Mist peels its way up the valley and I’m glad. There’s something very comforting about being incased in cloud. In mist. In a trillion trillion suspended drops of water. Clear days can be so….clear. Sometimes you don’t want clarity, you don’t want the big picture, you just want a big misty hug from Mother Nature.
Like this day.
I didn’t want to see for miles at all. I didn’t even want to see around the next bend in the single track trail. I just wanted to deal with one piece of the world at a time and absolutely nothing at all outside this forest. Outside my immediate surroundings. I stopped for a drink and a bird squawked above me. That’s fine. I can handle that.
The only constant, they say, is change. It sounds profound but actually, when you think about it, it’s irritatingly obvious. Like most deliberately profound things are. Profonde. It means ‘deep’. I think about the depths of the ocean, the depths of our brains and the depths of this forest.
In the last two months lots has changed. Firstly, we sold our boat. The word boat doesn’t seem to cover her really. But yacht sounds very wealthy and Monaco-ish and Queen of the Seas sounds a little too much like Hugo Weaving in drag or, failing that, a cruise ship. So she’s a boat.
We completed a voyage we’d barely planned and now it seems bizarre that we should’ve spent over two years at sea at all. ‘Is it strange to be back?’ No, it’s not strange, it’s never strange. That’s what’s strange. The most frightening thing about returning from such a lengthy trip, is the feeling you get when you return. The inkling that perhaps it was your imagination, perhaps it never happened. It sort of feels like it never happened.
Bless our brains and their ability to process experiences as easily as ground under foot. I didn’t forget how doors open or how Big Tesco was laid out or how to cross a road. I lived at sea for a long time, sometimes not seeing land for a full month. But the moment I stepped foot in England, in Dartmouth, it was stepping into a familiar world. You adapt. Like you always do.
And now I’m sat on a mountain bike twiddling my way up the mother of all endless switchback single tracks in South Wales and there’s a small river running under my wheels.
The Great Outdoors
There’s something more outdoorsy about Wales than anywhere I went in the tropics. Despite living in an inside-outside space for over two years, Wales really nails that sense of Being Outside. I don’t know if it’s the perpetual Autumn chill, the far away bleating of sheep or the sheer scale of its landscape. Maybe it’s the mud. The mist. The deer poo on the path and the sense that you’re being watch by more than one wild creature. But Wales is always very much the Outdoors to me. Much more so than the tamed bogs of Dartmoor or the manicured gravel tracks of the New Forest.
There are times in our lives when we need the outdoors more than anything. I’m inclined to say several times a week – to really get out there. My sister would say several times a day. But whoever you are and whatever you do, there are definitely times when the only thing to do is to go out the door and into the wilderness. Where you might actually stand a chance of losing phone signal or seeing a fawn trip over its own gangly front legs.
For all the outdoors I’ve been in recently, Afan Forest has got it down to a T. I’m riding over wet rocks, my back wheel is slipping in mud and I’ve fallen off at least three times thanks to tree roots, boulders and the gravitational difficulty of cycling incredibly slowly up a rocky single-track.
I like the mud. A lot. I like the damp mist. I like the earthy sense of being up here in the low mountains surrounded by dense pine trees and rustlings in the shadows. It’s October and it takes me almost two hours to climb the entire ascent on White’s Level Trail. I don’t know why it’s called White’s Level, it’s certainly not level.
There’s another saying, ‘what goes up must come down’. I see no evidence of that here.
I’m wearing a baselayer top that the folks at Subzero sent me to test out. It’s the most technical thing I’m wearing and, much to my dismay when I see a photograph of myself, my borrowed Metz helmet circa 2000 makes me look like the most novice of novices.
I haven’t been mountain biking for many years. My mother will tell you that I was once the national champion in cyclo-cross. Which is true. Although she might then add, ‘but it was also on a points system, so just by the fact you turned up each week put you in a pretty good position’.
In my head I’m a mountain biker. In this photograph, I’m a muppet. Still, my Subzero baselayer has not only managed to keep me fairly evenly-temperatured despite the brutal climb and frequent snack stops in the chilly October air, it also has wicked the sweat and magicked it away. Later I’ll discover that it doesn’t smell either, which is saying something.
I’m a fan of testing outdoors stuff for one very good reason; I’m crap at appropriate dressing. I don’t think things through. I grab clothes that I suspect will do and go for it. You can spend thousands at fancy outdoors shops on the best brands with the fanciest packaging, and that’s fine, if that’s the way you want to go. But I don’t. I can’t be bothered. I want approximately three things that will cover all my bases. And a good baselayer is one of them. My previous favourite is an Icebreaker top but it has a hood which is nice for icy winds while skiing but gets in the way when biking.
I get to the Afan Forest Lodge after what can only be described as a bad ass descent and find myself languishing in the happy kind of freedom you only get from sheer bloody minded peddling, a wet Welsh day, and the prospect of an imminent pint and a hearty meal. In fact, the Welsh probably invented the term, ‘hearty meal’ so appropriate is it for this terrain and effort.
I don’t want to leave the mountains. Or the forest. Or the friendly receptionist. I just want to stay right here in the strange isolation of the valley. But I can’t. Because it’s a painfully clear, sunny day. And I have a funeral to attend.