Thursday, September 10, 2009

Final Thoughts On Trip

So, the trip home was fairly uneventful. I had a 12 hour layover in Amsterdam which consisted of me going to a hotel room, reading for a bit and then going to sleep. I finally got home around 6:00 last night and Carrie and I settled in for a night of TV watching.

The trip itself was the perfect way to end a period in my life where it was changed completely. Losing weight (150 pounds), moving to Pittsburgh, getting divorced and meeting Carrie all in 18 months. While all of the changes were for the good, it was a lot of upheaval and having this trip to look forward too (and then doing it) was a huge help. Additionally, getting to go with my sister Alice made it extra special. Over the last few years we haven't seen each other as often as we'd both like because our holiday schedules never seem to line up.

When we were in Builth Wells, we were talking to a nice older couple who were in town as vendors at an antique fair. Out of the blue, the woman said the trip must be incredibly spiritual... and I was completely taken aback. Only one other time in my life have I had someone say something to me so innocently that was also exactly what I needed to hear right at that moment.

The other time, I was working at a job I was miserable at in downtown Pittsburgh. The stress at the job was giving me acid reflux and insomnia very badly. It was a perfectly miserable time in my life. I was in the elevator coming back from lunch and feeling bad for myself and the doors suddenly opened and there was an woman there who appeared to be in her 90's and very, very frail looking. She looked up at me with cloudy eyes and said "What are YOU doing here?" And then, as if on some kind of cue, the doors closed immediately.

Clearly, she'd mistaken me for someone else... but that innocent mistake really took me for a loop. That day I started looking for another job, and within weeks I'd found one and had moved on to a better, less stressful life.

Sitting in a pub in Builth, I had a similar feeling. It really hadn't occurred to me that this was a spiritual thing but in reality it was. Seeing the mountains that seemed so permanent, and going through towns that had been settled since the 1200's or earlier. (One town on that day had evidence of being settled since Neolithic times.) Even the path we were following the Las Lon Cymru is mentioned as far back as written history. That night I dreamed of the mountains from their perspective... sitting there for millions of years, and then in a few seconds (from their perspective of time) these strange little two legged creatures moved in, built homes, hunted the forests, turned to agriculture, shaved the tops of the peaks for pasture land and built castles using the skeletons of the mountains themselves. Right up to the present day...

It really put things in perspective for me. We don't have long here and we should enjoy the time we have with each other as best we can, but we should also remember the effects of our stay can last and last.

Just a last note. If you've been following this, its pretty clear that I had a great time. The company I worked with to organize all of this is Drover Holidays, and they did a just fabulous job of organizing everything, booking us into some just fabulous B&B's and getting our luggage from place to place and perhaps most importantly giving us easy to follow directions and maps for each day. The do both walking and cycling holidays, and I just can't recommend them enough. So if your interested in seeing Wales up close, these are the people I would recommend.

Day 8 -- Brecon to Cardiff

The last day was both the easiest and the hardest. We started by climbing the Brecon Beacons and heading into the Valleys, the most populous region of Wales. By this point, the 1200 foot ascent seemed like nothing until the last 100 or so feet where we had to dodge some construction equipment.

After the peak there was some good trail riding, and all seemed happy. Suddenly, there was pavement under our wheels and we were both disappointed that it looked like the trail was going to end. We where wrong, shortly after the pavement started, we were going down what seemed like a 45 degree hill. It was so steep, it really felt like we would flip over our handle bars at any moment. It was gorgeous though, with a waterfall to the right, and old trees all around. Then we looked down and realized that the path took a sudden left hand turn. So slamming on the brakes, we took the 90 degree left hand turn, followed by an immediate 120 degree right hand turn, over a bridge and then up an equally steep hill. It appears that the pavement was there as a safety precaution.. if it had been a normal trail, we would have either been thrown from our bikes or fallen into the river (about a 10-20 foot drop). We named this the Bridge of Death.

After the trail riding, we were assured that it was "all down hill from here" both by the card, and by several people we talked to. Of course "all down hill" just means 'no more mountains' because we still hit plenty of decent hills from the top of the Beacons all the way into Cardiff.

Once we were in Cardiff, there was some getting lost and what was supposed to be a 54 mile ride turned into a 60. We finally dragged ourselves to the bed and breafast, showered and headed out to find Roald Dahl Plas, also known to Torchwood fans as "The Hub."

What appeared to be a short walk on the map ended up being about 5 miles, but we not only got our picture at the end of route 8 (the trail we'd followed from Holyhead), but we also got some pics from the Plas and some good thai food while we were at it.

Then we had to get back to the B&B, walked about half way and gave up and got a taxi.

Day 8 Pics

Sunday, September 6, 2009


D'oh, I forgot to link to the pics!

Day 5
Day 6
Day 7

Day 7 -- Builth Wells to Brecon

Today was fairly uneventful... we didn't get lost, no massive winds and finally a rain free day! The ride was gorgeous as always, with just one steep climb in a town called Llanifo. (Rough translation, the parish of St Bilo...)

We arrived in Brecon around 2, and the B&B we were booked at said it was closed on Sunday! After an inital bit of panic we figured out that the cafe attached to the B&B was closed and were able to get all sorted out.

I'm pretty tired now, having now blogged the last three days... and having cycled roughly 210 miles since Monday. So, even though its only around 9 here, I'm off to bed!

Day 6 -- Llandiloes to Builth Wells

The terrain today was much gentler, just one or two big hills. There was one point that we were on single track, on very muddy ground which was a little errr, intense. But over all the calmest day so far.

At one point, there were 4 sheep in the road that refused to let us pass them, for roughly 3 miles. Eventually they did find a hole in the hedge, and we were able to pass. At the next town, we stopped and asked what we should do, which the people there thought was quite funny... sheep are stupid animals, they said, just keep going and they will find their way back.

In the evening we met another couple, whose names I'm sad to report I'd forgotten, but they were antique vendors at a local antique show. The husband had originally trained in France as a chef, and taking up antiquing after retiring.

One thing that we've noticed is that alot of the stuff that is seen as a new trend in the US, such as alternate energy, eating organic, locally grown vegtables is just assumed here which is really cool.

Day 5 -- Macllyneth to Llanidloes

The ride was fairly intense today, mostly due to the wind. There were some steep ascents, local residents call this ride "going over the top." The only real standout incident was that at one point we stopped to sit down and catch our breath because we were going up a very steep incline, against the wind. After realizing that stopping just made us cold, Alice stood up and was literally knocked back down by the wind!

Today were at the highest point of our trek, or at least would be if we'd following the directions correctly on day 3.

In Llanidoles, we met Richard and Alison, a very nice couple who invited us into their home for tea and biscuits. Richard had researched his family back 200 years and they had all lived in the area. He currently resides at the Old Roundhouse, or what we would call the Old Jailhouse which was built in the either the 1600 or 1700 to deal with the influx of Chartist related arrests. (Llanidloes was a center of both Non-conformist and Chartist movements in Wales.)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Day 4 -- Dollegelue to Macyllen

I know I'm not spelling these correctly, and after my vacation is over I'll go back and correct them.

Today started fairly calmly, we rode back down the estuary that had ended our day yesterday. Stopped off in Dollegelue at a bike shop to clean our bikes and pick up somethings I needed. For the last 2 days, I've had a recurring problem with my shoes slipping off the pedals, and last night it occurred to me that the shoes I brought with me probably had something like 2 or 3 thousand miles of combined cycling and walking on them. So, I picked up some cycling shoes, a thermal shirt, some gloves and some additional socks. Let me tell you, the new shoes totally rock!

From there, we headed up a hill that was fairly steep (Pittburgers can think of Greenfield Ave) that never seemed to end ( think Greenfield, but 10 miles long!). Then we had a pleasant jaunt downhill to a farm called Hafotty-fach. There we got on what was described by our tour company as the hardest ride of the trip... but compared to what we did yesterday was a piece of cake.

However, about 1/2 between Hafotty-fach and the next farm, Bryn Gwyn, there was the Sheep Hill of Death. While not the steepest grade we've done this trip, it was just steep enough and quite long enough to take us about an hour to get over it. The view was, as always spectacular, and given the ride we had yesterday and the angle of ascent we decided to walk amongst the sheep and cattle to the top of what I can only think of as a mountain.

So, this brings me to something that I haven't mentioned. All along this trip, we keep coming to gates. When we arrive at them we have dismount, open the gate, walk our bikes through and then close the gate before remounting. For a while, we thought this might be some kind of property designation or something. Finally it occurred to Alice that these gates were actually keeping the sheep in. That's right, we really are cycling through sheep pastures, and have been since day one.

So as we ascended the Sheep Hill Of Death, we really were surrounded by sheep, close enough that we had to dodge their errr.... leavings on a regular basis.

Finally we reached the top, and from there it was a quick descent with a few hills in into Macllyenth, the home of the old Welsh Parliament. Basically, back in 1401-1406, there was a rebellion against English rule that was, for a time, quite successful. The last Welsh Prince Of Wales, built a Parliament building and ran an independent government from here. The town is just stunning with a large clock tower at the center of town.

This is such an adventure, and just so much fun. The weather until today was bad, and I don't mean 'oh, I think it might get a bit wet' but rather 'Is it possible for it to rain so hard that you drown?' Today was better though, and it is almost like a different country when the sun in shining. In the rain it is amazing because all the colors stand out so vibrantly. It is almost like everything has gotten a dash of neon paint. When the sun is out, then you get to see just how vibrant the green is and how majestic the mountains appear.

Pics from Day 2

Pics from Day 3/4

(The first couple of shots on Days 3 and 4 is the birth place of T. E. Lawerence, also known as Lawerence of Arabia.)

Day 3 -- Porthmadog to Dollegleu

So, this is the day from which most stories will arise. I don't think I can even remember them all.

There are apparently two ways to get between these two towns that are still "Bike Route 8"... we took the hard one.

It started off with a nice mountain, then we entered Snowdonia National Park, home of the biggest mountains in Wales. In here we hit a massive 20% grade hill, that must have been something like 5-9 miles long. It was brutal, and I have to admit that some of the hill was walked, rather than biked... but I am proud that I did perhaps 3/4ths of the hill.

Soon, we were treking through what must have been Tolkien's inspiration for the Old Forest (the border of the Shire for those who have only seen the movie). I saw a tree that I SWEAR was an Ent, really!

Then we ended up going through some intense growth (ferns and nettles) as well as sheep pastures. At one point, I scared a sheep which in turn scared to squirrels... at that point (less than 1/3 of the way into the day!) Alice and I were so tired that we couldn't stop laughing.

After the pasture, we ended up in Coed y Brennin, a just absolutely indescribeable pine tree forest. In there we encountered more sheep, including one that kept trying to out run us, would sprint for about 1/3 a mile and then look back at us. Finally we stopped (because there is little that is more pathetic than a panicked sheep), and let it wander back into the woods. After the sheep we went through an active logging site. (Mind you this was all in the rain, at times with the rain pelting us horizontally.)

We finally arrived in Dollegleu around 6, and started following the directions to the hotel. It was then that we discovered that we'd followed the wrong '8' and we were actually starting the next day's ride (today's). So consulting the maps, we realized that instead of the crazy intense ride (I left out some of the mountains... there were 3 or 4 total.), we should have had a calm ride along the coast!

So, we had to back track from Dollegleu to the actual town we were staying in, cold, tired and pedalling almost like robots. We went through an estuary, but can't really remember it. Finally arrived around 7:30.

Day 2 -- Caernafron to Porthmadog

So I haven't posted in a few days since I've not had much in the way of internet access.

Some things I've learned: if you are ever offered a beer called Strongbow... don't take it. Its an IPA with about 20 tbls of sugar added! Welsh Smooth and Brains Smooth are good though.

The people here are very friendly and always interested in what we are doing. However, when they say "hill" that is a big hill to an American from the east coast. When they say "big hill" they mean basically a mountain... and when they say mountain... well, lets just say that my legs formed a committee to figure out how to secede from the rest of my body.

The trip from Porthmadog was breath-taking. Other than rain, there was not much to report this day. There was "the sheep farm hill" (not to be confused with the sheep hill of death which comes later), a steep and I mean STEEP hill that dumped us out into a working sheep farm... so we couldn't even enjoy our sense of victory due to the smell. (It was by FAR the steepest hill I've ever successfully climbed.)

I'm having problems posting pics right now, but as soon as I get that resolved I will post some gorgeous pics from this day.