Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Zach, Patrick and Becky Go to Wales

More pics of the Wales trip are here.

This one was taken by the cool bartender at the Radnorshire Arms pub after our first 15-mile stretch on Glyndwr's Way. That's my first pint, by the way, and the boys' second or so; it only looks like I'm way ahead of them.

I'm not sure how this started. I think it might've been my fault. Awhile back I'd been chatting to a fellow Lonely Planet scribe about how much fun it would be to work on one of the company's walking guides. He suggested I take the special walking-guide test for LP, I guess to prove I could walk. It was fun; I did the "Springwater Corridor," an urban trudge, 20 miles through industrial wastelands and tract houses on the outskirts of Portland, dodging feral cats and fording rivers of fast-food outlets to reach a brief tree-lined reprieve and a town that calls itself Boring. I passed the test, probably bragged to the boys about my future as a foot soldier conquering Britain, and waited. And waited. editor vanished. I gave up. But by this time the boys had nourished vivid dreams of strolling through the heart of Wales, dozens of perky sorority girls following awed in their wake. (Our wake.) They were looking at plane tickets, compiling budgets, telling their moms. They were preparing reading lists. I couldn't back out now. So we decided to go for it.

The morning after I bought my plane ticket, I got a note from the new LP editor offering me the job of covering the walk I'd just committed to doing with the boys. (And two other long-distance walks.) Voila. Partially saved from total financial ruin. I arranged the rest of my research around our walk, and off we each went.

The three of us met as arranged in Knighton, Mid-Wales, an adorably slanted town with a clock tower at the top of the hill and a rickety ladder of pubs from there to the bottom. I think we hit them all at least once. Anyone planning to follow in our footsteps, by the way, should note that it's inadvisable to start your nine-day hillwalking adventure after a long night/morning at a Knighton disco. In case you wondered.

Before dinner, we'd made an important purchase at the grocery store: it was a leek. Leeks have long been recognized (though not by many) as an emblem of Wales. Legend has it that St David, the patron saint of Wales, urged his countrymen to wear leeks in their helmets during the battle of Heathfield in 633 AD to distinguish themselves from the Saxons they were fighting. A more likely explanation is that leeks were among the two major staples in the diet of St David's crowd, and they look a lot better on helmets than a potato would. Either way. We bought one so we could strap it to Patrick's backpack and win the hearts of the natives. I was still carrying it when we got to the disco – it stuck incriminatingly out of the plastic grocery bag. At one point, according to Patrick, some girl from across the room pointed at me and yelled out, in her little Welsh accent, "She's got a LEEK!" The crowd went wild.

The next morning, after a 3-ton breakfast of eggs, beans, mushrooms, tomatoes, coffee, toast, sausage, bacon, sausage, bacon, sausage and bacon, we gamely set out for our first day of the 135-mile Owain Glyndwr's Way.

Owain Glyndwr (1359–1416ish) was a Welsh rebel and statesman who battled it out with the English at various points along the trail. Though his revolt was ultimately squashed, he was never captured and is probably still lost somewhere between waymark posts on the trail that bears his name. I'm sure he's not the only one, either. Most of Britain's national trails are old and well-marked; this one is the opposite. Most national trails are marked with an acorn stamped in white on gates and signposts. On Glyndwr's Way, the acorn is accompanied by a Welsh dragon, and there were a few points along the trail when both seemed extinct.

By lunchtime that first day, as the 15-mile section of trail periscoped out before us into what the guidebook mildly described as a "gentle climb," it was clear we were underprepared. (That evening we vowed that henceforth, when reading the guidebook aloud, whoever was Navigator would replace all instances of the word "climb" with the words "sponge bath." So much nicer.) The Greyhound, a small but allegedly welcoming pub we'd counted on for lunch – or at least a hangover-curing pint or a nice hot cuppa – turned out to be closed. (The proprietor had recently died.) It was attached to a shop that was about to close too, but we looked miserable enough that the ancient, tweed-cap-wearing shopkeeper let us buy some water before he locked up and went off to play cribbage or something with his equally prehistoric tweed-cap-wearing mates. So we sat on a bench and ate crackers and drank water and stretched and Patrick went off behind a bus shelter to perform what would quickly become a familiar and really gross personal-hygiene routine that I will not describe further unless asked. We were not even halfway there yet. I briefly considered joining the Greyhound's proprietor, because at least he wasn't walking. But the acorns beckoned.

I did have a little temper tantrum that afternoon. We were almost to the B&B at the end of that day's trail. I had to pee, really really badly, but I didn't want to stop if we were almost there. (I'd been stubbornly sure we were almost there for at least a mile.) So I tried to get Zach to let me see on the map where we were, but he wouldn't. (*** Added later: In fairness, let it be known that Zach disputes this version of events; he says he did show me the map. Well. The nice thing about blogs is that anybody can have one.) When I asked him how far it was he sort of gestured vaguely in a U-shape ahead of us. In the grip of bladder-angst I screeched at him, "You're not even looking at the map! Why won't you look at the map!" etc. The boys calmly rolled their eyes at me. I peed by a tree and felt much better. I think that was the only hissyfit on the trip, which is pretty remarkable.

Once we stopped, all pee-related and other worries vanished instantly. The Brandy House Inn was right on the trail, and it was gorgeous. It turned out to be the plushest digs we stayed in the whole time. By the time we took off our shoes, our hostess Medina had tea and cakes waiting for us. Then we took a nap, and then she drove us (bless her) a couple of miles down the road to the Radnorshire Arms pub for dinner. Peter the barman, an ex journalist, was suave and cool, and in addition to demonstrating impeccable British manners he took a nice photo of us (see above). For dinner the boys had lamb shanks and I had salmon, and it was the yummiest meal of the trip, not just because it was the first hot meal besides breakfast I'd had in Wales. (I'd been living on an LP author budget, ie scavenging meals from grocery stores and takeaways.) Incredibly, we were still hungry at breakfast. Zach fell in love with the Brandy House's extra-creamy yogurt, and I swore eternal devotion to the bacon. Only one thing marred our experience there: Zach could not get the toilet to flush. This, like Patrick's special hygiene rituals, would become a theme of the trip. Luckily, I stopped in for one last pee and got it to work just fine, so we could leave unembarrassed.

On the second day of the walk we were blessed with a pub, the New Inn, that was open for lunch. The boys ate enormous Yorkshire puddings; Zach was so hungry and relieved to be there that he cried into his.

Everyone was tired by the time we reached Abbeycwmhir. We stopped to get our bearings at the Happy Union Inn, described as "eccentric" because whenever you want to go there it's closed. The Nick's Coney Island of Wales. We didn't know where in the village our B&B was, and nobody wanted to walk any further than necessary to find it. We were standing at a bend in the road pondering what to do when this little old lady drove up and offered to give us a ride. Her name, and I am not making this up, was Mercy.

Delivered by Mercy to the Mill Cottage B&B ("Oh, they were QUITE lost," she told the owners), we again had tea, naps, dinner, a good long sleep and breakfast. And again we couldn't figure out how to flush the toilet. (It worked eventually. Were we somehow doing it wrong?) That night Patrick aquired the nickname "Old Biscuitfoot" while airing his socks on the windowsill. Zach had already gone from "Tippy Water Bottle" to "Cream Flow," soon to be "Club Foot."

The walk from Abbeycwmhir to Llanidloes would come to be known as Zach's Hell Day. Here is how he looked part-way through it:

This was taken as we stopped to wring rainwater out of our socks. It was supposed to be a 15.5-mile walk to Llanidloes, but we got lost twice and had to backtrack. (Research, people.) The first time was pretty easy; we didn't get more than a hundred yards or so off the trail, it's just that it took us 45 minutes to find it after we stopped for lunch. But the delay did give Zach time to powder his blistered feet and other areas. Which was fortunate, because we had a long way to go.

We were near the end of our collective water supply when we hit The Hill. No one thought to stop and take a photo of The Hill, which is probably just as well because there's no way a camera could've captured the horror. It was essentially a wall, covered in grass. A few sheep leaned awkwardly into it, grazing sideways. We looked toward the sky. There, in the far left-hand corner above our heads, was the waymark. The guidebook said, "Now walk half-left up the field to a stile before woods. The approach is very steep, so stop now and again to catch your breath and enjoy the view." It didn't mention that we would need to clutch the grass with both hands and pull ourselves up the hillside.

At the top, I gave Zach a peach for the water in it. He pronounced it the best peach of his life.

The worst was over; from there it was merely a gentle sponge bath to the summit. Photos of us on this hillside completely fail to show how it felt to stand there and look across the valley at where we'd come from. The sheep we'd just passed were now so far away they looked like salt. But at least we were at the top of the hill. Or so we thought.

We knew we were lost when we hit an acornless, dragonless gate. It led us into a farmer's back yard. "You're not lost," he shouted cheerily at us, "you're still in Wales!" Turned out we'd come too low half a mile back. He filled up our depleted water bottles and set us back on track. ("We should've asked his name," said Zach, "I bet it was Hope, or Charity.") By this point, Zach was hobbling along on unbending legs, like a Weeble. It was cute, but I felt sorry for him. We finally made it into Llanidloes, where the very helpful guy at Lloyd's hotel let me call our B&B to arrange pickup while the boys sat in traumatized silence on a brick wall across the street. Transportation arranged, we headed for the nearest pub – the aptly named Angel. The bartender had an awesome moustache. Even better, he introduced us to Magners, the only drink in Britain served with ice, as far as I know. It's an Irish cider and very refreshing. We had a couple each, ate ravenously, then planted Zach in another pub while we shopped for the next day's lunch. He quickly made friends and learned how to pronounce the names of several towns we'd be visiting. Some smartypants named Frank asked him on the way out, "Hey, why do they call you Tiny?" Ha ha. (Later, in Welshpool, a bunch of guys spotted Zach and immediately asked if he would join their rugby team. That kind of thing just never happens to me.)

Eventually fetched by our landlady, we photographed our poor thrashed feet and hit the hay early. The B&B owners and an Australian couple older than my parents were heard giggling and partying late into the night; they were bleary-eyed at breakfast, but we were humbled. Zach continued his trend of cursing every toilet we met. Welsh toilets are just not made for American boys. We were all eating huge amounts of food (though Patrick felt deprived). All our meals included vast amounts of vegetables. Where do they normally go? Are Welsh digestive tracts simply more efficient? It remains a mystery (at least to me).

The B&B's location along the trail gave us a head start of a few miles on the next day's walk. First point of interest: the abandoned Bryn Tail Mine below the Clywedog Dam. This dam holds a reservoir of 11 billion gallons of water, the disclosure of which is how I learned that the British million and billion are not the same as the American million and billion. Why is that? Can't we coordinate? Reminds me of electrical and phone sockets. Didn't they all get invented around the same time? How come each place had to go and arrange their outlets in a different way? Did they just need to feel special? Are they that insecure?

Anyway. We passed the mine and circled the edge of the reservoir, passing by a group of students rapelling over the water. ("Are you carrying the leek for extra weight?" asked one of their instructors. "Are you going to eat it eventually?" Hell yes.) Then the trail climbs up to the ridge around the reservoir for some really awesome views. ("Awesome view" became an even more predominant theme than "broken toilet.") We passed through a bunch of really pretty, tree-lined hollows and lanes, and then a super-squishy, boggy field that felt like walking on pound cake. Nice picnic spot at the bottom of that, on a bridge overlooking a creek. Under the bridge were a British million daddy longlegs and evidence of a car wreck that the boys enjoyed piecing together. (Metaphorically.) Bunch of easy walking and then a huge climb up to the ridges of the moors overlooking Dylife, an old mining area. Incredible views from here! The guidebook told us we were walking along what was almost certainly a very ancient road. Which is almost pretty exciting: the footsteps of the Romans. In one place you could see cart tracks cut into the rock base of the road. Patrick lost his hat, but backtracked and found it again. We all descended from the ridge to the black-and-white, pretty-on-the-outside Star Inn.

The inn wasn't open yet, but the son of the proprietress was there, so he let us in and gave us each a pint. The rooms were sorta grim, but the lounge area was nice and cozy. After some accidental napping we went over to the pub side for dinner and met the formidable landlady. We'll call her Lady Circumference. She and Zach took an immediate dislike to one another, which led him to order rice instead of pasta by mistake and go to bed early. We wanted to get a jump on the next day's walk in hopes of reaching Machynlleth while the market was still going on, so we negotiated with her to pack us lunches that night and leave us just a cold breakfast in the morning. We kept drinking beer, but she got only marginally friendlier. So we put a curse on her toilet.

Next day we set out in the morning fog, cranky and without bacon. Half a mile back up the hill to meet the trail where we'd left it, then a wind-assaulted trek across the ridge of the moorlands past the site of a Roman fortlet and a spot where some blacksmith long ago was forced to build his own gibbet and hang himself on it. That's what you get for throwing your wife down a mineshaft. His skull's still in a cage on display in Llanidloes, though we did not see it.

Pretty soon the path reaches Glaslyn, which on that day was a perfectly gloomy, desolate lake with a rounded mountain, Foel Fadian, looming behind it. This was some of the best scenery on the walk, in my book. Circling Foel Fadian we hit the highest point on the walk (still not very high), and the landscape turned from bleak to dangerous, full of plunging descents and almost vertical slopes. Knee-smashing, but cool.

We took a shortcut and almost got lost again, but found our trail eventually. Being lost, or suspecting we might be lost, even for a few hundred yards, made me immediately anxious. On the flip side, seeing those little acorns on signposts became so damned exciting I started to hallucinate them.

The approach to Machynlleth is great - you can see it from way up on the ridge, and then you zigzag down and eventually clomp into town via the carved rock Roman Steps (which may not actually have been carved by Romans but are still very cool). Machynlleth, after where we'd been, felt like a huge metropolis. (They had the Internet!) It's where in 1404 Glyndwr formed a Welsh parliament in a house that's since been rebuilt on the main street and started making treaties with France and Spain. (Didn't last.)

We'd booked rooms at the White Lion, a big old imposing hotel with a big comfy pub on the ground floor. Our room was the backpacker special in the attic; plenty of room, showers down the hall. Perfect. We quickly bagged up our disgusting clothes and Patrick went to do the laundry. I checked email at the library just to make sure I wasn't fired yet. That night, we saw the first girls we'd seen since Knighton. Up until then it was strictly sheep and old farmer guys. There may have been boys there too, but I was too tired to look. (I don't think THAT's ever happened before!) For dinner, Patrick ordered a faggot, and then he had spotted dick for dessert. At breakfast, they had lemon marmalade in little packets. I'd never heard of such a thing before, but it was GREAT. There was also a psychic fair going on that night. I thought about having a reading done, but I kind of knew what they'd say. (Long road ahead of you, blah blah blah, lots of ups and downs, blah blah, future dotted with sheep, you know how it goes. Those things are always the same.) No known toilet catastrophes.

In Machynlleth, Zach made the wise decision to rest his poor thrashed feet and take a bus to the next stop. Normal people take a lot longer to do the walk, maybe dividing it into 10- or 12-mile stretches instead of 15-16, and they usually take a rest day or two as well. But we were on a Lonely Planet schedule. And dammit, if the previous author could walk it in nine days, so could I! But Zach was not bound by the same weird delusions, so we gave him all our heavy stuff and set out, arranging to meet him at the Wynnstay Arms (a 15-minute bus ride down the road). He checked out the art museum and the town in general and probably had a pretty nice day. Patrick and I had a great walk with our now light little backpacks, although of course we got lost. We were strutting along all cocky when we passed an older couple, pretty much the only other hikers we saw along the entire 135-mile trail, having lunch. They weren't totally sure which direction to go in, but we thought we knew, so we pressed on. But the next gate didn't have an acorn, AND, worse, it was guarded by cattle. Patrick is afraid of cattle. (I did not know this before the trip. There are a lot of cattle in Wales.) So he climbed around a totally crazy way to get around the cattle-locked gate and see if there was a waymark ahead. There wasn't, but meanwhile I accidentally caused all the cows to stampede - which, though it upset the older couple, at least meant that he could return by the more direct route.

We took a couple of stabs at finding the trail, but none was right, so in the end we gambled on a downward-zagging road that looked like it went to the town we needed to reach. It did. And better, there was a pub at the bottom! This was Cemmaes Road, not even a village, but there was a teeny little shop (closed) and a pub next-door (open!), run by a classic, beret-wearing old Welshman. Here is where we learned that the other Welsh people had been pandering to us in the way they pronounced their towns. When this guy said "Machynlleth," there were no M, N, or L sounds in it whatsoever. He was the real deal, man. "Have you picked up any Welsh at all?" he asked. We said no. He taught Patrick how to say thank you, which is spelled Diolch-yn-fawr and sounds kinda like DEE-ock un VOE-er. Or something. Anyway, Patrick said it brilliantly and the guy was pleased.

For lunch that day we had cornish pasties bought at a grocery store in Mach. I still dream about them.

We rolled into Llanbrynmair in the sunny afternoon, after scaring some pheasants and descending a wide hill with panoramic views all around. (I guess that's redundant.) The first building we saw in town was the Wynnstay Arms, where Zach awaited us. A sign by the door said "Becky's party, room X." Zach was there, working on a poem. "The pub opens in three minutes," he announced. Hooray! The rest day had given him, as he put it, enough energy to fuel his personality.

His ankle was still huge and puffy, so the next morning he arranged transport to Lake Vyrnwy, where we'd be staying that night. I was tempted to do the same, as it sounded like a beautiful area to hang out in, but the idea of finishing the whole entire walk had too much appeal. So we unloaded all our heavy stuff on him again, and the three of us popped in next door to check out Machinations: The Museum of Mechanical Magic, a bizarre and oddly entrancing display of "automata." Cool. Zach hitched a ride, and Patrick and I set out on the day's walk. It was mostly flat, until the deadly heart-attack-inducing hill at the very end, but there was a pub in the middle (the Cann Office Hotel) with really yummy egg-salad sandwiches and beer, so everything was okay.

Our end point that day was Lake Vyrnwy, and you could see the Vyrnwy Dam from the top of that slogged-up hill. Pretty spectacular. As we approached the village, we heard the welcome and cheery and unmistakable sound of Zach whistling. Sure enough, there he sat on a park bench in the fading sun, ready to describe the rest of our evening to us. First, shower. Then, eat dinner at the fancy Vyrnwy Hotel across the lake. Then, as the Gorfwyffsa B&B owner had overbooked, we'd be driven to their little summer cabin for the night, then walk back to their place for breakfast in the morning. Perfect.

We ate gorgeous food on the patio of the hotel, watching the sun set over Lake Vyrnwy. It might've been my most postcardish moment ever. I also acquired a nickname, Treacle Tart, which lasted until the next morning, when I got a new, more pervy one. Then we retired to the hotel pub. A guy there was playing speed-snooker. He had a cool-looking mashed nose and a scar on his mouth that gave him a permanent sneer. Didn't look like the kind of guy you'd want to beat at snooker. Also at the bar was an aging, gristly surfer dude chatting up two young girls; he was still at it when we left. Slept like babies (Zach naked) in the most comfy beds on earth. In the morning, after a giant breakfast that included homemade bread and our first black pudding, Patrick said, "Let's go sit in the lounge and make up a conversation for Becky to write about." So we did. Patrick broke the pullcord on the bathroom light, but there were no other toilet catastrophes; perhaps we outwalked the curse. The B&B owners came in and chatted for a while; they were great, very very sweet folks. She (Diane) packed us a lunch that included the yummiest carrot cake I've ever had or ever will have in my life. Zach was repaired, so off we went to the Royal Oak in Pontrobert.

The Royal Oak is hilarious - it has real Chin Yen potential. I went in on high alert, but it was not enough. The place laid me out. I should've known it was bad when we went into lockdown and I started drinking Guinness (after cider, ale, and at least a couple of shots of delicious Bushmills Black). The good part is that we were staying in a flat just outside the pub's back door. I probably crawled there, but I'll never know.

Breakfast was difficult. I had to hear about all the silly things I said to the four-toothed gent who'd been buying the Guinness. Oh well. Who cares? They're not MY embarrassing memories.

The nice thing is, hiking cures hangovers. Plus, this was our last day. It was a tough one toward the end, but I was sort of high off the notion of having completed (or being about to complete) this gigantic, epic thing we were doing. The weather had turned EXTREMELY hot. Small nips of Bell's powered us through the last couple of miles. The approach to Welshpool starts at a hilltop golf course and meanders through a fancy private estate, then joins the main road and, before you know it, there you are, right in the center of town. Cool!

Naturally I got us lost trying to find our hotel. But we made it - another pub with rooms above it, very nice place, patio out back where we ate fish and chips and truck-sized doner kebabs. We tried to watch TV that night, but I kept breaking the one in the room; apparently the curse had shifted. Next day, we ran a couple of errands and decided to believe the tourist-office lady when she told us Powys Castle was just a short, easy stroll up the road. It seemed more like a 3 or 4 mile walk, but whatever. There was ice cream at the top, and also baby peacocks. We caught a series of trains to London, one of which was delayed, another of which was hot and smelled like pee.

In London, we checked into the hotel (which looked fancy online and from the lobby, but when we opened the door to the room we discovered four bunk beds crammed into a refrigerator-sized nook) and had a beer, then went out in search of food. Kebabs! It was probably Welsh lamb. We wandered the city a bit, shopped for records, then sat outdoors and watched people go by. A Reed College-esque philosophical debate started up; it was fun to watch, except on the subway back to the hotel when I couldn't hear anything. The debate continued the entire evening, as we sat drinking ciders ("Gaymers," not Magners this time) on the stoop of the hotel. Yes, we ate the leek. It was kind of spicy. I think we got an hour or two of sleep, then hopped into our leather-seated sedan for a ride to the airport.

We had hours to kill in Houston, but most of it was spent hating the television and the dumb pronouncements of our fearless leader. Lynn picked us up in Portland, and I had just enough time to wash the smell of sheep shit off me before getting a telephone summons to the Chin Yen. When I walked in, Patrick was already there. Maybe we never left at all.

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