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Wales? What the heck is in Wales?
It was fall break of my semester abroad. I had been going to school in Perugia, Italy and decided to split my 10 day vacation between Wales and Ireland – two countries I had dreamed of visiting since I was very young. Most of my classmates were headed to the famed Amalfi coast, a few to Germany and our two resident Marines to Morocco. I was deemed the oddball for my choice of travel destinations, even more so because I was also the only member of our class who would be going solo on my travels. They understood me wanting to go to Ireland well enough…but Wales? Of all the countries in the British isles, Wales seems to be the most commonly overlooked. Most people I know probably couldn’t even tell you where within the isles it’s actually located – then again Americans in general aren’t overly well-known for their geographical prowess, shall we say.
Wales is a remote, somewhat mountainous region to the southwest of England – and no, it’s not its own island nor does it look like a whale. It isn’t high on the list of popular tourist destinations, possibly because the majority opinion seems to be that there’s nothing there but a load of sheepshaggers and, well, sheep of course – a direct quote to me by a British gentleman encountered on my travels. Of the latter, there were hundreds, possibly thousands. Of the former…I didn’t meet any, but I doubt they’d be wearing signs announcing themselves. At least I’d hope not…
Ireland was an easy choice for me. My mother’s side of the family is overwhelmingly of Irish descent with a little Choctaw thrown in – and it was only natural to want to go back to the homeland, as it were. Perhaps even more than that though, the decision was rooted in my mother’s spirituality when I was little. During most of my childhood she had been ‘finding herself’ via the revived New Age movement that dominated most of the 90’s. I had been exposed to stories of the druids and the Fair Folk, selkies and all manner of other mythological beings at a rather impressionable age. Needless to say, I was intent on visiting this mystical, green isle someday. My desire to visit Wales came a bit later, and a bit more obscurely, even for me.
For either my tenth or eleventh Christmas, I was gifted with a book entitled Rising of the Lark. Written in 1964, it was an unusual love story between a strong-willed Welsh girl and her tutor. Of course back then I didn’t pick up so much on the romance aspect as I did the adventures and mythology woven into the text. The main character, Catriona, was constantly disobeying her stern English governess to sneak into the library and read the poems of either Keats or Dafydd ap Gwilym. The Mabinogion was her favorite and soon became mine. For those unfamiliar, the Mabinogion is a book containing the first written account of traditional Welsh mythology and the earliest ever mention of King Arthur in literature. I read it side by side with Rising of the Lark until both bindings were near worn through. And, as a girl of an age with the main character and equally as obsessed with reading and magic, the book left a sizeable mark on me.
One of the major features throughout both that story and traditional Welsh lore, was a mountain known as Cader Idris. Translated as Idris’ Chair, there are a dozen theories as to which historical Idris it may refer. Most often though, one will hear that Idris was a great king of the Giants. Locals have a saying that whosoever sleeps upon the slopes of Cader Idris will awake either a madman or a poet, and what’s more, one of the entrances to the realm of the Fair Folk is rumored to be up there as well. That was more than enough to convince my childhood self that no matter what, I’d climb that mountain. Explaining that to my classmates however just earned me blank stares.
“Soooo, you’re going to climb some random mountain in Wales that no one’s ever heard of because of a book you read when you were 10?”
Yes. Simply put, yes, that’s why. And 11 years later, I was on a flight into London to visit my mountain.
The plane landed at Stansted relatively early in the day. My plan was to take a train out of London and across the country to arrive at my hostel in Dolgellau by nightfall. Not necessarily direct, but a beautiful train ride to make up for it. After several days in Wales, I’d take another train up to Holyhead where I’d then catch a ferry across the Irish sea into Dublin. Once in Ireland, my time would be split between my friends in the south and those in Belfast, where I would finally catch a flight back to Italy. This all flowed together smoothly in my head as I planned it. Unfortunately the British customs officer checking my passport was not so inclined to agree, and before I’d even made it to the terminal proper, I was almost sent back to Italy. See, the issue lied with my return flight being out of Belfast. Because it had to be booked separately from my inbound flight, it did not show up on my itinerary. This was pre-iphone days, at least for me, so it’s not like I could pull up my email either. All I had was my word. Without proof of a return flight, well, I was no better than a gypsy. An American defector looking to find work in a country that I didn’t belong – or so they accused me. An hour of begging and pleading and trying to prove that I was just a semester abroad student on holiday finally resulted in my release along with a stern warning for the future. It also meant that I had 20 minutes to race to my train.
Out of breath, sweating, and narrowly missing getting caught in the closing doors, I collapsed into the nearest open seat. My apparent disorganization drew a cluster of unabashed glares, which seemed wholly unnecessary at the time. I refused to believe that they’d never seen a confused tourist nearly miss their train before. Then again, I can only imagine what a disaster I must’ve looked. I probably would’ve stared too.
The rest of the train ride passed in relative quiet. I had no changes, just a direct route to my destination – the last stop on the entire rail. I watched as the English countryside slid past my window. Soft, rolling green hills dotted here and there with sheep and small villages. The heart of the country. I was half expecting a trolley full of chocolate frogs and Bertie Bott’s to show up, but then I shook my head and realized how silly that was – I’d left from entirely the wrong train station for all that.
Early on though, I noted that people were equally boarding and disembarking from the train. However, an hour or two in and those disembarking took the lead. The car emptied steadily. A hostess came round with a refreshment cart, sans magical sweets much to my chagrin, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was already gin in my can of Shweppes ginger ale. How perfectly, wonderfully English.
I was on my third when the rolling hills of England began to give way to the steeper, heather covered slopes that dominate the Welsh landscape. Around this time, the sunset appeared over the distant mountains in a blaze of reds and oranges, flooding my car with radiant rays. I felt myself afloat, basking in the warm glow of day’s end, heady with the day’s long travel. I thought about trying to take a picture, but I knew my camera could never capture that moment – it wouldn’t convey the colors or the feelings adequately enough to warrant taking my eyes off the view. But still came the night, falling all too quickly. I could feel myself getting tired, but I was too afraid of missing my stop to rest. Either the loudspeaker in our car was broken or the conductor assumed anyone coming out this far knew where they were going because no one bothered to announce the stations anymore as we pulled in. I tried in vain to look for the station signs, but outside the window was only pitch blackness. I could only hope that they would give me some indication when we arrived before turning the train around.
As it turned out, Machynlleth was the last stop. And it was the boy several seats ahead who gave me fair warning, not the loudspeaker. My money’s still on them not announcing the stops because really, who comes to Wales that isn’t Welsh anyway? I climbed out with all 10 of the other passengers, all of whom had either cars parked at the station or rides waiting. I had to ask the station master in a building no larger than your average preschool classroom if he wouldn’t mind calling me a cab to take me into Dolgellau. He looked down, rubbed the back of his neck, said something rather unintelligible and pointed at a bench along the wall. I received a thumbs up shortly thereafter and was subsequently left alone to stare at the single flickering lightbulb for the better part of half an hour.
I couldn’t believe the friendship I’d formed so quickly in the short time I’d been in town. I’d never been welcomed or accepted so easily anywhere I’ve visited, whether home or abroad.SS
My zoning out was interrupted by a shaggy, grizzled old man in a cabby hat and plaid vest. Taxi was the only word in his entire sentence that I caught and even then, just barely. Now, I pride myself on being able to understand heavy accents fairly well, having traveled a decent amount alongside studying multiple languages. The Welsh I’d met thus far put a pin in that small bubble of pride pretty quickly. I grabbed my bag and struggled to keep pace with his long strides to the taxi. He exchanged a few quick words with the station master, an old friend by the look of it, and then we were off over the winding mountain roads. He allowed me to sit in the front and attempted to start a conversation. I realized after a moment or two that I couldn’t understand him because he was speaking Welsh. Once we established that I was in fact a foreigner, he switched to English – though he may well have not bothered for all I understood. Luckily he chose to ramble on rather than question me and we passed the 20 minute ride flying around some of the tightest corners I’ve ever seen. I may not have understood a damn thing he said, but I was thankful to see that he clearly knew these roads like the back of his hand.
The hostel was in the center of town. We parked out front where the cabby waited to make sure I got in alright. I did not get in alright. The door was locked and the lights were out. With no internet to send an email or look up the number (something I probably should’ve done before leaving, in hindsight) I had no idea how to handle the situation. The cabby, that fantastic man, held up a finger, pulled out his phone, spoke with who I could only assume at the time was the hostel owner, and then drove me around back. The garden door we found was unlocked with a handwritten note taped to it.
I’ve sent an email, but in case you were not able to read it, I’ve left the back door open for you. You’ll find your key hanging from a hook in the hallway. Your room is upstairs to the right. As you’re the only guest, you may have your pick of the beds. I live a few houses down so feel free to ask if anything is amiss.
At this point, I paid the cabby and thanked him profusely knowing that I would never have thought to go around to the back. It also dawned on me not only how small of a town, but how small of an area this was, and for that I was also grateful. For all the quirks that come with small towns, they have their bonuses as well – and I got a good feeling from this one.
The hostel itself was a beautiful old stone building. Built above a small gift store, its whitewashed interior walls and old barnwood floors gave it a classic, rustic charm. My room contained two large bunks, a good sized private bathroom – VERY rare for a hostel, a kitchenette and a bench seat overlooking the cobbled road below. True to the note, I was the only person in the entire hostel. Whether or not this place saw higher volumes of guests during the regular tourist season I didn’t know, but I was glad for the peace and privacy. I opened the windows wide to let in the fresh fall air. After all the traveling I’d done that day, I couldn’t believe that it was only 9pm. So I did what any true traveler would do in a new city. I washed up and headed to the nearest pub.
Coming round to the back of the building earlier with the cabby, I noticed a sign farther down the lane on which was written The Stag. I tried there first and it proved to be the best decision I could’ve made. The walk from the hostel was short – five minutes down a dirt path through the garden. My entrance to the pub was greeted with silence and inquisitive stares. Not unkind mind you, but I was certainly not what they were expecting to blow in that night. I walked self-consciously to the bar, ordered a pint and stood awkwardly by a stool until a boy roughly my age walked in and ordered a drink right after me, though not without throwing a quick sideways glance in my direction first. As he stood at the bar, I mustered my courage and uttered the most cliché phrase imaginable:
“Hey, so is this the place to be tonight or what?” followed by a small nervous laugh.
He looked at me like I was an alien, long enough for my heart to catch in my throat and the blush to start creeping in, before smiling and responding, “More like the only place to be.” My cliché attempt proved successful and I was invited to sit down at his table. We introduced ourselves and I was thrilled to find his accent incredibly manageable. He couldn’t hide his curiosity any longer and asked what a girl like myself was doing alone in the middle of Wales in October, clearly emphasizing what a rarity the occasion was. I explained that I was here to climb Cader Idris and gave him a short synopsis of my random obsession with the place.
I also explained something that I’ve not yet mentioned until this point. Three weeks prior, my closest aunt, my mother’s older sister, passed away while I was in Salzburg. I didn’t have the funds to make it home and back in time for the memorial, which was incredibly hard on me. She had been my mentor in so many ways, my home away from home. Whereas my mother instilled in me a love for the beauty of the woods, my aunt instilled in me a respect for the harsher beauty of the mountains. Climbing was her passion and she sought higher places whenever the opportunity arose. Although this trip had been planned before her passing, my climb up the mountain had renewed meaning for me.
All this I explained to the boy I’d just met, who listened intently – much to my surprise. Unlike my classmates, he didn’t mock me for wanting to make the ascent. He explained to me the various routes to the summit, though currently the Donkey Path was closed, and told me what kind of weather to expect. Fall in this area is typically blustery and wet. Truth be told, the weather never even occurred to me. I admit to not always looking up the finer details when planning excursions. Luck was on my side for this one though.
Suddenly the door swung wide and a mixed group of six or seven people, also looking to be around my age, entered in a cacophony of yells and raucous laughing. They grabbed their drinks and made a beeline for our table. I sat quietly like the new kid in class, nervously anticipating their reaction to the stranger in their midst. The boy I’d been sitting with got up to greet the newcomers as they all grabbed chairs and pulled over another table. It took them a few minutes of adjusting and settling before one of the girls looked at me and realized I was a completely unfamiliar face. The others soon followed. I was about to introduce myself when the boy, known to me as Rhys, confidently announced that I was here to climb the mountain in honor of my dead aunt. Not the most eloquent of introductions, but after a brief silence, it was received by a round of cheers. In short, I was in. I gave Rhys a grateful smile before spending the next hour getting grilled by my new friends. They wanted to know where I was from, what I was studying and whether or not I drove around in a big truck flying the American flag while shooting guns. And I say that last bit in all seriousness. That was the impression they got of us. I had to clarify that I did shoot guns at my farm in Pennsylvania, everything from ARs to .45s, just not from my truck, which was also flagless. Unlike many Europeans I’d met, they did not view my usage of guns with contempt, although they were disappointed about the lack of a flag on my vehicle. This conversation was shortly followed by a rousing rendition of ‘America, fuck yeah!’ before we were deemed too loud and ushered onto the patio.
Over the course of the night, I found myself getting on well with one of the other boys, Simon, or Sye for short. We just…clicked, and not even in a romantic way. He had that air about him that just naturally drew people to him. He was the life of the party and that night he took me under his wing. He made it clear that all my drinks would be provided free of charge that night, on the condition that I could keep up with them. Years of abusing my liver with the rugby team finally proved worth it, because keep up I did. Round after round of drinks and shots found their way to the patio. Partway through the night, the bartender who’d served me previously announced that his shift was over and joined our group outside. His name was Joe and coincidentally, he was Sye’s older brother, though you’d never know it by looking at the two.
It was after our fifth round of jager bombs when Sye suddenly leapt atop the round wooden table, impressively not knocking over a single drink, and announced that he would be joining me on my mountain trek the following day. Joe jumped up next to him and pledged to do the same. Rhys bet them 10 quid they’d be too drunk to even find their shoes the next day let alone go hiking. They took that bet and I inadvertently found myself a pair of local guides. This of course warranted another round of drinks. Being a whiskey drinker, they happily supplied me with copious amounts, to the point that I’d earned myself the nickname of Jameson girl – a title I wore proudly among my classmates in the US as well.
We drank on the patio up until last call, when Joe suggested we head over to the other pub in town, whose hours ran a tad later. Winding our way through cobblestone alleys, we made for the other bar. Sye warned me that they liked to style themselves as a club more than a traditional pub, but really it was just a bunch of wankers trying too hard to be cool. I laughed, thinking it was just a bit of small town rivalry between the two main watering holes. I was wrong. We walked in, or rather, were let in by a large, unsmiling bouncer. Multi-colored strobe lights dappled the floor and walls and booming 90s house music shook the building. A handful of people remained, scattered pitifully across the otherwise abandoned dancefloor, or huddled in one of the darker corners as if to escape the gaudiness of the ‘club.’ Our group posted up at the bar and ordered a round of pints. A large lad swaggered up to Sye and said something demeaning by the tone of it. Sye sent him away with a hard shove. Instead of leaving, he returned, got in Sye’s face, and then started…dancing, in what’s easily the most absurd show of bravado I’ve ever seen. A combination of break, disco and lord only knows what else. A small crowd gathered to cheer him on, which dispersed abruptly when he drunkenly tripped over his own foot and fell into the pillar behind him. This unfortunate finale resulted in him slinking away to one of the aforementioned dark corners where he remained presumably until after we left.
It was a quarter to four when we finally did leave. A portion of our party declared that it was time for bed and made their way home. The rest of us weren’t quite ready to turn in. We were trying to figure out what to do when Joe asked me if I was hungry. I was, but I asked him where the hell we could get food at this hour, in a town this small.
“TO THE KEBABS!” was the response I got, and in one fell swoop, Sye swung me onto his back and we raced helter skelter through the empty streets to the kebab shop. For those of you who’ve traveled Europe, you know how amazing kebabs can be after a night of drinking. I’ve had more than my fair share of awesome kebabs, but when I tell you that this is THE BEST kebab I’ve ever had, I mean it. Doused in garlic sauce with all the fixings, Jesus I damn near inhaled the thing. We danced in the streets stuffing our faces, while the boys tried to teach me Welsh.
Everyone had always told me Welsh was a dead language. Not so in these parts. They let me in on a little secret – they had only been speaking English for my convenience. I had made it so deep into Wales that I found native Welsh speakers, whereas before I had assumed that it was taught much like Latin is in America – to preserve the dead language for cultural reasons and nothing more. They also informed me that besides Cali, New York and Texas of course, Pennsylvania was the only state they were familiar with because a small group of Welsh Quakers founded several towns there – Bryn Mawr most notably. I found their knowledge of my state rather refreshing, as several other Europeans had mistakenly thought I was saying Transylvania and I never in a million years thought I’d ever find myself getting tired of trying to explain that I’d never been to Dracula’s castle.
The kebabs were the death knell for our remaining group however. Drunk food comas started to set in and we went our separate ways – almost. Joe and Sye were insistent that I stay at their house that night rather than at the hostel. I obliged. It was a short walk to the other side of town and up a small hilly road. Coming into the yard, I startled a duck from its roost, which set off a chain of various animal noises that seemed deafening in the pre-dawn quiet. Luckily, my fears that we’d woken the whole neighborhood were unfounded. We walked into the kitchen and Sye led me up to his room. Joe followed after briefly disappearing into his own and reappearing with a large, clean t-shirt and boxers for me to sleep in. They made sure I was warm enough, placed a glass of water on the bedside and retreated – Joe to his room and Sye to the couch.
Sleep was almost instantaneous. I don’t think my head even had time to hit the pillow before I was out. It was not long lived though. 9:30am rolled around and with it, a yell from the kitchen that breakfast was ready. I sat bolt upright. It had never occurred to me that I would be facing anyone’s parents this morning, yet here I was, in this woman’s house, in her son’s clothes, probably definitely still drunk. Sye knocked tentatively and came in. The look on my face must have been plain as day. He laughed, assured me that all was well and handed me my dress from the chair. I washed my face, did my best to brush my unruly curls and followed Sye into the kitchen. His mother, in the process of frying bacon at the time, didn’t miss a beat. She introduced herself, handed me tea and set a plate of food in one fluid motion. There was a third, older brother, who stumbled half asleep into the kitchen to join us. When everyone was served and their mother seated, the boys introduced me properly. I felt like their new puppy the way they kept interrupting each other to tell their mother stories about me. It was probably the most welcome I’d ever felt at a relative stranger’s table. I helped her clean and do the dishes afterward, answering her questions and chatting amiably while the boys showered and got dressed. She nearly died laughing when I told her about the boys’ bet to lead me up the mountain that afternoon. But, in light of this new information, she whipped up a mug of hot tea, a bag full of cucumber sandwiches and placed them in a pack for us to take to the top. It was apparently another tradition to drink tea once on the summit. A word of advice – their love of tea knows no bounds in the isles. It is not just a stereotype. For the non-tea drinkers, accept it graciously lest you unwittingly start a war. No joke.
With the boys dressed, we bid their mother goodbye and headed to the hostel so I could do the same. I stepped out of the house into a cloudless, sunny, 70 degree day. Late summer flowers were still in bloom and lined the walk and bordering stone walls with a brilliance of color. Ducks and chickens scattered before us as we crossed the yard not even five hours after we’d entered it. As we made our way down, the neighbor’s border collie bounded onto the wall and followed us to the bottom of the hill, his whole body wagging with excitement. I came away covered in fur and dog kisses. Well worth it. Seeing the town of Dolgellau now for the first time in daylight, the whole scene looked like a Beatrice Potter painting. Quaint country cottages playing host to an overgrowth of ivy, a trickling stream running through the heart of the town, cobbled streets and walled gardens bursting with flowers, it may as well have been a fairytale. The boys led me back to my room through the garden gate as I’d gone the night before. A quick shower and a change of clothes and we were ready for Cader.
At least we thought we were, until Joe decided he was going to run back home to get the car. In the meantime, I asked Sye if we could pop down to the Tesco to buy beer.
He looked at me like I was nuts, it being just past 11am, threw his head back, muttered, “God I love American women,” and assisted me in loading our pack full up with bottles of some local brew. I told him about his mother’s story of drinking tea as a tradition. He replied that today we were breaking tradition and starting our own. We liked that idea and so did Joe when he returned.
The parking lot at the trailhead couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes out of town. We started up the first field, myself in leggings and a hoody, Sye in jeans and a tshirt, and Joe in shorts and a windbreaker, all holding beers. The trail was marked by unevenly placed stone steps that took us through bright clumps of purple heather and past a small burbling creek. There were sheep everywhere. The field did not gradually slope, but rose steeply to the ridge where we passed through a weathered wooden gate attached to no discernible fence. From there, we followed the ridge about a mile before reaching the summit. Open as the hilltop was, there was nothing to shield us from the wind and it ripped wildly across that ridge. We passed about four other hikers, older folks in legitimate gear, walking sticks, tactical packs, boots and all. Our open beers and questionable clothing choices did not go unnoticed as we scrambled over the boulders and scree that marked the steepest and final section of the trail. Sye called to me to grab a rock to add to the pile at the summit. We crested the last boulder and placed our rocks. It was then that I allowed myself to fully take in the view. To the North and East were the hills and valleys of Wales thickly carpeted with the same purple heather that we’d passed on our climb. The sheer amount of it as seen on high, waving in the strong fall breeze, formed a veritable violet sea. To the South was more coastline, gentler hills, more sheep. To the West, to the West was the Irish sea.
Joe came up behind me, pointed way off to the horizon and asked, “Do you see it? Do you see Ireland?” I squinted and realized, that I could, in fact, just make out the southern coast of Ireland – a slightly darker rise against the already dark blue water. Sye shook his head in amazement. Not because of Ireland being visible, but because, as he put it, I had managed to choose the only warm, sunny weekend in October in the history of Wales. Just below the true summit was a small stone hut built to shield hikers from the strong winds. Before we made our way to it, we each cracked open our second beers, said a quick prayer for my aunt – me in English and the boys in Welsh, poured some out in her honor and proceeded to chug the rest. It was the most fitting tribute that I could offer her. An adventurers eulogy carried out by kindred spirits on a mountain of meaning. I let the sun and wind wash over me, closing my eyes and feeling the energy of the mountain. It was indescribable. I felt lighter somehow, and the boys just watched, smiling.
We took our sandwiches and tea in the hut before making our descent. The wind was starting to bite and we were feeling a bit weary from the climb. Joe and Sye decided we should stop at a small inn on our way back to town. The entrance brought us into the smaller bar area and an open doorway to the right brought us into the dining room. There was not a soul there besides ourselves and the bartender – a female classmate of Sye’s. Though formal seating was offered, we chose to occupy the overstuffed, black leather couches encircling the eight foot stone fireplace. We were brought full glasses of a locally distilled whiskey to warm us and a few appetizers to share. Neither overly hungry, nor worried about disapproving looks from the other non-existent guests, I sprawled on my stomach on the large rug directly in front of the fire. The boys made quick work of the food and did the same. We lay there for hours, sipping whiskey, talking about life, the world and everything in between. Halfway through, we switched to our backs, heads piled on each others stomachs. The bartender even brought me a bendy straw so I could drink without having to sit up. They laughed, until Joe managed to pour whiskey up his nose. He got a bendy straw too. I didn’t want to leave that inn, didn’t want the night to end. The fire was warm, the whiskey warmer and the connection between us too strong, too real. Nestled in the foothills of the Snowdon massif, in a whitewashed stone inn, drinking whiskey and roving the mountain tops of Wales – yeah, I could see myself here, happy.
The night did end though. The remaining beers we’d bought were finished back at my hostel. Joe fell asleep on the bunk across from mine. Sye and I shared mine, staying up till dawn to keep talking. I was leaving that day for Ireland…but I almost didn’t. Sye and Joe both had to convince me to get on my bus. The sky that morning was overcast. I had some time before my bus came and, after showering and packing, I returned to the boys’ house for lunch. I also got to say goodbye to their mother who invited me back to Wales for Christmas and was not shy in telling me to choose a son and stay. I had to respectfully decline although I promised to visit again. They walked me to the bus stop after that and waited with me until it arrived, a light drizzle just starting to come down. I couldn’t believe the friendship I’d formed so quickly in the short time I’d been in town. I’d never been welcomed or accepted so easily anywhere I’ve visited, whether home or abroad. As the bus rounded the corner, Sye pulled me into a monstrous bear hug, kissing my forehead and keeping me there in his arms until the bus came to a stop. Joe squeezed in a hug as well. I tried to smile, but leaving was harder than I ever could’ve imagined. They stood waving on the corner as I waved back from the bus. Once out of sight I finally turned around. The train to Holyhead was next, and with it Ireland. It took everything I had to stop the tears and focus on being excited for the next leg of the journey. Wales proved to be one of the most incredible, genuine places I have ever visited, and as soon as I’m able, you better believe I’ll be going back.