Just 10 minutes

By • Jul 24th, 2010 • Category: Diary



The following is an excerpt from a forthcoming collection of short stories about living abroad in Taiwan.

In the days before moving to Taichung City, our school’s head trainer, Gavin, tried to give us the lowdown on the area.

“It’s got a really tight expat community and a great music scene, the weather is a bit warmer and drier than Taipei, and the mountains are just 10 minutes away,” he told Amy and I in his thick Aussie accent.

Gavin was a caricature of the few things I associated with Australia – a hybrid of Mick Dundee, Steve Erwin, Oceanic Flight 815 and Fosters Beer commercials. I liked him immediately. He was an energetic man with a love of surfing who bounced around during his lectures like a kangaroo in an earthquake. Silver patches flanked his casually disheveled hair that was styled rather convincingly to look as though he had just woken up, if it weren’t for the large bags under his deep-set eyes that begged the question whether he’d been to bed at all. Part of what made him so engaging was my constant speculation (hope) that at any moment he could unleash his repressed Outback roots, skin a wallaby with a boomerang, declare that it was his dingo that ate the baby, and bust out a “wicked” didgeridoo solo.

I had no reason not to take his description of Taichung to heart. Australia is a land built on strong moral fibers without a dubious foundation, right?

A really tight expat community? Not bad.

A great music scene? Here’s hoping.

Warmer and drier weather than Taipei? A balmier climate didn’t sound all that bad considering that the two weeks I spent in Taiwan’s capital before relocating to the center of the island had been blanketed in nonstop rain and barely cracked 55 degrees.

The mountains just 10 minutes away?

Umm, what? Mountains? Growing up outside of Chicago, for me, mountains were the things of semi-regular family trips to Arizona. They meant dry, desert heat. They meant bickering with my younger brother and sister over who got the front seat in our rental car or who had to shower last in grandma’s spare bathroom. Mountains weren’t part of everyday life, but rather fleeting memories of stressful parades to see relatives. We might have called them “vacations,” but they more accurately were contests between my mother’s siblings over whose children could keep up the best behavior charade the longest. “No fighting. No yelling. He never acts this way at home, I swear. No running. You ARE having fun; … behave like it.”

During the first couple of weeks on the island, we had been immersed in extensive company training in Taipei. This left us too busy to explore Taiwan. We’d seen the high-reaching peaks that surrounded the crowded capital as we walked to and from our hotel, but had little time to appreciate their beauty. Dodging February downpours and preparing to teach 7-year-olds practical English phrases such as, “That is not my alligator,” “You can’t eat Tiramisu underwater,” and “How does Stuart feel about living on the moon?” took precedent.

In Taipei, the mountains surround the city like a fortress – keeping out the brunt of the typhoons that annually crash into the island from the east but locking in the smog of 4 million people. Development extends to the base of the hills, in some cases crawling up the mountainsides and cutting its way through the subtropical greenery. Temples are nestled among the palm trees high above city level; hotels are perched upward to overlook the skyline that is anchored by the massive Taipei 101 building. It’s a metropolis that feels ready to burst. Only the mountains keep the bustling population from spilling in all directions into a puddle of urban sprawl. The city exists alongside nature almost begrudgingly, as though the only reason the mountains still are there is because nobody has figured out how to cost-effectively build over them, under them, or through them, … yet.

Thus, when Taipei resident Gavin declared that Taichung’s mountains were “just 10 minutes away,” it wasn’t clear whether he meant it in a good way.

But they were there: Mountains. There was no mistaking them as we made the trek from Taipei to our new home. With each passing hillside, the memories of Illinois’ cornfields felt flatter than before. For two-and-a-half hours, countless peaks funneled us south toward Taichung. One valley’s exit was the next one’s entrance. With eyes closed, it could have been mistaken for a boat, riding the waves up and down, swaying left to right, and with seasickness to match. The only swathe of flat highway came as we neared our destination’s city limits.

The peaks of Taichung – a moniker that translates as “central island” – sit on the horizons, looming ambiguously, unlike their more prominent counterparts to the north. On a normal day, nondescript hills etch their shapes into the pale-gray skyline. Clear afternoons – usually after a crisp rain when the pollution is broken apart momentarily by the drizzle – see their jagged figures take full form in vibrant green hues, even if for just 10 minutes. But those days are rare in urban Taiwan. Unlike the island’s picturesque landscape on the east coast, Taichung’s 1 million inhabitants long ago made peace with the ever-lingering cloud of fryer grease, car exhaust and factory fog. This city’s two personalities cohabitate beneath this thin haze, and neither the mountains nor the buildings encroach the opposite’s terrain. The pair coexist with the other mostly in name – like a friend of a friend you’ve heard about ad nauseam – and they express toward one another the same polite disinterest normally reserved for stories about those faceless, faux acquaintances.

Had the city or its rural counterpart wanted to get to know the other, they already would have taken the initiative to do so. Any interaction would feel retroactive and staged, bringing with it the awkwardness of cocktail party small talk. “Mountains, this is City. City, this is Mountains. You’ve each heard so much about the other. OK, I’ll leave you two alone to talk so you can become best pals.”

At a cocktail party, there’s the off chance that the host’s ex could arrive uninvited, throw a drink in someone’s face, spout enough gossip to last for years, and leave after just 10 minutes in a whirlwind of tears and vulgarity. At the very least, there would be a cheese tray.

For its general lack of urban planning, Taichung’s architects understood that the mountains and city each are happier in their isolation, keeping a safe 10-minutes’ distance. Few people living in this city care about venturing into the mountains, and those Taiwanese residents looking down on the island’s third largest municipality do so as much metaphorically as literally.

Most of my life, I lived in the epicenter of suburbia – surrounded by big-box stores and cookie-cutter shopping centers. Although I hated the lack of identity in my hometown, I’d gladly take miles of Starbucks, Best Buys, Blockbusters and McDonalds over the dirt, bugs and sweat of the outdoors. lizard

I never had been very good at being one with nature. On camping trips as a child, my family would rise early after spending the night in a tent. I’d sleep well into the afternoon in the car’s backseat with the radio and air conditioner blasting. My parents would catch dinner in a stream before cooking their meal over a fire. I’d walk to the campgrounds’ convenience store for microwave burritos. “Roughing it” was too, well, rough, and even more pointless than it was hard. Human beings have thousands of years of intellectual evolution to draw upon, and it seemed inconsiderate not to show appreciate for inventions such as indoor plumbing, overhead lighting, the Internet, stoves, chewing gum, hand soap, air conditioning, and a host of other things that don’t fit into a sleeping bag. What was the point of voluntarily devolving to an era when people slept on the ground and hunted their own food, … yet apparently still had neighbors in Hawaiian shirts with coolers of Budweiser and CD players to blast The Dave Matthews Band?

Why spend time outdoors – willingly exiled from modern conveniences that are neither modern nor convenient nowadays, but instead, expected parts of everyday life – when you can view those same landscapes comfortably through airplane windows, or safely in 2-D coffee table books and on television?

Subsequently, before coming to Taiwan, I had tried to hike a mountain exactly one time, … and succeeded fewer.

When I was 13, I “vacationed” to Arizona and spent a night at my grandfather’s house. Well into his 60s, he woke before sunrise daily to walk to the top of Camelback Mountain. He’d been hiking the same route each morning since my mom was a child, and the old man was a grizzled trail veteran with little patience for an eighth-grader’s excuses.

“Grandpa, I’m tired.” …

“I’m not.”

“Grandpa, It’s early.” …

“Could be earlier.”

“I didn’t sleep well last night.” …

“You’ll sleep better tonight.”

“I think I heard a snake.” …


His answers were brisk and his gape was even quicker.

“Grandpa, I can’t breath. Can we stop?” …

“You can.”

“OK, I’m going to wait here.” …

“See you on my way down.”

“Grandpa?” …


There must have been something at the summit that drew him back to the same view each dawn, but I wouldn’t know. He left me perched on a rock along the side of the mountain.

A list of things about that first backpacking attempt should have warned me against trying again in Taiwan. The early start. The thinning air that made gasping for oxygen even more difficult. The vicious incline, which left my calves feeling like rocks and my thighs burning as though they’d been massaged with chili powder by a Minotaur. The commotion in the bushes that kept me on my haunches and a lump in my throat. To this day, I’m sure the rustling along the trail came from some elusive, yet-undiscovered, poisonous, fire-breathing snake-lizard-rodent-insect crossbreed. But if I had manage to record the first face-to-face encounter with the dreaded “Snalizrosect,” my grandfather probably would have grabbed me by the nape of my neck and hurried us back down the ridge just in time to prevent any historical significance. Charles Darwin didn’t have to put up with this. He got to lounge around the Pacific Ocean with island birds.

Yes, a number of things from that first trip – such as the humiliation of being left in the dust of a senior citizen with a deteriorating hip – should have kept me from accepting an invitation to hike the Dakeng Scenic Area, home to the tallest mountains in a 30-mile radius of Taichung.

They didn’t.

In an area of Taichung’s scope, in a country with such a premium on learning English, there’s a quick overturn of unsuspecting foreigners ready to make the 10-minute drive from the city’s urban center to the mountains that rest quietly on the fringe. Americans from places comparable in size, geography or attitude – San Diego, Denver and, coincidentally, Phoenix – who would rather chew gravel than hike the peaks of their hometowns, take weekend jaunts to Dakeng in droves.

Amy and I were two of these likeminded foreigners. Maybe it was bad airline food, and the delayed effects a few weeks after our arrival were clouding our judgment. Maybe we were operating under the false presumption that hiking would give us a more traditional “Asian” experience – akin to wearing a ninja outfit or catching flies with chopsticks. Whatever it was, something about being 7,500 miles away from our comfort zone made us not only OK with – but genuinely excited for – a midday stroll in the hills.

It’s why we agreed without hesitation when a colleague who’d been in Taichung for a couple of years invited us to go for “a nature walk through the scenic Dakeng area.” How bad could it be? Residents at my mother’s nursing home took nature walks as part of their rehabilitation, … and this one would be scenic, … and just 10 minutes away.

Almost everything about the invitation sounded perfect – a proverbial new leaf while taking in some new leaves up close and personal – aside from the 9 a.m. start. Teaching six days a week left Sundays as much needed respites, and those morning hours were prime slots usually occupied with REM sleep or by picking unrecognizable vegetables out of our neighborhood vendors’ breakfast omelets. But this is what people do in Taiwan, right? They rise early and take to the mountains before that first cup of green tea clears their system.

So groggy but excited, curious and foolishly without caution, off we went following the signs to the Dakeng Scenic Area.

There were four of us who saddled up for the scooter convoy into the great (mostly) unknown: A sarcastic Englishman; a South African with a booming laugh; and two wide-eyed Americans. It sounds more like the premise for a failed sitcom than a pack of fearless explorers, but nonetheless, it was the ragtag fellowship that we were counting on to get us there and back again. Our ringleader, Phil, had lived in Taichung for longer than the rest of us combined, yet had hiked the trails on the city’s northeast perimeter only once before. His first experience – a romantic daytrip with an ex-lover – no doubt had filled his memories of the afternoon with delight. Heloïse had been sold the idea of a Dakeng hike as an alternative to joining a gym. Having lived on the island for less than two months, she had yet to find a regular fitness routine and was keen to see what Mother Nature could offer. Amy and I were two weeks in the city and still finding our footing. Doing so on a mountain couldn’t be any more difficult.

Many others had been invited, but they declined the invitation cordially and – in hindsight – not so subtly.

“Umm, you’re hiking Dakeng this weekend? I can’t make it. I have this thing I have to do. … What time are you going? … Really? That’s unfortunate; that’s the exact time I have to do this thing. You know how things can be. If this thing gets canceled, then I’ll try to meet you. But right now, this thing is shaping up to keep me busy for about, … how long do you plan to be there? … Wow, that’s just about the time this thing will get over. Sorry.” Translation: You’re so full of excitement. You don’t need your spirits squashed.

“Dakeng? I just had a baby.” Translation: Hanging out with a screaming infant sounds more appealing than an afternoon among adults if those adults happen to be hiking.

“Hike? I’ve been there once.” Translation: Ha! Sucker! You’re not going to want to go back.

Then there was Phil’s roommate, David, a native of Taiwan who’d lived most of his life in the more-mountainous southern part of the island. Despite having moved to Taichung City a few years before, he hadn’t visited Dakeng. His mountain avoidance should have been a mass awakening. David wasn’t a tourist. This was his country, his culture, and his resounding voice of sanity that we were ignoring. After originally agreeing to come along – going as far as to welcome us into his apartment, which doubled as our rendezvous point – his motorcycle “wouldn’t start” when time to hit the road. Two-wheeled vehicles are as prone to engine trouble as cars, … but not ones that are only a week old, … and they very rarely get held up because the manual key is unexplainably “broken.”

David wasn’t just declining; he was volunteering to play the part of an omen. Although he vowed that he would try to catch up – provided he got his vehicle started within the next 10 minutes – he said goodbye with an expression that said, “The next time I see you, things won’t be the same.” It’s a look of pity that parents give children at high school graduations when they know that reality soon will destroy the naïve jubilation of the moment.

So despite David’s Oscar-worthy performance, he stayed behind with his “broken” key and a motorcycle that “wouldn’t start” while the four of us headed toward Dakeng with an ETA of just 10 minutes.

Having an estimated time of arrival merely ties you to a timetable. Kindergarten students, mailroom interns, bus boys; they live their lives on a schedule. But having an “ETA” gave our trip some much-needed urgency. Secret agents have ETAs when thwarting global super villains. Doctors rushing to aid pregnant women in car accidents have ETAs. And now, four expats on 125cc scooters were cruising toward the horizon with theatric purpose. ETA: 10 minutes.

It’s a good thing we weren’t secret agents or doctors, though. The thing about lives of great importance is that they require a degree of punctuality. Had we been charged with stopping the plans of an evil mastermind, an electromagnetic freeze ray would have engulfed the moon by now, … and there undoubtedly would be no miraculous roadside births on our account.

Because the Dakeng Scenic Area wasn’t just 10 minutes away. For us, it wasn’t 20 minutes away, either. We might have made it out of the crowded city streets and into the winding rural county in less than an hour, but it’s hard to get anywhere promptly while accruing such an impressive compilation of wrong turns.

Over the years, I’ve collected everything from pennies and baseball cards, to pictures of Marilyn Monroe, black shirts, oversized sunglasses, “B-” term papers, candles, comic books, newspaper front pages, and pet goldfish named after Looney Tunes characters. There was a phase when I saved buy-one-get-one-free Diet Pepsi bottle tops, and another when I kept my empty Tic Tac containers. VHS tapes and DVDs have lined the walls of more than one apartment, only outnumbered by tens of thousands of dollars worth of CDs, cassettes and vinyl records. It’s an equal parts driven and directionless existence.

This new assortment of wrong turns was impressive, even by comparison to the anthologies of useless junk I’d amassed in the past. These weren’t the common variety of wrong turns that city dwellers are used to. Back home, there are landmarks and street addresses. The roads are paved. <!–[if !supportAnnotations]–>There are people to ask for help. This wasn’t the same as making a left instead of a right, or taking the long way home and catching a few extra red lights. Today’s wrong turns were of an ilk unique to the Asian countryside. This misdirection saw a shortcut across a bridge dovetail into traveling in circles through a Taiwanese graveyard. They involved driving on the sidewalk on at least three occasions, making a pair of highway U-turns, and at one point pulling over entirely for 10 minutes to find our bearings. It was the kind of getting lost that meant cruising a half-mile down a gravel side street before winding up in front of a stranger’s home and discovering that we’d been on their driveway the whole time. At least the family’s four guard dogs didn’t blow the cover on our confusion. In fact, they didn’t budge. A quartet of exhausted foreigners on scooters posed little threat, and the canines’ nonchalant attitude toward our arrival gave way to the idea that they’d seen this sort of helplessness before.

Had it not been for Dakeng’s intimidating peaks, we still might be aimlessly hoofing around Taichung’s rustic outskirts.

From the start, we knew that we’d someday reach our destination if we kept heading northeast. The mountains, which previously felt as though they were apart of another city, grew closer as we followed our compasses and left metropolitan Taiwan behind. At first, they were bumps on the horizon. Then approaching hills. By the time our backs ached – a byproduct of scootering as your primary mode of transportation – peaks tall enough to block out the scorching spring sun towered over us like playground bullies.

There’s an inimitable discouragement that comes from using a mountaintop as your guide. I imagine it’s a lot like following the second star to the right and straight on ’til morning. No matter how long you chase that point, it never arrives as quickly as anticipated.

For a Midwesterner without a frame of reference for how big a mountain range was, a previous trip spent driving along Interstate 80 toward Colorado was an exercise in patience, and one that I couldn’t help but recall that morning as we closed in on the Dakeng Scenic Area. There are few vantage points as misleading as from a westbound highway through the continental United States. The false hope that comes from eying the approaching Rocky Mountains from within the southwestern Nebraskan plains makes the ensuing hours feel like days.

Being on the road for long stretches leaves a lot of time for reflection. Those flat Nebraska fields don’t offer much of a distraction to your thoughts. It’s the sort of road trip people take when the journey is their destination. It’s hell on people with somewhere to be, though, especially if that somewhere is mocking you with the illusion it’s moving farther away in the opposite direction.

It’s a route that can give a person a splitting migraine, which is exactly what happened when I made the excursion. I had been on the road for hours, and the browning cornfields had blurred well into the night. Even by moonlight, the drive was depressing. Had I been anywhere else, I could have told myself that the void on either side of the expressway resulted from the shroud of nightfall. I could hold out hope that when day broke, up I’d be surrounded by civilization. Unfortunately, I knew better.

Nebraska is a lot like a Denny’s Restaurant at 2 a.m. People don’t go there, they end up there. Those who aren’t drunk probably wish they were. It’s a sad place full of 100-yard stares. For my part, I found myself ending up with a headache that made my brain feel like mush by the time I wandered into a gas station in the wee hours of the morning.

“You got sinuses?” the clerk said to me as I wearily set a bottle of water and a couple of aspirin packs on the counter.

He stared at me blankly, the way someone does when discussing the mundane weather of another state. It wasn’t the question I anticipated. “How are you?” or, “May I help you?” topped the list. But at this hour, in this place, from this guy, I would have accepted, “Got any crystal meth?” or, “Ever seen a dead body?” as more likely greetings than an inquiry as to whether I suffered from a genetic defect.

“I’m sorry, what?”

“You got sinuses?” he repeated.

No mistake about it; I had heard him correctly. At this point, I began to get self-conscious that it was a trick question, like asking whether England has the Fourth of July or in which country survivors get buried if a plane crashes on the border. Briefly, I even feared that there was some black-market demand, and this overnight counter jockey lead a double life as the sinus impresario of the central U.S.A. Could I be in danger?

“Several, actually,” I answered, with far less certainty than I should have.

“Ain’t that a bitch?”

A telltale sign that you’ve been staring hopelessly at the horizon for too long is when all that can be mustered up is a hapless, “Yes. Yes it is,” to a question so open-ended and spectacular. But at this hour, in this place, to this guy, that’s what came out, followed by a revelatory sigh.

Not unlike when Phil finally proclaimed, “We’re here! Isn’t Dakeng beautiful,” and all I pieced together was the same browbeaten, “Yes. Yes it is.”

Labeling what came next as a “nature walk through the scenic Dakeng area” ranks somewhere between Victoria’s Secret and “The Never Ending Story” on a list of inaccurate titles. Granted, Phil was from a small coastal town in southern England, but the Brits’ definition of “walk” can’t vary so drastically from Americans’. Saying cookies instead of biscuits, or chips versus french fries are matters of semantics. But something as universal as “walk” should need no explanation. People walk down the aisle. They don’t climb, … or crawl, … or repel, … or pull themselves along rope ladders and through barbed wire. If this were a walk, then people take leisurely bike rides during the Tour de France, have casual dips across the English Channel, and frolic with their puppies throughout the Iditarod.

This wasn’t a walk; it was a bad idea.

One which had come with more warnings than a cigarette/firecracker/pesticide Swiss Army knife and stemmed beyond the numerous rejected invites. At the start of the trail – one of eight pathways etched into the Dakeng grounds – loomed a bold caution sign in ominous red and white contrast. Each warning (and its implied subtext) carried the wisdom of the countless foreigners who’d been foolish enough to venture just 10 minutes into those hills. There’s a reason the sign was written in broken English and not Chinese.


1. Be careful monkey.
(That’s right, there are monkeys here, and this isn’t a zoo. Remember those elementary school field trips, when you stood on level concrete in air-conditioned buildings to see monkeys with defeatist attitudes and nicotine addictions lethargically lounge around their cages on fake rocks? This is nothing like that. This is outside. There is no glass; there are no gift shops. This is the wild. Turn back now.) sign

2. Be careful poison snake.
(If the monkeys didn’t scare you off, this should. Unlike primates, which might be as big and loud as an overweight toddler, and as strong as several, serpents can sneak up on you. They blend into the trees, and hide under rocks and bushes. On the few days when they keep to themselves and don’t feast on tourists, the hanging vines still bear such a striking resemblance that you’ll jump at every site of one. You might even swear they were moving. Oh yeah, and your shrieks of fear will sound like a monkey in heat, which probably will attract the alpha males, if your fruit-scented body lotion hasn’t already. Turn back now.)

3. Dakeng Scenic Area natural home to many animal.
(See Nos. 1 and 2.)

4. First-aid kits along trail.
(See Nos. 1, 2 and 3.)

5. Do not leave items along trail.
(Your spiffy hiking backpack – complete with a mesh water bottle holder and isometric straps custom designed to take pressure off your shoulders – looked very stylish on the store mannequin. Congratulations, it’s completely pointless in practice. Pretty soon, you’ll be ditching items like a nose-diving plane trying to save fuel over the ocean. At least luggage discarded during a water landing can float and point rescuers to your location. If it sinks, it might someday be mistaken for buried treasure. Things left alongside the mountain trails only become places for snakes to coil for unsuspecting foreigners. Is it a good idea to bring your new camera that cost a month’s rent in its corresponding duffle case? Do you really need that bag of fresh fruit? Are you sure about the rolled-up blanket? Unless your name is Mowgli and you’ve come with your friendly talking bear, you’re not going to have a picnic today. Turn back now.)

6. Scooters parked after dark towed.
(Let’s face it; if your scooter is here after sundown, you’re not coming back. This warning is more a preemptive move against lawsuits from your next of kin after you get mangled by the monkeys, bitten by the snakes, lost, or something worse. If you do return after dark, it won’t be under your own strength, and the parking lot needs to be clear so the ambulance can take you to the nearest hospital – just 10 minutes away. Look around; does anyone coming down the trail look happy? Is this going to be like that time in college when you decided that taking an 8 a.m. Friday class could be a good idea, even though everything you knew about yourself was evidence to the contrary? Don’t be an idiot; turn back now.)

7. Have fun
(You’re still reading? Fine, don’t say you weren’t warned. But if you’re so intent on braving the mountain, at least wear sunscreen. It gets hot up there. Just for good measure, though:
Turn back now; Urn tay ack bay ow nay; Regresad ahora; Revenez maintenant; TURN BACK NOW!) <!–[endif]–>

There are a few things I wish I could take back entirely. Throwing Scott Lindenmuth a hanging fastball, which he hit not only over the home-run fence of our field but that ended up near second base of the opposing diamond, is something I’d do over if given the chance. But aside from lobbing a bases-clearing pitch to the most feared power hitter in the sixth grade, there aren’t many epic failures that I don’t arrogantly write off as teaching tools. I cope with each colossal error by justifying it as some sort of life lesson.

“Baking soda and baking powder aren’t the same thing.”

“Spicy curry is not a good meal to eat before jogging.”

“A gerbil does not like to have ‘Star Wars’ figures taped to its back and used in a bedroom recreation of Tatooine, … even if it totally could pass for a Bantha and you’ve spent hours painstakingly sneaking handfuls of sand from your backyard to upstairs for a scale version of The Great Pit of Carkoon.”

These weren’t outright mistakes, but rather, brief lapses in judgment on the way to a better-informed adulthood. They were footnotes of functionality. At least, that’s what I told myself.

This “nature walk around the scenic Dakeng area” was on track to be classified with my unjustifiable Little League pitch selection. At several junctures throughout the morning, Amy and I looked at each other like embarrassed children who had just wet their pants. We didn’t have to say anything. We knew we were in over our heads. The walk in the parking lot was at such a vertical slant that we had to rest, and this was before we even crossed the tree line. Just beyond that were miles of wooden steps, connecting uneven terrain, and linked by rope ladders that might have dated back to the Qing Dynasty. The four of us at some point on the hike each whistled John Williams’ theme to the “Indiana Jones” series, but only when we took a break from mumbling profanities under our breaths.

I try very hard to stay away from places lined in barbed wire like the kind along lengthy portions of these trails. Prisons, construction sites, and seminaries all come complete with shiny razor-wire trim, and all are terrifying places I wouldn’t want to spend 10 minutes. It wasn’t clear whether Dakeng’s barbwire was meant to keep the wildlife off the trails or humans on them. I’d like to think it was there for the animals’ safety. Wandering through the jungle felt less dangerous if we were presumed to be the dominant species and not bait for the Asian Snalirosect. If the Taichung City Environmental Protection Bureau really wanted to keep everyone safe, it should have gated off the mouth of each path with the barbwire instead and strewn the remainder over the approaching roadways. It would have prevented a lot of people a great deal of degradation – most importantly, me.

“Dakeng” ironically means “the big pit” in Chinese, although I guess it’s more a matter of perspective. Traveling a few thousand meters toward the sky to get to a pit made as much sense as SCUBA diving to reach a place called “the landlocked cave.” Then again, bitter souls at the top will tell you undoubtedly that it is a hole – a shit hole, to be blunt. So it’s easier to remember the name as an anagram instead of by its counterintuitive translation.

There were obvious reminders, …

Keeling over
Each are

… or too-little-too-late advice …

Engaging in

… or warnings that your stored up goodwill might not help today …

Navigates the

… or ones that poke fun at the mind tricks needed to forge onward …


… or the most prophetic …


I thought of several more harshly worded descriptions when our group took a breather at one of the trails’ main junctions, but I was too tired to jot any of them down. We had trekked upward trail No. 2 and were slumped on rock benches as we waited to cross onto trail No. 1, which would lead us back down the mountainside. It was a hikers hub, with a tin awning offering shade to the lucky few travelers grilling their lunch in the fire pit. I couldn’t tell what they were cooking, but it looked like some snake-rodent-lizard-insect thing. Most hikers, though, lumbered around the intersection with the same feeble daze as ours.

I couldn’t help but stare at one man in particular. He appeared to be in his mid-60s, … and from another planet. The hair that shot out in each direction from beneath his Boston Red Sox hat was dyed bright orange. Not orange like Lucille Ball’s, the color that people who naturally have it have renamed “red” even though everyone else knows it’s orange. But orange like a construction road cone. He wore round, wire-frame glasses that could have come from John Lennon’s personal collection, a white coat that made me speculate that he was a chef who’d come straight from work, and obnoxious parachute pants with elastic ankle bands that looked like a Technicolor Rorschach test.

He could not have been more than 5’5” tall and 135 pounds, but the only thing that could get my eyes off his confusingly commanding presence was his even-more-adorable dog. Smaller than a football, the white Maltese jetted around the rest stop like a bottle rocket. Its energy made our lack thereof seem more pathetic. How could this tiny pooch have scaled the mountain by itself? More disturbingly, how could it still have this much vigor? Then again, maybe this guy lived here. Dakeng did feel like another world, and whoever this mystery hiker was didn’t seem to be from Earth.

“I love his orange hair,” I said to Heloïse as I nodded toward the man who now was sitting several feet away with his back to us.

His dog had found its way over to our group and Amy was kneeling down trying to entice the pup with a piece of half-eaten apple. She’s always trying to feed animals things that aren’t part of their natural diets. “Do you think that rabbit would want some of my crackers? Maybe that bird would eat the pickle from my sandwich. Here kitty, kitty, kitty, do you want a potato chip? Ugh, why won’t these fish eat the lettuce I threw them?” As the pickiest eater I know, it never ceases to amaze me how disheartened she gets when these critters stare at her as though to say, “Are you serious?” before they scamper away.

“You can call her ‘Dumpling,’ ” the Taiwanese man said of his dog almost on cue and with barely a hint of his native accent. Had he heard what I said about his orange locks? “She comes hiking with me whenever I go, and when she starts to run around like this, it means it’s time to get going. We’ve rested for long enough. She’s ready.”

Amy had moved on to offering Dumpling what was left of a plum.

“Why did you hike trail 1 and 2?” asked the man. “Those trails are too manufactured, too – how do you say – ‘convenient.’ The real Taiwanese hikers prefer trail No. 5 so we can see The 5 Pine Trees. Not so crowded. The best spot in all these mountains.” bridge

Too manufactured? Too convenient? I’d just spent the past few hours wobbling on rope netting and dragging myself through jungle brush, and now I was being told that those trails were the PG-rated version of what Dakeng could offer.

“You should come with me to see The 5 Pine Trees,” he insisted. “It will take just 10 minutes.”

The spot in question was a lookout pavilion anchored by five, centuries-old evergreen trees. It was near the top of range’s highest peak and a meeting place where regulars convene to drink tea in seclusion from foreigners like the four of us. It was marked on only a selection of the trail maps and flourished by word-of-mouth praise between the area’s most serious hikers.

“Just 10 minutes?” I asked suspiciously, as I could hear the collective groan of fear from Heloïse, Amy and Phil. “Just 10 minutes? We need to get back soon.”

He took out a map to show us where we’d been, indicating the rest station we were at, and which trail lead to The 5 Pine Tree pergola that he claimed attracted “the real Taiwanese hikers.” It didn’t look 10 minutes away. It looked every bit as far as what was left to conquer to get down to our scooters, … but heading farther up the mountain in the opposite direction. Yet he had a map to back up his claims, which made him sound convincing. I couldn’t read Chinese, but he wouldn’t outright lie. Would he?

“Just 10 minutes,” he said.

Phil sighed. Heloïse rolled her eyes. Amy offered Dumpling a bite of pineapple.

“OK,” I said. “We’ll go.”

What we’d find out over the next 10 minutes is that his name was Jarrow; he was an art professor at one of the nearby universities; he was an accomplished sculptor with pieces on display outside the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts; and his son worked for the same company we did. He’d talk about how he’d been hiking the same trail twice a week for 15 years. He’d tell us about his wife who usually accompanied him but had stayed up too late the night before playing Mahjong (which is their favorite game and, from what I can tell, is a bit like poker played with dominos). We’d find out that he didn’t use e-mail, he had a house near Dakeng, and had recently surrounded his garden with a fragrant flower designed to keep certain animals at bay while attracting others. Then he’d let us know about his first dog, which was faster than Dumpling but not as smart. We’d learn all of this over the next 10 minutes.

However, at this point he still was just a guy with bright-orange hair and a cute dog, but those were reasons enough to follow him blindly.

We’d also soon learn that Jarrow was a guy who couldn’t tell time. The likelihood of his 10-minute promise began to fade at what we thought was the 10-minute mark. We weren’t sure though, maybe all of our watches had been broken during one of the several times we’d banged them on rocks throughout the day. So we gave him the benefit of the doubt. About the 15-minute mark, we began to question his instincts. By a half-hour, we were all but sure that we were being ritualistically marched to our deaths by an orange-haired man with a precious dog.

What made his assurance so frustrating was that whenever we’d ask how much further, he’d reply smiling with “just 10 minutes.”

Then suddenly, we were there. Without warning. The 5 Pine Trees had sneaked up on us. The four of us had spent so much time concocting our exit strategy, starring at the ground and mumbling among ourselves, that we didn’t recognize the massive wooden lookout post until we were virtually standing on it. We’d failed to notice any of the dozen other people – most of them eccentric senior citizens like Jarrow – who’d brought their own teakettles and lunches to this far off destination.

Worst of all, we’d paid no attention to the scenery along the way. Our obsession with getting there – wherever there was going to be – had overwhelmed the experience of the journey. We’d become so caught up in the inaccuracy of those 10 minutes, that we didn’t appreciate the extra time for what it was. It wasn’t a burden to spend bonus time talking with an interesting stranger; it was a gift.

It was one of life’s small perfections, like a doughnut without any cracks in the glaze or when there is exactly the right amount of blank sheets of paper left in the printer. It’s the type of perfection that, even though you had nothing to do with creating, still feels like a victory. It’s one of the rare instances that I was glad I hadn’t brought my headphones. I would have spent the next 10 minutes trying to find a song to represent this view and wasted the time scrolling through track listings instead of absorbing what was before me. Truthfully, few musical artists could complete with standing at The 5 Pine Trees and overlooking DaKeng.

In the history of rock ‘n’ roll, there have been five performers – just five – who reshaped the landscape of contemporary music with one fell swoop. With the exception of The Beatles and Elvis Presley, none of them even were the greatest acts of their era, but they were the most influential. Their impacts were the catalysts for rapid overhaul, felt suddenly and not culled slowly over time. The Sex Pistols, Nirvana and The Strokes round out the quintet of acts that restructured music’s hierarchy by straight away resetting everything to zero. Their cross-cultural influence was felt everywhere from the worlds of film to fashion to finance to food. Their home cities quickly became the coolest spots on Earth, as everyone wanted to talk like them, look like them and think like them. They were the faces of the times. They were the voices movements. They would come to define all the glory and all the shortcomings of their respected epochs.

These five acts inspired people in mass to pick up instruments and become musicians. But more importantly, Elvis, The Beatles, The Sex Pistols, Nirvana and The Strokes caused people already making music change what they were doing to follow suit or risk immediately becoming irrelevant.

The 5 Pine Trees was the visual equivalent of these bands. This is the sort of view that would inspire ordinary locations to undergo restorations and cause already gorgeous hotspots to question whether they really were as immaculate as everyone says. view

Lush, green hills spread out for as far as the eye could see, rolling over the Earth like a blanket on a clothesline blowing in the wind. The sun was at its highest, positioned above like a Broadway spotlight, highlighting every twisting trail, creaking bridge and winding corridor for miles.

What little breath we had left was taken from us as we stared jaw-dropped out over the Dakeng Scenic Area. We each stood quietly, imagining whatever it is people think about when they see something they didn’t know existed in places other than through airplane windows, or in 2-D coffee table books and on television.

We stayed that way until we could regain our focus. Jarrow sat among his friends, sipping tea and occasionally grinning in our direction until we bade him farewell. We each snapped some photos, Amy offered Dumpling a strawberry, and we turned to scamper down the mountain with a newfound calm over us.

“I have a secret to tell you,” Jarrow confessed as we parted ways. “There is an old Taiwan hikers’ trick. I did not make the rules, but I follow them. Whenever someone asks, ‘How much longer?’ we tell them, ‘Just 10 minutes.’ If you say, ‘Just 10 minutes,’ people will think it is not that far, and they will be excited to go. You can say this about other things, too. ‘How long will you be on the phone?’ ‘Just 10 minutes.’ ‘When will you be ready?’ ‘In 10 minutes.’ ”

I nodded accordingly and hurried to catch up to Amy, Phil and Heloïse, at peace with the realization that our upcoming “10-minute” drive back into urban Taichung City never stood a chance of being 10 minutes. Halfway down the hill, we took a momentary pause to take a group photo in our sweaty, Dakeng glory.

“Is it far to the top?” a woman asked as she pointed up the trail.

“Eh, not too far,” I said with less guilt in my voice than I should have had. “Your ETA is just 10 minutes.”

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