“So, where are you from?”
Jeremiah and I were the only passengers in the front car on the Welsh Highland Railway’s Friday run to Caernarvon. If the manager couldn’t tell by our voices that we’re foreign, our enthusiasm must have given us away. Especially me, hopping from one side of the car to the other, opening every window and composing a new photograph with every bend in the track. My inexplicable foot injury had put paid to my plans to climb Mt. Snowdon, but I was determined to see it, anyway. We’d climbed out of Porthmadog on the flat Glaslyn Estuary on a cool and sunny late May morning, into the mountains of Snowdonia.
“Oregon,” I said, and opened my mouth again to specify “the States,” but he was way ahead of me.
“Oregon!” He pointed out the window. “Bit like home, hey?” If he hadn’t said it, I might not have seen it. But there is a sense of the familiar here, for one who loves the wet and green Pacific Northwest.
Two days later, we’ve come back to one of the stations by car, to walk the wonderful riverside path of wide, mellow-gold stones I saw from the train. And – though I didn’t know it until this moment – to sit here, in the river.
Not in the river. I haven’t enough spare clothes for that, and the Glaslyn is cold – like the rivers at home. Even with a cane, though, it’s not impossible to leave the path for one rock and then another, and with three legs to balance on, I’m soon as far as I can go without a dunking, and I settle cross-legged between talkative streams. I don’t presume knowledge of this river. But I feel comfortable here, and welcome.
It’s clear, this water; sun strikes the rocky bed without impediment. I trail my fingers in the flow, raise them automatically to paint the stylized shapes of river, moon, and mountain on my cheeks and forehead. This is something I do every year when I return to greet my own river, an affirmation of connection and thanks. I do not expect to make this gesture in places I don’t know; it happens, sometimes.
The Aberglaslyn Gorge on either side is profligately green, cool and blooming with rhododendrons. At home, I’d call this shade ‘twilight glow,’ for the way the rich violet hue soaks up the last of the day, giving it back as a candle against the dark. Here, I’m told, the rhodies are invasive, and a regular target of conservation organizations that never get quite enough money to eradicate them. I’m sure such a plant is far less lovely when its shade crowds out native vegetation, and its foliage poisons most animals who want to eat it. I have not mentioned its beauty to the people we meet.
On a level with the rippling Glaslyn, I imagine slipping off the rock to join the flow. I’d do this in my own river, some other rivers in the Northwest I’ve met. But I’m not a casual swimmer. This level of intimacy with a stranger should be startling.
We’ve walked north along the river and then south beyond our starting point, parking in the town of Beddgelert in the early hours. There was no one else out until there was everyone: departing around 11am, the town was a different place, defined by density and diversity of visitors.
A fit-looking Japanese man led three other men, all younger, out of town and east toward the mountain. They wore gaiters, tightly-bundled packs, and determined faces. I knew where they were going, and envy swallowed me like I’d stepped into its stream.
I think a lot about the walking I can do. It’s different, leaning on a shortened, cork-topped stick, moving at half my regular speed. It’s a week since my injury, and I can walk just fine, with my stick. Go more than a few miles, or cross a lumpy pasture full of mud and invisible hummocks, and true, I’m exhausted and in pain, in an inevitable sort of way I’m not used to. I thought about climbing anyway – I could, technically. I said it out loud, once, and Jeremiah looked at me with something a less careful person would express as pity.
So I focus on limping through the valleys, eyes on the ridgelines from a few thousand feet below. It’s the thing that shows me I’m not, after all, at home here. For all the flashing clear streams and tumbled lush greenery below, the mountains rise above us, bare and ancient of face. Clouds collect about their crumbling shoulders.
Though they are nearly the tallest in Britain, they’re no higher than mine in the Columbia River Gorge. I knew the numbers, but the reality is a different kind of knowing. Instead of the lush melodrama of young mountains, these are quiet and strong and patient. Weathered slopes stand utterly separate from tree-tangled valleys. They feel older than my Gorge. Differently wild.
Confined to the valleys this morning, I am keen to be up on the ridges. I’m also grateful to be walking at all. I must come back here to meet the mountains another time. In the meantime this river welcomes me to something that feels uncannily like home. It is a mystery, and a comfort.