All At Once

It was a beautiful early spring day, and after three hours of purgatory class, I walked down to my favorite park and watched the sun set over Worcester. The sky was clear, or at least, clear by English standards; what clouds that remained were bathed in pink and orange light as the sun made its slow plummet towards the horizon between the Malverns and the Cathedral. I was reminded of the last time I had watched – really watched – a sunset: August 29th, 2012. That night I had driven out to one of my favorite places to watch the night fall, for less than 12 hours later I would be leaving for Duluth, and everything would change.

See, I wasn’t used to change. In my eyes, I haven’t changed since like middle school. I mean, once I discovered the Beatles and got my first computer, the stage was pretty much set for everything that came after. Even most of my clothes are 4+ years old. But the thing you have to realize about change is that it has a nasty habit of sneaking up on you…

This past weekend, the UMD group went to Wales. We set off at the crack of dawn (7:30am!) and drove and drove and drove. Wales came into view like John Green describes falling asleep: slowly, then all at once. The suddenly tiny coach bus was weaving on and off country roads, through narrow village streets and between snow-capped mountains. It was surreal; the clouds seemed to part as we crossed the border and once again enveloped us, slowly making their way across the jagged terrain.

Our destination was a hostel in the national park of Snowdonia, but we were in no hurry. We made stops in the villages of Portmeirion and Beddgelert, and finally, in the late afternoon, we reached the hostel, Idwal Cottage. Idwal sits in a valley, dwarfed by its mountainous surroundings yet humble in its aims. The group arrived to find warm beds and began preparations for a hot meal. Myself and two others took the opportunity to seek out a winding path towards the mountain lake.

I can only imagine what it would have felt like, as a settler to the area, to see the mountains for the first time. Stone walls and fields spread wide across the valley, as they have for generations. I thought about how it must have felt for people long ago, but it occurred to me that this landscape wasn’t inherently better than anywhere else; really, all landscapes are kind of equal, when you think about it. I suppose someone that lived in mountains their whole life would be as awestruck at the vastness of the Great Plains as I am in Snowdonia. It really calls into question our notions of natural beauty, and what we consider to be worth keeping around.

Saturday night was spent relaxing and, for those of us who had ventured outside, recovering from the wounds of our adventures. It was nice to have a meal cooked by someone who knew what they were doing, and afterwards, some of the group made use of the Welsh boardgame collection offered by our generous hosts.

The coach bus set off once again through the mountain valley for the return trip. We stopped at Caernarfon Castle, which fulfilled all my expectations of what a castle should be: “big” and “maze-like.” As we made a loop around the castle walls, ducking in and out of towers and staring down pits, we imagined what each room could have been, and the daily lives of the castles’ inhabitants. This castle had dominated the city for hundreds of years, a bastion of stability in the ever-changing chaos of the world. And now, old and tired, a husk of its former glory, it played host to our tiny troupe, intruders in its once-noble halls.

After Caernarfon, we embarked once again, this time for the city we now call home. Before I knew what had happened, we were on the highway and Wales had disappeared from view, like nothing had happened.

We made a short stop in the city of Chester, but the magic of Wales was gone. Chester is home to Roman ruins (they really are all over the place) and ruins of one St. John’s Cathedral. Set high in the wall, above what remains of an altar, is an ancient oak coffin that reads “Dust to Dust.” Standing in the ruins of the cathedral, it’s easy to see that nothing, no matter how we try to preserve it, lasts forever, and we are all subject to the power of time.

Because that’s the thing about change: it happens slowly, and then all at once.

“I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”