Mt. Pinatubo (Then and Now)

Mt. Pinatubo crater, 2008
Mt. Pinatubo crater,  2008
Mt. Pinatubo, 2014
Mt. Pinatubo, 2014

Three days ago, I went to Mt. Pinatubo with some friends. It was my 2nd time to go there but the first was way back 2008 so I was expecting some things would be different. Boy, was it ever. I tried looking for pictures from my first trip so I can show and compare how different it is now from then, and thankfully my sister still had them.

But first things first, for those considering going to Pinatubo for a day hike: There are 2 options to go about it. One is through package tours offered by several groups, and another is DIY (do-it-yourself).

Package Tours
If you don’t have the time to plan every little detail, and are not under tight budget, then go for the packages. It’s very convenient. Just google (“Pinatubo tours”) and you will find several packages. They start around Php2,100++ per person for a group of 10; the less people in the group, the more expensive per person the package becomes. This is excluding transportation. Van usually costs Php 5,000 (3,000 for the van and driver, 1,500 gas, and 500 2-way toll). With van, for a group of 10, it could be around Php2,600++ per person. Just do the math for less than 10, or more than 10.

Do-it-yourself
I opted for DIY mainly because of budget. We ended up saving more. Here’s the breakdown:

Php 5,000 Van, Driver, Toll
Php 3,500 per 4×4; max 5 persons = Php700/person
Php 450/person registration fees and all other applicable fees paid directly at the tourism office
Php 500/tour guide (required); 1 tour guide per 4×4
Total: 17,070 divided by 9 persons = 1,894/person including van, excluding personal expenses such as food

DIY is actually very straightforward. We just needed to find a van, then everything else we got from this site.

Personal tip: How I usually go about the trips I organize is that somebody (me or someone else) collects same amount of money from everyone (in this case, Php2,000 per person), and that person is in charge of all the trek-related expenses. Whatever’s left, we return equal amount to everyone. We had some left over money so we were able to give additional tips to our tour guide and drivers. We saved 600-800 per person by opting for DIY. 

What’s changed in Mt. Pinatubo?
A lot. I mean, it’s really different from how I remembered it.

For one, the trail going to the crater is different now. I remember being awed by this massive trail of rocks that greeted us during our trek.

Going to the crater, circa 2008
My sister | Going to the crater, 2008.

I was waiting to see this, but according to the tour guides, the constant battering of storms and typhoons changed the landscape (and will perhaps continue to change the trail), that’s why some parts of the existing trail now are different.

Easier trail
Easier trail

IMG_1192

As a result, I found the trail easier now. Speaking of the trail, you can reach the crater in an hour. It is very doable, depending on the pace of your group. You don’t need a lot of preparations for this hike because it is relatively easy.

Swimming is now prohibited. Back then, no such restrictions were in place.

Back when swimming was allowed
My cousins | Back when swimming was allowed

qw3 qw4

qw5
That’s me with the white cap!

The reason they prohibited swimming, according to the guides, was because someone died (not as a result of drowning, but of heart attack)

Swimming is prohibited now
Swimming is prohibited now

I also saw several bancas (boats) but they were not being used at that time so I’m not sure if boating has also been prohibited. The crater itself has become more like a park now. I liked it before because the place felt uninterrupted, secluded, and free from commercialization. Of course it’s not bad that the place has been developed so it can be more “accommodating” to tourists, but my preference has always been for unspoiled, natural beauty.

Paved roads going to the crater
Paved roads going to the crater
Paved roads for a more touristy feel
Paved roads for a more touristy feel

This was the only man-made structure present then:

View "deck"
View “deck”

Expect to hike with a lot of people. Because it is now a “certified” tourist spot, a lot of people, not necessarily hikers, go to Pinatubo. The downside is that these tourists do not know the LNT (Leave No Trace) principle hikers usually know by heart. I saw several pieces of garbage lying along the trail. Our tour guides collected them for throwing when we get back to the jump-off site. Perhaps the management should include LNT briefing to all would-be trekkers.

Because of these changes, I found my first trip then more gratifying, because we can swim, we had the place to ourselves, the trail felt harder, the place itself was more “natural”. BUT, I will still recommend going to Mt. Pinatubo because the beauty of this place cannot be denied. It’s like our own version of the Grand Canyons, only, smaller and less majestic, but majestic nonetheless. The 4×4 ride going to the jump-off site was both fun and rough. It made for a more memorable experience.

If you’re going to Mt. Pinatubo especially during this summer, I strongly suggest you bring the following:

  • Sunblock
  • Cap
  • Something to cover your face (VERY dusty during the 4×4 ride)
  • At least 1.5 liters of water

A sample itinerary

3:00 a.m**. – Depart for Tarlac
5:30 – 6:00 a.m. – Arrive at Santa Juliana, Capas, Tarlac, jump-off site
6:00 / 6:30 -Start hike
7:30 – 8:00 – Arrive at the crater
10:00 / 11:00 – Go back to jump-off site
1:00 – leave for Manila
4 :00 / 5:00 – Arrive at Manila

**This is the ideal time to leave for Manila, and around 6:00 am is the ideal/usual time to start the hike because after 10 a.m the weather gets very hot. According to the guides, they do not usually allow hikes to start around 11/12 because of the weather conditions.

Other things

  • At the jump-off site, some kids will sell sticks (trek poles) for Php20.00. You don’t need it, but if you want to help the livelihood, go ahead
  • Taking a bath after the hike is crazy expensive. Php50.00/shower
  • Parking fee is Php30.00
  • Don’t bring too much. It’s a very easy hike.
  • Enjoy!
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One fine day on top of the mighty Mt. Mayon

My first sighting of Mt. Mayon's perfect

I never thought I’d ever climb Mayon.

I was planning to go to Bicol for a missions trip but climbing Mayon after the OJ didn’t cross my mind, mainly because it is an active volcano, one of the Philippines’ most active volcanoes, and naturally, climbing shouldn’t be allowed, I thought.
But it was allowed, provided you meet certain requirements.* So I did climb Mayon, along with 10 other friends and 6 other guides last April 1-2, 2013. And I am grateful for the experience of coming out of it, alive. Because, sadly, as I was reminded yesterday, not everyone is so fortunate.

*Register, attend orientation, provide medical certificate that you are fit to climb Mayon, sign waiver, according to this news.

Photo credit: Allan Imperial, Yahoo news

In the aftermath of Mayon’s most recent activity, a “phreatic explosion” which has reportedly killed 5 mountaineers, four of whom were foreign tourists, I felt that writing about what to expect when hiking Mayon seems pointless now because it may take some time–if at all–for hiking to be allowed again.

As I was vacillating between writing or not writing this blog, which is LONG OVERDUE anyway since it’s been a month after our Mayon hike, my friend urged me to write anyway exactly because of what happened: our account may be, indefinitely, one of the last accounts of a successful Mayon hike. And of course, our story is a testament of how blessed we were that when we climbed,  we didn’t experience tragedy.

Of course, I write with sadness because 5 lives were claimed by this volcano, yesterday. Mountain climbing and hiking is a high-risk hobby. The memories of our hike are still so fresh in my mind and I can’t help but visualize the descriptions given by those who survived this incident. When one of the interviewed guides said the rocks were “as big as a living room”, and that it was raining rocks after the big explosion, I know he wasn’t exaggerating because I had seen and been on those rocks. In fact, the ascent from Camp 2 – which is where you set up camp,  is almost entirely on rocks – small rocks, huge rocks and very, very few flat surfaces along the way.

Should hiking Mayon be allowed again in the future, these are some random (and cluttered) thoughts and tidbits of information to equip the hiker:

Getting started

  • The trip starts with a jeepney ride to the DENR jump-off site where you register
  • An almost hour-long (and unnecessary) walk to a forest leading to Buang Gully, which leads to Camp 1 – where you can spend lunch time or take a long break before proceeding to Camp 2.

    I found the walk towards the tip of the “entrance” to the forest unnecessary because, really, it shouldn’t be part of the trail. I felt that tricycles can take you up to that tip and save you time and legs. This is especially relevant after the hike because upon reaching the forest tip – you’re tired and to walk an hour more on plain ground when you can ride – and help the locals earn at the same time – is cumbersome.

    1
  • A 2-hour walk to Camp 2, the base camp. There are a lot of flat terrains at this area where one can set up tents. From camp 2, the summit is 2-5 hours away – depending on your pace. Many factors can contribute to pace: the number in your group, capability, safety concerns, weather.*
  • The policy in hiking Mayon is one guide per tourist. You would not be able to proceed without a local guide, because you’d probably get lost. And believe me, you need them.

*I think it would be quite impossible to reach the summit if it’s raining because Knife’s edge up to the summit is all rocky terrain sloping almost 45 degrees

Summit Assault

Highly recommended: Hard hats (provided by the guides), gloves, windbreaker

  • Gloves are very useful to help grip the rocks and provide protection for your hands. You can’t imagine just how much you’re going to use your hands in this mountain.
  • Temperature somewhere 14 degrees and below – peak during midnight. Very cold. It gets warmer up to the summit.
  • Wearing hard hats during the ascent was highly recommended by our guides because it was usual to have rocks flying towards you due to the movement of those ahead of you. If climbers ahead of you were not careful, they could send loose rocks your way, and these rocks, even if they are very small, because of the angle and gravity, travel at speeds that are harmful (and can even be fatal) if you get hit, and this is exactly what happened to me, twice.

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I think the Bicol term for rocks is “gapo” (or something like that). Our guides will shout “gapo, gapo, gapo!!” to warn us of oncoming rocks. The scenarios which happened during our hike were the following:

  • The very experienced guides anticipate and catch the rocks with their bare hands to break their fall
  • You avoid the rocks
  • The falling rocks ran its course without hitting anybody
  • You get hit by the rock
The rocky feature of Mt. Mayon is one of the reasons Mayon is considered one of the most difficult volcanoes/mountains to climb in the Philippines. Pinoymountaineer.com rates the difficulty level of Mayon as Major climb, 7/9.  The terrain and the angle of the volcano is so steep that a misstep is fatal.

Very steep terrainMt. MayonMt.Mayon

And of course, it is an active volcano that’s why it is such a high-risk mountain. At any time, it could erupt or explode without warning. Some from our group who had already climbed Mt. Apo said Mayon is far more difficult, comparable to Giting-Giting. Pinoymountaineer.com also writes that the hike duration is 2-3 days. 2 is very doable – which is what we did, but from experience, I would highly recommend 3 days because doing it at 2 days is very physically-demanding. Consider our situation:

Day 1:

  • Started the hike around 1:00 p.m.
  • We reached Camp 2 around 5:00 p.m.
  • We slept around 8 p.m.

Day 2:

  • We started summit assault 2:00 a.m.
  • We reached the summit/crater 7:00 a.m.
  • Started descent 8:00 a.m.
  • Reached camp 2 1:00 p.m
  • Broke camp 2:00 p.m.
  • Reached jump-off site 6:00 pm

Day 2 total: 14 hours hike – in one day. Doable, yes, but you’d be punishing your body a lot. And trade off is mobility for one week, post-hike. (I found the 2:00 am assault ideal, though, because had we been on schedule, we would have seen sunrise at the summit.)

Frodo and Sam
Frodo and Sam

At the summit

Necessary equipment: face mask or anything to cover your nose and mouth from the sulfuric fumes

When I was first invited to climb Mayon, I thought the hike was only until a certain point on the mountain. When they said, “up to the summit and crater”, I asked again. You sure? Crater? Isn’t that dangerous?
Well, yes. And on a perfect day, it was also calm, and peaceful.

On top of Mayon

Descent

If the ascent was hard, the descent was even harder. The steepness of the mountain made it more difficult because you’d have to be more careful and calculated.

Descending Mt. Mayon Descending Mt. Mayon

Fare thee well, Mayon

Two words jump out from my personal experience: FIGURATIVELY and LITERALLY. During the ascent I felt like Frodo, and my Sam was my guide Kuya Francis. There were many many times I felt giving up, but Kuya Francis literally carried me to reach the summit. Without him I would not be able to climb Mayon. Then during the descent, I felt like Gollum. I literally had to crawl my way down on many parts of the trail because it was safer (but slower). And around that time my knees were in deep rebellion. This was my hardest physical challenge, yet.

Planning for Mayon

Mayon is very unpredictable, and I realized our plans can only go so  much. If there’s one truth everyone in our group now fully realize more than ever, it is this: Providence. It was really God’s grace that we were unscathed. The night before our assault, it rained HARD and I was thinking maybe we wouldn’t be able to continue. As it turned out, the rain was a blessing because during our ascent and descent the next day – it did not rain at all. Maybe it “rained out ” so that there was no more rain left. In fact, we enjoyed perhaps one of the most ideal weathers for climbing Mt. Mayon.

Remember: there is always a risk when climbing Mt. Mayon.

I still get amazed to realize that I was on top of Mt. Mayon. On top of the perfectly-shaped volcano I see on postcards.

Mt. Mayon from Manito

But will I climb it again? I don’t think so.

I’m grateful reliving that one day when the mighty Mt. Mayon welcomed us, peacefully.

One fine day at Mt. Mayon

Mt. Pulag: Summit, nonetheless

2011 Year-end climb: Mt. Pulag via Ambangeg trail
Highest mountain in Luzon, 2,922+ MASL
Major Climb, Difficulty 3/9
At the summit of Mt. Pulag on a cloudless stormy afternoon

Disclaimer
I will not attempt to write what’s already been written about Pulag, seeing that articles abound. (For resources and general info, you can find them here. My sister also has a good entry on her Pulag experience, complete with detailed info on what to bring and what to expect.) Instead, I’m writing this entry as somewhat of a journal as I discovered during the entire trip that this was one of the most memorable, and symbolic, climbs of my life. The “Thoughts on Pulag” section towards the end of this entry might be useful, though.


A Promise

At the start of the year, one my goals was to climb Mt. Pulag. I wanted to see the beautiful sunrise from the highest mountain in Luzon and behold the majestic sea of clouds Pulag is known for. Of course, as with the ‘grander’ things in life, I wanted to share this experience with my special someone. (Cheesy!) I promised somebody we’d climb Pulag together. The ‘right’ opportunity came and I found myself Baguio-bound, first to attend our CCC reunion, and second, to climb Mt. Pulag. Circumstances, however, didn’t allow the promise to climb together to be fulfilled.

A foreboding

Days before going up Baguio, I informed Kuya Bitoy that there was a great probability it will rain during our climb. There was, in fact, a typhoon approaching Mindanao and Visayas that week. The weather had been fine in Baguio the entire week, I was told, but as always, we still had to be prepared. (The very same typhoon, locally known as Sendong, has since caused the deaths of 1,500 lives and thousands others missing in Mindanao/Visayas).

Our group hired a jeepney going to Ranger Station inside Pulag National Park, the jump-off site for Mt. Pulag, for Php 9,000 ($210). There were 16 in our group, including my discipler Ate Jeng and her fellow CCC staffers Kuya Bitoy and Ate Flor, my best bud Kat and other close college friends. The jeepney could fit more or less 25 people, I think, so our number was just enough to have us all comfortably seated*. We each paid Php975.00 ($22) for the entire trip (excluding food). This included registration of Php200.00 each (at the DENR office, 2-3 hour’s drive from Baguio city, depending on what time you leave), jeepney rental and guide fees. Not bad. We planned to follow this itinerary:

Day 1:
a. Leave Baguio at 7am (we left around 8)
b. Register at DENR by 10/11am
c. Start our hike to Camp 2 (1.5 hrs away from the summit) by 12noon
d. Arrive at Camp 2 by 3-4pm; set up camp
e. Do socials until end of the day

Day 2:
f. Summit assault at dawn, around 4:30am
g. Arrive at summit by 5:30am
h. Descend by 7:00am
i. Be back at Ranger Station by 10am
j. Be back at Baguio around or past lunchtime

*Comfortably seated, I learned, is not the same as being comfortable. Since we were riding a jeepney, inside we were not facing the road and the winding roads going up to Kabayan, Benguet could really be nauseating. It didn’t help that I was full from our breakfast. I was literally one head sway away from vomiting. Good thing there was public restroom along the way. This somehow ‘stabilized’ my head. I ended up seating in front after – where I was facing the road. They said this helps the nauseous feeling. 

Unfortunately only the first two items on our itinerary were followed. Here is what happened:

A Series Of Unfortunate Events

At the DENR station, the person-in-charge advised us against pushing through with our climb because the weather was not good. She was informed that at the summit, visibility is zero and rain has been non-stop. At most, she said, we could hike until Camp 2 only. We contemplated this scenario briefly. While some in our group said, “it’s the climb”, (meaning it’s the journey, not the destination), I appealed! “It’s the summit”, I said! Everybody knows that you go to Mt. Pulag (as with all mountains!) to reach the summit (unless emphasis of your trip is traverse or the difficulty of the trail, such as the Akiki trail) – and see these:

Sunrise from Mt. Pulag, taken from Alex Cave, March 2011
Sea of clouds | Taken from Alex Cave, March 2011

Seeing that most of us were up to the challenge, and after rebuking ourselves with questions like, “where’s your faith?” in the end, we decided to push through. Yeah!

From the DENR to Ranger station, it takes approximately 1.5hours travel by jeepney. The road is very rocky. About 30 minutes into the trip, our jeepney, after much effort going up the steep and rugged terrain, gave up on us. Apparently, it couldn’t handle the ascent. (I’m pretty sure it was just our jeep because this was the regular transportation going up to the Park). We had no choice then but to walk from that point on to Ranger station, while the jeepney driver looks for another vehicle to tow his jeepney up. At first thought, walking to Ranger Station seemed fine. I mean, what other choice do we have? Not necessarily easy, of course, but doable. Then, slowly the elements came. And boy did we feel them.

To say we had a long walk... is an understatement.

It started to rain, slowly, gradually becoming stronger, as did the winds. The higher we went, the colder it got. Temperature must have been somewhere from 8-4C. What was an hour’s travel by jeep turned into three—three!—hour’s hike going up to the Ranger station. Note: We haven’t even officially started our hike yet. By the time we reached Ranger station, we were wet, cold, and tired from the unexpected detour. As if to rub salt in the wound, our jeepney transport—bless the driver—arrived 10 minutes right after we did!

Blessings in Disguise

I never really appreciated the reality of such a phrase—until the Pulag trip. Somehow we found consolation in the detour. By the time we arrived at Ranger Station, the rain had become really strong, the winds were howling mad—and had we been at Camp 2 already – we might have just been sent back. I also wasn’t quite sure about the five tents we brought. Under such circumstances tadpole tents would be ideal, but I think we only brought dome tents. Of course, our guys weren’t very pleased to be informed that, after carrying those five heavy tents for the last three hours—we weren’t going to use them after all! LOL. Things happen.

Another blessing was that the entire Ranger Station was unoccupied; hence, we had it all to ourselves the entire night (and well until the next day). This meant we had the entire upstairs as sleeping quarters for all 12 girls, while the 4 boys stayed at the 1st floor. (They were actually planning on setting up one of the tents—just so bringing them wouldn’t have been in vain!) It was really a blessing because we had comfortable sleeping conditions and enough time to have our socials and devotions.

Not just another climb

During our socials, Ate Dred gave a message. In it, she challenged each one of us to make this climb still an act of worship. There we were, at the thick of a brewing storm, about to embark on what should be an easy climb but was being derailed by the weather conditions, and it couldn’t have been a more perfect time to be still and meditate on the real meaning of Christmas: Jesus. Worship.

All along, even before the climb began, I was already setting this mountain apart as a personal and spiritual milestone, for symbolic reasons. First, it was going to be my first mountain without either my sister or Rayjohn, and I considered this a feat because I was always depending on them. I guess somehow I wanted to prove to myself I can do it alone. In fact, the reality that I’m going to be single again for some time was never more pronounced than during that time. It was a bittersweet thought.

Second, 2011 had been the most challenging year of my life, to say the least. From one difficult professional decision to another, from personal failures to overwhelming confrontations with my humanity, I badly wanted to finish the year victorious at least – and this became my mantra throughout the climb: “summit, no matter what!” I was surrendering the trip to God, knowing I wouldn’t be able to do it alone. That, for me, was worship.

Disappointments

We planned to wake up around 1am to begin the hike straight to the summit, so we could still catch the sunrise. In most itineraries (and under normal circumstances) for the Ambangeg trail, summit assault is done at dawn from Camp 2, around 4:30am, in time for sunrise. But when we woke up around 1am, the rain and winds were stronger. Going out to that weather was turning to be impossible. We therefore decided to wait again until 5am – meaning, goodbye, sunrise at Pulag.

By 5am, neither the strong rains nor howling of the winds stopped. Some in our group were resigned not to push through with the climb anymore. For a moment, I was tempted to resign as well. It was becoming clearer that we would not have the best conditions to climb. In fact, all indications pointed that this is the worst circumstance for climbing Pulag. So we went back to bed, disappointed. Around 8am, weather condition somewhat improved. Kuya Bitoy woke us up and asked who among us still wants to climb. He had me already saying yes, by default. They all knew I BADLY wanted to reach the summit – no matter what. This was the reason I went up, after all.

So from our group of 16, 12 of us decided to push through with the hike. We scrambled to prepare. Since we were not setting up camp anymore, we didn’t have to bring our backpacks – another blessing in disguise! This made the trip somewhat easier, having no more burden to carry other than ourselves.

Finally, we begin the hike

Around past 8am, we started our hike. If all goes according to plan, we will be at the summit in 4-5hours. Ranger Station to Camp 1 takes 1.5 hours, then another 1-2 hours to Camp 2. From Camp 2 to the summit, that’s another 1 to 1-5. hours. We hired two guides – one to lead and the other as sweeper. During the hike we were split into two groups.

Trek to Camp 1 was easy, though rain was non-stop and we were slowed down by the mud. We had to wade through as much as 6-inch high mud. At first we were still cautious about our shoes. But realizing it’ll be like this until the summit, we eventually cared less about the condition of our feet. We just wanted to reach the summit.

At Camp 2

When we reached Camp 2, conditions had worsened. Our group’s (the sweeper group) guide didn’t want us to proceed to the summit. But the first group was nowhere to be found. They had decided to push through to the summit, and so I said we should also do the same. I mean, we’re almost there, just an hour or so away, and we’re giving up now? He had no choice but to oblige, seeing that the first group was already on their way up. However, Ate Jeng decided she will just stay at Camp 2 as she said has reached her threshold. This meant she will have to wait for us, in the cold, for as long as 3 hours! I am very proud of her for achieving that much. It wasn’t easy and for her, this was really a faith-stretching challenge.

That last leg going up the summit (from Camp 2) was the most challenging experience. I was praying throughout that God stop the winds, because it was really strong and it was becoming harder to see, and that we could still somehow see some clouds. But it was not meant to be. After maybe an hour, we caught up with the first group and FINALLY reached the summit. You can only imagine the sense of relief on finally reaching our destination, though we did not see the heavenly clouds Pulag is known for. Not at all. Instead, we saw mist and fog, and could only stay at the summit for about 10 minutes—just enough time to take pictures and say a quick “thank you, Lord”, before making our way down.

yep, unfortunately – this is the best shot of our view up there

Thoughts on Mt. Pulag

  • The Ambangeg trail was relatively easy, terrain-wise. In fact, our 3+hour hike to Ranger Station was harder than the actual hike to the summit. While not really a beginner’s mountain, I have no qualms with Mt. Pulag being anybody’s first climb. The key to climbing Pulag via Ambangeg trail is proper equipment (thermal wear, water proof jackets and boots/hiking shoes)
  • What really made our trip difficult (it was, for me, the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life) were the elements: nonstop rain (literally non-stop), strong winds, temperature (a given), and mud (6-inch high!) all throughout the trail.
  • Summer time (Feb to April) is definitely the best time to climb Pulag. While the weather was an aberration because December is not usually a rainy season, there is still greater tendency for typhoons during the latter parts of the year, especially with the global climate condition now.
  • It was REALLY cold up there. We could barely move nor feel our fingers at this point – because our gloves were wet and our hands were freezing. Our feet were also wet and numb from having to wade through cold streams and mud. At the summit, frost was starting to form on our eyebrows and on our faces, and the wind blew the strongest that you literally could get knocked off to the ground.
  • After reflecting on the experience, I said, somehow, it’s not the summit, after all. Of course we’re thankful we reached the summit – we almost didn’t because our guide didn’t want us to push through. But what good is reaching the top—if you don’t see it in all its beauty and grandeur and majesty? Well at least we can still say, and really mean it–we conquered Pulag.

Back on dry land

After about 10 minutes, we descended and made our way back to the jump-off site. Upon reaching Ranger Station, as if on cue, the sun suddenly showed itself. The rain stopped, the clouds—oh the glorious clouds!—appeared in all its promising beauty, and I was left to wonder, what was that all about?

I knew then that I had to go back. The sunrise, the clouds, still await me. And maybe even that promise.

2012, here I come.