When my husband, Erik, stumbled on the Degree Confluence Project while surfing the net for hiking-related sites a couple months ago, he got excited about his newly discovered goal for his hiking ventures: to seek out some of the few remaining points in the Western U.S. where latitude and longitude lines converge. This newfound passion of his was unsettling to me, mother of our two boys, ages two years and ten months.
For one, he wanted to go to the boonies of northwestern Montana, where a few years back, he had gone on a survival trip with his father and came home earlier than planned, unable to successfully live off the land for several weeks (a la Lewis and Clark) due to sickness and fatigue. “You’re crazy!” were the only words that could describe my reaction to his wanting to go back there at all, just to seek out a confluence point.
However, I budged and allowed him to go, on the condition that he went with a friend he trusted and who could help him fight a bear if need be. They came home with news that their confluence hunt was not only successful, but it afforded them enough time and energy to find two others in the same state (see his confluence visits). I was very proud of him, and hearing his adventure-packed story, decided that the Degree Confluence Project might be a worthwhile effort after all.
So I browsed the website, reading reports people had made and looking up countries with the most confluence visits, and then ones with the fewest. Among those countries with the fewest confluence visits, I discovered, was the Philippines, my birthplace and the country I had planned on visiting for a week and a half in December, 2003. Furthermore, I found that there was only one confluence (16N-120E) located in the province of Pangasinan, my hometown. Finally, much to my excitement, I found that my aunt, Dr. Socorro De la Cruz, a Social Security System (SSS) doctor, was familiar with the area of the confluence because it is part of her medical jurisdiction! So, from the other side of the world, in the United States, I started planning my confluence visit to the province of Pangasinan, in the Philippines.
In October 2003, I text-messaged my Aunt Soc to find out if it was possible for her to get me a more detailed topographical map of Pangasinan, specifically, the lower northwest part, where the confluence point is supposedly located. She inquired at her office and found maps of the townships of Mabini, Dasul, and Sual, and a very detailed topographical map the confluence area. I received these maps a few weeks later through one of Aunt Soc’s sisters, who came to visit the States with her family.
The detailed topographical map of the confluence area was so big that my aunt had to photocopy it in four parts. Unfortunately, for me, the confluence point ended up at one corner of each of the four pieces. Shipping and handling caused the corners of the photocopies to fade, which posed the problem of figuring out the actual topography of the immediate areas around the confluence point. I dismissed this problem as insignificant, which would later prove to be a false assumption.
I scheduled my confluence visit three days after my arrival in the Philippines, on December 3, 2003. Another one of my aunts, Priscila Fernandez, was serving as my trip companion who went with me wherever I ventured during my visit. We met up with my Aunt Soc, who warned us that the confluence area we planned on visiting was most likely an NPA (National People’s Army – “rebel troops”) held territory. Since my aunt is the only public-service doctor in the area, she seemed confident that no one would try to harm us. However, as an extra precaution, we brought with us three male friends who would help defend us should any danger arise (my uncle, Carlos Soriano, and my aunt’s co-workers, Faustino Collantes and Gerardo Tabra).
At my hotel in Dagupan City, about 36.6 km from the confluence, we stitched my topographical map with scotch tape and tried to come up with an estimate of the amount of time it would take us to get to the confluence and back. Seeing the faded areas around the point, I mistakenly inferred that the area around the confluence was pretty flat, and that a car could easily drive up to it, so that all we needed to do was hop out, take our pictures, and drive back to the hotel.
We reached the town of Mabini an hour after leaving the hotel and inquired with local authorities at the town hall about the fastest route to the site. None of them seemed familiar with the place, and we were told to drive a little further, (about 4 km) to the village (“barangay”) of Villacorta to ask the locals there for help. We made about six stops to ask for directions, which included a police checkpoint where cops scanned our car for drugs (drug trafficking was a suspected activity in that area). We also picked up two women who claimed to know the direction of the site and who were on their way home, on foot, from the nearest market, saving them more than two hours of walking time. Two “kagawads” (village officers), Kgd. Buddy Barracas and Kgd. Pedro Banlao, along with a local villager, Dominador Pascua, offered to accompany us to our destination.
Barangay Villacorta proved to be a difficult place to traverse by car. We drove through several kilometers of rocky, mostly unpaved road, uphill until the road suddenly ended, and we had no choice but to travel the last 7 km to the confluence point by foot. Unfortunately, due to my earlier misconception, we were not prepared at all for such a hike. My aunts and I were wearing red velvet flip-flops and slippers, and none of us brought any food, water (except for 1/3 gallon we had in the car), or sunscreen! Nonetheless, we were not going to turn back at that point since we had already gone so far.
The trek to the confluence was especially difficult because it was on mountainous terrain, interspersed in a couple of areas with a shallow, rocky river (the Balite-Basit River). In addition, the weather was sweltering hot (about 90 degrees F) and incredibly humid. Luckily, about two-thirds of the way into our hike, we spotted a lone nipa hut (“bahay kubo”), where a local basket-weaver, Edith Pascua, lived with her husband. We asked if she would kindly provide us with a home-cooked meal on our way back, and she was very gracious to oblige. We were later fed a meal of rice with green papaya soup and malunggay leaves, and hard-boiled eggs (all of which were harvested from her yard and were eaten with our bare hands).
We reached our destination just as we were getting ready to give up. My husband had loaned me his Garmin GPSmap 76S device, which provided me with readings to verify our location. The confluence point itself is nestled within a grove of trees down a steep ravine, so we were only able to take pictures from an elevated clearing between 50-70 meters of the actual point.
I am pretty certain that this confluence trip is one of the most memorable experiences of my life. It seems absurd, to try to visit places out in the boonies, where no one has ever been, just to meet the goal of finding a confluence point. But to our surprise, our trip proved to be a solemn meeting with nature in its rarest, untouched, and amazingly beautiful form.