Coming of Age, 1972: Episode #5

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

I left Stratford-upon-Avon the morning after attending the Shakespeare play. One ride took me through Herefordshire and to the border of Wales, where I found myself in barren-looking highlands. My strongest memory is of a Royal Airforce pilot, who was practicing hugging the hilltops with his jet, up and down the valley, over the hill top to be out of sight for a few moments, and then back. For a while, it was just the two of us in those hills.

I have been searching in vain for the box of slides I took during this trip. Not that any of them stand out for quality; they don’t. I also have not been able to find the collection of letters home, saved by my mother and returned to me after her death. I probably did not even take a picture of these mountains, as they impressed me as rather bleak. However, in writing this episode, I did a Google search for a woman I would later meet, and discovered that she loved those mountains and spent much of her life taking pictures of central Wales. She advocated for the preservation of both its natural environment and the Welsh language. Often, though, she did not claim her photographs. When she did, she signed variously as Lis or Liz, Fleming-Williams, or just Williams.

Somewhere along there, I hitched a second ride. As it was approaching late afternoon, I had settled on reaching a Youth Hostel at Pontarfynach (Welsh for ‘Devil’s Bridge’). The driver knew of it, and let me off with instructions that if I followed the trail that she pointed out, it would cross a pasture and go down a deep gully. There would be a foot bridge, and the trail on the other side would take me to Pontarfynach.

The trail was just as she described it, following beside one of those walls that is just stones piled on top of each other as generations of farmers cleared their fields. The gully and bridge were also what she described, but by the time I started up the other side, the sun was down and darkness had set in. I realized it would be too dark to find my way any farther. I was beside a pasture, and could see the farm house farther up the hillside. I’m not into trespassing, but decided to step over the barbed wire and roll out my sleeping bag in a flat space.

Fog came in, which I felt gave me some protection against discovery, but I did not sleep well. I worried both about being where I hadn’t been invited and about the possibility of some cow coming along and stepping on me. In the morning, I quickly rolled up my sleeping bag and continued up the trail, which took me to a spot where I could look back on the farmhouse. This is the photograph which I most wanted to find and include here—but haven’t—with the green hillside, sparkling with dewdrops in the sunshine, the stone building, and an exposed opening where the roof had long-since disappeared. I had been worried about the occupants of an abandoned ruin. I recognized the lesson, and chewed upon it as I walked in the morning sunshine.

The trail put me out on a dirt road and my map told me I had a hike of about 12 miles, passing through Pontarfynach, and on to the city of Aberystwyth. The lush countryside was everything the higher mountains had not been, and the roadside even offered wild blackberries. I pondered the worries that had needlessly prevented a restful night’s sleep, and I had a strong sense that God had been watching out for me.

The God question consumed a lot of energy at that point in my life. Did He even exist? And if so, in what form? My religious education had been in Methodist congregations, which had molded in me the social gospel. I appreciated the fellowship of good people, doing good things, and enjoying wholesome fun and friendships. However, in my teens, I could not escape the observation that this group seemed to treat the Bible as a convenient mythology for holding the social club together. My own reading of the Bible refused to allow that as an option. Either the Bible was true in its claims, or it had to be rejected. I would not base my life on a myth.

I went looking through the world’s other religions for truth. I read the Quran and came away unimpressed. Upanishads and sutras left me bored. I did entertain a brief attraction to Daoism and the Dao De Ching, but it seemed to me that to be a good Daoist, one would need to live as a hermit in a cave. I knew myself to be a people-person.

By the time I graduated from high school, I leaned towards the idea that all of the world’s religions could be reduced to the Golden Rule. That summer, however, I visited relatives in Oregon and heard a rabbi speak. Not only did he actually accept all of the Bible as truth, but he believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Jewish Messiah. I tucked that away in my mind. It bounced back a few years later while reading about a Vietnamese religion, Cao Dai. Caodaism, as Time Magazine explained it, hoped to unite all the world’s faiths into one. They proposed a pantheon of great spirits: Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tse, Gandhi…(up to this point, I was nodding)…and Victor Hugo. I felt as if I had been stabbed, seeing Jesus and Victor Hugo in the same sentence. Yet obviously, once any other human being could be put in the same sentence as Jesus, any group would be free to add their own superstar. I had to mull my reaction. It also brought back a lesson I had learned from reading the Dao De Ching. There is an enormous gulf between what Lao Tse taught and the way the religion is practiced today. I needed to look only at Jesus, and not the behavior of his modern adherents.

I replayed much of this in my mind as I entered Pontarfynach in the early morning sunshine, inwardly praising the God for whom I still questioned even his existence.

Out of a house, a woman came out to greet me, “Where are you going?”

“Aberystwyth,” I told her.

“I’m driving there in half an hour. Why don’t you come in and have a cup of tea. Then I'll take you there.”

She told me that her name was Barbara Fleming-Williams, that she lived in London. This was their vacation home, and her husband had just published a book on the English landscape painter John Constable. I enjoyed the tea while she finished her preparations, and before she dropped me off in Aberystwyth, we traded addresses.

Aberystwyth turned out to be a small city, colorful and quaint, with the ruins of an ancient castle. A plaid wool cap tempted me beyond my budget, but I thought better of it, and then began the 55 mile hike, south, toward Fishguard. Fishguard would offer both a Youth Hostel and a boat to Ireland.

Despite the marvels I had already experienced in one day, I began to be depressed by the distance I still needed to cover. Then I recalled the last words Vicki had given me at the airport, “No matter what happens, remember to praise God in all things.” Indeed, I had been praising God when Mrs. Fleming-Williams came out to greet me, and I did have a great deal for which to praise God.

While I was still somewhat lost in praising this God about whose existence I wasn’t quite convinced, far down the road, a truck pulled to a stop from a side road, and the driver waved to me. I broke into the best run I could manage with my heavy backpack, and climbed into the passenger side. He was an auto parts delivery man, and we drove down the coast unloading his wares at petrol stations. We had a jolly good conversation and at each garage, the owner invited us to sit for tea and what they called biscuits and I would call cookies. Finally, on the edge of Fishguard, he treated me to fish and chips. I arrived at the hostel with enough daylight left to join two Swiss boys in a walk along the cliffs above the sea.

Beat (bay-AHT) and Urs were also headed over to Ireland, so we decided to travel together. As it turned out, they would later visit me in the States, and after we were married, Vicki and I would travel through Switzerland and Italy with Beat. Barbara Fleming-Williams daughter Lis would also visit us in America. What a day!

As Beat and I got to know each other that night, he asked me if I was religious. I told him that I was not.

Afterthoughts: In preparing to write this, I came upon obituaries for both Lis Fleming-Williams (d. 2019) and her father (1998). Barbara died in the 1980s. Lis had devoted her life to protecting the natural environment and wildlife of Central Wales. We had a brief visit with them in London in 1976, but otherwise had no communication after Lis and a friend visited us in Los Angeles during the summer that Vicki and I got married. For both Vicki and I, the strongest memory of that visit is the embarrassment we felt when Lis’s stomach pains required us to take her to Emergency at Martin Luther King, Jr. Hospital, in Los Angeles. It was very obvious that our American healthcare system did not match what she would have expected from the British system. When I search back to my first questioning of our American system, I go back to that hospital visit.


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