Atop Mount Snowden, I met fifteen people rolling joints and getting high to prepare for their descent of the mountain in treacherous, news-worthy weather. But as Maria Rainer would say, let’s start at the very beginning…
Over the summer I stumbled across the remarkable story of Llywelyn the Great, Prince of Gwynedd, considered by most historians the last and only Prince of Wales. Although he never declared himself as such, he effectively ruled the country, and in 1230, he changed his title from ‘Prince of North Wales’ to ‘Prince of North Wales and Lord of Snowdonia.’ Born in 1172, Llywelyn lived through the reign of King John: brother of Richard the Lionheart and notorious villain of the Robin Hood tales. As King John attempted to gain a stronghold in Wales, Llywelyn united the country against one of the strongest military forces in history, protecting his people and culture from English influence. According to legend, he also pardoned his wife for infidelity; instead of executing or banishing her, as people expected at this time, he instructed his people to welcome Joanna back to court, and upon her death, he expressed his grief and devotion by founding a Franciscan friary on the seashore of Llanfaes in her honor.
Historian Sharon Kay Penman used these sparse historical facts as the clay for her beautifully written novel of heroism and love, “Here Be Dragons.” As soon as I finished the book, I knew I would not yet feel complete until I experienced the mysticism of northern Wales for myself.
I spent the majority of my time chilled to the bone, and by the end of each day, I could barely muster the energy to pull my battered body into bed. But I would return in a heartbeat. Rolling hills of burnt orange, meandering rivers, and galling winds consumed me, and for a short while, I briefly forgot the rest of my life. I didn’t live in Paris, I wasn’t from Wisconsin, I didn’t go to school in Ohio, I was simply there, swallowed by the mountains, spun into the web of Welsh lore.
In these moments you experience a peculiar separation from yourself. Traveling does that in general, especially when you’re alone. Without familiarity to bind you to any particular thought or feeling, you’re left to your own devices, away from your routine, your family, your friends. In these moments, moments we can barely articulate, you find your own uninfluenced thoughts. Standing still and alone with the rain pouring down my skin, with nothing but the muddy, rocky stretch of terrain behind and before me, I lived at the edge of the world. Just the rugged hills and me.
Not to be overlooked, my journey to Wales was riddled with unexpected mishaps.Mishap Number One: Sitting next to a drunkard on the train ride from Liverpool to Snowdonia. Think about that word for a moment: Snowdonia. What does it remind you of? Narnia? Well that’s what the drunkard believed.
“Ahh, Snowdonia,” he nodded knowingly. “You know whass funny about Snowdonia? All the snow,” he chuckled to himself, taking another swig of his rather pungent ‘diet coke.’
“That’s nice,” I nodded with a smile I’m sure resembled a grimace.
“You know what else?” he bent his head towards me in confidence. He reeked. No wonder, either. At the onslaught of our journey he warned me that he’d “been pissed as fuck for days!” But of course, he had to return home for his niece’s birthday party. Of course. His unsteady, foul breath distracted me from noticing when we crossed the English border. Cursed with an ever-persistent need to be polite, I took the bait. “What else?”
I didn’t hear correctly. “Pardon?”
“Narnia,” he whispered, his eyes widening as a manic look spread across his face. “You know,” he brandished his diet coke bottle like a sword, “For Narnia!”
So there you have it. Snowdonia = Narnia. Personally, I didn’t meet any fauns, and they forgot to crown me Queen of Snowdonia, but don’t worry guys. Next time.
Mishap Number Two: Booking a hostel 45 minutes away from the train station. But actually, who does that? You either end up paying an embarrassing amount for a taxi, hitchhiking, or relying on an ancient bus system. I, personally, tested all three of these methods for you. Pro tip: either rent a car or be sure to travel during tourist season. I visited just after tourist season. When I inquired as to why the bus had missed its scheduled 10:30 arrival, a local Welshman raised his eyebrows at me in surprise. “Bus? It’s not tourist season! You won’t be seeing any buses until the driver feels like passing by. Good luck to you.”
Mishap Number Three: Planning a hiking trip during some of the worst storms England and Wales had seen in months. We were all over the news, yo. Whoops.
Mishap Number Four: Relying on the bus system a second time. You’d think I would have learned the first time. But no. No, I needed to tempt fate. Hiking trails surrounded my hostel, so for the majority of my trip I simply ventured out the front door and found enough excitement and nature to preoccupy me. My last day though, I needed to actually hike Mount Snowden. Somehow, miraculously, the bus arrived only fifteen minutes late, whisking me off to one of the many mountain trails. I set off without any concerns; the sky had cleared, I had remembered my map, and the transportation system had not failed me. I was golden. Until that evening. After a full day of hiking, including an incident when the trail just…disappeared, I carried my tired legs to the base of the mountain, and waited patiently at the bus stop. The bus never came. Of course it didn’t. And this, folks, brings us back to the beginning of my tale. The hikers who rolled their joints at the top of the mountain? Well that friendly pack of kids drove up to me and offered a ride. Considering the driver seemed sober and the alternative was hitchhiking down the dark, curved roads along the mountain’s edge, I quickly accepted, and within 20 minutes, was home safe and sound.
And truthfully? It didn’t matter what went awry; my hiking trip has stayed with me since October. The Welsh have fiercely protected their culture, and at least in the north, nearly everyone speaks Welsh. Visit Wales not only for the stunning landscape, but to admire the tenacity of this small country.
This is the world Merlin could have reigned, and where the echoes of the past cling to the mountainside, reminding us visitors that we may be welcome, but we don’t belong.
And now, when Paris begins to feel oppressive, whether because of the crowds or pollution, I can close my eyes and recreate the liberating feeling of standing in the Welsh mountains, all on my own, with only rivers and trees in sight. And maybe some sheep. And just for a moment, for that split second when my eyes are shut and my neighbor’s alarm clock and the construction outside all become a whirring echo, I can feel the magic of an ancient land wrap itself around me in its quiet serenity.