I have a traveling tale to tell, a yarn to spin for my wonderful and erstwhile readers. But first, a bit of explanation: These events pre-date our quittirement and so could be considered outside the scope of this blog. But since my current philosophy permits a general loosening of strictures and because the story illustrates some key lessons that I learned rather late in life (though thankfully not too late), I have decided to proceed with this re-telling. And so – onward!
A few years ago, my wife and I travelled with my parents to the Isle of Ireland. For a few days of our trip, we stayed in the town of Dingle, on the Dingle Peninsula, which is a little finger of mountainish ridge extending off the southwestern corner of Ireland. It is surrounded on three sides by the pounding waves of the North Atlantic, and is windswept rugged desolation at its finest.
My lovely wife would have been, in a prior time, referred to as a woman of vim and vigor. Burl and brawn. She takes life by the horns and often I get trampled. In any event, after spending several longish days with my parents, my lovely lady was in the mood for adventure. As an aside, I should mention that she was then avidly following the blog of some masochist who was training to ride the route of the Tour de France. Not to ride in the actual Tour de France, mind you. No, that might make sense. This guy was spending all of his time and money training so that he could ride straight up the Alps when there was absolutely no reason to do so – no yellow shirt, no medal, no sponsorships, no glory. Just good old veni, vidi, vici. And my wife, being just that sort of ass-kicking woman, was hooked. She wanted to ride bicycles too. All the time, even when visiting a foreign land where every road was built for tiny donkey-carts and every driver a tourist equally new to lunchtime Guinness and left-side driving.
Being an unbrawny chicken myself, taking a tour of the Dingle Peninsula under pedal power was not, to me, a particularly alluring idea. But I love my wife, and I knew that huffing and puffing by bicycle would make her happy in a way that strolling hand-in-hand never would. So I reluctantly agreed to the adventure.
Bidding my folks adieu, we sought out the sole bicycle establishment in Dingle. The young man at the counter brought us two ancient steel 3-speeds and assured us that of course these behemoths would suit our needs and besides they don’t rent actual modern road bikes, so moot question. He then raised his eyebrows straight up into the brim of his adorable little cap when he heard our plan to ride his trusty steeds around the entire western end of the peninsula. To haul ourselves over the forty or so kilometers that the guidebooks call “a hair-raising drive”, “not for the faint hearted” and “a wee bit dangerous.” Dear reader, please learn from my error – you must obey the eyebrows of those who know more than you! Eyebrows are the silent signals of idiocy!
So off we went. The town of Dingle is on the southern shore of the peninsula, perhaps 8 kilometers from the western tip. Our planned route would take us westward along the bottom of the peninsula, then up the western edge, then eastward along the top, then south again, back to Dingle town, just in time for a pre-dinner Guinness, hopefully? On the map it looked quite reasonable (the yellow circle below is a rough approximation of our journey).
Given how long it took to part with my doting parents, rent the bicycles and pick up some sandwiches for lunch, it was well past time for a nibble by the time we got properly on the road. So after riding a mere three or four kilometers, my wife and I found a beautiful sheep pasture on the ocean side of the road that was a perfect place to enjoy our lunch. We just let ourselves through the farmer’s gate (it seems that in Ireland, the law permits travelers to pass through others’ farmland – don’t try this in Texas), and hunkered down near the lip where the pasture ended hundreds of feet above the sea. The view, the picnic and the company were magnificent! It was an auspicious start to our ride.
After our picnic, we continued on the loop. The road was fairly flat, so the pedaling was relatively easy, although we did start to notice that the bikes were really quite heavy. And the gear shifter didn’t work most of the time. So they were effectively one-speed bikes. And the clamp for my seat was broken, so the seat kept slowly sinking downward. I stopped to raise it a few times but then finally surrendered and just rode on with my knees pumping ever higher and forward progress ever more difficult. It was easy to forgive these minor conveniences given the amazing scenery. The open sea was to our left, while to our right lay rocky fields sprinkled with wildflowers and criss-crossed by rambling stone walls.
In the nearly total emptiness (except for the thousands of sheep dotting the scenery), we ran headlong into ancient history. Since the soil is so poor and the elements so harsh on the peninsula, there is very little tree cover; therefore, the inhabitants of this area from the Dark Ages, and likely hundreds of years before, built their homes out of rocks gathered from the fields and skillfully stacked (with only great precision, not mortar) into beehive shaped huts. As this area was never developed and is now a protected site, several of these huts still exist today. And given that most of the other tourists stopped only long enough to snap photos from the car window, we found ourselves standing alone in the silence of these homes of the ancients.
Within only a few minutes of resuming our ride and while still shaking our heads in wonder at the fortitude of the early Irish, we passed through a stark reminder of more recent history. The small enclave of peasant homes — now a ghost town, in every sense of the word — had been empty since the potato famine of the 1840s, their roofs long gone but their decrepit stone walls still standing amid the creeping brush and weeds. Even more eery, we could still see the furrows cleared in the rocky land above town where the starving residents grew, and lost, their last crop of potatoes.
Giving the ghosts their moment of silence, we continued on, now reaching the very tip of the peninsula, where the sea roared and the road narrowed. At one point we rounded a hard-fought bend and saw smooth road stretching out before us, with the ocean below and the rocky cliffs of Ireland reaching far above. We swooped down the slight incline, wind in our face, hooting and carrying on like children.
After rounding the curve of the peninsula, we re-entered what I would call the “real” Ireland. That is, the land where farmers lived and worked. We passed by peat digging operations (smelly!) and sheep pens (ditto). We saw rather large trucks and tractors (for the rather tiny roads), hauling peat and manure and rocks and tires and all sorts of farm-type things.
And on we slogged. Having ridden twenty kilometers or so, the ride lost a bit of its novelty. My legs were heavy, the route now inland and relatively boring, the roads more trafficked. And most worryingly, the sky taken on a darker shade of grey. I called it foreboding. My wife called me dramatic.
After consulting the map, we decided to cut a corner off of our loop. We also decided that, in the interest of not worrying my parents and not missing happy hour, we should limit ourselves to only one more tourist stop – the Gallarus Oratory, then only a few kilometers ahead. Invigorated by the prospect of a new historical adventure, I pedaled on, a bit more spring in my ridiculously high-pumping knees. On we went, down country lanes and around blind corners, through patches of gravel and ditches slowly encroaching into the crumbling road, evading cars and giving friendly nods of greeting to all the old fogey Irish farmers in their fields. Fields of peat and wildflowers and sheep and cows flew by on either side.
All was going rather well, until a poop truck ran me off the road. And by poop truck, I mean a truck with a trailer full of poop. Probably sheep, maybe cow. And by run off the road, I mean roared up behind me, slowed momentarily a few feet from my heels, then revved the engine so I knew his intentions. Looking back I saw the truck straddling the whole road leaving only a few inches of gravel for me. Given my preference not to ride a bicycle in slip-slidey gravel within inches of a thousand pounds of speeding steel and poop, I took a header into the raspberry bramble growing on the side of the road. Bike down, head down, raspberry thorns everywhere. My wife (riding ahead, as per usual) heard me scream as I went off the road, and she missed the fun of the malodorous poop truck by pulling into a driveway. To her credit, she did come racing back to try to disentangle me from the raspberries, and didn’t even laugh at my predicament. Well, she didn’t laugh until I found the ants. Ireland may not have snakes, but it has a shit ton of ants. At least this raspberry bush did. And many of those ants, which were the big bitey kind, rushed out of the raspberry bush and into my pants (were they defending their treasure by getting in mine? I don’t know). So I did what any self-respective bicyclist who got run off the road by a poop truck and into a giant ant pile would do. I jumped around in the middle of the street, screamed and cursed, tore my pants off, and generally made a spectacle of myself as I tried to remove bitey ants from my various nooks and crannies. Then she laughed.
I won’t lie to you. The poop truck incident put a damper on the adventure. I was tired, we were still many kilometers from Dingle town, we had no option but to finish the ride (did I mention that our cell phones didn’t work in Ireland?), and all in all, I was feeling daunted. Plus that darn sky was looking so very … dramatic.
The Gallarus Oratory was a welcome respite for my low spirit. This is a must-see site that lived up to the must-see hype. The tiny Oratory is believed to be an early Christian church (built somewhere between the 6th century and the 12th century) and is shaped like an overturned boat, with sloping rounded walls. The Oratory was constructed by stacking carved stones in an extremely precise manner such that the vaulted roof line is formed and supported only by the walls and the exterior slope of each stone forces rainwater to run off to the outside of the structure.
The Gallarus Oratory was very cool. What I might not highly recommend, however, is sitting through the 20 minute video put together by the Irish tourist board about early Irish Christians, if, upon exiting the movie theater, you are going to walk out into a genuine rainstorm pouring forth upon your stranded ass. And, if the young man behind the gift shop counter raises his eyebrows when you ask about the remaining distance back to Dingle … well, you know about the raised eyebrows.
My wife, being exceptionally hearty, saw no reason why a few rain drops should interrupt our journey, and I, being too beaten down to argue, didn’t. So we continued on, steadily and slowly, through increasingly heavy rain and, well, wind. It was becoming quite windy.
Dear reader, here is where I will impart a key snippet of map reading wisdom. If you ever find yourself on a peninsula formed by a mountainous ridge, and you start a long journey on one side of the ridge, and then travel at sea level along the coastline to the other side of the ridge, then, regardless of what your crappy tourist book map shows – you will need to cross over the huge mountains in order to get home again.
And so this is where we found ourselves. Facing up a mountain, in the driving rain, many kilometers from the last small hamlet we passed through and many kilometers from Dingle town. Seeing no good options, we pressed on. Upwards and upwards some more. Unfortunately, “upwards” is a horrible evil ballgame on a heavy steel three-speed bicycle with broken gears and a fallen seat. I lasted only about one more kilometer before I had to dismount and start walking my bicycle up the mountain. My wife, also exhausted, joined me. On we slogged, sore legs, sore feet, sore asses, sore everything, upwards for many kilometers and pushing bicycles through sheets of rain.
And then things got worse. We reached the top of the mountain. The horrid weather we had already seen was only a teaser for what was trapped on the other side of the ridge. We crossed the summit and walked straight into the storm’s full fury. And, boy, was it pissed. The rain was so thick we could only see a few feet ahead. The wind was blowing with incredible force. Even with our noses finally pointed downhill, we could barely move against the unbelievable headwind and had to dismount again as it was impossible to keep the bikes steady. The clouds rumbled with thunder and we hurriedly discussed our options in the event of lightning (we had none – we were on a bare mountaintop, holding steel bicycles).
Cutting to the chase, our easy coast into Dingle was nothing of the sort. It was a dreadful, terrifying, and very long final few kilometers. By the time we at last stumbled into the yard of our B&B, we were literally grateful to still be alive. Our kindly B&B hostess, while clucking and tut-tutting and making us hot tea, managed an off-hand mention that of course the forecast had shown Dingle would be hit by the tail end of a hurricane on the final stage of its journey across the Atlantic (a hurricane! unbelievable!), and perhaps next time we should make inquiries before setting out? My mother was having heart palpitations after having watched the B&B’s cast iron lawn furniture fly across the yard, and could barely talk to us. My father wanted to know when we’d be ready for dinner.
And us? We learned the most valuable lesson of all. Our Irish Folly was absolutely full of debacles. It was long, it was painful, it was exhausting and truly scary at times. But it was also the single greatest day of travel we’ve ever had. We saw history in places nearly untouched by modernity. We moved at our own speed and under our own power through some of the most beautiful land in the world. And we faced our fear and weakness and pushed on through. We earned our adventure and it was amazing.
So the lesson, dear reader, is not to listen too much to maps and eyebrows and weather forecasts. Sometimes you just can’t know where the road will take you.