Our roads, our encounters and memories of place

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By Robert L. Domoguen

Mountain Light

Monday, June 9, 2014


SO HERE Colonel Lyman Walter Vere Kennon, US Army Corps of Engineers, we honour you once more, as we traverse down this road, pioneer “goat road” in these mountains of North Luzon.

With songs and tears meandering from every cliff edge to gentle bends, to the valley bottoms, we rode on to where the sun warms the earth and wonder whether your Asian coolies ate mangoes, and left the seeds to sprout along the road banks. Did they simply labour with a timetable to cut the roadbed, stabilised loose soil, and on to the rock cliffs? Has someone left the ranks and lived a thriving native life in those towering hills after spotting a beautiful girl, “chosen lady” of his life? In these mountains, even a “goat road” cost millions and precious loyalty, a commitment to a cause and its timetable.

In Twin peaks, past sprouted villages and houses on both sides of the road, I dig into the memories, personally experienced or knowledge shared and retained. In this instance, is “time immemorial” precise to the residency of the folks there? The Camp villages there are remembrances of previous supply and food depots mainly, for the construction of this road. Where could have the natives and their villages been during the construction of the road?

Twin peaks, two ancient rocks rising to the heavens mark the ages. At their foot are ancient burial caves and the bones remain undated. What is immemorial time but a claim and principle for marking places of habit?

Before the 1990 earthquake, passing on this awesome pass at the bottom of a yawning abyss in between the mountains, gives you that feeling the rock walls can close in anytime, pin and squeeze you into the dark unknown. In many spots, you cannot see the top of the mountains but the sides and bottom walls of the cliffs. The landscape changed after the 1990 earthquake.

I was there when the earth shook. I took a night trip from Manila where I work in those early years. We reached Camp 1 sometime aroundmidnight. We slept there as Kennon Road was close to traffic and we can no longer return back to where we came from. The bridges in Pangasinan collapsed. By daybreak, we decided to hike towards Baguio. It took us the whole day to do that past buried houses, body parts showing in the debris and underneath the rocks that rolled from the top.

On that day, the road did not bring me home. It was not passable. The quake caused cuts or erosion that made the roadbed disappear - buried under rocks and soil debris. The wind howled throughout the day, carrying dust upwards. The terrifying noise of falling rocks was confusing. The scenario weakened any resolve to take any step forward, so in Camp 3, while the quake – the shaking of the earth occurring now and then was defacing the rock face of the mountains, we decided to climb a gentler slope. There were three of us, a driver (now retired) at the Agricultural Training Institute and a lady who was pregnant, and myself figured some old foot trails would bring us to the top in Bakakeng, then on to Marcos Highway. We agreed to try it. We did find that trail, many trails used by man and all kinds of livestock actually, and we have to clear our way in some of them. We reached Baguio past seven in the evening where hunger, thirst and fatigue suddenly overwhelmed us.

Since the 1990 earthquake to this day, Kennon Road was not a busy major route to Baguio City. It was returned back to its early “goat road” status. It may yet come back to life again when the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) completes on-going road widening and improvement works from Camp 1 to the road’s view deck in Camp 7. Colonel Kennon’s road is still in the making that is if his Filipino peers would take up that challenge. That would be a wonderful conclusion.

“Goat road” or otherwise, we celebrate still – reminiscing about what kind of man Colonel Kennon was, what he did and why, and what a functioning road can do to our communities at the roof of Luzon.

How are we really to celebrate an imagination like the construction of a road on unstable mountains? We still build them and build communities in a hurry because of them. Next, we enhance the stability and sustainability of our mountains for well-being. The imagination can only expand, grow, and lives to breed better lives to wherever the road leads and ends.

The thought comes to mind, in Camp 3, before Twin Peaks, after the quake-defaced rock mountain. As we took a u-turn, across a bridge, we climbed a one-lane road to the old villages in the hills. Without Kennon Road, who could have thought people have been living here in immemorial reckoning. Today, Kennon helped us come here; help us build that farm-to-market road, presently all-purpose in use. I imagine it becoming a provincial or a national road, if not simply an artery, entry or exit to Tabaan’s expansive rolling terrains.

Kennon Road made the services of government accessible to the efforts of local folks in community and nation building. Meager as our resources are, we built a tramline there too, assisted some folks to grow citrus fruits, and empowered a rural improvement club to engage in livelihood activities. The Bureau of Fisheries also engaged the local folks to grow tilapia and freshwater shrimp.

While I sing about this, I cry too and some may hate it. The tramline we built with people’s money has failed after a year or two of operation. A government operative took some parts of the tramline and never returned it. Beside that missing machine part, I see a greater need. A project like this, ultimately operated by the community, must come with adequate social preparation and empowerment. There is where we failed, if we are monitoring these investments, review what happened, and care to do something.

We crawled upwards after the bridge in Camp 3, new mind battling against old currents, new and old tears flowing against the other. Among remnants of ancient environments, a “goat road” experience is always a thrill: deep green on both sides, crisp stubs of grass, blooming lantanas, cawating, “Martial Law” vines in Natonin, hang on the trees.

There are more and knowledge of botany and forestry is always helpful to an agriculturist who must encourage people to try new livelihoods out of existing resources. In the case of sustainable livestock growing, Dr. Anthony Bantog, Chief of the DA-RFO-CAR Livestock Division enumerated a litany of native and introduced plants we saw on the road that can sustain a thriving goat business here. There were napier grass, new rono outgrowths, ipil-ipil, and cawating. As always, the trick lies in management. For instance, cawating is good food but too much of it causes loose bowel movement in small ruminants. Goats eat anything green, not poisonous. My brother in Mankayan, engaged in “cut and carry” goat raising fed his goats with old banana leaves, and sun flower leaves and shoots, beside napier, kikuyu and range grass. He actually experimented in feeding his goats with almost any broad leaf shrubs and trees.

Depending on location, one finds hot dry air, cool breeze in the mountains. We inhale, exhale and yet again, we yearn to find words to pull water, from beneath the earth, upwards; from the sky, downwards. We park, endless love engaging any terrain and condition, to sustain Kennon's imagination – discover old roots, plant new ones, the business of community building all over the Cordillera region goes on. It ain’t about just building houses but knowing the mountains and sustaining well-being for the living. It predates Colonel Kennon and goat roads but brings it all up to relevance, in our age, critical times of change, immemorial event, nothing but an act of endless love still.

Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on June 10, 2014.

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