mom and his younger brother Soo-bin, 8, were waiting with a homemade banner as the marchers in single file entered the park. There was some confusion at first about which way the file was to go, but in few minutes all were bursting with pride. They had made it.
The parents recognized that their offspring had accomplished a task that would be difficult even for an adult. “Oh look at them. They are so cute,” one parent said, admiring the smallest marchers.
“It’s incredible! They did it!” marveled another parent. Cameras flashed from all directions and parents rushed to their children, but the files did not break.
The 15-day trip ended with a half-hour closing ceremony in the park. The group that started off as whining children was now a group of self disciplined young men and women, confident in their ability to do anything and overcome any obstacle.
That night Du-ryu played video games and listened to his little brother tell him what had happened while he was on the road. His trial by ordeal behind him, Du-ryu was once again a normal kid at home in Daejeon.
by Lee Ho-jeong