Oh, whiny, whiny this morning! All that hiking around Taroko Gorge caught up with me around 2 a.m. when I woke to aching legs and feet. Should’ve popped some Tylenol PM then, but I misread the time as 6 a.m. and didn’t want to oversleep missing breakfast. Insult to injury! Tossed and turned and Facebooked my way through the wee hours and have a new plan: eat, take the Tylenol, sleep for the next four hours or so — Hualien will wait.

OK, done complaining. But yesterday stood up and waved its arms as the turning point of the trip. You know when you’re on vacation and how at the beginning, being away and awash in the new distracts from the eventual end of the journey? But at some point, maybe when you’re closer to leaving than arriving, your brain pops back into reality mode and you find yourself wondering if people remembered to get the mail and feed the animals and make their dentist appointments? Your mind wanders away from the exotic isle you’re on to upcoming social engagements and work demands? Or maybe that’s just me. In any case, home hit hard yesterday. I blame the Shakadang River.

Shakadang River, Taroko Gorge

The day revolved around Taiwan’s most popular “must-see” tourist attraction, the Taroko Gorge, famous for its marble, waterfalls, shrines and general geologic impressiveness. Claire, owner of Mistro, where I’m staying, arranged a taxi to transport me to various trails within Taroko National Park. The problem was, the driver didn’t speak English — or more aptly, that I failed to learn enough Mandarin to communicate even basic instructions like, “I want to go to Baiyang Waterfall trail.” So I was at Mr. Wong’s mercy.

To be clear, he did exactly the job he was hired to do. He made sure I saw as much of the giant park as possible in one day and continued taking photos of me at the park, as well as considerately anticipating my needs for toilets and food. The fact that I ended up spending three hours on a trail that caused Humboldt to flood my being before moving on to trails more distinctly Taiwan was completely my fault.

Yes, the trail itself was different, hacked into the side of a marble mountain with hundreds of tourists and dozens of warning signs, but the overall theme of tall steep green peaks looming over a fast-flowing river studded with rocks throughout yanked forth memories of the Trinity, the Klamath, the Salmon, all the places we spent this past summer. It was my madeleine moment. Not that I wanted suddenly to be home, but the intensity of the love I feel for Humboldt blindsided me, caused me to judge the scene before me as lacking, made me question what the hell I was doing with my day and how was I going to return home worthy of the people and place I adore?

Klamath River

Once we moved on to the shrine-laden paths, my attention reshifted back to the there-and-now. The rest of the day passed eventfully as I climbed stairs, explored a pagoda, carried on conversations with an American woman in Taiwan to teach English with her boyfriend and a Taiwanese woman recently relocated for work with her boyfriend.

I ducked through dark tunnels and under waterfalls, dodged hordes of tourists while wearing a hard hat. Ate wonderful mango ice cream and drank a terrible plum juice. Watched the clouds gather around the top peaks, rising over 10,000 feet above. Squealed in delight upon spotting a monkey. Photographed butterflies. Watched a flock of grass green birds sparkle in flight.

In other words, stopped complaining.

Also, much as I condemn my iPhone’s camera abilities, it’s been a champ about taking them. Sadly, the battery died just as we reached the beach over which a full moon glowed. I hope the shots I took with the Kodak capture some of that beauty. And of course I thought about how my people back home would see the same moon, 16 hours later. And then I thought, except they probably won’t because it’s likely raining buckets in Humboldt. I opted to savor the idea regardless of reality.

Taiwan is known for bountiful butterflies.

For the final chapter of the day, Mr. Wong dropped me in downtown Hualien for dinner and shopping. Back in one hour, he said. Meet here, at Starbucks. OK. I dragged my sweat-stained, tired self around the night market and shops — so many shops! — ended up making the sort of mistakes I would expect to make when exhausted and hungry, such as miscalculating the NT to US dollars and overspending on gifts, then not having the energy or wherewithal to sort out dinner in the crowded stalls and ending up buying a chunk of bread and a green tea latte at Starbucks because it was easy. I sank into a big comfy chair in the upstairs area, gazing over the relentless neon energy of the streets and cataloged the things I’d do differently upon return or next trip:

  • Learn at least 10 useful phrases and use them right away so as to gain comfort with at least that much of the language.
  • Study the food words and signs so I could make quick decisions about what to eat.
  • Don’t let having excellent hosts be an excuse for laziness.
  • Memorize exchange rate transactions so I don’t have to figure it out on the spot, but know how much $1,200 NT is, etc.
  • Shop at the end, not the beginning!
  • Bring fewer books and no hardbacks.

Everything has been wonderful. All failures are mine. And nothing about this adventure has been a failure.

Today, after sleeping, I hope to find a beach and swim. Alternately, hot springs.

Tomorrow, back to Taipei and some of its attractions. Then home to Humboldt, where I’ll trade the warmth and exotic for the cold and familiar. I feel okay with it all.