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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. The Solva Woollen Mill is now the oldest working wool mill in Pembrokeshire – one of only two remaining in the county. 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.