A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Everything to Scale

“… and we’re here at this dot, in Machynlleth…” 
Oh.  So that’s how you pronounce it. 
The affable young man smiled down at my daughters, who were stomping across his gigantic floor-map of the United Kingdom in their small red and yellow rubber boots.  Sorry, their “Wellingtons”.
“This is where we started biking,” I told Molly and Lizzy, pointing.  “In Chepstow.”  After several days of being lulled by Welsh accents, my own sharp American vowels sounded grating. “And this,” I pointed again, “is where we’ll finish this bike route, in Holyhead.” 
Molly, brow furrowed, examined the dots on the map.  Chepstow.  Machynlleth.  Holyhead.  Then, looking delighted, she grinned up at the helpful employee of the Centre for Alternative Technology.  “Wales really isn’t very big!” she told him. 
Awkward, kid.  Awkward.  Really, there’s nothing a man likes more than having a nine-year-old guilelessly insult the size of his eensy-weensy little… nation.
“We’re from Alaska,” I mumbled, by way of explanation.  “It’s, um, large...”  Right.  And Americans are known for their tact and cultural astuteness.
The young man, however, did not appear to be offended – merely completely nonplussed.  “You’re from… Alaska?  And you’re… bicycling?  Across  Wales?”  The fact that two tiny little people with blonde plaits had arrived in Machynlleth (population 2,147) by bicycle was clearly unfathomable.  That all four of us were residents of Fairbanks was, quite literally, not on his map.  “Um… What brought you here?”
He was not the first Welshman to show a distinct lack of ego about his Bonsai-sized homeland. As one cheerful rural farmer put it, why would a family from Alaska want to visit “little old Wales”? 
All along our route, we were met with a similarly humble, perplexed, startled-but-welcoming attitude.  And I, in return, was humbled, startled, and perplexed.  Because… castles!  Expansive views across stolen-from-time picturesque farmland!  Ancient ruins! Unspoiled stone-built villages! An amazingly cool display on Alternative Technology! Tea and scones with heaps of jam and fresh clotted cream! Why WOULDN’T American tourists – including that peculiar breed, the Alaskan -- want to come to such an idyllic place?
When I say that the Welsh seemed modest about their nation, I don’t mean that they didn’t appear to be socially distinctive and culturally proud.  Red dragons fluttered from flagstaffs.  Jay crammed startling numbers of Welsh cakes into his handlebar bag.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that in many cozy caf├ęs and pubs, the four of us were the only English-speakers amidst a boisterous barrage of words that my ears did not seem to be able to parse at all.   Indeed, the difficulty that English-speakers experience with the Welsh language seems to be, in itself, a source of pride.  Way back in the 1860s, residents of one small town decided to rename their home, “Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch”*. Why?  Well, the official answer is “for promotional purposes”, but quite possibly the real reason may be that the national sport of Wales involves gentle torment of those who cannot wrap their tonsils around Welsh consonants. 
This was brought home to me in the tiny Rhayader Information Centre. “Llanidloes”, said the grinning clerk. 
I stood there, bike helmet still fastened beneath my chin, trying to weasel my way out of attempting that “Ll” (let alone the “dl” that followed) while asking about camping options in the next town.  I pointed at its name on a map. 
The clerk’s eyes twinkled.  “Llanidloes,” he repeated. 
I tried.  I failed.  I tried again, laughing.  One of my small side-kicks, with the effortless linguistic flexibility of childhood, smiled back conspiratorially at the clerk.  “Llanidloes”, she said.  And then they both laughed at me -- but in the nicest possible way.
This mischievous whimsy, I discovered, wasn’t limited to place names.  At the Centre for Alternative Technology we didn’t just get to examine that excellent floor-map and ride a way-cool water-powered tram; we also learned, from the neatly bilingual signs labeling various electrical appliances, that the Welsh neologism for a microwave oven is a “popty ping”. 
Popty ping!  Could any small nation be more delightfully lacking in a Napoleon complex?  A country that is willing to show the whole world its popty ping obviously feels it has nothing to prove. 
And yet, strangely, the whole world didn’t seem to be there to appreciate all that Machynlleth had to offer.  When planning our bike trip, I imagined that we’d cross paths with lots of like-minded foreigners on similar ventures -- but we didn’t. True, we found English tourists somewhat ironically cluttering up the castles that were once sacked and besieged in bold defiance of unwanted dominion from the east.  Atop the delightfully precipitous turrets of Caernarfan, the small children ignoring warnings to “be careful” were chided in accents of London, Birmingham, Liverpool, or Leeds. The Welsh were invariably kind to these interlopers, yet seemed to have no expectation that the allure of their green hills might extend past the edge of the English Channel or the coast of the North Sea.
But… why not?  Not only were the nearby attractions appealing (did I mention castles?), but I was heartily impressed by the availability of numerous well-planned and well-marked bicycle routes.  These routes kept riders almost entirely on superbly bikeable byways, using not only mile upon mile of dedicated bike paths and greenways, but also Britain’s incredible tangle of miniscule B-roads.
From my memories of childhood vacations to visit family in the United Kingdom, I recall B-roads with a mixture of fondness and horror.  They are utterly perfect for biking precisely because they are almost impossible to drive.  My adventuresome and inquisitive mother, always eager to find the most interesting corners of everywhere, would sit in the passenger’s seat eagerly reading directions from a guidebook, while my father struggled to shift gears with the wrong hand, to “keep left” in a space too narrow to even have a “left”, and to restrict his swearing to a minimum. We were looking for stone circles left by ancient Celts, or six-thousand-year-old burial mounds in sheep paddocks.  Occasionally, we eventually found these things.  Always, we eventually found a creaking farm vehicle attempting to navigate the same B-road in the opposite direction.  The laws of physics have trouble with the B-roads of Britain. 

B-roads don’t really go anywhere – and therein lies their perfection.  On our over-laden bikes, with the kids gamely sweating behind us on tagalongs, we pedaled up hills -- only to immediately plunge down the other sides.  We meandered past field after field of placid neatly-shorn sheep and outsized late-summer lambs still optimistically attempting to nurse on mothers barely larger than themselves.  Ripe raspberries and maddeningly not-quite-ripe blackberries dangled within reach along the hedgerows.  In small pubs jostling with hungry farmers, an enormous baked potato – a “jacket potato” -- with baked beans and cheese and a fresh salad cost £2.75.  The kids told us that the local milk tasted happy, and I knew what they meant.  
One farmer shifted a dozen sheep to the next field to make room for our tent, and the beasts spent the evening spurning the perfectly good grass in their new spot in order to stare at us accusingly.  At another “campsite” – again, at which we were the only campers – our host noticed the twins admiring two squealing litters of little porkers.  He asked the kids if they’d like to help dole out the daily ration of stale bread, after he picked it up from his friend at the local bakery.  Yes, yes!  They would!

He was gone for a while, and the kids were wracked with fear that bedtime would arrive before pig-feeding time.  When the truck finally pulled back into the driveway, both girls went tearing across the grass in their nightwear. 
“Sorry I took so long,” the farmer said, before I could apologize for the over-familiarity of my offspring.  He told me about the lumber deal he’d been trying to work out with his brother, about the difficulties of local ordinances, and about his hopes for rebuilding some outbuildings.  The kids hurled crusts.  The piglets gobbled.  The sun set.  The world was small.
Alaska – and, indeed, much of America – is impressive on a grand scale.  Denali, recently reaffirmed in its proper and rightful Native name, is so imposing that it often commands our horizon from a hundred miles away.  The majesty of our vast landscape inspires me - but I am not always looking for majesty.
I thought I understood where Molly was coming from, when she told the nice young man with the map that his country was diminutive.  She wasn’t merely proud and pleased to see how far we’d come, in the four and a half days of our journey thus far, and how relatively small a distance we still had left to cover, in the remaining two-and-a-half days in this Welsh leg of it.  Her joy was also intrinsic to the smallness of Wales.  It was akin to her pleasure (and her sister’s) in building intricate little dioramas, racing Hot Wheels along miniature tracks, and sewing realistic snowpants for dolls.  There is something deeply pleasing about being able to experience the adventure and excitement of a whole new world on a scale that feels Lilliputian.
Yeah, it sounds appallingly patronizing to imply that an entire nation, language, and culture is “twee”.  I wouldn’t blame every single incredibly kindly Welsh person who offered help, advice, directions, or a cheerful wave to the family of stupidly lost and confused Americans for wanting to whack me with a partially dried cow-pat for sounding like such an arrogant bastard.  But “twee” is not really what I mean.  What I realized – and what the kids discovered too, I think – is that Wales was a complex, personal, immersive adventure perfectly proportioned for bicycles.  It was letting a calf suck on your fingers, admiring the enormous slugs, noticing that every single sheep says “baaa” in a distinctly different voice, and wondering why someone had carefully built an old microwave into a stone wall.  Popty ping! 

On our bicycles, we found that B-roads don’t really go anywhere – and in going nowhere, they go everywhere that matters. 

* The name means “Saint Mary’s Church in the Hollow of the White Hazel Near the Rapid Whirlpool of Llantysilio of the Red Cave”.  To hear it pronounced, go here: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/bd/Cy-Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch_%28Welsh_pronunciation%2C_recorded_17-05-2012%29.ogg