In 2003, Bleddyn and Sue Wynn-Jones and I spent several weeks together in the mountains of northern Vietnam, in the highland French redoubt of Sa Pa. It was late in the season, so we were hardly expecting météo parfaite but the weather was nothing short of comical; it was a gulag of fog and rain. Sa Pa and the surrounding mountains were bathed not so much in gray but the smoky aspirant used to dramatically portray fog in B-Grade Frankenstein movies. We made fires in our rooms to hang our seed collections in order to achieve some degree of dryness. We actually heard wolves howling while walking to local restaurants at night. Cloris Leachman served as our waitress one evening.
On that particular trip, as we prepared for our departure for Lao Cai, for the night train to Hanoi, the sun uncloaked minutes before our departure and lit the surrounding hills in an uncommon greenness. It was one of those moments that will remain alive- the tease and invitation to return.
I have been back to Sa Pa on many occasions since that year, and on some of those I have lived in a dream of inexhaustible blueness while on others the weather patterns have chopped and changed as they are meant to do.
In November of 2014, however, nothing chopped. I was greeted with pelting rain in Hanoi upon my arrival and it only became heavier and more oppressive during the next two weeks. Umbrellas were still offered during my evening of departure from Hanoi. I had somehow really pissed off the weatherman.
Let’s be clear. If one waits for clean weather to hike and look at plants and babbling brooks, it might make for good b-roll for some vehicle starring Julie Andrews, but if you are going to use your time seriously (I am, in fact, sacrificing time away from my life, a 15 year old Springer, 1 year old Goldendoodle, 65 year old husband, the season of both collegiate and Pro football, and two gardens that I have great affection for), you simply have to put your gear on in the morning and get on with it.
Thus it has been this trip. My eyes could not even make out the foliage of trees or shrubs 15’ away, let alone if seed existed. When I did find seed, it became a smudge of bagged genetic matter that I knew precisely how long it would take to dry once in my room. There are innumerable times that this process is rewarding and enjoyable and then there are times when it is only rewarding.
The Sa Pa of 1999 is no longer. I can now have my boots dried during the evening. Uoc talks on his phone while we are hiking at 10,000’. I can find, at extraordinary expense, a bottle of Chilean Chardonnay when the occasion merits and one has an international choice of foods from smart restaurants along the main street.
Yet donning one’s wet socks, soaked shirt and boots, stepping into that first AM squish of mud to use the loo when paper dissolves to something less than paper when one is ready for paper, remains precisely the same.
This is the process. There is no romance and one must truly evaluate any motives and sanity for wishing to continue to do it. Except for that one moment, that first time, ten years after the mud has dried and the stomach upset has resolved, and when one cannot recall the rat that fell from the ceiling directly upon my chest while I was nearly asleep, when that Magnolia first blossoms on the most perfect spring days in the Pacific Northwest. All fog is forgiven.