by CHRIS ROGERS
“Where is the boat?” Taff Roberts’ friend asked, first puzzled, then panicked. Roberts’ first job in the U.S. brought him to a little spit of land off the coast of Maine. At high tide, the speck of sand and rock was completely submerged by the ocean, but at low tide, Roberts and his companion had a three-hour window to dig up as many clams as they could manage. It was December in the North Atlantic and the tide was coming in when they looked up from digging to see their oars and life jackets floating a half-mile away. The boat was nowhere in sight, Roberts recalled. His friend had opened a plug to drain the beached craft, but never replaced it, and now it sat, sunken in three feet of water, with the wintery sea rising around them. “I wasn’t ready to die,” Roberts said. Luckily, they salvaged the boat, were rescued, and lived to have more adventures.
From dodging icebergs while attempting to sail through the Northwest Passage to nearly capsizing in a storm off Bermuda, Roberts has travelled far and wide and brought back plenty of stories. But for the last 15 years, he has felt a tug: “I always wanted to do something for my country.”
Beneath the mountain Cadair Idris, overlooking the Irish Sea, is the little cottage where Roberts grew up. His name is still imprinted in a cement wall near Arthog, Wales — one of the last marks he made on his hometown before lying about his age to join the Royal Air Force at 16 and see the world. “I wanted to get out of Wales, and I wanted to travel, and the one way I could get away was to join the military,” Roberts said.
Roberts did see the world, on a long, circuitous route that eventually brought him to Winona.
Roberts spent four years in the Royal Air Force in different corners of the South Pacific, but it was not enough to cure his wanderlust. “When I came back to Wales, I realized I wanted to go traveling again,” he stated. So he worked on farms across Europe and North Africa. After being told to leave Gibraltar because, he claims, the local mafia coveted the business he started renting boats to beach-going tourists, Roberts served as a crew member on a sailboat crossing the Atlantic and wound up in Grenada — a Caribbean island nation near Venezuela — in 1973, during the unrest and violence that preceded its independence. Roberts said guards locked down any movement on or off the island. “Basically, I was holed up in a house. I needed to get out,” Roberts explained. He stated that he and a couple from Fond du Lac, Wis., snuck into the marina and sailed away at night. After a charmed year with them, he planned to go to the Welsh colony, Y Wladfa, in Patagonia, but he wound up getting a girlfriend and sailing with her to Martinique and up the East Coast instead. From there, he dug clams and babysat in Maine, visited his family in Wales, and worked as a security guard in London during a period of bombings by the Irish Republican Army. Roberts stated that he checked Elizabeth Taylor’s bag once. “I’ll never ever forget those violet eyes,” he said. He delivered a yacht from England to Rhode Island in 1975, and spent the next 16 years in Newport, Rhode Island, where he made a living fishing for flounder, haddock, and lobster. At the time, it was the longest he had lived anywhere outside Wales. “I left Wales behind, and I came there,” he said. “The friends I met, I basically made them my family.”
Roberts came to Winona after meeting his wife, Anne Plummer, in Los Angeles in 1989. “We fell in love,” Roberts said. She got a job teaching sculpture at Winona State University, and Roberts joined her here in 1991. The globetrotting immigrant has, relatively speaking, settled down for the past 26 years.
Though he travelled far and wide and spent most of his life elsewhere, being Welsh has always been an important part of Roberts’ self identity. Ironically, the same tendency for Welsh people to cleave to tradition that spurred him to travel as a young man became important to him later in life. “It was a breath of fresh air when I first arrived in America. I could think for myself. I wasn’t boxed in by tradition … I felt constrained where I came from because it was, ‘This is the way we’ve always done it,’” Roberts explained. These days, he gushes about the national Eisteddfod — a gathering of Welsh people from all over the world to recite poetry, sing, and dance — and raves about Martha Davies’ history of the Welsh in America. Earlier this month, he returned from a Welsh-American festival in New York. “It gave me hireth for the time I was growing up in Wales,” Roberts said, using the Welsh word for “longing.”
Roberts did not learn English until age 11. It was taught to him as a foreign language in a school where the rest of his instruction was in Welsh. The government in Wales is very intentional about trying to retain the native language, and the Welsh people have managed to do so even after various waves of invasions and foreign rule over two millennia — Romans, Saxons, Normans, and English kings. “I can’t tell you how rich the culture in Wales is today because of this language we have,” Roberts marveled. He added, “For the last 15 years, I’ve talked about making a film on the Welsh language because, after my family, it’s the greatest treasure of my life.”
For years, as Roberts was kicking around the idea of filming a documentary, Winonans were asking him to take them to Wales. His answer was always, “Just go” — they did not need him. However, after becoming more and more fascinated by Welsh poets like R.S.Thomas and by Welsh academics working to piece together a Welsh history of Wales — rather than a history written by outsiders and conquerors — Roberts felt like he was being pulled inexorably to share his passion and do something for his country. He launched the company Wild Wales Tours this year to take small groups of North Americans on guided trips to Wales. Many of his first customers were acquaintances from Winona.
“I didn’t know much about Wales before I went. I had to look up on a map to make sure I knew where it was,” said Winonan Lora Krall, who went on Roberts’ inaugural walking tour of Wales this May. In the highlands surrounding Roberts’ hometown, Krall and her companions hiked the mist-shrouded peaks and mountain lakes of Snowdonia National Park, and befriended a sheep farmer who took a second job driving their tour bus. Krall fawned over the beauty of the countryside there, but the locals saw it as normal, and in that way, she said, it was like Winona.
“Wales wasn’t on my bucket list or to-do list, but then I heard [Roberts] talking about it,” said Winonan Bonnie Kelly. “Ninety-nine percent of the reason we went on this trip was because of Taff … I could listen to Taff for hours. He’s a great storyteller,” Kelly explained.
Roberts made a point to try to foster personal connections between the tourists he was hosting and the Welsh people they met. Krall talked with her driver about his hopes for his children taking over his farm and his opinion on taxes and regulations that might stymy that. Kelly and her group spent a whole day with a local elder who gave them the entire history of his town and the taverns that have been family-run for generations. A historian shared a lecture as they toured a ruined abbey and the grave of one of Wales’ most prominent medieval bards.
Roberts said he relished the opportunity to learn about his own country. “I’ve always had an image of the history [of Wales] like jigsaw puzzles. There were gaps in it. … and now I’m filling those in,” he stated.
Recently, Roberts took a DNA test. “Be careful,” he remembered Plummer warning him, “You might not be who you think you are.” The results stated that he was 67 percent Irish. He reflected on that by noting differences between himself and the rest of his family and by stating that U.S. DNA tests may not be able to distinguish Welsh ancestry. The closest category was “Native British Isles.” Asked if the test changed his view of himself, Roberts said, “It hasn’t changed it one bit, but it’s made me more interested and more curious.”
Despite all his appreciation for Wales, Roberts said Winona is his home. In the same moment that he expressed “hireth” for his homeland, he looked out over the Mississippi River at Winona and declared, “God, it’s such a beautiful city.” He added, “As much as I love where I came from, I would never want to live anywhere other than Minnesota. I love it here.”
“I understand that,” Krall said. “You can be of something and not a part of it. I think he’s trying to be the best of both, and I appreciate that.” She offered a local analogy. “I’m from Wisconsin. I’m a ‘Sconnie, but Minnesota is my home,” Krall said. “My dad, to his dying day, would not forgive me for marrying a man who was a Minnesota Vikings fan,” she continued. “You can be from somewhere and carry that with you and not necessarily be disrespectful of that,” Krall stated. She added, “[Taff] traveled the globe, and if he chose Winona as his home, gosh, doesn’t that say a lot about us?”
Roberts plans to give a presentation at the Winona County History Center at 7 p.m. on October 26. Photographs and blog posts from his trip are available at www.wildwalestours.com.