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A Walk in Wales

. . . where I found a treasure.

How many walks do you even remember?  Walks to school as a child?  Your walk at graduation? Strolling home from campus late at night?  Walking down the aisle towards your life of marriage?  The solemn pace of the pallbearer when that dear uncle passes?

Some of life’s most memorable moments are seemingly mundane.  So it was with my walk in Wales in the spring of 1978.  I was 24-years-old and spending four weeks of my five-month pilgrimage to Europe, living with a friend in a tiny village of western Wales.  Scott Hamilton was in the service, stationed at a nearby U.S. Naval base.  Scott was something of a loner and rented a stone cottage far off the beaten path.  Middle Mille was no more than six homes and an abandoned mill.  A small creek that once powered the mils flowed through the town.  Remnant water wheels of rotting wood and rusting iron dotted a maze of surviving channels and canals. 

Middle Mille, Wales, April 1978. The old mill is to the left and Scott’s stone cottage is center. The stream is seen below.

A portion of the old woolen mill had been converted to a home.  A family lived there with two young boys, perhaps five and seven.  Most days I was at loose ends so made the acquaintance of their mother.  She was in her thirties and glad for the company in this isolated place.  On occasion, I’d share a cup of tea with Mrs. King.  The King family traded woolen goods from their storefront which doubled as the front room of their rambling stone house. 

The King boys (whose names I’ve forgotten) were game for an adventure so one day, with their mom’s approval, I proposed a stroll up the creek as far as we might go.  It was a typical spring day in western Wales with light breezes and sunlight broken by passing clouds.  The valley was mostly unkempt fields and broken-down fences.  It was a vestige of Wales that time and prosperity left behind.  Without plan, map, or lunch we began our trek with the creek as our guide.  We hopped fences as necessary and crossed stone bridges where sheep once roamed.  The stream grew smaller as we pressed further up the valley.

The King Boys ready at the village church.

The King boys reveled in discoveries and played imaginary games, while my mind drifted back to a childhood hike some two decades before.  The summer of my fifth year, we climbed the mountain just east of my grandparent’s house.  They lived in what was left of a coal mining outpost once called Hiawatha.  Only three homes remained identical miners’ cottages on the Kanaskat-Kangley Road. My dad was born in the middle house 35 years earlier.  The St. Clairs lived next door.  My climbing partners were Barry, age seven, and Billy and Dickie St. Clair, ages nine and ten. 

The Kombol kids the summer Barry and I climbed the mountain: Billy, Jean, Danica, and Barry at our home in Elk Coal, August 1958.

We crossed over the old railroad tracks and followed a creek up the forested hillside. Our first stop was a primitive dam where Pa Kombol maintained the water system which fed the three homes.  We played near the pooled reservoir then continued our climb through dense stands of fir, hemlock, and cedar covered with moss.  There was a trail of sorts but the path was steep.  Determined as only the youngest really knows, I struggled to keep up yet never admitted weakness.

The creek became a trickle but we climbed still higher.  When the creek was no more we determined the summit was reached.  A view appeared within a narrow clearing.  The sun shone down upon us which added to our sense of glory.  To memorialize the accomplishment a knife was produced from which shirt buttons and shards of cloth were cut.  We attached theses badges to the stump of a fallen tree.  The four of us stood in solemn camaraderie.  Our sacrificed tokens echoed a hope that one day we’d return to find proof of the ascent and reclaim our hidden treasures.  Little did I realize that future treasures will one day be found in memories.

Exploring the graveyard with the boys.

Back in Wales, I pondered, “Might these boys one day experience a similar feeling?”  Several hours into our hike the creek forked.  Neither branch provided sufficient flow to keep our interest.  Clouds gathered behind us and it was time to head home.  We left the valley floor climbing the upper ridge.  A trail led us back to the village.  By the time we reached Middle Mille, we’d rambled maybe five or six miles.  I deposited the boys with their mother with promises to explore again. The King boys and I undertook several more adventures during my stay.  We examined a nearby church and graveyard.  We found an old water wheel where I tried coaching the older lad to snap my photo.  He fumbled with the camera asking, “Which button do I push?”  As I leaned forward the shutter clicked. 

At the old water wheel in my trusted pea coat.

My time in Wales was coming to an end.  There was only so much to learn in Middle Mille.  My visits to the nearby market town of Haverfordwest began to grow stale.  London was calling, but I yearned for a piece of this green valley to take home.  Mrs. King helped me choose a Welsh-made woolen blanket.  It cost a pretty penny and I shipped it home in time for Mother’s Day.  Both of my Mom’s parents were children of Welsh immigrants, making her almost pure Welsh. When she died the red plaid blanket came back to me.  It reminds me of my walk in Wales.

Back at Middle Mille 37 years later standing by a water wheel

In October 2015 after visiting our son Oliver at Cardiff University, Jennifer and I spent a night in Haverfordwest before boarding a ferry to Ireland.  We drove along a narrow path barely wide enough for our car to reach Middle Mille.  I wanted to show her the place I’d stayed 37 years earlier.  There were a few new buildings but the village was mostly unchanged.  Scott’s stone cottage looked the same.  The old mill complex still sold woolen goods.  We wandered about the grounds.  Jennifer snapped my picture standing beside a restored water wheel.  We hadn’t time for a walk, for there was a ferry to catch.

By Bill Kombol

Selleck born, Enumclaw raised, U.W. educated, PCC trained, happily married to Jenni.

4 replies on “A Walk in Wales”

Thank you Bill for sharing your lovely story with us. I have kept a journal since I was 10 years old and made photos of everything dear to me. They remind us that every day of our lives were important…even if we didn’t know it then.

Bob – Oh how I wish I’d been as organized as you. I kept a journal on several occasions, but always stopped for some reason or not. And, I’ve never been a regular picture-taker, but only on and off. I did however keep most all of my college papers, which make for interesting reading. Going back and reading one’s journal is a journey back to the mind of “he who had once been.” What’s remarkable in my case is how much we (me of now and he of yester) are alike. Or at least our thought processes. Thanks as always for reading my stories and providing encouragement.

I enjoyed this story. Now some of the photos I’ve seen throughout the years make sense! I really had no idea that you were so adventurous as a young man. Now I know where your boys get it!

Thanks Melinda. Yes, I gave Mom a framed copy of me at the water wheel which you no doubt saw many times. You would also recognize the blanket, now downstairs on our sofa, and in need of a sewing job on a ripped strand. Thanks for reading my story and your feedback.

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