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I suppose you have to start somewhere.
That said, you wouldn't choose the car park below Cerrig Lladron as the most inspiring place to begin. Deep ruts in the mud make parking difficult, glass from shattered windscreens litters the ground; someone has set alight the information board. Its charred and jagged edges mirror the granite spikes that puncture the rounded peaks beyond. Daniel surveys the bleak moorland; he looks unconvinced.
The Preseli Hills have been a constant presence for the fifteen or so years I've lived in Wales, their gentle curves forming the backdrop to my garden. And yet, I have never walked the length of the main ridge. Perhaps that's because I live in Pembrokeshire, where all eyes are fixed on the coast, seldom registering the subtler possibilities that lie inland. Or perhaps it's because the ridge is available; its proximity leading to complacency so that before long any sense of urgency slipped away – it will be there tomorrow, next week, next year. Or maybe it's because the logistics are awkward. It's a long linear route, a drop off one day, a pick up the next – there are always softer options which provide enough excuse to assuage the mild sense of guilt.
I am thinking all this as I watch Daniel struggling with his rucksack, the straps flapping in the wind. It is ill packed and the weight of the load pulls him backward, but I resist the urge to rearrange it. He is thirteen and growing out of his body: his shoes three sizes bigger in a year, his trousers too short and his nose too large for his face. And yet his hair is wispy and frail, his skin all freckles, turning to spots.
He waits for me to lead over the stile, kicking his feet in a pool of petrol-streaked water that reflects the gathering clouds. But there is more to his awkwardness than the threat of rain. I'd spent most of the journey here ranting at him for smearing mud over the newly cleaned car. 'Teenage incompetence,' I'd called it – it's become a regular phrase in our house – 'Why can't he just think for once ... I've half a mind to call it off ...' I'd muttered on like this, Daniel silent in the back, until in her beautifully gentle way, Jane had helped me let it go. 'Don't spoil your time with him,' she said, 'he wants so much for you to enjoy this walk.'
A few steps over the stile and you realise something fundamental about the Preseli Hills; they are a sponge. And in the warmer air of April that sponge is sodden and full to bursting. I step gingerly between the tussocks of marram grass, using some rotten logs as duck-boards to take me over the worst of the bog. Daniel walks straight through; ankle deep in the peat he loses a boot on his third or fourth step.
I look momentarily to the sky but say nothing as I come back to help.
He is standing on one leg, picking his boot out of the mire. I offer my arm as he struggles to replace it, but he tips sideward, and in so doing pulls me over too. I end up on top of him as his backside sinks into the water.
We pull each other upright, and I turn to go. 'Follow me from now on will you.'
'I'm sorry Dad.'
'I just wish you'd think a little. We've barely gone a hundred yards and you're soaking wet.'
'I know,' he says and comes to my side.
I rub his hat and pull it jokingly over his eyes to say it doesn't matter and we start over the tussocked moorland that covers the slopes of Foel Cwmcerwyn, the first peak of the ridge. The walking soon becomes easier, the drier ground allowing us to look beyond our next few footsteps. Daniel walks closely but alone in his thoughts, his pack nudging me off the narrow path. I don't want to push him away but I find the silence between us difficult, so I mention that the grass is looking dull and tired.
'That's because we are on the northern side of the mountain. The grass gets less sun up here.'
'I guess so,' I reply.
'If you think about it, those fields by the coast are beyond the shadow line of the mountain. And it's a different type of grass that grows this high, which is probably why the sheep only come here in summer.'
It was only meant as a casual remark, something to pass the time, but he continues unabated.
'And there was snow here last month, so that might affect the grass too. Did you know this is where the ice that once covered Britain ended; it was kilometres thick and the sea was much further away then? The beach at Abereiddy was once a forest.'
'How do you know all that?' I ask.
'I read about it,' he says matter-of-factly. 'And I like noticing things too. Look how the shape of the valley changes as it runs down to the sea. That's because the glaciers stopped right here.'
I pause and look across to the sweep of Cardigan Bay, the sea fading into a violet horizon. I'm thinking about everything he has said. Whether he's correct about the grass and the glaciers is beside the point; it's the intensity of it, the level of observation and the certainty of his knowledge that is so unexpected.
'You're a funny one – all those thoughts in your head, but you can't keep your feet dry.'
'It doesn't matter about my feet.'
He turns his hat to a jaunty angle and pulls a goofy smile. 'Look Dad – teenage incompetent having fun.'
Sometimes I look at Daniel and wonder where he has gone; my golden boy, born after years of struggle; who wouldn't be here were it not for the astonishing technology of IVF. Aged three he was the cheeky one, pulling faces in the family photos; aged six he was the leader of the schoolyard pack, captain of the 'super-team', a bundle of energy whose every move is watched and adored by his younger brother. By the time he was nine he was quieter – his school said he was a joy to teach. Aged eleven he's more withdrawn – nothing serious, just what you might call 'quiet and sensitive' – he reads a lot, buys a snake as a pet and jokes he's becoming nerd. As he grows older I love him all the more; but we seem to clash over the littlest of things. I sense a distance has grown between us; a distance that seems to widen no matter how hard we both try.
I'm conscious too that for the last three years I've spent the majority of my spare time with his younger brother, Michael. Michael, the quiet and taciturn one – his infant teacher once asked me if he liked her – turned out to be a precociously talented cyclist. Some weeks we are seldom apart: training, racing, driving to events around the country – comfortable in the long silences of hours spent in the car. Michael dominates my thoughts and my dreams, the pictures on my office wall. I'm aware of the imbalance and the drift from Daniel – yet I'm driven by a vicarious pleasure in Michael's extraordinary gift, enthralled by his success and, I know, using it as an excuse.
But it would be wrong to say I hadn't tried with Daniel. The times I've asked him to come kayaking or climbing, to go fishing because he'd mentioned he'd like to try; to go to the library even. Jane suggested I try letting him choose – anywhere he liked so long as it was just the two of us. We went to London Zoo; he wanted to see the reptiles – we spent hours looking at snakes and tree frogs. He said it was the best day he'd had that year. Would he like to go again? Not for a while, he said.
Jane says that Daniel is happy in himself; that we'll find the time and reason to bridge the gap one day. Except it doesn't close and I find myself ranting at him more and more; frustrated as much as anything, watching him grow up and away from me.
Until one day in February, a week before his thirteenth birthday, he asked me, 'Would you take me camping this spring; maybe go backpacking in the mountains, like you did when you were a teenager.'
We've reached the cairn at Foel Feddau, a jumble of standing stones on a promontory that rises above what would once have been the glacial moraine. Below us are the villages, the coves and beaches I know so well. They look different from this angle, but then so too do the mountains.
The Preseli Hills can seem out of place in Wales. The greater part of them is rounded moorland, more akin to the Pennines or my childhood home of Northumberland. From a distance, and especially from the south, they look dull. And yet, up close, much of them is unexpected; their bleak expanses are punctuated by erratic pinnacles that give a feeling of bigger mountains, offering possibilities you had not considered. Their closeness to the coast makes them different too: showers scurry past quickly here – the rain tastes of salt – flashes of colour streak the bleached moors as the light reflects off the sea. The more I have come to know them the greater it seems is their capacity to surprise and delight.
I offer Daniel a drink. He questions if we'll have enough for our camp but I reassure him there will be a stream. He gulps at the bottle and I drain the last few drops.
Our next objective is Carn Menyn. I show him the map and explain that from where we are it is about three kilometres away.
'Except we have to go uphill,' he says. 'So it's further than on the map.'
I must have looked puzzled.
'Think about it,' he explains. 'The grid on a map assumes everything is flat. But if you go uphill you are travelling quite a bit further.'
'I'm not sure about that Daniel.'
'It must be. It's like a right-angled triangle; the hypotenuse is the longest side and that's what going up a mountain is like – it's further than along the bottom.'
As we walk on I ponder his theory with a sneaking suspicion that he's correct, aware that for all the years I've walked in the mountains I've never thought of this before.
I ask him if he has been learning about maps at school.
'No – but I was thinking about it before we came. I was wondering why maps of the world make Greenland look huge when on a globe it's much smaller. That's when I figured out how grids work'
'You think a lot, don't you?'
'Like you.' He sends me a wry glance. 'Just about different things.'
'I suppose so.'
'Thinking's good,' he declares.
We walk close together, silently now, past the rocks at Carn Bica and up the steeper climb leading to Carn Menyn.
As we approached the summit I notice he is counting his steps.
'Are you trying to measure the distance,' I ask? 'Because if you are, I think you were right about the up-hills being slightly longer than the map would suggest.'
'It's not that. I was counting so I'd know how far it was if we had to return in the dark.'
'You're a strange boy Daniel,' I tease.
'I know,' he replies, shrugging his shoulders and smiling.
It is late afternoon.
The rocks at Carn Menyn cluster in heaps at the base of a rough crag, the larger ones standing as upright pillars, the smaller ones scattered across the plateaux; cairns and stone circles, the work of new-age druids and spirit seekers, litter the hillside beyond. He asks why they have been built here.
I explain that these are the Bluestones; it was from here that pillars were taken to Stonehenge, dragged south to the Daugleddae estuary, and then taken by sea before their overland journey to what is now Salisbury Plain. The Bluestones make up the inner ring of the famous stone circle; they are overshadowed by the megaliths at the outer edge, but their journey was longer and in many ways more amazing to comprehend. I tell him, that a few years ago a group of archaeologists attempted to re-enact the journey, bringing a single stone from here to Wiltshire using only manpower. It took them three weeks to drag it to Milford Haven.'
'What happened then?'
'It sank the raft.'
He laughs. 'You'd have had a good rant about that, Dad!'
* * *
We climb down from the crags and decide to pitch our tent in the lee of the crag.
Daniel is interested in the process, asking me why the tent is shaped as it is; how do the poles work, shouldn't we pitch it end on to the wind? He unpacks his bag, examining the equipment I have bought him; laying out his mat, then mine, assembling the stove and busying himself around the camp. I watch him, not interfering, and reflect on the contrast to his brother who has the casual expectation that any assistance will simply appear. As he unpacks the food, Daniel reminds me that we'll need to find some water.
I look on the map to locate the nearest stream. Only one is marked, down a steep valley, about a kilometre to the south. There is a choice of routes: picking a way across the heather and grass or a clamber over rough boulders that I reckon has high potential for snapping ankles. I head off across the moor; Daniel chooses the rocks. Within a hundred yards my feet are soaked and sweat is pouring from me as I flail through the bog. Meanwhile Daniel is skipping over the boulders shouting directions and scouting ahead.
After twenty minutes of struggling I make it across to Daniel but there is no sign of the stream. I flop onto a boulder, my heart pounding, and steady myself to think. The sun is low in the sky.
'I'm sorry Dan, we'll have to go down. We can't camp here without water.'
He shrugs disconsolately and turns to look at the coast.
'I can't help it,' I snap. 'Have you got a better idea?'
'Listen,' he says, holding his finger to his lips. 'I can hear something.'
There is a trickle beneath us.
He grabs the water bottles and searches for holes between the boulders. I realise that the rocks he has been walking over are actually the dried up bed of the stream.
'It's too far underground,' I say.
He sticks his head down a hole. 'I think I can reach it.'
'It will be full of peat.'
There is a muffled reply as he burrows underground, his feet pedalling the air as he squeezes his body through the gap. I hold his legs steady as he wriggles inward.
'Pull me up,' he calls.
I tug on his boots and fall sideways as he jerks himself out of the hole, my backside hitting the ground with a squelch.
I am cursing at my indignity as he emerges, holding aloft two bottles of clear spring water.
'Teenage competence,' he says and grins.
By the time we return to the tent it is almost evening. We cook some pasta and soup before climbing to the summit of the rocks to watch the sun dip into the sea. All around us the stones are bathed in the ochre light, casting shadows across the slopes. There are dun coloured birds flitting among the cairns and we discuss what species they might be.
'I think the ones with white bums are wheatears,' I say. 'Those little ones are stonechats, or maybe rock pipits.'
'How do you know?'
'Your Grandad told me about the wheatears – he said they used to be called white-arses, but he was probably joking. I know about the others from books, and from years of looking, I guess. When I was your age I used to go searching for moths and butterflies.'
'Like those nights you took me hunting for owls and badgers – before Michael did his cycling.'
I recall our nocturnal trips and am washed over with a sense of guilt. I remember Daniel's delight at staying up late – how Michael never wanted to go – and how he loved the suspense of the hunt, his joy when we spotted an owl. It seems a long time ago.
'I've been thinking that maybe I spend too much time with Michael. If you and I did more things together we might disagree less. I'm sorry I get so ratty at times.'
'Mum says it's because you're like me underneath.'
'And what do you think?'
'I think it's all right you doing stuff with Michael. I mean, he's going to be a champion isn't he.'
'Well it seems to me you should help him with that. But it would be good to do more walking up here.'
'And do you think we're very alike?'
He points to a long shadow that the crag is casting over the side of the mountain 'Do you see the outline of those two pinnacles?'
'They aren't pinnacles at all,' he says. 'They are our shadows. If I wave my arm you can see it moving. It's as if we are part of the mountain.' He takes the camera out of his pocket. 'I want to take a photo for you.'
After he's taken some snaps we sit and watch the sun drop below the curving horizon. Across the valley the lights of isolated farms begin to flicker against the blackening hills. Stars appear.
'Do you think owls come up here?' he asks.
I doubt it. There are very few in the valley now.'
'I like the idea of being an owl,' he says, 'or a bat.' He makes a strange clicking noise with his tongue. 'Imagine what their world must be like – they see things by making noises and listening to the echo.'
'I'm not sure I'd call that seeing.'
'It is. They just do it differently to us. Lots of animals are like that: flies have hundreds of eyes; dogs can't see colours; some snakes are blind but they smell their prey.'
'Imagine being a mole,' I say. 'Living all your life underground and eating nothing but worms.'
'Or a beetle' he retorts. 'You spend years as a grub and then someone comes along and squashes you.'
'Or a moth; spiralling round what turns out to be candle.'
We laugh on our way back down the path. Daniel leads the way with my hand on his shoulder. And as we near the tent, I find myself counting steps in the dark.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Counting Steps"
Copyright © 2013 Mark Charlton.
Excerpted by permission of Cinnamon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
First Steps — An Introduction,
Push, Pull Through,
Playing With Words,
For The Love Of It,
I Have Always Loved Bikes,
The F Word,
You'll Come To Love Both,
True Geordies Cry,
Stanage, Peak District, 2009,
A Turning Tide,
Looking For Smoke Over Arnold's Hill,
Amroth To Tenby,
A Taste Of Honey,
Laughing At The Sky,
The White Tower,
A New Colour – An Afterword,