|And a lovely thought to wake up to as the morning light awakens me, shining through a window next to my bed and making the wooden ceiling positively glow. I take a trip downstairs and discover that breakfast isn't out yet - it's only 7:15AM. Gaaah! I go back upstairs and hide from the sun beneath my slightly-too-short blankets, my feet poking into the chilly room.|
Breakfast is communal and there are tasty veggie sausages, along with cereal, toast, yogurt, juice, and all manner of goodness. The elderly ladies sitting next to me have been through New Mexico once, and, somehow, this reminds them of the war - which seems never far from the elder-British conscious - and they speak to me about it at length.
I wonder what I should do now that I'm fed. I'm planning on meeting relatives later in the day, so there's a time-constraint again, but still, there's got to be something. Something involving… a walk.
The hostel lady and I are standing by a map. She's pointing at Merthyr Tydfil saying it's a twenty-mile walk and would not be startled, would not even bat an eyelash, if I decided to walk it; and, in that moment, I love her. It seems as though asking people for directions always starts with "It's five minutes that way." and, when I explain, these conversations end with "It's too far to walk.", "You don't want to walk there it's far/dangerous/difficult to find.", or "You should take a taxi.". Invariably, though, I do walk.
Today, I opt not to walk twenty miles - I'll do ten instead and meet up with the relatives. The plan is to climb over a mountainous ridge and down the otherside to a blip on the highway called "Storey Arms" where I will magically find a ride to Merthyr Tydfil to catch the train.
|I leave my new love behind, probably forever, and walk down the lane. I've been told there's a horse path which will lead me directly back to Brecon. I'm rather displeased that I didn't find out about it last night.|
|And there it is, just a minute down the lane. The path is overgrown and dew-drenched, and soon I am too (well, I suppose I was always overgrown). To avoid becoming drencheder, I climb a fence and walk through the field.|
(The top words are, of course, in Welsh - I'm pretty sure the adjectives come after the noun.)
|Back on the trail, I'm led through a farm. I'm a fan of the public access I've seen so far here: the fences are meant to keep sheep in, not people out, and the signs, gates, and stairways over the fences all make you feel welcome.|
|The trail continues onwards, broader and ducking between dense hedgerows, winding between gnarled tree-roots. In the distance, I see a mountain; I take a picture thinking, "Maybe I'll climb that.".|
|In Brecon, catching the tail end of the morning service, I'm the youngest person by a margin measurable in decades. Afterwards, over brownies, I gather directions to the nearest map source.|
|The map store sells me a map along with a dire warning - there's nothing between Brecon and Merthyr Tydfil. This Storey Arms probably doesn't even exist. Leaving the naysayers, with their expensive, stylish, form-fitting hiking clothing behind, I set my sights on the distant mountain.|
Lunch is at a pub on the outskirts of town (a ten minute's walk from the center of town): minestrone soup, rice, yogurt drink, and thick, homemade bread. I slather the latter with butter, soaking in the calories. As I leave, the clouds which have been gathering, break open and send down a hard, fast rain.
I don't have expensive, form-fitting clothing, but I do have an umbrella. This keeps the upper part of me dry as I walk out of town on a wee litle road which wends about between high-high hedges. A car rushes past me and squeals to a stop by a break in the hedge; a lady gets out and starts making kissing sounds which, shortly, evocate a horse. I walk past them as the horse takes contemplative mouthfuls of grass, the lady patting its head and whispering.
|The hedges obscure the moutains and I begin to wonder if I'm going the right way. At that moment, a house appears, growing, seemingly, right out of the greenery around it.|
But, if there is a Last Homely House, this, surely, is the Last un-Homely House.
|Coming to the gate, I see two signs. One says, "German Shepherds - They can make it to the fence in 3.5 seconds, can you?" The other sign says, "Protected by German Shepherd Home Security Systems - 24 Hour Monitoring."|
Stepping through the open gate, two enormous German Shepherds start growling and barking at me from within a cage near the cars, they're joined by deep, throaty woofs within the house. I sink a bit, umbrella held ready and wait. Shortly a lady appears and tells me that the mountain is indeed down the road; I leave, thankful that no blood has been shed.
|The road winds on, past farms where consonants are grown and shipped to other places - a buisness which occupies, I think, much of Wales.|
|Finally, I get to the open lands, to the trailhead, where young, free-range consonants are reared in the open, exposed to the elements, growing their gritty frictives and breathy aspirations - the sort of grit the Welsh need in a consonant to speak like they do.|
|The first step is the hardest and then, I'm free and the first ridge is sliding past me.|
It's always a joy to leave the low-lands and begin the ascent. You leave behind all the cruddy concrete, most of the trash, the noise, the uncertainties. Life, a tangled web of destinations, choices, responsibilities, and competing priorities becomes, suddenly, a very simple and directed effort. If things go wrong, it can become very directed indeed.
Looking down from the lower slopes…
You leave whole classes of personality types behind as well and what remains is hardier, more generous, and also, in some ways, more "spiritual". Although, at times you do encounter those who are in it solely to "bag peaks" or push themselves to the limit - part of that is in all of us, though, I suppose.
The path leading down… (the white dots are sheep)
|The path continues upward, "paved" to stem some of the horrible erosion I've seen earlier.|
And they said the world was flat…
|I gain the ridge-top, the world spreading open to my thirsty eyes, though the water I had at the pub sustains me still.|
The "higher" summit…
To me, it's a proven fact that the mountains you're not climbing always look higher than the ones you are. Maybe it's this way in life as well - we impress ourselves with the achievements of others, undervaluing our own. As my grandmother could attest - mountains are measured relative the climber, for the human experience is not predicated on meters and feet.
Pen y Fan grows…
It's windy on the ridge-top and my backpack's straps flagellate me painfully. I stop and zip on the pant-legs, don the cheap mac and, immediately, am warm. I carefully stow my cap and feather in my bag, where they won't be carried away by the wind, me following on foot. Leaning into the gale, I continue.
Quite suddenly, the summit comes into view and, with it, the truth of the mountain's height. There were other hikers on the trail - I passed them while they rested - now it seems as though I'm entirely alone, though it's some comfort to know that they're out there, somewhere.
Pen y Fan
|It's a straight shot to the summit and, as I go for it, the wind dies down and it's very warm.|
Like all mountains, this one exhibits a remarkable propensity to change its shape as you approach.
|The mountain, having far surpassed the angle of repose (with the help of glaciers!), is slowly making its way back to the sea. I'm probably helping by climbing and am, at this moment, so very thankful for ridges.|
|Looking down, the climb seems almost trivial, the tangled woods are an image of order and planning.|
|But I'm drawn on…|
|… 'neath the shadows of Mandelbrotian clouds…|
|…and the trail becomes something of a road.|
|And, reaching the woods, you could just lie down peacefully and die beside the sweet waters…|
|… if the other half of Wales weren't there with you.|
I buy an ice cream cone, with a chocolate stick, an addiction my uncle and cousin introduced me to in Keswick, and head out to the road. Summing the holy image of Sissy Hankshaw's thumbs and invoking the name of Benoit Grieu, her earthly prophet, I stick out my own thumb. wwwWWWWHHHHhhiiiiizzzzzzzzzzz. Car #1 flies by. I lick my ice cream cone. WhizWhizWhizWhiz. Some more licking… WhizWhizWhiz. I lick my ice cream gone as the 35th car sails by. Now I'm really ready to go and a good thing too, the 38th car pulls over.
Daene's just coming from a weekend with her friend, she tells me "don't kill me, or my dogs will eat you for breakfast" - the dogs, in the back, are small and fast asleep. As I climb in Daene tells me I don't really look like a killer - it seems a common assessment - but little do they know…
The real killer's probably Daene herself - she's puffing away at a home-rolled cigarette. I can tell it's loosely-packed, though, and therefore fast burning, so I'm not too worried. We drive along, beat-box to Michael Jackson, sing along to Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive". Daene's guided by the pristine voice of her TomTom, which she mocks. She's no good for maps, she says, having smoked "one to many shinnanigans and zipped my memory". As she rolls herself another, I hope that I'm not encountering the shinnanigans now.
|The TomTom tells us she's going right past Bristol, which is almost a hundred miles farther than I'd hoped to get a lift for, and so it goes…|
|The road arcs up and over the firth on a masterfully constructed suspension bridge (assembled off-site and flown in due to monstrous tides), something the train never did for me.|
Back in Bristol, I discover that although I may be able to see hills and green in most directions, some of these hills are just hiding more city. Psychologically speaking, it's a good design feature. Since it's a seven mile walk into town, and I've already done ten or more, I take the bus.