It was a good thing I had taken care to bring an umbrella and a raincoat. I had planned to hike today and was resolved to see it through. I was not about to let anything foil my plan, not even a rainstorm.
I was standing upon concrete ground, in the parking lot built on the slope of Scout Hill, along the margin of a pine forest. Before me rose a gateway arch of sorts – two tall posts, painted with bright and colorful designs, almost enwreathed in vegetation, each standing upon a base wrought of stones and concrete, upholding between them a sign that told me I was standing before the entrance to Camp John Hay’s Forest Bathing Trail, the Yellow Trail.
It has been more than six months since I last stood here, in this very spot. I would have come here sooner, but the COVID-19 pandemic came first. And in the resulting lockdown, which began sometime in March, at least here in the Philippines, I have confined myself at home, like any sensible person would have done. And since then, I rarely ventured out – in fact, this is only the second time I’ve been outdoors.
I won’t lie. Even before the pandemic spread, even before the COVID-19 was named, or indeed even before it was detected, I’ve been used to confining myself at home. But that was voluntary isolation then, and, if I so chose, I was able to leave the house whenever, to wherever.
This coronavirus lockdown, however, is something different, to say the least. I must admit that when it began, I was only scarcely affected. But before long, even I, a self-professed introvert, started to feel the ill effects of such forced isolation. And though I did my utmost to keep myself pleasurably – and to a lesser extent, productively – distracted, still the unpleasant repercussions of the lockdown began to tell.
Boredom was only the beginning. Anxiety followed soon after. My thoughts slowly strayed beyond the small confines of my home, settling upon places near and places far, at first in wistful longing, as I have always done. I yearned to be outdoors, hiking through a pine-clad trail, or climbing to a mountain-top, or meeting the dawn on a white sandy beach. I ached to see, to hear, to feel, to breathe in Nature once more, whose company I missed most of all.
But my fernweh, which I have been nursing all my life, soon raged to feverish heights, and my daydreaming took the form of a more powerful hunger, a sickness that filled my every waking thought. What started as pleasant musings of travel and adventure in far-off lands now flamed into an intense desire to escape confinement.
Then came dread. Troubling thoughts stole into my mind and there took root. Or maybe they were already there ever since, hidden in the deeper, darker recesses, and the pandemic only made them more patent and so more potent. Regardless, I began to brood more and more over my future, and the future of the world that day by day seemed to be hurtling towards dystopia. And try as I might to dispel the growing unease and hopelessness from my mind, I could not. All I could do now was to distract myself.
Still I bided my time. Eventually, travel restrictions were gradually loosened in my home city of Baguio, which, through proactive local government efforts and the discipline of its citizens, has largely been spared the devastation that the pandemic had wrought (and continues to do so) elsewhere in the Philippines, and elsewhere in the world.
And at long last, here I was, on the threshold of the Yellow Trail, grateful for the opportunity to be outdoors again – to hike, no less!
My brother, who was to hike with me today, had already gone ahead, through the gateway arch and into the Yellow Trail. I hung back for a moment, staring dubiously at the lowering sky. Though I was already committed to hike whether it rained or not, still I wished that the impending storm would by some miracle simply dissipate, or else bend its fury somewhere far from here, in the seas perhaps.
But even as I looked, it seemed to me that patches of the sky were growing lighter, even if only faintly, as if sunshine was struggling to pierce through the gray veil of clouds.
Huh. Maybe it wouldn’t rain after all.
Comforted at the thought, I adjusted my face mask and strode forward, passing beneath the gateway arch and into the Yellow Trail.
The Yellow TrailThe Yellow Trail is a hiking trail through the pine forest on the southern and eastern regions of Camp John Hay, indeed through the last surviving pine forest anywhere in Baguio.
The Yellow Trail is now known as the Forest Bathing Trail, after it was renamed a few years ago in a bid to introduce shinrin-yoku, the Japanese therapeutic practice of forest bathing, to the citizens and tourists of Baguio.
It appears, however, that the new name hasn’t quite caught on. Save for a handful few, most of the people who know of the trail still call it by its old name – out of habit, most likely, or perhaps simply out of unawareness to the name change.
But regardless of its name, the trail spans maybe about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) in length, but certainly not more than 5 kilometers (3 miles), at least by my reckoning. It takes on a U-like shape, almost like a loop, but not quite. It is divided (unequally) into 9 stations, sections, or checkpoints, referred to as Points. There are two possible trailheads: Point 1 or Point 9. Hikers beginning from Point 1, if they follow the trail faithfully and to the end, will exit at Point 9, and vice versa.
The Yellow Trail, though quite short, is a pleasant and scenic route passing through pine woods and ferny slopes, adorned throughout its length with several arrays of bamboo wind chimes, and where impressive mountain views can be gotten. It is well-established and well-maintained, and can easily be managed by even the most novice of hikers. Apart from Camp John Hay’s other hiking trail, the much shorter Eco-Trail, there are no other hiking destinations within Baguio itself, at least as far as I know – one must leave the city and venture towards the surrounding towns of Benguet to find alternatives.
Hello, Nature, It’s been a While…As soon as I set foot upon the trail, I was met by a spectacular display of natural colors. There were shades of green – vivid and vibrant shades of green – in every blade of grass, every leaf of plant, every frond of fern, and every needle of pine. There were hues of brown – rich, wholesome hues of brown – in the boles and branches of the trees, and in the firm, dark dirt. The only colors that were missing were the warm yellow of mellow sunlight and the cool blue of crystal-clear sky, but today, I hardly noticed their absence, for after so long a sundering from Nature, her greens and browns now seemed to me the loveliest colors I’ve ever known, and all the colors I’ll ever want.
Slowly I moved along the earthen track, turning my head this way and that, immersing myself with unbounded joy in the glorious scenes that surrounded me, like a man long parched from wandering in the dead drought of the desert and tasting the sweet waters of an oasis for the first time. I took my time and I took my fill.
Everything around me radiated life and energy. But most of all I was awed by the verdancy of the grasses, plants, and trees, for they wore the color green in strikingly vivid and crisply fresh hues such as I have never seen before. I could not remember the vegetation of the trail looking as it did now, exceedingly lush and exuberant.
The rains certainly had a hand in rendering the verdure their vibrant and animated appearance, for we are now in July, in the middle of the rainy season, at least here in the Philippines, and the rains are falling in great frequency, and in great abundance, washing away the dullness from every leaf, frond, and needle, and bringing out the colors of the forest with delightful richness and freshness.
The vegetation had grown visibly fuller and more luxuriant, too, for in the absence of people tramping and trampling through the forest, Nature had had time to mend the hurts she suffered from cruel human hands, to gather and grow in strength for a labor of love, and in relative peace flourish in remarkable wildness and wonder. And in so short a span of time, she had made incredible progress. The pines and other trees now wore thicker, greener canopies, while on their trunks clung and crept vines in leafy tangles, and about their feet grasses, ferns, herbs, shrubs, and indeed all manner of undergrowth grew in wild abandon.
I was wholly impressed with the beauty around me. And seeing that I was alone, I lowered my face mask for a while and took a deep breath. The air was suffused with the fragrances of the forest, but above all I caught a hint of the sharp redolence of pine and the pleasantly warm scent of damp earth. I inhaled the wholesome air and all at once felt enlivened.
It was wonderful to be back here. It felt indeed that Nature was welcoming me back to her loving embrace after my lengthy absence. For a moment, all the cares that weighed heavy on my mind were forgotten, for here, embosomed within Nature, there was joy and peace that I have never felt in a long time.
The Sound of SilenceImpatient now to see the rest of the trail, to behold what and how Nature had wrought in my absence, I began following the narrow foot trail as it slowly wended its way downhill, all the while taking in the spectacular scenes around me.
My brother had gone far onwards already. I could see him some twenty meters ahead. But I made no effort to catch up. I felt no need to hurry, but was content to walk in a slow, leisurely pace.
Even as I sauntered along the trail, I grew increasingly aware of the silence of the forest. It wasn’t the frightening sort of silence, the dead and lifeless hush bereft of all sounds. On the contrary, the forest was wonderfully alive with many varied sounds, and yet not one of them was noise. For apart from my own breathing and the muted sound of my footfalls, all other sounds belonged to the forest.
From the wild verdure that spread rank and rampant on either side of the trail came the steady humming of numerous cicadas hidden from sight. In the boughs and branches of the trees I heard the tweets and trills, and the chirps and cheeps, of various birds cleverly concealed to the casual eye. Even the passing breeze lent its soft voice to the forest melody, and whither it wandered it coaxed all other things it tenderly touched to sing, so that to the chorus of the birds and insects were added the rustles and whispers of the trees and plants.
Pursuing the meandering trail with eager feet, I soon reached a small wooden footbridge spanning a narrow rill, the first of several footbridges along the length of the Yellow Trail. In previous hikes, I found the rill to be nothing more than a trickle of water. Now, it appeared to have swelled, if only slightly, fed, no doubt, by ample rainfall. It also made a more discernible sound as it spilled from uphill, gurgling as it passed beneath the bridge and disappeared in a riotous expanse of vegetation, flowing to where I could only guess, but at long last finding its way into the sea.
I crossed the little footbridge and passed by a well along the wayside. It was a small and shallow basin fashioned from stone and concrete and surrounded by a variety of plants. The basin seemed to have been meant as a wishing well, but instead of water and coins, it was filled with a few stones and dead and dried leaves and pine needles.
Upon the far side of the basin was built a miniature flight of stone and concrete steps, atop which there sat a small, black statue – a bulul, a carven figure of an Ifugao rice deity. It was placed there, no doubt, to guard the ‘wishing well’, the trail, and perhaps the whole forest. Beside the bulul was a thin wooden pole, painted and decorated, upon which was fixed two pairs of carabao (water buffalo) horns.
These were no new sights to me. I’ve known them ever since I began hiking the Yellow Trail. But now, as I stared at the wooden footbridge and the stone basin, it seemed to me as if I was seeing them for the very first time.
The ClearingAfter its brief initial descent, the narrow dirt trail now ceased going solely downhill, but began to rise or dip in accordance with the sloping sylvan landscape. And though it bent this way and that, it held on to a general southerly course, its brown, pine needle-clad length carving – slowly yet purposefully – a swath through the living green, curving and curling through the rows and ranks of tall pines, and every so often crawling and clambering over and through the great, gnarled roots that the trees splayed and stuck out across the way. I passed over another wooden footbridge spanning another rill, though this time the rill was a bit deeper, and flowed through much more even ground.
Eventually, I reached a relatively wide clearing where stood a makeshift frame fashioned from bamboo poles and several wooden beams. The frame held aloft a large array of big bamboo wind chimes, the first – at least for those coming from Point 1 – of the several sets of bamboo wind chimes spread out along the length of the trail.
A fairly strong wind will send the bamboo chimes into fascinating motion, producing a melody that is natural and pleasing to the ears. Unfortunately, only a slight breeze blew today – it was enough to make the chimes move, maybe, for even the gentlest wind can stir them into motion, but it was not enough to induce consistent music.
In previous hikes there was a veritable carpet of smoothened stones and sizeable pebbles laid out beneath the suspended wind chimes, covering much of the ground. Today, however, I found that the ‘carpet’ was reduced to only a small scattering of stones, exposing the nakedness of the brown earth. I wondered where the rest of the stones were. They could not have been washed away, for they were too heavy to be moved, unless, perhaps, a flood swept through here, but this was unlikely.
In previous hikes, too, this clearing was always occupied by at least one group of tourists, for it lies no more than two hundred meters from the entrance of the trail. In most instances, those tourists were unaware that where they stood on was indeed part of a hiking trail. And even if they knew, I felt certain that they wouldn’t care to hike the Yellow Trail anyway.
But the clearing now lay empty and quiet. My brother had gone so far ahead that he was already lost from view, leaving me the only person in the vicinity. I delighted in my solitude, as this was the very first time I have had this clearing all to myself. There was peace here, I could feel it, a wistful sort of peace, as if Nature, though content in her newfound privacy, would now and then turn her thought to the crowds of human guests she often received warmly and gladly before, loud and unruly though they may be, and wonder why they have not come calling recently.
I tarried in the clearing for a while, slowly pacing around, waiting for the wind to pick up and prompt the chimes to the musical performance they were crafted for. But the wind only drifted in sighs and whispers, so I left the clearing and returned to the trail.
The Horse TrailAs I proceeded along the trail, I would occasionally glance upwards at the sky, and note with gladness that it was beginning to lighten up. Where only a moment ago the sky appeared dark and forbidding, now it had grown a shade brighter. The threat of rain wasn’t completely gone, however, for though the density of the cloud cover may have been thinned by sunlight, its breadth still engulfed all of the sky.
It was easy to view the skyscape from the trail, as it wasn’t completely obscured by the canopy. In fact, the sky was barely blocked from sight at all, for though there were plenty of pines here, they were mostly spaced out. And many of them, I noticed, were fairly young trees, at least according to the lifespan of pines, and thus they could only produce such foliage sufficient to form a light, sparse, and penetrable canopy.
Maybe if the pines grew in closely serried ranks and were all great, old trees, every last one strong and steadfast, hale and hearty, ancient but not decrepit, with immense boles and vast spreads of foliage, then certainly between them they could muster a canopy dark and dense enough to blot out the sunlight and block all views of the sky, such as those in old-growth forests. However, this forest I was making my way through now was by all signs a young one, and many of its trees seemed only around fifty years old.
But though the canopy was thin and light, it could still afford considerable protection from the rain, so that the trail was only slightly dampened by the strong and sudden rain that poured earlier, and not churned to mud and mire as I initially thought. Only a while ago I was afraid that I would have to trudge through deep muck and slippery sludge, but thankfully, my fear was unfounded.
I had now reached Point 2 of the Yellow Trail, marked by a fork in the trail where a lesser footpath split from the main track and headed out in the opposite direction. This minor path eventually joins the Horse Trail, a looping track where, as its name gives away, rental horses laden with tourists and led by chaperones pass through. In the past, every time I reached this point, I would often see in the distance, far downhill, the familiar cavalcade of horses, tourists, and guides making a circuit of the Horse Trail. But today, the trail was desolate and still.
I turned away from the minor path that joined the Horse Trail and continued instead along the Yellow Trail. Before long, I reached another spacious clearing designed as a rest area for hikers, akin to the lay-bys along highways. It was furnished with a rough-hewn bench built of pine logs, and adorned with its own wide set of bamboo wind chimes.
I found my brother resting here and promptly joined him. We lingered here for a while. By and by, a mother and her child came along, the first persons we have seen on the trail apart from ourselves. I thought about greeting them, as it was my custom to greet, with a simple ‘good morning’ or ‘good afternoon’, fellow hikers I met along the trail, and my greeting would often receive a swift and similar response.
But those then were happier days. Now, the times have changed. People have become wary of approaching one another, and innocent friendliness is now met with suspicion. I understood, of course, that this was only a precaution against the virus, but still it felt wholly strange and disheartening to me. The greeting I intended for the two passersby died in my throat, and we simply watched as they went by us, with nary a glance or a greeting. Eventually, we ourselves decided to move along.
The Last of the PinesWe were on the trail once again. My brother led, while I followed behind at a more relaxed pace. We came by a felled pine, which we briefly examined. It must have been cut down recently: I could not recognize it being here during my past hikes. I wondered why it was hewn down. It could not have fallen on its own, for it appeared to be a pine in its prime, strong and healthy. Was it struck by foul weather, perhaps, and rendered damaged beyond saving, so that it posed only a danger to hikers, and to adjacent trees, and accordingly needed to be cut down? I hoped so, for I felt strongly against the needless cutting of trees, especially of the pines of Baguio.
Only recently news came to me that many more pine trees were being felled along Outlook Drive to give way to the construction of even more condominiums. I received the news with anger, disgust, and despair. Outlook Drive is a quiet and picturesque road, lined on either hand with rows of pine trees. I always found it a pleasant route to take. On warm, sunny weather it makes for a bright and merry scene; on cold, rainy, and misty days it wears about it a beautiful, pensive aura.
But now it had already become the next casualty of Baguio’s unrestrained urban sprawl. What is happening to Outlook Drive is reminiscent of what happened to South Drive, Military Cut-Off, and Leonard Wood Road, all of which only a few years ago were also peaceful, pine-clad roads, but were now ruined and reduced to nothing more than dirty, dusty, and noisy streets shorn of trees, crammed with vehicles, and crowded with ugly concrete and steel structures.
It is sad to witness the demise of the city of my birth. But it is even sadder to feel utterly helpless as the relentless tide of destruction in the guise of ‘development’ sweeps around me and ruins everything I cherish about Baguio. The city had already lost the vast majority of its pine trees to unrestrained deforestation and urban development. And many of those were pines that had borne witness to many decades of history, pines that had long been intertwined with Baguio’s heritage and identity, pines that had given Baguio the fond nickname City of Pines.
With every pine felled, with it goes a part of the city. With every pine hewn down, Baguio dies a little. What few of the pines that now remain are scattered in pitiful numbers throughout the city, and here in Camp John Hay, where is found the city’s last surviving pine forest. Unless strong action is taken, Baguio is bound to lose all of its pine trees in only a matter of years, rendering it unworthy of its epithet and identity as the City of Pines.
Birds of a FeatherBecause of my slow, leisurely steps, and because I was engrossed with my surroundings, I was soon outpaced by my brother, and he slowly and steadily drew away from me until he was lost from view. I didn’t mind, however. I knew I would eventually find him waiting for me in the next clearing or rest area.
Besides, I was busy taking pictures of the scenes I passed along the way, for use in the travel story I was planning to write. It has been a while since I’ve written a travel story on my blog, and I thought it was about time for another one.
Through the woods I ambled, reveling in the free and fresh air, basking in the lazy peace that steeped the forest, and every now and then peering at a remarkable flower or a fascinating tree. I noticed with delight the several new trees lately planted beside the path and the recently trimmed vegetation along certain sections of the trail and knew that the forest rangers have not been idle. I wondered how dense and wild the forest must have grown during my absence. I could almost picture the trail wholly covered with creeping verdure. But for the labor of the forest rangers I would not have a clear and open path to walk upon with ease today.
It wasn’t only the vegetation that had had me preoccupied, however. The avifauna of the forest, too, demanded attention. I could scarcely catch a glimpse of them, not even of a colorful wing, for they were expertly hidden among the boughs and branches, or within the undergrowth, or maybe I simply didn’t know where to look. But I could hear their distinct sounds, so that each time a remarkable bird call rent the air, I would pause to listen raptly and excitedly survey my surroundings in a bid to find the source.
The cheeps of the little, brown mayas, the Eurasian tree sparrows, and the croaks of the uwaks, the ebon large-billed crows, I could easily discern, for they were very much familiar to me. But there were numerous other bird calls that I could not identify, as my bird-lore is sorely lacking, and among these were not a few new ones that I have not heard in previous hikes. Nonetheless, it was comforting to know that many birds, of which many seemed to be of new species, have now come to grace the forest with their buoyant voices and to serenade hikers with their sweet songs.
At one point along the trail, I chanced to hear an odd bird sound very near me, and determining that it came from the rank underbrush that mantled the hillslope below the trail, I promptly looked down. Just in time! I caught a fleeting glimpse of a rather large, brown bird emerging from a clump of ferns and bushes in a flurry of brown wings, and vanishing back into the vegetation just as fast. I wondered what kind of bird it was. I waited for it to reappear so I could take a picture of it. It continued producing its strange sounds, but never once did it come out of its hiding place. I moved on.
The Blue TrailThe afternoon wore on even as I passed through and along the trail sights and scenes that I had grown familiar with in the past, but which now seemed new to my eyes. In Point 3, another fairly open space (not quite a glade) upon sloping ground, I caught up with my brother, who was waiting for me. There used to be bamboo chimes in this place, but in my last hike, I found them torn down from their frame and lying in forlorn heaps upon the ground. Now, they were completely gone, or maybe they were hidden from sight by the green grass that grew rankly. But the narrow concrete waterway carved along the hillside gurgled louder and flowed faster than usual, thanks to the bountiful rainfall.
In previous hikes, it was my custom to stop here in Point 3 as soon as I reached it, not so much to take a much-needed rest as to simply sit down and admire the picturesque woodland scenery in pleasant idleness. Point 3 is a beautiful spot, after all, quiet and peaceful on most days. A hiker could tarry here for a while, sitting or lying down upon the logs that lay here, and do nothing but listen to the wind rustling the leaves of the trees, to the running rill, and, when they were still here, to the swaying wind chimes.
But today, since I felt no hint of tiredness and was still raring to see the remainder of the trail, I forwent rest and at once resumed walking behind my brother. We crossed the small concrete footbridge that spanned the concrete waterway and left Point 3, and in a short while, we passed the massive boulder known as the Energy Rock, its bulk now overgrown with giant ferns and a wild profusion of plant life. From here, I was once again left behind by my brother, as my pace was slow and unhurried, and my phone was busy capturing the scenes along the way.
Along the hillside the little brown trail carved its way, faithfully following the contours of the sloping terrain. On either side of it marched green rows and ranks of grasses, bristling like the spears of a mighty host come to do battle; and tangles of ferns, herbs, and other creeping and crawling plants that spread in vast, jungle-like carpets and blankets as far as the eye could see. Over this luxuriant undergrowth were large clumps of bushes and shrubs of different varieties, and huge tree ferns with scaly trunks and broad fronds. But over all of them towered the pines, the most numerous and most dominant of all the trees in this forest. The taller ones stood some thirty, forty meters high, spreading their needle-laden boughs and branches far above the ground, the lords of loftier heights beyond the reach of other plants.
And through this little brown trail I walked, slowly, lightly, gladly, faithfully following all its twists and turns, its weaving and windings. I was in high spirits, and while I walked I hummed or softly sang, or spoke aloud fragments I could remember from Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening and The Road Not Taken. And to add further to my delight, I noticed, barely at first, sunlight streaming among the spaces and gaps between the trees, through the foliage, illuminating the trail and the forest with a faint glow. It was weak and wan sunlight, diluted, diminished, the residue of the sunbeams that have attempted to break through the beleaguering clouds, reaching the earth in the end, but not before losing much of their warmth, brightness, and potency in the process. But it was sunlight all the same, and I felt grateful for it.
Apart from the mother and child my brother and I saw earlier, I met no more people along the trail, until I arrived at Point 4, yet another spacious ground with a log for tired hikers to rest upon. Here I found an elderly couple doing apparently nothing. I said ‘hello’ to the elderly woman as soon as I passed by her, but got no reply of any kind. She simply stared at me in a rather unnerving way. Maybe she was smiling behind her mask, but I couldn’t tell. I continued walking until they were far behind me.
At some point along the trail, I was surveying the scenery on my right when there, far downhill, through the gaps among the pines I caught a glimpse of a wide glade – wider than any on the Yellow Trail. The glade was part of the Blue Trail, a lesser footpath, a detour, that curves away and then back to the Yellow Trail. I thought about going downhill and visiting the glade, to see how much (or how little) has changed, and also to admire, once again, the large array of bamboo wind chimes – larger than any on the Yellow Trail – that hung there. I thought, too, about visiting the Blue Trail, and maybe walking along a few meters of its length. But in the end, I decided not to do any of those things, and simply stayed on the Yellow Trail.
A Piece of AmericaI was nearing Point 5 of the Yellow Trail when the tranquility of the forest was rent by loud shouts, raucous laughter, and the clangor of metal. Almost immediately I knew that a large group of people had already occupied Point 5.
Point 5 marks the halfway, well, point of the Yellow Trail. It is also the southernmost part of the trail, regardless of whether one enters from Point 1 or Point 9. Upon reaching Point 5, the trail then moves on a northerly course for the latter half of the hike.
From where I was, the approach to Point 5 is a brief uphill climb as the rugged path began to slowly make its way up a gentle slope. I was already halfway along this uphill path when I saw the noisy group descending towards me. There were maybe about ten or fifteen of them, and they were mostly teenagers, at least it seemed to me. I didn’t bother to greet them, but went right through their midst and began mounting the short flight of concrete steps that finally led to the brow of the slope. I cleared the steps and found myself standing upon a road.
It was a concrete road, curving through pine trees, and fringed on either side by grasses and wild undergrowth, among which were rows of the shrubs known locally as ‘golden bush’ and elsewhere as golden duranta or Sheena’s gold. It was indeed the road that led to the residence of the U.S. Ambassador, which was not visible from where I stood, but lay a long distance somewhere to the north. The road was blocked by a boom barrier gate and watched over by a guardhouse that stood on one side. Save for official guests of the Ambassador and other authorized personnel, no one is permitted to enter the gate. However, because the road cuts through the Yellow Trail (and divides it into two halves), hikers are allowed to cross it to continue to the next half of the hike.
This is U.S. property, after all. In fact, a vast swath of the forest through which the Yellow Trail weaves and winds is property of the American government. I’ve long thought about it – perhaps the sole reason why this forest, indeed this last forest of Baguio, still endures is because it belongs to the Americans. If it is sold back to the Filipinos, I’m certain it would straightaway be partitioned and doled out to corporations and moneyed families to be subjected to ‘development’, i.e., stripped of its trees and filled instead with condominiums, hotels, malls, restaurants, and whatnot. It is a despondent thought, but if it means guaranteeing the survival of this forest, then let the Americans keep this property for eternity.
In all of my hikes, I have never seen a person or a vehicle pass through the boom barrier gate and proceed along the road. Every time I reached this point, the road was always empty, save for hikers such as myself crossing towards the next half of the Yellow Trail. And the road was almost always quiet, save, once more, for the clamor that large and loud groups of hikers are wont to make.
For fixed upon the boom barrier gate is the Great Seal of the United States, and most local hikers, being after all Filipinos fond of America and anything and everything American, must simply have their picture taken beside it. And so upon seeing the seal they would rush towards it and start striking poses for Facebook and Instagram. This bid to find a photogenic position would oftentimes involve climbing and sitting atop the boom barrier, which, in compliance to the weight and wild movement of the hikers, would start rising and falling, and each time it fell it would bang against its concrete post, hence the metal clangor I heard even as I approached this point.
This sort of behavior, though unruly, is wholly innocent, and so it goes unchallenged. Besides, no one is here to challenge it. The guardhouse beside the boom gate and the road is unmanned – abandoned, in fact. And it has been so for a long time. Indeed, it seems to have been permanently locked. Its windows are boarded up from within, and the small structure has long fallen into disuse and deterioration.
Today, however, I noticed that the guardhouse appeared cleaner and brighter. Some great effort was recently made to clean it, to pare off the thick moss and mud that clung to the walls and the grime on the window panes. It still looked old and neglected overall, but at least it now bore a more presentable appearance than before.
I stood for a while in the middle of the road, admiring the recently cleaned guardhouse, before I walked across and continued towards the next half of the Yellow Trail.
A Glimpse of MountainsWhat little sunlight that glimmered a while ago was now slowly vanishing; the clouds were reforming their leaden ranks and reinforcing their weaker spots to ensure that no more sunbeams could escape from their veritable siege. From Point 5, I began making my way north along the latter half of the Yellow Trail. I had already walked more than two kilometers; I still had about just as long to go through.
I loved this half of the Yellow Trail better than the other, for here the trail lay largely open to the east, affording grand and sweeping views of mountains. These were the mountains of the Cordilleras, the largest and loftiest mountain range in the Philippines, and which encompasses many provinces along the northwestern coast of Luzon, among them my home city of Baguio.
Indeed, before the onslaught of the pandemic, during hikes with my family, it was our custom to begin from Point 9, so that we could almost immediately behold the majestic mountain scenery as soon as we started walking.
Eager now to see for myself the mountain views I have fallen in love with since first sight, I spurred my feet until I reached the part of the trail where the mountains could be descried. And there I stood, on the edge of the hillside path, looking eastwards. Through the gaps, and over the tops of the pines, I finally caught sight of the mountains, green and blue beneath the gray sky.
But though the view was quite lovely, it little satisfied me, since the gaps between the pines were few and narrow and could only afford an obstructed and limited perspective. There was a much better spot for sightseeing, where the pine trees were not so crowded and thus offered a more sweeping view of the mountains. It lay further down the trail, no more than a few hundred meters from where I currently stood, so I drew away from the edge and resumed walking once more.
As I advanced along the trail, the pine trees began to close ranks, screening the view of the mountains marching in the eastern horizon until they were almost hidden from sight. Soon enough, I found myself walking through a distinct part of the Yellow Trail where the pine trees stood in serried ranks along either side of the footpath, almost embowering it. Most of the trees here had trunks of very spindly girths, so that they looked no more than long, slender sticks jutting out from the ground, seeking to outgrow each other, racing to reach loftier heights where there was more sunshine, air, and space.
The trees grew so close-set such that their foliage, though thin and meager individually, merged to form a canopy over the trail thick and wide enough to dilute the light and cast considerable shade upon the ground, even if large patches of the sky remained visible overhead. And because the pines absorb most of the sunlight and drain much of the nutrients from the soil, there was only scant undergrowth beneath the trees (relative to the rest of the trail); much of the trail was covered by fallen pine needles, long accumulated throughout the years. Among the hardy verdure that have managed to eke out a living in the shadow of the trees were a number of the spiky century plants.
Through this part of the forest trail I wended my way, my running shoes treading lightly and noiselessly upon the soft pine needle-clad path, until finally I espied my brother some distance ahead, waiting for me where the trees opened their ranks a little to allow a wider view of the sky overhead and let in more light. He was sitting on a low bench fashioned from pine logs – a recent addition to the Yellow Trail, courtesy, no doubt, of the forest rangers. As soon as I reached him, I joined him in a very brief rest.
I resumed walking thereafter, while my brother hung back and continued his rest. I figured I might as well go ahead, for I knew that he will catch up with me eventually. I had the longer legs and longer strides, but since I walked slowly and leisurely, and would now and then pause to examine a notable flower or tree, and take pictures of the scenery along the way, it was only a matter of time before my brother overtakes me.
He did catch up after a while and together we continued along the trail. Now the pines began to thin out once more, and the gaps among them grew wider and more frequent. The trail grew lighter as the sky overhead and the mountainous scenery along the eastern horizon slowly became more visible. I knew then that we were drawing near Point 6, my favorite spot along the Yellow Trail, indeed my perfect spot for mountain-viewing.
The Mountains are CallingSoon enough, we rounded a corner and there before us lay Point 6, a small but fairly open ground along the hillside trail, where hikers who stop by are feted to a wonderful musical performance delivered by the bamboo wind chimes that hung here. On one side of Point 6 was an enormous rock jutting out from the upslope, the bulk of which I was certain was buried deep in the hill, or else the rock would have rolled out and down long ago. On the other side of Point 6, where the ground fell away gradually, there was a secondary foot path that crept downhill through more pines trees and clumps of creeping ferns.
Point 6 is a favorite spot of mine, for here could be gotten, through a frame of pine trees, some of the finest mountain views anywhere along the Yellow Trail. And so upon reaching Point 6, I immediately looked eastwards, and my longing gaze was met by a spectacle of hills and mountains, green and blue, beautiful in an imposing manner, far away and yet so near, all ranged beneath the sullen sky.
Nearer to me were the foothills and less lofty mountains, which were almost level with me, since I myself was perched upon high ground. And their verdancy almost struck me breathless, for their slopes were clothed with a mantle of vegetation of a most vibrant and refreshing green hue, which, just by looking at it, seemed to impart to me already a measure of its inspiriting potency. But among the rugged and rolling expanse of living green were small spots and swaths of brown, where the vegetation was stripped and the earth laid bare, most likely by landslides and mudslides, and maybe, regrettably, by the wholesale cutting of trees.
Nestled within the emerald slopes were numerous clusters of houses and buildings with bright, colorful roofs, which, from this distance, appeared extremely tiny indeed. I knew that many of those buildings formed part of the village of Happy Hollow. And even as I stared, I thought that the name of the village was utterly fitting, for embosomed within such lush greenery, and surrounded by such impressive views, who in that village would find cause to be sad?
Because everything about me was very quiet, save for the gentle sighing of the light wind, and the occasional chatter of the birds, it seemed to me that I could hear the faint sounds of life and living issuing from distant Happy Hollow. Indeed, borne upon the breeze were the rumbling of vehicle engines, the barking of dogs, and the joyous shouts of children at play.
Now my gaze drifted beyond the verdant hills, towards the long, curving lines of loftier mountains that loomed just behind, dark blue and sternly beautiful. They rose maybe two thousand meters high, massed in rugged ridges, their heads seemingly touching the very skies that were still freighted with somber rainclouds, matching the forbidding splendor of the heavens with their own austere grandeur.
And here I long stood, beholding the grand mountainous panorama spread out before me, lost in wistful thought. I wondered when could I see those mountains up close. At the beginning of this year, I had planned to finally consummate my dreams of mountaineering adventure. But the coronavirus upended such plan. Now, more than half of the year had already come and gone, but the coronavirus seems even more rampant and more menacing than ever, despite all the lockdown and quarantine measures. When would this accursed pandemic end? When will I finally get the long-awaited and long-overdue opportunity to climb mountains?
The Peace of the ForestI stood staring at the mountains for some time, while my brother decided to climb down Point 6 and explore the minor dirt trail that slithered downhill, to see if it led anywhere worthwhile. After a moment, I tore my eyes away from the mountain scenery and took off after my brother, for I myself was curious as to where the trail led.
It appeared to be nothing more than a trail established by and solely for the forest rangers, to ease their passage up and down the hill and through the forest. It was recognizable as a path only because it was a shade lighter than the earth through which it wound, and because it was not fully concealed beneath a carpet of fallen pine needles. But I was hoping that it would take us to some secret spot with lovely sceneries, or to another superb outlook with even finer views of the mountains.
Even as I made my way downhill, I paused for a moment, for I espied in the nearby distance a small hill – a hillock or perhaps a knoll – that rose slightly higher than the surrounding forest, a green dome projecting above the equally green roof of trees. It was very verdant and lush, fully and homogenously clad and crowned with pine trees. I took a few pictures of it, then hurried to catch up with my brother.
But there was no need to hurry, for just then along the path my brother came back. He told me that the path was quite a lengthy one, that it led on and on beneath more pine trees, and that following it might take us too much time. I debated whether to take my chance, to go ahead anyway and explore the path alone, but in the end, I decided not to. In that moment, my sense of adventure failed. With a last look at the minor track and a whisper of ‘next time’, I turned back and followed my brother uphill, back to the Yellow Trail.
The mountain-viewing seemed to be the climax of the hike, for after that the rest of our hike felt uneventful. The mountains still marched faraway along the eastern horizon, revealed only as a faint blue silhouette through the slits between the trees. But the best views were left behind at Point 6.
For once more the pine trees began to amass in denser arrays, forming a veritable fence to block the mountainous view. They were joined by the tree ferns that reared up high and haughty, spreading their broad fronds wherever space allowed, holding themselves as lords over their creeping kin. Even the undergrowth stood in taller and thicker ranks, closing in on the foot trail. The sky remained uncovered, but the mountains in the east could now only and scarcely be glimpsed through the gaps between the trees.
The path wound on and on, hugging the wooded hillside, now dipping, now rising, now continuing on level ground as it made its way northwards. We were already on the last stretch of the Yellow Trail, barely a kilometer from Point 9, where we would exit. It felt to me that we were now the only persons wandering the trail, for we met no more people.
Overhead, the sky frowned and brooded, but its threat of storm, though not wholly forgotten, now seemed faint and farfetched. But all about us, the forest was quiet, serenely quiet, untroubled by storm or weather or the outside world, as if it was lost in deep thought, or maybe it lay in a pleasant dream. We ourselves carried on along the woodland path to its very end in relative silence, engaging in conversation only occasionally, and only briefly, our light footsteps the only sounds to mark our passing through the sylvan scene. Like the forest, we, too, were lost in our own thoughts.