Nowawadays travel is easy, or at least easier than it used to be. You can use the web to look up schedules, maps, points of interest, and even estimate times–you can plan out a whole itinerary without leaving your chair. This doesn’t prevent accidents from happening or things going badly–the best laid plans of mice and travelers, you know–which is something I thought about while listening to “The Holiday Coping Mechanism Spectacular” episode of The Hilarious World Of Depression podcast. Host John Moe shares a story about the year he and his wife decided to skip seeing their families for the holidays and take their young children to Sequim, Washington, which, as soon as he mentioned it, I added to my list of places I want to go, which, admittedly, covers pretty much the entire planet, but that’s another story. The trip wasn’t exactly disastrous, but it wasn’t as happy as they hoped either. No spoilers–go listen. You won’t regret it.
And it took me back to a place I’ve visited several times–metaphorically, since I haven’t been able to go really go back since I last passed through in 1991. While I’ve mentioned the little Welsh town of Carmarthen in previous yarns about my pilgrimage to the home of Dylan Thomas I’ve never given it the space it deserves. It was purely an accident that I found myself there, and even though I was just passing through I kind of fell in love with the place.
The first time I even heard of Carmarthen it was just a dot on the map, the end of the train line but close to my intended destination. And also I’m very much a freewheeling traveler. The best thing on any trip, for me, is to be surprised, which is why I set off on so many journeys without a clear idea where I’m going. The best part of any journey is the journey itself when you don’t have a destination. So I left Swansea on a rickety train that I’m pretty sure dated back to, and may have even been built by, George Stephenson. It was dark and cloudy most of the trip and then pouring rain by the time we pulled into the Carmarthen station. It was late on Saturday night and without realizing it I’d taken the last train. It was in the train station that I found the information I’d need for my second, and more successful, trip to the home of Dylan Thomas. Still I was stuck spending that night in Carmarthen and, because everything in Wales shuts down on Sundays, I wouldn’t be able to take the train back until late the next afternoon.
On that second trip I was, of course, better prepared: I made it to Dylan Thomas’s home and then took the last bus back to Carmarthen. I struck up a conversation with a guy on the bus who informed me he’d never met an American before. We made plans to meet up later at the pub, although we didn’t specify which pub and Carmarthen, small town that it is, has about fifty pubs. And anyway when I got off the bus I stepped right into an enormous crowd. I wouldn’t be surprised if the entire town was there because it was the lighting of the town Christmas tree. The mayor of Carmarthen was there with the city council and he made a nice speech wishing everyone a happy holiday season then turned on the lights. Everyone cheered and started milling around and going to pubs. I went in to one too and spent the rest of the evening talking to several nice people who informed me I was the first American they’d ever met. Before that I shook hands with the mayor, although I didn’t get to talk to him, unfortunately, because I might have been the first American he ever met.
It was a month before Christmas but being there for the lighting of the Carmarthen tree, to be able to spend an evening with the people who lived there, to share in their holiday spirit and their pride in the little Welsh town at the end of the train line, was a fantastic gift. And the best part is I hadn’t even planned it.