On my first arrival in Wales twenty-three years earlier I was unaware of most things. Everything really did go unnoticed. I don’t recall now if it was by bus or train, I think train, but we arrived in a small town and from there to the hostel, up the mountain it was a fifteen mile journey of walking and snagging two car rides from strangers, not something I would recommend today. The hostel was nestled in between two peaks as I remember it; it certainly wasn’t deep enough to be called a valley. Pen-y-Pass, and at this time you were truly a hiker if you came up this way. I was not, but the warm fireplace and the people we encountered left lasting impressions. I met Peter here. We ran into him again in the Scottish Highlands and he traveled with us to Edinburgh. He was from Australia and we continued our friendship through the pen for several years. Hugh and his friend, who were barely fifteen. They and a girl stayed together with us through to Bangor and the pub, and then a bus ride to Llandudno where they went their way and we went ours. Lake District ho.
However, something happened in Pen-y-Pass that left an indelible mark on me that taps me on the shoulder now and then even today. It shaped many things in my future and no doubt has led me to where I am today.
Wales is my Holy Land.
It was January and all of England had been grey and rainy and dreary. The only thing that kept me going was the newness of everything: the trains, the buses, the hiking and the hostels, the people. Wales was different the moment you crossed the border. For one thing, in the late 80s the Welsh language and a new nationalism were having its rebirth. Everything was in Welsh, and some of it wasn’t even in English, especially in the North part that we were in. I kept a little log of useful Welsh-English words and phrases that included Bore dda and Diolch. Good morning and thank you. Although the colloquial ‘cheers’ and ‘ta’ worked just as well for thank you. For my second trip I bought a phrase book similar to the one you would bring on a visit to France or Germany. I inconveniently forgot that (and my beautiful detailed map of Wales) when I returned in 2017.
We arrived at the hostel at dusk, a subtle sunset making way to pitch blackness that you can only find on a mountain top. We took a night hike – the path was well-marked and it must have been a full moon because the water reflected brightly. The stars – oh my goodness, the stars glowed with white light as bright as the sun and they twinkled. I have never seen that word so defined before or since. It was as if someone covered the sun with a blue-black bed-sheet and pinpricked holes in it to reveal the constellations. I feel now as if I should squint in the retelling.
The morning came early and cold, and the snow caps seemed close enough to touch, but the sky was blue. It was the color of that perfect sky blue crayon, the only clouds so far away they were of little consequence. It was the only blue sky we would see all week. At least that’s how I remember it.
At some point on that morning walk, as one foot lifted and set down on the gravelly path there was an imperceptible pause, a tug, a something that made me believe in all things wondrous. In my mind, my foot was suspended for a long, slow motion of a split second over the gravelly path, and then it landed, not hard, not forceful, but in an almost different land. I had been here before. Of course I hadn’t, but it was a powerful reminder that there is more than we can possibly understand, more than we can see and experience and more to us than what we think there is. That moment began a lifelong connection to Wales. Hiraeth. A thread uncovered that can’t be cut or undone that keeps me tethered to this place, always joined but still free to move out and further out and yet still grounded in what feels like the ancestral, familial. Teulu.
It is happenstance connecting with random connecting with mission. I casually picked up a book that introduced me to medieval Wales through historical fiction (Here be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman) which led to historical research which led to historical immersion with the Society for Creative Anachronism, which continued to lead down a path that tripped and stumbled over fate and the spiritual for over twenty years to include a second pilgrimage and then my saint’s name (St. Elen) until I could return and see if what I remembered feeling was still present after so long or had I imagined something that I wanted to feel.
I was relieved to find it was the former.