I need to get out of town and away from screens and the internet. My day goes from ipad to laptop to iphone to TV or kindle. There’s glass between me and life and I need the cliché dose of nature to clear my head. I log onto the Yosemite reservation site, not really expecting to get anything at the last minute, but there are tent cabins available. I book one, sure that R. will be willing to go on a last minute trip.
The first glimpse of Yosemite valley literally stops traffic–people careen to the left and right turnouts when Half Dome and various waterfalls come into view. It really is jawdropping, but we’ve been in the car for longer than we’ve expected and just want to freaking get there. The 180 miles from San Francisco to the valley have stretched to a five-hour trip thanks to traffic and two-lane roads meandering through the stoplight-filled downtowns of the central valley.
It’s been a nice drive. No complaints other than the usual, which is that it is impossible to get in or out of the Bay Area anymore. We planned a Sunday–Tuesday trip specifically to avoid traffic and we still find ourselves shaking our fists and asking, “What are you all doing on this road?” The You All of course, being Us. We are part of the problem. So many people.
We don’t pull over at first few pullouts, but when we get to the valley floor we can’t help it. It’s too much. Too pretty. Thank god we do because Bridal Veil Falls is magic. It’s a half a mile hike from the road and a complete change of climate. A cold mist fills the air before we get anywhere close to the bottom and I shiver in my tank top. I’m glad I keep going because when the falls hit the granite they make rainbows. Everyone is soaked and ecstatic.
Which makes our arrival at our lodging, Housekeeping Camp, all the worse. The Camp can’t help but be anything but a crushing disappointment after what we’ve just experienced but I’d swear someone actually tried to take our souls, pull them from our bodies, and grind them into the pine needles.
Housekeeping Camp looks more like a refugee camp when we arrive at sunset. A blue fog of smoke hangs over the forlorn canvas structures. The ground is bare dirt. “Park wherever you can,” the buffed, outdoorsy, 20-something dude at the reception desk tells me. My fellow guests have taken the “wherever” to heart and crammed their automobiles in and around the stones the separate the camp from the road. We squeeze into a space next to a giant pickup truck.
I chose a riverside tent which promised, I dunno, something about waking up and looking at Half Dome. What we got was a creepy, inland, poo-brown concrete block and canvas prison tent, surrounded by other prison tents and located next to our car/the road/the giant dumpster.
I’d warned R. that Housekeeping Camp was a nightmare. Thanks to me expertly managing his expectations, he is pleased by all the “space” we have. He’d pictured a seven by seven tent with no furniture, so what we go was an improvement. 8 x 15 (?) with a patched canvas roof, double bed, bunk bed, shelving unit, two outlets and an indoor and outdoor light. Woo hoo!
Never mind our plastic-covered double bed is littered with sand. The canvas roof and door filthy and held in place by black tape. The bear box opens with a shriek and groan no matter how slowly and carefully we let down the steel door. The fire pit littered with trash. We can’t see the river.
Deep breath. It’s okay. We’re here.
We brush the sand off the bed and unroll the sleeping bag. We put our food and lotions and toothpaste into the bear box as per regulations. We hurry to the store to buy firewood.
We’re good. We unpack. We get the Christmas lights in place despite bringing too short of an extension cord. The river isn’t that far away. The scenery is pretty in an August-in-Los Angeles kind of way. I read that housekeeping camp is the only place you can have a campfire in the valley and I understand why now. I’m bathed in smoke. I don’t know if it’s the wood or the nature of the valley but every fire creates a veil that drifts and swirls but doesn’t dissipate. We move left, right, we can’t escape.
We’ve got to create our own fire if we want to eat. We do, and add to the smoke. Our lukewarm sausages and buns are pretty good because we’re starving. Now what? The family next to us is already in bed. The group of friends across from us is drunk and raucous and we listen to their tales of socialism and home invasion. The long, one-act play is entertaining to a point. The only mom in the group is also an audience member, pacing the periphery, bouncing her cute, animal-costumed baby against her chest. Hopefully it won’t be eaten by a mountain lion. Seriously–there is a sign warning parents not to let children walk alone. This little one can’t walk so hopefully she is safe. Though if the mom was trying to camouflage the baby, dressing it as a bunny might not have been the best choice.
Eventually R. wants to go to bed. I’m determined to see the fire burn down. He does, and I don’t, because a camp ranger comes by to “remind” me that all campfires must be extinguished at 10pm. With water.
Heavy sigh. I don’t have a bucket. I find a Taco Bell cup in the car and go back and forth to the bathroom faucet until I’ve put out the perfect-for-marshmellows embers.
Now I’m in bed at 10 p.m. instead of my normal midnight. R. is recovering from a cold so he’s okay with this. He’s snoring and I’m crammed next to him in a double bed (we’ve got a queen at home.) We spend the night wrestling in a non-sexy, exhausting way.
We wake at 6 a.m. to the grumble of a diesel truck and the beep beep beep of heavy equipment. The truck is delivering Pepsi to the store near us. The beeping comes from across the river. Something under construction. Seriously?? I can’t believe this. I thought last night was hell with all the smoke but this is too much.
I get up. R. stays in bed. His ability to sleep in is legendary. I open the bear box as quietly as I can and eat yogurt for breakfast.
Now – to hike! I’m groggy but excited. It’s a beautiful day. A sweet pine-scented, sun-drenched, high sierra dream. I cross the stone bridge near camp. The Merced river is high. It’s been reaching flood stage on and off all spring. What surprises me most about it is not the strange green color of the powerful, turbid water, but the variations in the sounds it makes. When I’ve listened to streams before, they sing a steady song, something along the lines of tinkle tinkle tinkle. This river is wild, roaring and hissing and swirling unpredictably. What’s happening upstream? Giant chunks of snow slipping down slopes, boulders tumbling when the ice that has held them all winter melts? Big things, to affect this volume of water.
I try to make my way to the hotel formerly known as the Ahwahnee. They had to change the name to the Majestic because when Delaware North lost its government contract to run the restaurants and hotels, they claimed they owned many of the famous names – including YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK. It’s basically extortion. While this goes through legal channels the park changed the names so the new company could take over the concessions without a problem.
I have a few moments of peaceful bliss before coming upon the road-working crew that woke me up. They are grading and paving a new road with the usual assortment of Cat equipment. A woman stops the motor grader to allow me to cross the fresh asphalt.
From here on, the hike is idyllic. Where are the hoards? I pass charming cabins, presumably to house staff, and spot the webcam with the view of a meadow and Half Dome I’ve been watching.
I find the trail to Mirror Lake and it’s just me, birds, oaks and pines, mosquitoes, and giant granite boulders. I love this landscape. I can’t believe the sheerness of the rock that surrounds me. I make my way to the bottom of a small waterfall I spotted from camp and stare straight up at the sheets of water cascading down. It’s amazing and I’ve got it all to myself. I need this nature time. The flora and fauna I see in San Francisco is ragweed and homeless people.
Mirror Lake is looking a little fetid these days. Turns out it was never a “real” lake. Entrepreneurs in the early 20th century (?) dug out the area to make a place for Half Dome to reflect perfectly. Now the prissy park department has decided to let it go back to being a meadow…I read on a fancy display sign next to the paved path. <– You get my drift? Fer god’s sake, it’s been a fake lake for 100 years. People love it. What is and isn’t “natural” in Yosemite is up for debate. Dredge the one acre and let people have a special moment. It’s famous!
After I get to Mirror Lake I really want to hop on a shuttle and go meet R. for lunch. I’m tired. But argh…turns out the shuttle is a mile away. I trudge on.
I wait at the shuttle stop with a bunch of other pink-faced tourists. Extreme hiking Dad is trying to convince his five-year old daughter–who’s sitting exhausted on the dirty ground–that they should walk to wherever it is they are going since he has no idea when the shuttle will show up. She resists and I support her. “It will be here soon,” I say. “I’ve been here 15 minutes and it comes every 20.”
Fortunately it does show up and the little girl is saved. : )
Lunch is pathetic. I’m sooooo hungry but I’ve got a choice of four greasy meat things on buns or pizza. All too heavy for a hot day with more walking ahead. I get pizza and only eat two slices and give the rest away to a family. I love when people take food from strangers! Humans are trusting – sometimes!
R. and I try to get on a bus to Yosemite Falls and are turned away from the first one. The buses are crammed. Standing room only squished like sardines crammed. We walk back a stop and wait on the other side because those buses seem emptier, and do manage to catch one, ending up on a 45-minute tour of the park. Which is pretty okay, but the bus is hot, and the driver angry from having to yell, “Move to the back of the bus! All the way back, not partway!” at every stop.
Looks like I had the trail to Mirror Lake to myself because everyone in the park is going to Yosemite Falls. I can see why. The approach is dramatic. We hundreds of tourists are tiny specks compared to the super-sized attractions around us. We try to ruin Yosemite but can’t, it is just too awesome.
The falls are immense and like the river, wild and irregular, the huge plumes more like an avalanche than water. The spray is so thick that anyone who ventures out on the bridge over the river comes back soaked. I hide behind a log, prep my camera and jump up for a quick shot.
We decide to walk back to housekeeping camp from here, though we end up west of where we meant to cross the river in a beautiful, huge, spring-green meadow. The views are amazing…of everything. The scope of the place is astounding.
On the other side of Swinging Bridge we find more great photo ops – the falls reflected in a still spot on the river.
By the time we get back to camp we’re beat. We planned to eat dinner out but parking is awful (most lots are full) as is traffic, and we can’t face riding the bus for 45 minutes – if we manage to get space on one. We get beer and pretzels from the store and sit by the river to enjoy sunset on Half Dome, but it isn’t the most spectacular thing we’ve seen today. I’m embarrassed to admit I’m a bit bored. I should recognize this as a symptom of being overstimulated but I don’t. I miss my usual toys. I’m trying to have a tech-free few days and except for a few tweets and instagrams, I’ve kept off the internet and I don’t have my computer. I brought a good old-fashioned paper book to read but after seven pages I’m reciting the overwrought prose out loud to R., who isn’t interested. Neither am I.
I’ve had a great day and am ready to chill but no chill is to be had. Chill being a comfy couch and sushi delivered. The evening campfires are lit and smoke chokes the camp. It seems worse tonight. We both cough. We opt not to build our own fire and eat cold turkey sandwiches for dinner. It’s now 9 p.m. and we are completely unable to entertain ourselves. Pathetic? Maybe. We retreat to the forced snuggling of our double bed and listen to an audio book.
I wake pre-dawn, having to pee, which involves getting up and getting dressed. It’s 5am though I haven’t seen this hour in years, I feel pretty good. I’ve slept six hours and that seems to be enough. We leave today and I was worried I wouldn’t have time to hike, but I’ve now got loads!
I’d like to be in the big green meadow for sunrise so I set off. All the service trucks are on the road, getting in before the gridlock, but overall it’s peaceful. I check the weather on my phone and find out the river is at flood stage right now. The first sign I see of this is a two-inch deep coating of water over a ten-foot length of the path I’m traveling. What to do? There is no way around it. Though I don’t want to get my feet wet this early, I’m wearing all terrain sandals, so I go ahead.
I make it to where the meadow should be and find a lake. The meadow is completely flooded. This doesn’t seem strange. I didn’t know the meadow well enough to miss it and the lake looks fine where it is.
I cross the bridge and shuffle through cold water to a grass island and watch the sunlight creep its way down what might be El Capitan…not sure what all the big masses of rock are called. I’m surrounded by birdsong, though I don’t see the birds themselves. As the light slowly approaches me, I acknowledge I’m not a sunrise person. Daybreak isn’t particularly glorious or amazing. I know what comes next–whereas sunset thrills me…the start of night…of mystery. The period at the end of the sentence that was the day. Sunrise is ellipses. Not a thing in itself but the start of everything else.
The sun is up and it promises to be another beautiful day. I really want to see Yosemite falls again. We saw it in the afternoon and I know it will look completely different now. Every feature in Yosemite has a different golden hour. The problem being that the paved path that leads to it is also part of the lake, fast moving water rushing over the black asphalt. I can see the shore, near the lodge, and it isn’t that far. What the hell. My feet are already wet.
The water isn’t just cold, it’s ice cold. Freezing. By the time I’m halfway across I’m knee deep and my legs are burning. I wonder how long it takes to get frostbite but don’t bother to look it up. It takes only taken five minutes to cross but it feels like longer. I stumble out of the river lake, embarrassed because I’ve done something kind of stupid. Fortunately no one is there to chastise me because they are all SLEEPING. As they should be.
My legs are both numb and burning and I towel them off with my sweatshirt. I take the paved road by Yosemite Lodge instead of the nature path because I’m temporarily sick of nature. I can wiggle my toes if not feel them. I think they’ll make it.
The cafeteria at the lodge is open and I go in for two eggs scrambled and multigrain toast and a chance to thaw my feet. The population of the sunny room is split between dazed people such as myself, and sporty people wearing backpacks with too many straps and pockets.
When I’m fed and dry I head across the road to the falls and am rewarded by rainbows! Yosemite falls makes rainbows in the morning. I’m so glad I came. I people-watch from a mist-free location. It warms my heart to see adults completely in the moment, and so gleeful in the face of a thunderous and powerful and beautiful force. Thank god Yosemite is a clumsily-managed national park and not a for-profit venture. We don’t need zip lines and the Yosemite Under the Falls Experience. Okay now that I’m thinking about it, I do want that because it would be amazing. And that probably will happen, but back to my point. Watching my fellow humans “have a moment” is really nice. That woman could be a CEO or a waitress and she’d be making the same face. We stand together in awe. I guess that’s what keeps people coming to this place.
I take the long way back to camp, hiking a trail on the north side that puts me surprisingly high above the valley. On the map it’s just a fingernail from the road. I’m completely alone again, just me and the lizards and the birds. My analytic brain calculates the chances of me being raped and murdered and thrown in a crevasse and my creative brain says it’s zero. I’m sweaty and tired and safe and happy and very much living the moment, mosquitos and all. Success.
I needed a few days off the grid and in nature, and although I wasn’t technically off the grid and the nature was interrupted by the hideous structures in Housekeeping Camp, the nature still got me. Despite its awesome power and clear ability to smash and flood and eat unattended children, something in us wants to look up at a clear blue sky and impossibly vertical cliffs and gushing water and rainbows and smile at a stranger and proclaim, “Wow!”
Tuesday September 6, London
I’m always a bit frantic on the last day of a vacation. Did I see everything? Did I do everything? Did I get everyone a souvenir? Do I need to?
I had it in my head to go to a real English hardware store. There, I’d find some amazing only-in-England thing. I didn’t know what. Maybe a keep off the grass sign, or some interesting nails. Or seeds for a flower I’d never heard of.
I found a well-rated one not too far from the hotel and headed north across Blackfriar’s bridge. I had fresh eyes after all the mud and was really appreciating London. I found a tiny, charming pedestrian alley and zig-zagged my way to my goal.
Unfortunately the hardware store was lame. Barely even a hardware store. They sold small appliances, a few pots and pans, what you’d find in the hardware section of a supermarket.
Not to worry–my next destination was a real British toy store. “More a museum” the Internet said. Well…it was in Camden Market and was about 10 feet square.
The London Transportation Museum was right across the square so I decided to go to that…and discovered it was overrun with children! While it wasn’t specifically geared towards kids they were allowed in for free and there were lots of full-size buses and trolleys and tube cars they could play on and in. No disrespect for the kids, just the atmosphere was more playground than museum.
There was a special design exhibit about signage etc. for the tube, and it was the most badly-presented thing I’d ever seen. Every sign…explained by more signs…everything on top of each other. Crazy!!
I was near the British museum so I decided to visit the Egyptian exhibits. Always great! I don’t know if this cool ceiling was there when I last visited but it is really nice.
It was getting late so I took the tube to St. Peter’s, which the nearest stop to the hotel I could get to without making a big circle and changing a bunch of times. Our hotel isn’t well-located as far as tube stops go. I peeked in the church but they were getting ready for mass so I didn’t stay long.
My cell phone was having trouble with the map (lots of high rises?). I asked for directions from some construction guys–who pointed me in the wrong direction. I walked many blocks before realizing.
That night we had a fun event. A friend of R’s is opening a vinyl-centric, audiophile bar and cafe in King’s Cross, and was having the soft opening Monday and Tuesday nights. We were really excited to be in town for this. The area is very interesting. A nearby canal, and old grain silos (?) and other buildings being redeveloped.
We got to the cafe to find that it was under construction. Nowhere near being done. Boxes everywhere, sawing and hammering, workmen screwing tabletops onto bases. No party. : (
While I wish he’d have let us know, I didn’t regret going to that area. We got dinner around the corner at a great place called Grain Store. We were seated near the open kitchen and it was like watching a reality show, the French chef yelling at the sous chefs who were frantically cooking and plating food. They did everything with their bare hands, serving and arranging the hot food. They must be permanently burned!
I went to bed tired but still worried I had more to do.
Monday, September 5, Port Meirion to London
I may have fond memories of Festival no. 6 but it won’t be for awhile. I woke to the sound of gentle rain and the squelching of boots through the mud. All I could think was, get me out of here, now. I didn’t care if I had to sit on the train platform for 5 hours.
We lugged our suitcases a quarter mile to the bus stop, carrying them over the mud, dragging them along gravel. All the while the rain fell. We lucked out that a bus for Bangor was right there, with a kind bus driver who stopped for anyone on the road with a bag to see if they needed a ride. Our friends D. and J., who were going by car to Edinburgh, had to get towed by a tractor out of the flooded parking area. (Them and hundreds of others) A man on the train next to us said the festival people told him he wouldn’t be able to get his car until Wednesday, so he headed back to Manchester and will go back to get it later.
Unfortunately, our friend’s car wouldn’t go over 50 mph without beginning to shake, so they had to take it in to a garage to get the undercarriage cleaned out (mud everywhere) and the wheels realigned, and after that, get it pressure washed to get even more mud out, and there still seems to be a problem with the brakes.
Numerous people told us this was the worst weather ever at this festival. Last year it was so nice people went to the beach and swam.
We lucked out and there was an express train to London on the platform in Bangor, and the agent said we could use our tickets even though it was 11:30 and our tickets were for the 3:45 train.
OMG the train was a huge mess as you might imagine. Everyone filthy with filthy packs and too much luggage and not enough seats. I’m not sure why they let so many people on. We had to pile bags in the vestibule which was fine for the first couple stops but then the doors opened on the other side and I heard people outside the train gasp and exclaim as they were confronted with the wall of luggage. No one could get on our car. Which was full anyway. R had to keep running back to check to make sure our bags didn’t fall out.
Finally back in London, finally in a dry hotel, finally a real shower. R found what turned out to be a really good Turkish restaurant just a few blocks from the hotel, picturesquely situated under the brick arch of a train bridge, and we over ate there and then had drinks next door.
Sunday, September 4, Festival No. 6 Port Meirion
I drank too much in the red tent last night. It wasn’t really my fault. There wasn’t anything else to do. We met up with our friends…waited for the rain to stop…and it didn’t for more than a few minutes at a time, so we stayed.
I woke late and since it was raining again, stayed in bed. Thank god for the tent and the bed. Eventually I roused myself and went to the showers since I absolutely stank. They weren’t bad. A trailer with four white plastic cubes inside and a partition that didn’t quite protect clothes from getting wet.
However–the 100 feet from our tent to the bathrooms was nothing but mud and puddles. Deep mud. Scary, shoe-sucking mud (there were actual shoes in it). The grass, which covered the ground when we arrived, had been decimated, remaining only in the spaces between the tents protected by the tent poles and ropes.
We walked through the main arena area and it was awful. Ankle deep mud and slippery (though the band played on). We made it to the village and found D. and J. in the wifi area (you can on get it if you are no more than 20 feet from the point). Even they looked discouraged which was a bad sign. They are two of the most optimistic, make-do people I know. D. wanted a shower and J. wanted a nap.
R. and I walked down to the water and got grilled cheese sandwiches and a pint. The people watching was good but my heart wasn’t in it. It was a slog just to get there. Even the paved road in the village to the waterfront was slippery. I wanted to take another walk in the beautiful woods but J. told me they, too, were pure mud. I admired the people who managed to drink and dance and yell woo in these conditions. Apparently many English festivals are like this. I just couldn’t. I like rain but all the mud made me sad.
We made our way back to the tent, stopping to watch an organized dance in the town plaza. We got a text from our friends when we stopped at the wifi point saying they’d be at the beer tent at 8pm, but I was safe and warm in bed by then. We heard later that the “gin” tent near us collapsed from the weight of water on the roof and people had to crawl out, so the leak in our floor didn’t seem quite so bad.
Saturday, September 3 – Portmeirion
The rain was supposed to start at midnight but it didn’t start until dawn. Without any cell service I was ignorant as to how long it would last. It started gently but by 10am was pouring. I enjoyed laying in the tent and listening to it (we don’t get any rain in the summer in San Francisco), but when they started the sound check at the huge stage behind us–playing 30 seconds of a random techno song–and the tent began to vibrate, I had to get out of there.
Few people were out and about. Those in the village with the same idea I had–to hide out in a cafe. The indoor cafe was packed, as was the covered champagne bar. I ended up under a big umbrella at a pizza place and got a crappy pizza and worked on this blog. The rain got harder and the steps near me turned into miniature waterfalls. At this point the festival officially closed The Woods, shutting down three venues and cancelling all the musicians that were supposed to play out there.
Fortunately, sitting under a giant umbrella at a table with dry seats meant I got to meet many people. The first of my new friends was a 40-something couple from south of London. Him with a dry sense of humor and her friendly and literal. They were camping and their air mattress had a leak. They spent the night on the ground. He said there was a “mild hurricane” warning and I couldn’t figure out if he was joking. He referenced a famously disgraced U.K. weatherman who’d said not to pay attention to the hurricane warnings, then a hurricane happened and several historical gardens were destroyed. Next, a young couple from 20 miles north of Portmeirion joined me. He said the weather is always like this and it was actually good because it wasn’t windy. (Cue the wind in an hour).
Finally, a family from Manchester sat down, all blonde and wind blown and happy to chat. Everyone said something to the effect of “Where you from, then?” The young daughters showed me the flowery hippy headdresses they’d made in a workshop there (which I couldn’t get into thanks to a long line).
Eventually it got so rainy the water was blowing in under the umbrella and I had to put away my iPad – not that I was getting any writing done with all my chatting.
When the rain lessened I made my way back to the tent, stopping on the way to get R some macaroni since I was quite sure he hadn’t been out. He hadn’t. I crawled into bed for a moment to warm up. I’d planned for weather in the high 50’s at worst but not the damp and chill wind. After I’d warmed and dried we both went out.
As did everyone else. In droves. I forgot to mention this. While the festival advertised itself as “intimate,” the place (when it wasn’t raining) was jammed. On Friday I watched endless streams of campers dragging piles of gear up the hill. I watched bus after bus deliver…people with day passes maybe? I couldn’t figure that out, other than we weren’t allowed to walk on the only clean, paved and safe surface because the huge buses filled the roads width and ran continuously.
The ground was saturated. Our tent was on a slope (as were most of the campsites) but a small pond managed to form outside the front door. A leak somewhere in the floor of the otherwise waterproof structure soaked the mat by the front, however the water didn’t travel beyond that thankfully.
The paths were soggy and slippery and extremely muddy in some places but still passable if you stuck to the edges, where the last of the grass still lived. Some of the bare-floored venues (under tents) had been transformed into covered lakes and were unusable. A worker futilely tried to sweep 6-inch deep water from the music tent near the beer tent with a push broom.
I ran into D. and J. and went to check out their campsite. That path was an oozing river of mud inches deep. I can’t imagine how they got up there in the dark.
The camping area was extremely crowded, tents only a couple feet apart. D. and J. were kept up the night before by a “party tent” next to them that went all night and mysteriously disappeared in morning, leaving only a suspicious pile of trash.
The rain started again so we hid out in the red beer tent with D. and J. and their friends and managed to get a barrel and chairs and consequently, too many drinks (because we didn’t want to leave). There was almost nowhere to sit in the whole damn festival. Even when it was not raining, the ground was too damp to sit on without a waterproof blanket, there were almost no chairs or tables in the food truck areas, none in the stage areas, and very limited seating in the village. I’m not saying this is unusual for festivals but this one went for days…and it sucks trying to eat a meal with a crappy, biodegradable spork while standing, and having to stand in the middle of a windy field to watch a band has zero appeal. I realize this is an over-40 type of complaint and I’ll own that. However, I wasn’t the only one yearning to relax given every single damn chair and low wall in the whole place was permanently occupied.
I made friends with a globe-trotting piano player and his animal-loving fiancée and chatted with a woman I met in Welsh class, but I was still a little bummed. I’d come too far and spent too much to end up in a bar. D. went out to see a band playing in the biggest tent and came back an hour later proclaiming a river ran through the center of it.
The rain did not let up. Once I was “warm” (cough) I was willing to go out there and see what was happening but R’s shoes didn’t have much of a tread and he literally could not stand in one place (nothing was level) without slowly slipping down the hill. I helped him back to our tent then went back out to find everyone and everyone was gone! For the best it turns out…
Friday September 2, Festival No. 6 in Portmeirion.
We slept well in our fancy tent, though it came complete with spiders in webs. I wondered how long ago they set them up (ha ha – the tents not the spiderwebs). We got breakfast from a food truck (good stuff – eggs on potato cakes) and tried to get our bearings. The festival was in four main areas. A huge grass area with big stages and covered stages (near our tent) and food trucks, a middle “food court” with one covered music venue, the village (which has no permanent residents, the whole thing is a spread-out hotel), which had indoor and outdoor areas, and “the woods” – stages tucked away in a gorgeous forest.
The Village (as featured in The Prisoner) was great but not in the way I expected. Not empty and pristine like it was in the show, instead full of people and pop up booths and temporary restaurants. So, despite not being what I imagined, I really liked it.
I’d downloaded the festival app while I still had internet (thank god) and had a full slate of cultural and artistic events planned.
The first was Welsh lessons. I’m terrible at languages but I did my best, and made a couple friends in the process. Next I planned to learn to make Welsh sourdough but this event, like all events in Town Hall, was too popular and had a huge line. I never did make it to any event in there!
Fortunately I ran into R. and we went down to the waterfront and had Fabulous Fish Fingers – recommended by the drunk ladies behind us on the bus. The sandwiches were pretty good but the first of many unhealthy meals. I ate little that wasn’t fried or made of bread and cheese.
Afterwards I trekked into the woods and found the floating dance floor. It was an idyllic setting but floating dance floor? As in, swaying and bouncing? I didn’t get the appeal.
I continued on…feeling very adventurous creeping around on unknown trails. I could hear music but had no idea where I was going. I came upon a DJ in an owl-looking booth, tent over him, a handful of dancers around him, kids climbing trees.
I continued on, stumbling across the dog cemetery (with full-sized grave stones) D. and J. told me about.
The sun broke through the clouds and I really wanted to get a view of the ocean that I knew was out there. When I finally got to a vista point I was astonished to discover how many people made it there carrying a pint or a glass of champagne.
It was low tide and as far as I could see was bare sand interspersed with shallow rivers, green hills beyond–a restful kind of beauty.
I wanted to get to the beach. I’d been warned it was all quicksand at low tide, but that certainly didn’t seem to be the case since there were dozens of people down there. I followed a path that headed down and ended up on top of a small ravine. The path ended with a cliff and a knotted rope tied to a tree. Hmmmm. I wasn’t totally confident of my rappelling abilities but the alternative was going back up the hill and I absolutely did not want to do that.
I made it. The sand was odd, more like snow, my feet sinking down six inches every time I took a step. It was tiring and I was already tired. I found an easier way up on the far end of the beach.
The woods were more like a botanical garden. Super lush with some clearly non-native (but thriving) plants.
Back in the village I collapsed into a chair and listened to a very good spoken word poet while I recovered. I’d been strenuously hiking for longer than I intended.
Thank god I ran into D. and J. soon after that because I’d forgotten we’d pre-booked dinner at a long table for that night. I thought it was Saturday night. I slogged all the way back to the tent (it must be at least half a mile from the village to the tent) to clean up and slogged back. Hills everywhere!
The good part of the dinner was meeting people. To the left–genuine Welsh people from just down the road who told us about a place where you can jump on trampolines underground in an old slate quarry. !!!! To the right–a woman of (presumably) Indian descent, born and raised in London, who complained that her parents moved to the country with nothing, bought a house in London, raised two kids, and she will never be able to afford to do that. London seems to be having a housing crisis in the same way San Francisco is. I heard this from many people. Several cabbies in particular. Hope I’m not repeating myself…the cabbies were both in favor of Brexit. One complaining that people from poorer countries, Poland in particular, move to London, cram many people into small apartments (which presumably makes the rental market tighter) work for a few years and save money, don’t put any money into the British economy, then move back home and buy a home there. The other complained that new housing was bought by Russians and Arabs as investment properties and left vacant until prices rise enough, and then sold. He claimed that all the units in an under-construction building we passed would never be put on the market. They’d all be pre-sold to investors, and that entire buildings sit vacant in London. Whether or not this is true I don’t know, and I’m not sure how Brexit would fix that.
By this point it had become clear that WE were exotic and foreign and actually slightly interesting because of it! I don’t know if I’ve ever been anywhere where being an American tourist was interesting to the locals. The festival was a very UK-centric event.
The bad part of the dinner was that it was a total rip off! It was supposed to be some multi-course fabulous experience by chef so in so. I assumed we’d be eating crappy food most of the time and this would be a nice break. The dinner consisted of a beet-flavored welcome cocktail (blech), a small beet salad (fine tasting but again, small), and then, confusingly, a complete leg of lamb put down between every six or so guests (people that didn’t know each other) with a knife and no instructions or assistance. Not to be helpless, but I personally don’t cook lamb and have no idea how to carve it or what the good or bad parts are. We all politely took small amounts. Accompanying the lamb was a bowl of raw peas. We thought they’d gone cold but found out later the chef thought they were so amazing they didn’t need to be cooked. Plus some good small potatoes that instantly disappeared.
Dessert was a kind of fruit cobbler (?) – cooked apples and berries with a cinnamon topping. The woman across from me laughed and said her kids make this at home.
Also, they blasted awful loud music. Like, Bon Jovi. Weird stuff with no theme and didn’t match the mood of the pretty tent. There were speakers every 10 feet. We begged them to turn it down or turn off our speaker but they didn’t.
I left hungry. Argh. I have to find a place to really review this because I don’t want anyone else to make this mistake in the future.
I dragged everyone out and down a trail to the vista point to see sunset, but we just missed it. Still, it was pretty, with the tide in and twilight. They were just shutting down the floating dance floor and we passed, and we headed to the village to see the “famous” torchlight parade. In the promo pictures, torches carried by people in costume and pretty goddess girls, in real life, the first 100 people to grab one, most of them in jeans and hiking boots.
We wandered around after that, none of the bands captivating us. I for one was dead tired, having been on my feet nearly all day and running up and down hills for most of it as well, and was happy to go to bed early (around midnight). We were directly behind the largest stage but mix of sounds that reached us (smaller stages, crowd sounds, etc.) blended into a very loud white noise that, with enough cocktails, allowed me to sleep.
or, The Virgin train of confusion
Thursday September 1, London to Portmeirion
We packed up and hit the rails, heading to Wales and Festival no. 6.
Festival no. 6 takes place in Port Meirion, Wales, and was one of the main reasons we planned this trip. To quote from the official website:
“Spend the weekend discovering an award-winning eclectic mix of screenings, readings, performance art, installations, intimate talks and conversations and so much more.”
“an intimate boutique music and arts festival”
“we wanted to create a more bespoke offering, carefully curated for those who are looking for a more refined weekend”
“the coolest, most surrealist, funkiest, freakiest, best festival in the world”
Sounds amazing, doesn’t it? (Spoiler alert: you know it’s all going to go to hell, right?)
We got to Euston station early because we hadn’t picked up our special Festival No. 6 train tickets yet. Thankfully, our friend J. spent half the day yesterday tracking them down because the Festival is hugely disorganized. They said they’d mail the tickets, and didn’t. They said they’d email them, and didn’t. Blah dee blah. We were getting worried. J. finally found the tickets at the First Class Virgin lounge at the station. The agents there thought the big, wrapped up stack of tickets was for a tour group. J. got her to open them and low and behold, our tickets!
We got a good breakfast in front of the station and I picked up some supplies–cookies and booze–and then got in the long line for the train once the platform was announced.
Argh…total confusion. The reserved seat info didn’t get uploaded so the screens all said “available” even though all the tickets had seat numbers, so all the festival people had to ask the people already in our seats to move. Most people on the train had huge packs (camping gear) and went back and forth banging tents and pads and sleeping bags into everyone as they tried to find a place to stow them. The small luggage racks were already full and our suitcases didn’t fit in the racks above. I moved a case of Strongbow and crammed my suitcase into the rack but poor R. had to leave his in the vestibule and jump up at every stop to make sure it hadn’t rolled out the door.
The cute young things began to put on their festival make up – glitter and bindis. Festival style here, at least at this festival, is a kind of hippy raver look, leaning more towards hippy.
The car was quite raucous and the Virgin train staff gave up even trying to service us for the 3 hour trip. They’d hired a two-woman band to entertain us, but not given them any space, so they stood in the aisle, trying to play as people pushed past.
I’m not sure when we crossed the “border” into Wales, but the landscape began to look very different as we got closer to Bangor. Tall, jagged mountain/hills, vibrant green hillsides, chest-high stone walls surrounding sheep pastures, sheep.
I felt the “otherness” vibe I hoped to feel when we crossed into Scotland (but didn’t).
The Festival people were supposed to give us our wrist bands (to get into the festival) while we were on the train, but didn’t get to our car until we were five minutes from Bangor. We managed to get ours but J. and D. didn’t; regardless, we didn’t get our bus passes and would have queue up for those once we got off.
A friendly station security guard struck up a conversation with us as we waited, asking where we were from. We told him, then I asked where he was from, and he laughed and said just over the hill. Our first Welshman! He proudly told us that this was the only county in Wales to have Welsh speaking schools. All the kids learn Welsh. He said they’ve got Syrian refugees and their kids are learning Welsh. He said it’s a sight to see, all the little Syrian kids speaking Welsh. : )
In another moment of unexpected luck, in addition to the two booths we were waiting to get to, the festival people started handing out wristbands and bus passes starting at the end of the line. And we were at the very end. What the heck!! When does that happen?
We hopped right on the bus and soon after were on the road to the festival. The hour trip was mesmerizing. Not only because of the great scenery but also thanks two loud English women in their late 40’s behind me.
Sunday night? No idea. Everything was fine until I started doing shots. I was walking down the lane, Tommy picked me up when I fell and then I was in bed. He ran out in his knickers. I don’t do drugs anymore. Can’t. Did ya know I was in the army? I wanted to fight but they didn’t let girls do that when I joined. I tried to join the American marines…
on and on.
We got close to the festival and I saw a narrow gauge steam train! I’d love to ride it but I don’t think there is time.
The bus pulled into the festival and it was total confusion again. The bus driver gave no instruction. He stopped, everyone got off, staff pulled our luggage out from under the bus and threw it onto the ground, and D. and J. went to find general camping. R. and I tried to find someone who knew what was going on but everyone appeared to have just gotten on shift and had no clue.
Eventually we figured out we had to get back on the bus to be driven to Boutique Village–the pre-set up tents we’d booked. Other people had to get off the bus because it wasn’t the bus to the parking lot.
We waited in line, again, to get our camping wristbands and it started to rain.
Our tent, one of many in identical rows, is pretty cool. My first Glamping experience. We’ve got a real mattress, a table, two chairs, a weakly-inflated and unusable couch, and two side tables. We can stand up! I’m a-ok with this although it is horribly overpriced. Oh and we’ve got private “fancy” toilets and showers!
We stowed our gear and tried to text D. and J. to make plans for dinner and found…the internet doesn’t work. Cell doesn’t work. We had 3 bars of 3G but nothing happened. We had no idea where they were.
This was a big problem. I expected to be able to go off on my own and meet friends from time to time, and assumed we’d be able to keep each other updated on cool stuff that was happening. (Future self note: it never got better. My texts never went through. I only met my friends by accident. It was a huge pain and really took away from my enjoyment of the festival.)
By sheer chance we met D. in line at a food booth in a lawn area between the big arena and the village. We joined he and J. and their friends from Edinburgh in what I called the red tent – a Moretti beer tent with red lights. We had a nice night! A. and S., J.’s friends from college in Edinburgh were fun and we had drinks and good conversation.