38/52 – Pen-y-Pass, Thirty Years

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​Thirty years ago, 7 January to be precise, I arrived for the first time in Wales. This was a momentous event for several reasons, even if I didn’t realize all of them until years later. It was one of the most spontaneous things I’ve ever done, and had life given me different circumstances, I may have missed all that this gave me. Our trip could be divided into three parts – England, Wales, and Scotland. We had lots of time, and that still wasn’t enough. If I recall correctly, after London and about a week in England, we took the train from Wolverhampton to Llanddudno Junction, and then on to Betws-y-Coed, where we would need to walk or hitchhike about twelve miles to the hostel in Snowdonia. The hostel was in Pen-y-Pass, which is about the middle of the Pass of Llanberis. I know all of this now more than then. Then was thirty years ago, and I was following my college roommate wherever she was taking me with little complaint. It was not an easy trek, and although I am much more out of shape now, this most recent time (and the time before this one) I had a car to get around.

Since it was January on that first excursion, Pen-y-Pass was not very crowded. This really isn’t the season for hikers up and around the mountains of the Snowdon National Park. There were only a few of us at the hostel, but we made friends quickly, and ended up traveling together to Bangor and then eventually split up, the boys, Neil and Hugh, fifteen or so to our twenty were heading home to London, Gunnar, 20-something to West Germany, and Liz, 18 was traveling with us to Kendal in the Lake District, where she lived, and where we would be spending the night (at another hostel) before we traveled to the Scottish Highlands the day after. Gunnar was kind enough to add to my collection of money, remembering to stop me in the morning to hand me two German coins.

Youth Hostel at Pen-y-Pass, Snowdon National Park, North Wales. (c)1987-2017

In order to write this, I am re-reading my journal from those days, and I must admit – it is atrocious. It is very much “we did a, b, and c, and then this happened, etc.” I read my journal from 2009 as well, and it is not much better. At least I’m conscious of it as i try to journal from my summer visit a few weeks ago and I pray that my writing has improved.

“7pm

We are at Pen-y-Pass. We got here at around 4:30. We got two rides from Betws-y-Coed, and we walked a bit less than a mile (although it seemed like forever.) This is a beautiful region filled with mountains. Not like the Oneonta [where I went to college] mountains, though. There are less trees. These are huge stone slabs against the sky. We walked towards the sunset, so it looked really great. There are lots of sheep. The view up here is absolutely wonderful. There aren’t enough adjectives to describe it. I’m sitting next to a nice, warm fire. This is really a nice hostel. We’ve changed some plans: tomorrow, we go to Bangor; then Kendal, then Pitlochry for two days and finally Edinburgh.”

“8:50pm

[I drew a little diagram of the constellations I could see.]

Just got back from a night hike up the mountain. The moon was out, and the stars as well, of course. It wasn’t too cold. We saw some sheep and heard some streams.

Kathy [my college roommate] & I are going to go up again tomorrow morning.”

I believe this was a trail called the Miner’s Track.

Snowdon National Park at Pen-y-Pass, near the Miner’s Track, North Wales. (c)1987-2017

One of the amazing things my husband noticed on our trip simply confirmed what I had learned so long ago. Ireland has a lot of sheep. A lot. They don’t have nearly as many sheep as Wales. The Welsh sheep also have this knack for defying gravity. The can stand perfectly in any clump of grass, rocks, dirt, no matter how steep. They also seem to be like the Harry Potter Knight Bus, at least the ones we encountered on the roadways, in that they were there suddenly, but miraculously made themselves small enough to not get run over, or push your vehicle over a cliff. We were very grateful for that.

Our visit this time to Wales was for one simple reason: my pilgrimage to my saint’s holy well. Everything else was like icing on the cake, actually it was like the ice cream next to the cake since for me the icing is the best part. So the well would be the icing, and the rest of the visit was the ice cream.

I have always found many of the well loved places in Wales through other people’s suggestions for me. This time was no different. I had driven past my friend’s family home near Bangor on our way to the hotel in Dolwyddelan, and he suggested we go for ice cream in Beddgelert, so we did. Well worth the trip (and worthy of its own post).

In our driving around Wales, we discovered many things, and rediscovered several things from my second visit that I could share with my family. It’s funny because when I returned home in 2009 from my solo adventure, I did not want to share any of this with my family, but after bringing them this past August, I was really excited to share with them the very things that at first frightened me.

While we were there for just over forty-eight hours, we did quite a lot of driving. 

We ended up taking a quick break where ther were a lot of cars parked, both in the car park and on the roadway, and a phenomenal amount of walkers and hikers, all sporting various hiking equipment and gear. My family decided to stop here to take a couple of pictures and grab a couple of drinks for the rest of the drive to wherever we were going at that moment. By this point in our trip, I was exhausted, so I waited in the car.

I looked around from my vantage point, and thought things seemed familiar, but of course I told myself that I must be imagining it. I mean to someone who is not a hiker/mountain climber, one mountain is pretty much the same as any other. It was a grey sky, and slightly overcast; chilly and the sky was darkening into evening, but still, there was something about this place.

The road between Pen-y-Pass and Llanberis, North Wales. (c)1987-2017

I looked around some more, and as I stretched my neck and turned my head, a woman sitting on a picnic bench moved ever so slightly, and I could read the sign that had been directly behind her head: Pen-y-Pass.

PEN-Y-PASS.

I got very excited, but couldn’t leave the car – I hadn’t known where my family went, and I didn’t have keys to the car, but I was frantically trying to see more of my discovery.

When my son came back, I excitedly asked him if there was a youth hostel there, and when he said yes. I handed him my phone and asked him to take some pictures. He asked no questions and did as he was asked, and it was in looking at them on his return that I realized that it had literally been thirty years, and I was back.

Pen-y-Pass with 30 years of changes. North Wales. (c)2017


I was astonished. I had no plans to come back here or to bring my family despite this spot being so integral to my attachment to Wales so long ago. This was where on a cold, sunny hilltop in the Snowdon Mountains did I encounter that feeling that isn’t deja vu as much as it’s deja vu times a lifetime. It has been mysterious and has led me back twice more, and it can’t be explained to anyone who’s never experienced it themselves.

On that day thirty years ago, we set out on our hike. It was January in the UK, and I expected Wales to be the same as England. Gray, overcast, damp, misty, cloudy, etc. and so on.

It was not.

Oh, it was cold. Not as cold as the Cotswolds, but damn it was cold.

No clouds, though. Just a brilliant blue sky with the snow-capped mountains set as a backdrop against the sky. There were sheep – I still can’t figure out how they managed to stand at a 45 degree angle and not roll down the hills. We walked, we stopped, we walked. And I was home.

It really was unexplainable. I felt this incredible sense of awareness of every blade of grass, the sunlight reflecting on the water, the cold snowy smell, and just the feeling that I’d been there before. This is where I was meant to be. I was supposed to be there because I had been there before. It was overwhelming and unforgettable.

It remains so.

It’sf spiritual.

And holy.

And it drew me in, and has kept me searching, even when I wasn’t looking.

It was only two months ago (and thirty years ago), and still, I can feel what I felt both times.

In that most recent time, I had this incredible feeling come upon me. This was another time that seemingly unrelated moments connect as they have between 1987 and 2017, and I wonder how destiny works, but know that it does.

Glenariff Falls

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As incongruous as it seems, as much as I have a fear and dislike of water and boats, I really love waterfalls. I also like watching rivers and despite past vertigo at the expanse of oceans, I really loved my experiences in Ireland at the North Atlantic. 
However, more than anything else, it’s waterfalls. As a kid, we visited Niagara Falls every other year, and I took my oldest son there right before he started kindergarten. It was the one place I always wanted to show my kids, and we were able to do that finally, last year. It made such an impact that my daughter asked as we were crossing the bridge back into the United States when we would be visiting again! 

When our kids were young, we lived in a small city that had a waterfall that was the Niagara Falls of its day (the turn of the 19th century), and I loved visiting there just to watch the falls flow gently over the side and crash loudly on the rocks below. They were nothing like Niagara, but It was so close that I could visit frequently, and it was a safe place during the height of my depression.

I was excited when our cousin, Christine told us about a trail that led to a lovely waterfall nearby on the way to the Giant’s Causeway, our Friday destination. She wrote down the directions which seemed easy enough, and off we went on our Coast Road adventure!

Before putting them safely into the glovebox, I glanced at the directions, and took mental note that after turning left at the sign for Glenarriffe (one of multiple spellings we would see) we would need them again.

It was a very long drive to get to the north coast.

We stopped a couple of times on the way, ending our journey not at the Causeway, but at Ballintoy since it was raining, off and on, as is the custom in Ireland, and it was getting later than we’d anticipated returning for dinner.

About halfway along the coast road, after having only a modest breakfast, we were getting hungry as articulated by the two youngest passengers as only they could do. My oldest son clicked on his GPS and found us a nearby restaurant that we thought wasn’t too far off the road. 

We could break for lunch, and then get back on our way to the waterfalls. I still wasn’t sure that I could physically handle the trail that Christine described, but I still wanted the kids to see as much as they could of their grandmother’s homeland.

My son directed us to the restaurant, which was simply turn left and follow the road to practically the end. The restaurant also had sleeping accommodations, and a gift shop. The huge windows of the restaurant, Laragh Lodge, backed up to the forest, and there was a sign and a trail to the Glenariff Forest, and another beyond that on a wooden bridge called Waterfalls Walk. I was thrilled that we’d found a back way in so we wouldn’t have to figure out how to get the the trail on our directions after eating!

It began to rain right before we parked, but it wasn’t far to walk to the entrance, and I had my umbrella. We knew from previous experience that the rain would be short-lived.

We had a really delicious lunch – all of the food on this trip could only be described as amazing. Not only the restaurant food, but the home cooked meals that we had with our cousins. Here, I had chicken goujon with champ and a salad garnish.

Beginning top, left to right: The Laragh Lodge restaurant, the sign upon entering the grounds – my family made me read it twice, the back of the restaurant they faced the forest, Swan on the entry post, Mountain and perfect blue sky, chicken goujon with champ and salad garnish, the inside of the restaurant. (c)2017


As we finished eating, my daughter and I headed straight to the gift shop as the rest of our group headed towards the dirt path to the forest. I had to dig deep into my coins and I still didn’t have enough. The woman behind the counter let it go. She was very kind. It was so hard to choose which items we wanted, and my daughter was in love with the unicorns and fairies.
As soon as we left the small shop, I could hear the river and the falls, and the sound of the water soothed me. I had to pause. As we got closer to the wooden bridge, I was enveloped in the sound of the rushing river, and the darkening of the trail as the trees knitted their branches overhead creating a high canopy that separated into two trails, one that led uphill and the other down. My husband and older son had already gone up, and I chose down, thinking that it might be a bit easier for me.

It was, but coming back up not so much!

I could see the falls through the trees as the trail curved, and there was a handrail for part of the walk down. I was so close that I couldn’t not go all the way down to the falls.

They were the most perfect forest falls. Water coursing down the rocks, surrounded by grass, larger stones, and trees, landing gently at the bottom, like a fairy glen. I could almost picture the ancients coming to the base of the falls to gather jugs of water, bathing, and swimming. Of course, this part of Northern Ireland is known as the Nine Glens of Antrim and faeries are a popular treasure here.

We stayed for a bit. My kids stepped back, knowing that this was a place that I wanted to relish in the quiet sounds of the forest. Looking up, I could see the rest of the group on the trail just above the falls. I only considered meeting them up there for a moment, but then quickly decided that I was happy right where I was.

Glenariff Falls and Me. (c)2017


I just enjoyed leaning on the railing that separates the rock we were standing on with the water and the falls, and just listening to the water flow and land at the bottom, feeling the cool breeze through my hair on my face, letting the spirituality of this sanctuary emanate and inspire through me.

Glenariff Falls, Glenariff, Northern Ireland, UK (c)2017

This was my place.
Then, it came.

One drop, two at first. I still had my umbrella, fortunately because when the rain came again, it came.

Torrents and heavy, and not even the canopy of trees could keep it from us. It’s what I imagine a rain forest is like, but colder, harder, and  unrelenting. We got back up the hill before it became too slippery, and kept walking as fast as three of us under one umbrella could until we got to the shelter adjacent to the restaurant’s door. We sat there while waiting for the rest of our group – the boys with the keys – to return to the parking lot. They were drenched!

As we made our way back along the road to the Coast Road to continue our journey to the Causeway, I took another look at our cousin’s directions to see how far we were from her trail:

Larne – Coast Road

At sign for Glenarriffe

Turn left.

Take road to 

restaurant half way up hill

Park at restaurant and 

walk round back to waterfall trail

Photo of the directions to the Falls, which we ended up finding by accident. (c)2017


We hadn’t known it while we were following my son’s GPS, but we followed her directions precisely.
Nothing could describe destiny any better than that.