THE OTHER CAMINO
A BLOG ABOUT POSSIBILITIES
Goodbyes and hugs and Facebook friend requests. Promises to see L. and J. soon in the States. One more throw of the stick to the resident dogs.
We visited the world’s smallest train station, Will and Louise and Michael and Clare and me, and crowded onto a one-car train with all our luggage and said goodbye to Wales.
Goodbyes are funny; I would rather just avoid them. Full hugs, one-shouldered hugs, air kisses, real kisses. We would never all be together again in a castle, but that one time in that one castle was damn good.
Mom: Well, B ax had a day of not feeling too well. He didn’t eat for most of Sat. and Sun. On Sunday’s am walk, he kept stopping to [sic] pop but nothing came out. In the evening when we came home from Bible study was. Opened.
Me: Your message cut off.
Me: What was the last part, after you came home from Bible study?
Mom: Oops. We opened the door to a horrible smell. We found a very large puddle of runny poop.
Me: Oh no.
Mom: He had the forethought to poop on the hardwood floor, not the carpet.
Me: I’m… glad. How is he?
Mom: Seems more like himself today.
I’m sitting on a bit of the sea wall looking out at the beach in Manorbier, Wales. Will took a hike up to see something or other—I already forget, but he’ll tell me when he returns. The beach is covered with patches of red, blue and gray stones—I’ve sorted a few for my mom, matron of our rock-loving family.
There are dogs everywhere, on and off leash, in and out of the water. Very pale sunbathers—how will they walk away without a nasty burn?
Will is coming down now, a faint moving blur in his Last Podcast on the Left shirt, growing bigger as he approaches.
The wedding is over, although so many of us—Americans mostly, but Brits, too, are staying around for another day, so it seems like we’re still celebrating. It was the most beautiful wedding I’ve ever been to, and partly I wonder if I can now hang up my hat where weddings are concerned, if I can send regrets and just be done with it, as surely this was a high water mark for human achievements in the category of weddings.
Later, at Barafundle Bay
The fun thing—or one of—about having a bad knee is the limitations you suddenly discover.
I overheard several people saying that there was a beautiful walk to Barafundle Bay with steep stairs and a better beach view, and the scene began to play out in my head. Me walking too slowly, the group hanging back out of politeness, Will looking over his shoulder impatiently. I could feel my heart rate as I descended the steps, the fear that this would be the time my knee didn’t hold, that it would crumple beneath me and I wouldn’t be able to walk and it would take a team to carry me back to the car park (I’m even thinking in UK terms) and somehow a helicopter would have to and on this remote corner of the world, and I would have to stay in a UK hospital and then a rehab hospital for weeks (which fortunately, due to the NHS, might not cost me an arm and a leg).
So I said I would stay behind.
There’s a small, rocky beach here with rowboats and kayaks and cheerful people in wetsuits, one that doesn’t take an hour to hike to, and doesn’t require navigating steep steps. Farther out, there’s a towering seawall with a dozen or so teenagers jumping and diving off, then climbing up the tethered ropes to do it again. Their taunts and laughter float back across the bay.
Maybe there are cats tucked away indoors, unseen—one surprised me at the inn, where it glared up at me from a cat-fur covered couch cushion—but it would appear that Wales is a dog country. Everyone has one, and most are of the small-to-medium sized variety and of indeterminate breed. (The exception would be the Irish Wolfhound we saw stalking through the streets of Tenby with its scruffy-haired human at its side.) To a one, the dogs are remarkably well-behaved.
As I’m writing this, at a picnic bench in a lovely garden by the path to the bay, there’s a sweet dog curled under a neighboring bench, and the feet of a young couple eating a picnic out of a reusable bag that said I KNOW MY ONIONS, except the Os were all pictures of different kinds of onions. The dog—and its humans—looked blissfully happy.
Apparently although it is socially acceptable to visit a beautiful spot in the world and stare mindlessly at one’s cell phone screen, it is less acceptable to sit by oneself on a picnic bench writing in one’s journal. This observation is the result of several strange looks and one very pointed stare I received.
A tiny bird with a black undercarriage and yellow neck and feathers landed next to me, fixed me with a curious stare—what on earth was I doing, and why was I doing it?—and flew off.
The wedding. The wedding!
L. and J. were so happy. The weather was just warm enough to warrant the pints of Pimm’s Cup I consumed, learning halfway through what a Pimm’s Cup was: ginger ale, fruit, cucumber, mint, and Pimm’s #1 (gin). I made it through my reading without a hitch. Will engineered the sound like a champ. The service was excellent. The toasts were hilarious and touching and well-crafted. The food was great. I danced until my knee ordered me to stop and we stumbled happily back to the inn, singing George Michael.
Dad: So I got two calls from you during the night. I answered but you didn’t respond. I heard voices—one sounded lie Will—were those butt calls?
Me: So strange! I must have sat on my phone or something. Sorry! We are fine here. How are you?
Dad: Butt otherwise fine.
The wedding is a castle, and the castle has been rented for five days. During business hours, it’s open to the public. After hours, it belongs to the bride and groom, and their friends who keep trickling in from around the globe.
“We’re hanging out in a castle,” Will kept saying, squeezing my hand.
Will and I are staying across the street at an inn, which is mostly* lovely, with a group of other Americans, relatives and friends of the bride. There’s a charming dining room that serves breakfast for guests and other meals to anyone wandering by. And people do wander by—there’s the castle to see, of course, and then a short walk down to a beach or up to an ancient-looking church. From the garden of the inn, we can see visitors to the church wandering amongst the gravestones. So far we’ve been content to play with the inn’s dogs, who could literally fetch sticks and pieces of bark and tennis balls for hours.
*I set off the fire alarm at the inn by taking a shower. There was something wrong with the water controls. As I told Will after my first shower of the weekend, “Turn on the hot water and wait five minutes.” But the next day when I showered, I couldn’t seem to get any cold water. When I opened the door, the steam hit the fire detector, and a minute later, while I was still toweling off, the fire alarm started. Will went downstairs to see what was wrong and was told that someone in room 3 (me!) had let steam out of the bathroom, and voila! Piercing alarm.
The groom’s parents rented a tour bus for the American visitors (and some Brits, too) and we drove all around southwestern Wales.
We walked around Carew Castle (throw a stone anywhere and you could hit a castle. Well, not really), then were dropped off in Tenby. For some reason, we were all desperate for ice cream at the same moment, which is exactly my type of people and exactly my type of vacation.
Something happened on this trip—just a little something, ten minutes of panic, and not even to me—and sitting again in my seat in the bus, I could see it all as a piece of fiction, something I would write in a year when I was done with my current manuscript. The story unfolded in my mind, gaining characters, the moment extending backward and forward in time, the plot growing legs, becoming a story.
I promised myself to store it for later.
Some scenes from Tenby:
The day ended with the rehearsal and the following dinner, and a general sense of goodwill and warmth, partially fueled by new friendships, partially by wine, partially by weather that locals were calling “magic”—early rain gave way to puffy clouds and then an endless blue sky. And then it ended again with a trip to the pub up the street (literally everything here is just up the street), pints of Guinness, and mingling as guests from London began to arrive.
The barkeep was less than thrilled with our crowd, though—noisy Americans, drunken visitors. Every now and then I got a glimpse of him in the corner, scrolling through the feed on his phone.
Our train from Paddington was delayed by twenty-some minutes, which meant we missed the connection at Swansea to Manorbier.
“Don’t worry,” the agent told us, checking our tickets. “Talk to someone in an orange vest, and they’ll take care of you.”
We found the people in orange vests, who huddled, discussed, and herded those of us who were heading in the direction of Manorbier into two waiting taxis.
Will, in the early planning stages of this trip, had talked about renting a car at Heathrow and making the drive to Wales, and I was at turns skeptical and discouraging and firm. We’d been to Wales once before and I remembered the roads to be narrowing and winding, with towering hedgerows and nearly incomprehensible roundabouts, not to mention the added challenge of driving on the “wrong” side of the road.
Our taxi driver, in the tradition of taxi drivers everywhere, was in a hurry—he tailgated, he sped up to pass, he zipped between lanes and took the roundabouts at a speed that made me, in the backseat, long for a handful of Dramamine.
Views from the train...
On the radio:
September by Earth, Wind and Fire
Stuck in the Middle with You by Stealers Wheel
The driver’s GPS led us to Manorbier, the tiny town where we’d be staying for the wedding. He drove down the narrow road (but that describes all roads in Wales, at least from what I’ve seen of the southwest)—that lead to the train station, pulled forward, reversed, and said apologetically, “I’ll have to let you off here. There’s no carpark.”
We scrambled out and stood with our suitcases and the side of the road, just beyond what had to be the world’s tiniest train station, with the world’s tiniest platform, which was currently deserted. The driver sped off, and we looked at each other. It felt like we were standing in the middle of a road at the edge of the world, which I guess we were.
About two minutes later, a van came around a corner and we recognized Sadie behind the wheel. The van, a rental for the wedding weekend, reminded her of the A-Team. In the passenger seat was a woman with wild red curls. She opened the door, stepped out with her arms raised above her head and said (this only works if you can imagine it in a British accent): “Hello! I’m Jane!”
And we were headed toward our final destination.
(From my parents, taking care of Baxter, the beloved aging beagle and LG, the high-strung rat terrier).
Dad: Get enough rest for your knee.
Dad: LG is making a pest of herself on my lap.
Dad: Baxter concluded another walk and did not lose a shoe yet.
Dad: Hope you’re not at the Mandarin Hotel in London… because it’s burning.
Mom: We had a nice walk. The getting ready was the hard part. I naturally put LGs leash on wrong and had to redo, much to her consternation. One of Bs little boots came off on his first step onto the porch, so it was back into the house to try again. I was sweating before we left.
We lost a day somewhere over the Atlantic, and time lost meaning.
It was nearly 24 hours from leaving our house in Modesto, BARTing from Hayward to SFO, running from one terminal to another, flying to Seattle, flying to Rekyjavik, flying to London, taking the train to Paddington Station, and dragging our luggage to our hotel a few blocks away. Within two minutes, we’d collapsed into bed.
“Remember we can’t sleep that long, or we’ll be a mess tonight,” Will said. Or maybe I dreamed it, because I was already asleep.
Will at Paddington Station.
“We’ve upgraded you to a family room,” the receptionist at the hotel said, handing over a key. There was a life-sized cutout of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle next to the counter.
The family room was down a hallway and a steep flight of stairs, tucked into a forgotten corner of the hotel. We opened the door to a room crammed with beds—apparently designed for six family members who like to be all up in each other’s business. The twin beds were perfect for holding an open suitcase, though, and the slightly-smaller-than-double beds were perfect for one each.
This was no time for romance.
Night’s agenda: food (Italian, seasoned with incredible hunger), wine, a walk through some charming neighborhoods, a stroll through Hyde Park. Back at the hotel, we turned on the television, having been alerted by my father that a hotel in London was burning (but not, apparently, ours).
“I’m going to watch for at least an hour,” I said from my less-than-double bed. “I don’t want to wake up at four a.m.”
That was the last thing I remembered before falling asleep.
In Hyde Park (with a serious lack of sleep happening).
Sometimes travel makes me sad.
While Will showered, I sat in Norfolk Square with my stomach rumbling, last night’s early dinner disappeared like a mirage. It was a tiny rectangular park, running the length of a street lined with hotels. Ours, the Cardiff Hotel, was behind me. Paddington Station was close by, a five-minute walk.
At first, it was just me and some pigeons, and then a very determined man with a leaf blower began to remove some of the park’s natural charm, and some workers gathered to smoke and rib each other over what I can only assume was a football match.
No, the sad part of traveling for me is realizing that these moments, ordinary or extraordinary—are fleeting. This moment will not exist again—or anyway, not with me in it. Soon, my husband, freshly showered, will come around the corner, reading to head to breakfast. Then I will return to my room, repack my toiletries and zip my bag and walk the five minutes to Paddington Station for a train to Wales, and this moment will exist only here, only now.
On our flight to Seattle, Will had the middle seat. I recognized the woman who took the aisle seat next to him; she was the woman who held up the line at the check-in counter about an hour earlier, when we were panicking (or at least, when I was panicking) about getting through the security checkpoint and making it to the gate on time. We’d already had ourselves a little adventure that included Will walking very fast (and me running, and still far behind him) from the International Terminal to Terminal 2, each of us dragging about 40 pounds of luggage.
I was still sweating when we boarded, my bra uncomfortably damp under my tank top and cardigan, my cheeks burning. Slap a blood pressure cuff on my arm and my reading, I was sure, would be through the roof. We’d bought overpriced water bottles once we were through security, and I was sipping mine like it was a delicacy. It was. It would have to last me until the food service cart came rumbling our way at least an hour later with a thimble-sized plastic cup.
Facing out the window, trying to determine if my luggage was among the heap being loaded into the bowels of the aircraft, I heard Will say, “So where are you headed?”
(A side note: There are introverts and then there are extroverts, and I’ll have you guess which type Will is.)
The woman replied, loud enough for me and the entire back of the plane to hear: She was heading to an Interplanetary Peace Conference in Geneva. It turned out she was a world renown expert on alien abduction, and also a hypnotherapist. Over the next hour and a half, she talked of regressing people. She mentioned an alien implant that had been deeded her in a will. She was writing a book. She’d been on Coast to Coast, not with Art Bell, but with the other guy. Last week, she said, she’d been in Canada. Later she mentioned that she’d just come from an Indian reservation where there had been a Bigfoot sighting, but the witness had been drunk and disorderly and landed himself in jail, so she would have to return to the reservation later to debrief him.
Will asked her about Betty and Barney Hill (“one of the most notorious cases of alien abduction,” she confirmed) and mentioned the X-Files episode of La Chupacabra, which took place in Patterson, a small town near ours in the Central Valley.
She made a note of the name and said she would plan a research trip there in the future.
At one point she laughed loudly at something she herself had said, and the woman in the seat in front of me turned around and asked her to be quiet. Not missing a beat and with what I thought was an admirable display of chutzpah, she handed the woman in front of her a business card.
And then we were in Seattle.
Paula Treick DeBoard