I finished walking the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path two days ago. I have wanted to blog before now, but have literally fallen into bed exhausted pretty much every night of my trek. My guidebook says if one combines the ascents and descents of this path, it is more than the height of Mt. Everest. Just because I looked it up, I will remind you that the height of Mt. Everest is 29,029 feet. When I read this in my guidebook two weeks ago, I was a bit skeptical. I am now a believer. After two full days recuperating, I find that I have some additional energy and so I finally sit down to share a bit about my experiences with you.
I have been overwhelmed by the grandeur of Wales. Grandeur is a bold word but it is entirely appropriate in this case. As I would walk, the magnificence of the coastline would stretch before me and behind me, snaking and sweeping, dancing in and out from the mainland with organic abandon. The deep, rich teal blue of the sea juxtaposed with the dusty terracotta fall foliage of the cliffs set against the vivid lime green fields is one of the most beautiful color palettes I’ve ever seen in nature. The rock formations of the cliffs were surreal; as if hundreds of huge thin slabs of clay were layered on each other, baked and then tossed on their side to slide and break into geometric shapes that defy gravity and description. For the first few days I continually tried to photograph these cliffs with my camera, but after seeing the results I realised the futility of my efforts. You truly need to see this with your own eyes. I’ll be honest, I also haven’t been very pleased with any of my drawing attempts in Wales. My journal feels way too small to even begin to capture the land and sky and sea here. I feel like I need a dramatic swath of paper and large pots of color to even begin to paint what I have seen.
Autumn is the season in Pembrokeshire to see baby grey seals and during the last five days of my walk, I saw them in almost every bay and cove. They lie, fat oblongs of creamy white, on the rocky beaches for the first few weeks of their lives while their parents swim just off-shore almost completely camouflaged with their eyes and nose barely above the water line. One afternoon I was privileged to witness a mother playing with her pup in the water. It was the first time I had seen one of the babies swim. It was hard to turn and continue walking down the path.
Throughout my fourteen day walk, I was graced with unseasonably clear, crisp, sunny October days. The locals I encountered would talk about ‘luck’ and shake their heads as they looked upward at the blue sky. I don’t know if it was purely luck, but I am supremely grateful. As I carefully walked up and down the edges of a myriad of very dangerous cliffs, I would imagine the same paths, wet, slippery and muddy and I can tell you right now, I would not have attempted it. I only had a few days where it affected my movement, but the wind alone can be a frightening factor. I don’t have vertigo, nor am I afraid of heights, but this path tested my resolve in many areas; physically and mentally.
I walked alone the entire two weeks. I met one other hiker going the other direction about halfway through, but he was the only person I met walking the entire coastal path. I would, however, usually happen on 10-15 people doing day hikes, and everyone was always very genuinely friendly. Many times we ended up having delightful conversations about any number of things including hiking, travel and art. In general, the people I have met here in Wales are the loveliest group of people I have encountered in my whole year of travel. Everyone is wonderfully kind and generous, and it has been a true pleasure to be in this country. Due to the lack of hostels in the southern part of the walk, I was ‘forced’ to use bed and breakfasts for several nights, and I enjoyed the unique experience of staying in people’s private homes. Most mornings I was treated to a big beautiful English breakfast when I sat down to eat. If you are not familiar with this breakfast, it consists of bacon, sausage, eggs, baked beans, sauteéd mushrooms, grilled tomato, and toast. This is after the cereal and yogurt and fruit, mind you. I would literally roll out onto the path in the morning, absolutely ready for my intense day of hiking. Let me tell you, this is not the best strategy, but I had paid for the meal with my lodging, gosh darn it. It felt wrong not to partake.
One thing that was extremely different on this walk was the visual perspective I had. When I would look back after a day’s walking, sometimes I could see the shadow of the bay or beach where I started that morning. If the land doubled back on itself, I actually could see the path I walked several days prior. This hardly ever occurred on the Camino and you would only have a sense of the length you walked when you looked at the map at the end of the day.
Being able to see your final destination way off in the distance is occasionally helpful. When it doesn’t seem to be moving any closer as you continually struggle up and down cliffs, calves and lungs burning, knees aching, more often you’d rather not have to see where you eventually need to end up. I find this to be amusing, because it is such a wonderful metaphor for much of what we experience every day.
We are taught to set goals, and then strive strive strive to achieve them as quickly as possible. When life throws us a curveball, in the shape of a job loss, a divorce or just hard circumstances, we can feel like we are moving away from our intended destination, and become incredibly discouraged. Goals can morph into expectations like gremlins exposed to water (sorry if you’re too young for that reference) and then we start to become resentful and bitter when we don’t feel we are heading in the right direction. I find that if I work to choose to be present, then I don’t build up these dangerous expectations because I am able to revel in the moment I am in. This has been my mission this entire year.
Sometimes, at the end of the day, I could look back down the coast and see the very distant point where I started that same morning. In these moments, I marvel at the fact that my two feet can carry me such a long, long way. This will sound cliche, but it’s truly amazing how far you can go when you just place one foot in front of the other. If you are always distracted by how fast you are moving towards your destination, then you’ll miss the beauty that surrounds you. You have remember to stop and look up and just take it all in. You especially have to stop if you are walking on the side of a cliff. Trust me.
As I followed the acorn symbols around the coast of Wales, one thing I found strangely satisfying was passing through all the gates and stiles on the path. Each day I passed through probably at least 15 to 20 gates. Some had latches and some were kissing gates and some had big metal levers, but they all proudly displayed the official acorn symbol. There were just a few times I managed to lose my way (in cow fields, mind you), and if I encountered a gate without an acorn, then I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it was not the correct path. I knew the only way to move forward was to go back to the last gate and try again. It was very comforting. There was never a gate on the path that didn’t display the acorn. Never. Good job Pembrokeshire Coastal Path signage team. Jolly well done.
Maybe it is better to have gates in our lives, rather than to be able to see too far ahead. Gates let us know we are going in the right direction and that we have not lost our way. Even though we feel that we might be wandering off and away from our intended destination, we are assured we are on track. I think many things can be these gates in our lives. In this past year I have had too many to count. Sometimes they are a chance meeting, or something showing up in the just the right moment. Sometimes they are an answer to a prayer and many, many times they are the wise council and words of dear friends.
Maybe you are in need of a gate in your life right now. Something that declares “keep going, you’re on the right path!” You might be curving and winding your way through difficult terrain this very moment; perhaps you feel the climb burning in your head and your heart. I pray you find one soon. Whatever you do, remember, just keep placing one foot in front of the other. I promise you, one day, you will stop and look back and see just how far you’ve come. You will look back and you will marvel.