Sunrise in the Welsh valleys is a bit of a misnomer. The mist lies low like a blanket and distorts the landscape, as if seen through gauze. The dull morning light fashions a scene full of shadows and silhouettes. If mornings are any barometer, the eventual appearance of the sun is not a foregone conclusion. Waiting alone in a gravel lot outside the town of Abergavenny, near the border of England, I am staring into this dreamscape that counts for dawn in Wales. I have come here to clear my head. More than that: I have come here to find balance.
I am about to meet the strangers who will be my companions on a nine-day, 100-mile walk from Holy Mountain to Bethlehem, christening a new path traversing Brecon Beacons National Park. The sky begins to brighten, highlighting the rising mist and fallen stones of an abbey in the distance. It’s all a little dramatic, almost too well constructed; yet it perfectly suits my sense of the theatrical. The first of the cars turns into the lot, and I know, taking in a deep, deep-breath, that I have come to where I need to be.
We are a fairly large group of walkers: 19, plus one dog. It occurs to me that perhaps this is not going to be the best situation for quiet reflection, but before I have a chance to second-guess myself we are done with the pleasantries and heading straight up the steep incline of Holy Mountain (named, perhaps, for the number of times you’ll find yourself stopping to gasp for air, invoking the name of the Lord). It quickly becomes difficult to remain sociable and mobile at the same time. I pass a woman twice my age and struggle to mumble a few words. “I will talk to you later,” she says with a chirp and a smile, “right now I am trying to breathe.” I can only nod. My ears are buzzing with the intensity of the effort, and it is only hours later that I realize she wasn’t speaking Welsh.
“We’ve got about another 45 minutes to the top, and then it’s just another bump before lunch,” shouts Rob Knowles, the leader of the walk. I’m panting twice as hard as the dog, who is continually doubling back to nudge us along, as if we are sheep. I find that once I stop staring at the number of people ahead of me and focus on my immediate path, I fall into a light rhythm, stepping first with my left foot while breathing in, following with the right while exhaling. It widens my stance so I feel the effort not just in my calves but from hip to heel, becoming more sure-footed in the process.
When we reach the peak, it is carpeted with heather and exposed to the elements, though the air is completely still. The curtain of mist has evaporated. I’ve not managed to take in the views until now, having spent the hours trying to not embarrass myself, so the effect is magnified. The sky is gunmetal grey, the hills and valleys an endless spread of concentrated greens: jade, forest, lime, bottle.
Gulping water, I can see far in the distance two hills nestled side by side, imposing and impressive. “That’s Pen y Fan, the highest point in southern Wales,” a woman tells me, pouring water for her dog. “We’ll be there in three days.” Three of us compare pedometers and realize that we’ve racked up about five miles.
As we descend into the valley and approach our second “bump” of the day, a number of people use their walking sticks. I’d wondered why they hadn’t used them on the way up, but the man next to me explains, as if reading my mind, that the sticks are used more for balance than for leverage, taking the stress off of tender joints. I’ve two bum knees, and they get a little wobbly heading downhill; the grass is slick, and the mountain runoff has turned the path to mud. I make a mental note to find a stick back in town.
Once we settle down for lunch I tell my new friends that in America this would not be considered a walk at all, but a full-on hike. Everybody laughs, not only because I am a good 20 years younger than most of them, but because in the UK walking per se is not considered an active pursuit. They laugh because the majority of them are serious walkers, or ramblers, addicted to not only the outdoors but also the myriad benefits that come from such extended vigorous exercise: increased stamina, mental clarity and joint stability to name but a few beyond the obvious cardiovascular benefits. I enjoy an occasional hike and walk a few miles in the course of my daily routine, but collectively this group has a few thousand miles on me, and I am humbled. I’m also fairly exhausted and very aware of the ache in my hips and the growing discomfort in my lower back. I wonder if anyone’s carrying Advil but push the thought away.
Later, I set out to explore the town of Brecon, where we are staying. Brecon is situated along a river in the middle of these hills, named the Brecon Beacons. Once a center for the thriving Welsh coal trade, this small town is proud of its heritage yet keenly aware of its new role as a way station for outdoor enthusiasts. There’s also a quaint esplanade that rolls along the river to the mouth of a great canal that stretches down to Cardiff and the sea, a castle, the county museum, and a rash of good restaurants. According to the guidebook, my evenings promise to be as full as my days.
My exploration is cut short, however, by an ache in my left hip that streaks down my leg like a message sent in Morse code. I decide to return to my B&B to do some stretching. I stumble into a chip shop along the way: “We’re closed,” the clerk tells me. In my best New York accent I beseech the woman for anything I can steal back to bed for dinner. “Peas and beans are all gone, but I can do you a big fish and chips. I’ll wrap it up tight so you can sneak it in — they don’t usually let you bring food back to those B&Bs,” she says. Gratefully, I tuck the package into my jacket and hobble back home.
Back in my room, I wonder if I can do this all over again tomorrow. I practice focused breathing into my hips and legs and quickly nod off before I’ve had the chance to try any of my yoga stretches.
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It’s true that a day makes all the difference. My lungs feel huge, capacious, as though able to move greater quantities of oxygen into my blood. Plus, I’ve learned a trick with my new walking stick: carrying it Christ-like across the back of my neck pulls back my slumping shoulders and opens up my chest, causing me to stand fully upright. Also, it prevents “hiker’s hump” — walking uphill while hunched over, putting undue strain on the lower back. Above the waist I am revived, but my legs continue to cry out. However, by day three I’m able to chat, and I drift up and down the pack like an inquisitor, learning all about my fellow hikers.
One of the most beguiling things about walking in a group is that it’s a bit like going to confession. An intimacy forms when two people walk side by side, whether by choice or accident. The physical demands of the hike keep your eyes focused either on the path or the horizon, rarely on the person with whom you’re speaking. Someone is there, but not there. It makes it easy to share, knowing that you’ll not find disapproval in the eyes of your confessor. It is said that muscles hold emotions and memories, and I wonder if all this exercise has a purgative effect, tumbling out into speech. As we reach the massive escarpment leading up to Pen y Fan, I am mentally fatigued, but in a good way: as though I’ve just worked through something in therapy.
I’ve been waiting for this peak. It is the great summit of the trip, and at almost 4,000 feet it doesn’t fail to impress. Steep and rocky, there is no clear path to the top since we are approaching it from behind. Each of us must figure out our own way up. I reach for my iPod, having previously decided that my favorite piece of music will be just the thing to take me there. Plugging in, there is only Faure’s Requiem, this enormous rock and me.
It is arduous at first — until the wind begins to whip, and then it be-comes arduous and cold. I concentrate on what’s in front of me, breathing and lifting myself in sync with the music. Despite the cold, I can feel sweat trickling down my spine after only a few hundred feet, yet I press on. I had set a goal before the trip to make it to the top in one shot — no pausing to breathe or take in the view. The rush of the music and the physical effort have me on the verge of hallucinating. I begin to slow down with the summit in sight. I want to consciously push past my self-imposed limits. I crest the last bump and behold the whole of Wales before me, even the coast of England far into the shimmering distance. Clouds part slightly, and shafts of sunlight cut through the countryside as if on cue. I feel like the star of a biblical epic. It’s a few minutes before I realize that I am not alone; most of the others are here, too, already drinking tea.
The next day it rains constantly as we hike all day through shoulder-high bracken. My feet are blistered at the close of 16 miles, and I know a threshold had been crossed. The following day I tape my toes together, padding my blisters before grinding uphill once again.
Along the way, I get distracted from the pain: I discover the delicious whimberry, a tiny wild blueberry that dots the Beacons’ western hills; I totter to a lake so still that had a hand come out holding a sword or a pterodactyl flown over, I wouldn’t have blinked; I see an elusive red kite, a bird of prey only recently saved from the grip of extinction, circle the hills its ancestors once cloaked. My physical limitations stop me from pushing toward the front of the pack, but in exchange I am rewarded in more ways than I thought possible. “Things do not change; we change,” Thoreau wrote. These simple pleasures are all I need to make me feel transformed.
The final day is anticlimactic. A gentle half-day hike, a shared meal, a certificate presented to each of us and then our little group disbands amid hugs and pictures and promises to stay in touch. Little do these strangers know how much they’ve taught me or how grateful I am for our shared miles. I hope for them it is reciprocal. I don’t pause to ask, however, because I’ve earned the next stop on my trip — the prize that kept me going when every muscle in my body wanted to stop: an appointment at the luxurious St. David’s Hotel & Spa in Cardiff, the Welsh capital.
The spa was my backup plan in case the walk didn’t go so well; now it’s my reward. I am escorted immediately into the spa, where I take refuge in the marine hydrotherapy pool with its powerful underwater jets and swan-necked showers that emulate a waterfall. Floor-to-ceiling windows look out across the harbor. When I am collected for my massage it seems like overkill. And indeed it is; within minutes I am snoring on the table. “You’re intensely relaxed,” my therapist tells me when I wake up. “There’s not a knot to be found.” My muscles and joints feel supple. I am breathing without having to remind myself to do so. If I could remember it, I’m certain I would say it was a perfect massage. In spite of that, it almost seems incidental. I’ve come to this state of being because of nine days of grueling work. Nobody inflicted it on me — I got myself here. Everything else, no matter how indulgent — and trust me, the St. David’s ritual of hot stones, mud wraps and a facial is as hedonistic as it gets — is just frosting.
The next few weeks are a hive of activity for me, and my mind is free and open with the rush one gets from being extremely alert. So many people become addicted to an hour or two of vigorous daily exercise, and now I understand the reason. For a time you are forced to focus, undistracted, on the intense demands of the task at hand; you cannot merely go through the motions, or you risk injury. I work all morning, hike the afternoon away and return with just enough strength to cook some simple food, read a little and blissfully pass out, unconscious of the time.
Eventually, as all good things go, I slip up with an hour of television here, a cigarette there, struggling in a set-ting that has all I think I need. It feeds a growing frustration until I realize one afternoon a most basic and overwhelmingly startling — and simple — fact of life: Every day is a struggle, and that’s how it will always be. Yesterday’s challenges remain, and to spend so much effort on finding that easy groove, the fast lane to enlightenment, if you will, is only to start a self-defeating cycle. Most things are never conquered, like summits — they are accommodated into a greater whole. It feels as though I am being washed, humbly, with a glaze of late-found maturity. It is comforting.
I hear that next year a walk with Knowles will be led along the coastal path of western Wales: 14 days and 220 miles. I hope to be there. Sure I’ll trip, stumble and complain. But each bump will be new, and I will slump and straighten my way up and over each of them thankful that by the end of it, I’ll remember that Mark Twain was wrong — there’s no such thing as a good walk spoiled.
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