On February 17 – 22, 2013, I led a walk of 160 kilometers (99.4 miles) from Sagada to Baguio City, Philippines, to protest the cutting and earth-balling of 182 trees by a giant mall in Baguio city and to educate people about the value of trees.
I chose to start in the town of Sagada because of its symbolism– of people taking care of its forests and trees and the trees taking care of the people– something untrue to many people, particularly among leaders in Baguio City. Sagada has a sustainable indigenous forestry practice called “lakon”.
Mass, Priests and Leaders’ Blessings
On the morning of February 17 at 6 AM, three priests gave my group of 12 people, a mass to start us on our 160 km walk with fervent prayers for protection. Many of the town’s folks were there, most curious and bewildered why a motley group would take such challenge. The town was abuzz the day earlier upon our arrival, the news having proceeded us on radio and local television.
I prayed for protection for my group and strength and leadership from God to be able to withstand the hardships and rigors of the journey and bring members of my group back safely to their families.
After church rites, we headed to the mayor’s office where the mayor and the town’s leading medicine man or “mambunong “gave us their blessings and prayers for safety in our journey.
We left at 8 am waving to people who saw us off, heading to unknown dangerous paths, under punishing heat and cold.
Blisters Take their Toll
Some 25 km, after we started, some of my members started complaining of swollen feet and blisters from walking on the hot paved concrete under the blistering sun. It was obvious they missed the orientation a week earlier when I emphasized they put petroleum jelly in between their toes.
After five hours of walking, two quit the group, in Sabangan, leaving ten of us to end the punishing day of 40 km, going up a mountain more than a thousand feet high in Mount Data, Bauko.
We ended the day’s walk at 8 pm at Mount Data Lodge, almost crawling on our bellies from hunger, exhaustion and freezing bodies,
Second day. Dawn. Lights likely from isolated huts appear like “butatew” (will-o-the-wisp) and pine stands are silhouetted against the slowly brightening purple sky. The wind has died, and the forest is utterly still, as if time itself is holding its breath, waiting for night and not yet certain it will come. A faint ribbon of trail switchbacks up the mountainside between volcanic boulders of Sabangan until it fades from view. An unseen bird calls, the only sound at all besides the crunching of my rubber shoes against the hard pavement iced with small gravel that can slip anytime and twist an ankle or kneecap to bid my Challenge 160 KM goodbye.
It’s half past 5 am when I emerged from the forest atop a plateau beneath an infinite canopy of blackness and stars. Here I stopped last night. Here, I will start my second day. The terrain ahead glows under the moon as if lit from within. Moving slowly, I cross the dark road and pass clusters of wizened mountain Taxus trees.. A half kilometer from me are British Michel Stalley, Timothy Joseph and John San Diego. I’m a poor fourth now and have to keep the distance from getting too far. To the right something glimmers white, drawing me magnetically. Soon I stand transfixed by reflected moonlight that sweeps across a pine-locked ravine to the base of a cold river some 1,500 meters below. I hear a soft flowing of water beside the highway. A light breeze drops to nothing, ripples in the small pond pretending to be a creek go still, and the light coalesces into the single dot of the moon, the water around the reflection so placid that it reveals the pinpricks of stars.
This dark view is at Namatec…a cruel 2 hour back-climb from the boundry of Mount Data. The scenery is sublime and rarely witnessed, too, though not for lack of hiker traffic. Our remaining walk, some 100 kilometers still, runs for breath-taking glorious sights from the east of foot of Mount Kalawitan that runs across Sabangan to the top of Mount Data Nationl Park, if you can call it a park at all, with the sprawling vegetable gardens that have ripped and torn the forest apart. Only the granite stones stand proud, untouched by man, they whip skyward like the surface of a giant lemon meringue pie. The road is much travelled, that is by vehicles but not so by human feet. If you value unbroken solitude in the wilderness. This is the place to be but almost nobody sees it like this, when scenery that’s merely pretty during the day becomes downright magical at night.
I’ve made moonlit hikes before, out-and-back walks of only a few miles. Those jaunts were so memorable that I planned Challenge 160 to sync my movements to the rise and set of the moon, which would typically encompass late afternoon, dusk, and several hours of moonlit night. I was hoping the other hikers saw wisdom to this when I pushed them to go through a five hour gruelling first afternoon walk from Sabangan and up to where they had no idea about, instead of calling it a day.
Challenge 160 is no expeditionary stunt. It is a walk for something good. For life. It is an act meant for trees and forests’ right to exist. It is a penitence to share passion for the God’s creation, a binding with the wilderness whose every feature is a glowing, radiating beauty that pours into our flesh and bones like heat rays from fire.
The Challenge 160 Walk radiated beauty from most angles you take. But the region is also changing. It will not be long when all the trees are cut down, and all the mountains are eroded. So it is important to get as close as possibly to nature.
I have set out on the opening stretch scaling a mountainside so steep that, from our increasingly elevated perspective, it appeared that the rising sun was climbing from the western horizon rather than sinking. But time runs backward only for so long, and as I head northeast, color drains from the sky until it is ashen, then black.
I’ve timed the six-day-long trek to maximize the light of the moon, every early morning, which will grow larger and stay up later each night. This dawn, though, a fingernail crescent provides only a few hours of illumination before retiring below the horizon. Dense forest crowds the trail, leaving only a band of starry sky visible above that will soon be gone. I can’t deny the obvious. It’s dark. Really dark. I had no flashlight.
Hiking in the dark isn’t as dangerous as it may sound, but it’s probably not well suited for novice hikers. Even if you’re experienced, plan on moving slowly—stumbling off the top of the road ino a ravine isn’t likely, but twisting an ankle or getting hit by a speeding lone vehicle is if you’re careless.
By 6: 30 am, the road opens up to a grassy clearing. To the north a granite mountain arcs high into the Milky Way. But the mountain hulking before me is a larger, more mysterious presence than what any chart could convey. The vertical striations on the rocky face are vivid, while the forest below lurks in inky shadow. Early morning vistas such as this one were revealed artfully and selectively rather than with the bland equality of daylight. Hiking in the dark can create a strange and wonderful new reality in your mind.
The road going down Mount Data is one of the most spectacular but most difficult parts of the walk. Now half limping in the late afternoon, I avoid speeding vehicles throwing all their smog and choking oxides. The road shoulders are narrow to none and your blisters crack, raw flesh ground through the socks and rubber soles till you feel the pain climb to your knees.
But I can see Abatan, some six kilometers away and i know I shall soon rest. I trod on. I think of my pine trees back home and they remind me that nature is not just trees, rocks and species but also something more holistic with unequaled power to stir your soul. The takeaway for my own after-hours quest is that wilderness is not a place you go but a feeling you seek—electric, aware, beyond yourself, alive.
Slowly I inched towards the town, the horizon is once again darkening. I imagined that every step over mountains, around rivers, and through forests, were all worth it.
So I know what i will do tomorrow, i will wake up early again, fold my tent and sleeping bag, miss breakfast and go for another dark-walking to dance with shadows.
(In my 4 day walk, I walked in early darkness of the morning three times)
I finished the walk with my ten companions, marching to the city, followed by some 2,000 of my supporters. We were welcomed by the late Bishop Carlito Cenzon some priests and nuns at the Baguio Cathedral.