Staff Feature

Plaque

We didn’t arrange for a week of travel in the south of Wales in order to trail in some literary wake of Dylan Thomas. Anna wanted to relive some of her travels during her university days at Cambridge, and she thought I would be thrilled with the opportunity to hike through rugged greening landscapes. But the exuberant broodings of the brash Welsh bard hung in the air like a forecast of soft spring rain, or an ironic lament for the collapse of the coal industry: lyrical, faintly tragic, ever-present.

We stayed a first night in the cosmopolitan bustle of Cardiff, then rented a car and headed west, rolling over broad farmland and hedgerow-lined laneways, tossing comments back and forth about Fifty Shades of Green and likelihood that Wales had more chlorophyll per capita than anywhere we’d seen. We skirted Thomas’ home town of Swansea on our way out the Gower Peninsula, where we took advantage of several glorious clear days to hike exhilarating tracks along undulating coastal cliffs, dropping down to broad butterscotch-tinted beaches before wending back up to high outcroppings of cleft and windswept limestone. Anna had worked hard to rehabilitate an injured knee, and we were both glad that she was strong and limber once again.

One day we followed a path around the westernmost tip of the peninsula, a promontory looking down onto the fantastically sculpted emerald spine of Worm’s Head, a dragon-like spit cut off from the mainland twice daily by surging tides.  The channel was studded with lurid signs warning hikers of the risk of getting stranded. We reveled in sensory pleasures: the soft sea air, the vivid greens and blues, the rhythmic crash of wave and rock, the counterpoint between the gulls and rooks screeing overhead, and the chatter of songbirds hidden in the gorsebushes.

That night we read aloud the autobiographical short story, “Who Do You Wish Was With Us?” where a youthful Dylan Thomas sets out on a journey across the Gower with his older friend Ray, to escape the grittiness of Swansea between the World Wars. Dylan is captivated by the bright adventure of the moment, while Ray is trying to distance himself from the trauma of having nursed and buried his father, brother, and sister. The two make their way out on to Worm’s Head, where they lose track of time and tide, and are forced to spend a windswept night alone. It was fun to read and namecheck the places we had seen that day: Oxwich, Rhossili, and the treacherous Worm’s Head. I was struck by Thomas’ capacity to hold both exuberance and grief in such a small, precisely-drawn vessel.

The next night, after another long coastal walk, we ended up in a raucous pub in the compact resort town of Tenby, easing our aches with a pint and a whisky, mingling with patrons avidly watching the European Cup football finals on the telly. One genial fan ribbed us, “So, are you Yanks or wankers?” and Anna deftly parried, “Well, I’ve been called both,” winning his unbridled approval. Weaving a path through the crowd on my way back from the WC, I came across a plaque that commemorated Dylan Thomas’ visit to the pub in 1953, when he got so piss-drunk that he left his sole copy of Under Milkwood on a barstool, and the proprietor had to scramble to get the manuscript back into his hands before he shipped out the next morning on his final American tour, a month before he fell into a coma and died in New York.

I thought then of my brother Brad, who died from alcohol, too, nine years ago. He was forty-nine, outlasting Thomas by a decade. His body was found on the bedroom floor of his Wyoming cabin by a friend, after he had been missing for several days, and he has no plaque to glorify his particular talents or his final downward spiral. When Brad was clear-headed, he found the natural world to be achingly beautiful, and he would have loved this corner of it, the astonishing intersection of sea and sky and stone and urgent green. Grief is a rogue tidal bore, rearing up unpredictably, and when it crashes down all you can do is grab onto whatever crag of hard-earned joy you can find in the moment, and wait for the surge to subside.

 

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