Wales was the first turning point for me. I had only booked two nights there, the first in a little town called Brecon in the middle of the country, and the second in a town called Llanberis to the north not far from the coast. I basically booked the hostels that were available and well reviewed. In retrospect, I should have booked both nights in Llanberis and just enjoyed myself there, but I wanted to see the country, and see the country I did, via bus. Tedious, tedious bus transfers in the rain. True backpacking. I swapped the cities I had thus far been in for countryside, and for the first time on my trip was thrown into the state of constant travel. I would end up in some little town with a tiny bus station, waiting for the next bus, and whenever I had an hour or more to kill, would go hike around the town.
I took the bus from Cardiff and into the countryside. Let me tell you about how beautiful Wales’ countryside is. In the middle, there are low green hills that roll majestically out in all directions, dotted with sheep and sheep and more sheep. With the sun shining over all this, it’s like a painting where everything flows into each other smoothly, and so peaceful. Quiet and peaceful. I still miss it.
Well, in the middle of wastching this majesty out my window and trying in vain to get it on camera, it began to get quite late, and I saw on my phone that between the bus stop and my hostel was a distance of 2.3 miles to trek. I panicked about being in the middle of nowhere in the dark with a dead phone and no clue of where to go.
I got dropped off in the middle of Brecon (aka Middle of Nowhere), with a hospital up the road, a few cars driving by, and residential homes all around me. Since it was past 4pm, everything was closed. “What the hell am I doing?” I thought as the sky got darker and my dying phone pointed me in the direction of a very narrow path that cut through some fields. I followed it.
That solitary walk off the main road and onto this little lane big enough for one car and no people is one of the most vivid memories from my whole trip. There was nothing special about the place to draw in people; it was just farmland. But the experience is better remembered than my trip to the National Gallery in London (that’s not to knock the National Gallery). I was completely alone among the thick, flowering shrubbery through which I heard cows one my left and sheep on my right, just feet from me. Every so often there’d be a little gap and I’d glimpse them and they me. It was very personal and almost comical. This walk was a type of transformation – you never notice it while in the moment, but looking back I can see it – or, more accurately, make it up. 2.3 miles seemed like a great distance to cross with a huge backpack, but I had no choice, and when you have no choice you just do a thing. Let me tell you, after this experience 2.3 miles looked very different.
A couple of times throughout my trip, I heard about the Camino, or Pilgrimage to Santiago, a trek across the countryside of northern Spain and, typically, some of France that happens by foot, and which attracts thousands of people year-round. It was the basis for the movie The Way, which I have not yet seen. But basically, you walk all the time with all your possessions on your back, or on wheels, but either way always in tow, until you reach Santiago, and then you fly home. I first heard about it from an Australian girl in Bath, who did it this May and described how amazing it was. Then I heard about it from a German girl in Bilbao, who did it in March. And then a couple days later in Bilbao I met an Austrian guy on his way through it. It’s now on my list of things to do at some point in my life (how can it not bet? The prospect of walking through a countryside, really seeing it because you notice so much more when you walk than when you drive, when you actually come into physical contact with your surroundings; of camping at night and sitting around a fire with people doing the same thing you are, talking about what you’ve seen). But from the perspective of walking 20+ km a day for over a month like it’s the norm, this 2.3 mile hike in a still relatively populated area… well it’s all about perspective isn’t it.
But we’re still in the moment when I was first out alone in a foreign countryside with a backpack and some distance to go, a moment when I knocked upon the wall of my own laziness, which I didn’t think was there. It was in my mind that I had been doing things like this easily; in reality I had never done it. Now I finally hit upon it.
Every so often I’d stop and smell some of the flowers, or look around, or listen to how quiet the air was, punctured by moos and baas. There was no escaping that last one. I’d check my phone unnecessarily often to confirm that I was still going the right way, even though there was only one way to go. That’s the wall I’m talking about.
Sometimes, as I watched twilight come over the sky, a thought flitted through my mind that someone was going to jump out of the bushes and kill me and I would be dead in the middle of nowhere. That’s more of the same wall. There’s fear when you’re next to a cliff and you might fall off, and then there’s fear against logic, fear out of place with your circumstances….
When I finally got to the hostel, a quiet YHA cabin (so a pretty good standard of hosteling conditions), my back was killing me. It was almost dark outside and there were a few people at the hostel. The staff worker, a young Welsh guy, was extremely helpful and looked up bus routes for me for the next day, when I would be off again in the morning. This was before I learned to just settle down in one spot for a while, and also before I learned that I would not have a car. I took that night just to relax in the common room, where I met a friendly Londoner who was part of a group of teachers taking their kids camping. Camping looks like the only draw Brecon has since there’s nothing there, making it pretty ideal for getting away from, well, everything.
Grateful to have tea and do nothing, I chatted with him about America and England and The Wire, making my usual claim that not even everyone living there agrees with that Baltimore isn’t really that bad. Well, it is, but there are really good, interesting parts as well that I appreciate a lot more right now, being so far away.
The next morning, I spent some time outside the hostel, playing with the hostel cat and enjoying being out in the middle of nowhere with the crappy WiFi that kept me inaccessible (it’s a nice feeling that’s been lost for so many years). It was nice to take a break… but I was ready to get out of Brecon. After breakfast (you really begin to enjoy food when you’re always walking…), the other staff member, an older lady, marked out a more scenic route to go back to the bus stop by, which passed by a nice pub she said, making me regret not taking that way the night before. I wanted my authentic pub experience (see future Ireland posts). It was a nice walk, though, following a canal people slowly canoed along, and a turbulent river on the other side, passing by (surprise) more fields of sheep. The houses along the way were pretty nice, too, and it looked like people lived fairly comfortably. There was a bit of character to be had with one cute, hot pink building with potted flowers of purples, reds, oranges, and yellows all outside it that I think was a bed and breakfast, but don’t take my word for it if you ever go to Brecon.
It was at this bus stop if I recall that I waited for my next bus with two young Welsh guys. One of them described in vivid detail to the other his recent trip to Spain, where he stayed on a party island similar to Ibiza (I forget the name). He went on about a huge foam party and tons of girls, and the elderly Welsh lady waiting next to us, also listening, chuckled along as he talked about getting really drunk and being covered in foam that fell from the ceiling. It was funny to me because I could get that sort of thing back home and here I am taking in what’s probably mundane to him, but to him it was the other way around. I had fun trying to understand his English through his Welsh accent and understood most of it. I also learned some Welsh words. For instance, here’s a good phrase to know: “bws safle = bus stop.” This wouldn’t be the first time I caught myself thinking that I wished I’d learned more languages as a kid.
Well, all this extra walking was a result of some poor planning. That’s not to say I condone poor planning. I’m just saying, it’s not always so bad and kind of exciting.