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LIFE'S OLLE TRAILS 1How hiking Jeju's 437km of trails changed my life

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One of Jeju's native birds sits atop an Olle Trail ribbon, July 25, 2021. / Courtesy of Rachel Stine
One of Jeju's native birds sits atop an Olle Trail ribbon, July 25, 2021. / Courtesy of Rachel Stine

By Rachel Stine

Want to know a secret that'll get me canceled on Twitter?

When I first arrived on Jeju Island…

I hated it.

This was not "the Hawaii of Korea" the Immigrant Integration Program textbooks raved about. Twelve months into the COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself staring out the window of a 151 bus, thinking Jeju looked less "Hawaii vibes" and more "abandoned theme park."

Mascot statues, faded and chipped, towered over empty parking lots. The sky was gray. The ground was covered in snow. After almost eight years of living in Korea, I had finally come to this fabled resort island, and it looked like a gutted hotel.

I just wanted to go back to Haebangchon.

Back in that old Seoul neighborhood, my emergency contacts ― a lesbian couple that owned a sex shop ― were just three minutes away. My neighbors arranged an emergency pet care group when COVID-19 emerged. In that community under N Seoul Tower, I never really felt alone.

These days social media will reward you with upvotes for hating on HBC, with its blue-haired denizens exchanging hagwon horror stories. But a piece of my soul will always be in its winding alleys. I had no plans to leave.

I was offered a job on Jeju Island, teaching literature around a cluster of private schools. The salary was more than double what I was earning in Seoul, and at the time, I still owed over $45,000 in student loans.

"It's temporary," I told my then-boyfriend, holding his hands in the airport. "I'll just make the money and come back."

After my student debt was repaid, we were considering marriage. It seemed like a solid plan. He was Korean American, and with his extended family network and my new job, Jeju seemed like the perfect place to settle down.

But three months into the move, I wasn't connecting with Jeju at all.

The sea roars alongside Olle Trail 6 on Jeju Island. / Courtesy of Rachel Stine
The sea roars alongside Olle Trail 6 on Jeju Island. / Courtesy of Rachel Stine

I felt guilty about not living an Instagrammable life. Whenever I looked out my classroom window, watching the orange sunset shine across Mount Halla's peak, I'd cringe. I wanted to lock myself in my apartment with pizza and existential dread.

It was a tiny apartment, too. At just 350,000 won per month, it was surrounded by a parking lot and tangerine groves. I spent my first few nights in the cramped kitchen eating tuna-kale salad out of a plastic tub. You know…the one the lettuce came in. (It was a rough week, all right?)

One night, I put my fork down and thought: "If I have a medical emergency, who am I gonna call for help?"

It seems laughable now, but after a lifetime of accessible social services in major cities, I was anxious about being so far away from help. Sure, I had backpacked in remote areas of Uganda, Tanzania, Thailand… but those were vacations. There were local guides and other hikers. We had crackling campfires, cold beers and long card games.

In my mind's strange calculus, being constantly alone seemed infinitely more threatening than hyenas creeping around our tent.

Suddenly I felt sick. Maybe this had been a mistake.

I didn't know it then, but Jeju Island's Olle Trails ― a series of 27 hiking routes totaling over 437 kilometers ― were about to soften the edges of my anxious, urban life. Those hikes would reground me upon the Earth. During my journey, I would recover from obsessive compulsive disorder, explore alternative paths to motherhood and re-envision what it means to be progressive in the age of cancel culture.

To be continued…

LIFE'S OLLE TRAILS 1 How hiking Jeju's 437km of trails changed my life
LIFE'S OLLE TRAILS 2 Fighting agrarian anxiety attacks on Jeju's paths
LIFE'S OLLE TRAILS 3 Carrying a grandma through Yaksu Station
LIFE'S OLLE TRAILS 4 Going full white lady in the woods
LIFE'S OLLE TRAILS 5 Getting ice cream and umbrellas from strangers
LIFE'S OLLE TRAILS 6 Discovering deer carcasses at the tea museum
LIFE'S OLLE TRAILS 7 Healing perfectionism on Pyoseon Beach
LIFE'S OLLE TRAILS 8 Confronting OCD in Woljeong-ri
LIFE'S OLLE TRAILS 9 Reading a poem about death in the woods
LIFE'S OLLE TRAILS 10 Confronting the subconscious saboteur
LIFE'S OLLE TRAILS 11 Worrying about comments section chaos
LIFE'S OLLE TRAILS 12 Saying goodbye in Gueok-ri
LIFE'S OLLE TRAILS 13 Walking back, fast or slow

Rachel Stine has volunteered in the North Korean human rights sphere for over a decade. Her writing has appeared in The Huffington Post, The Korea Times, and other major news outlets. You can view nature photography from her journeys around the world at


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