Ducking out of the rain, I step into a little cottage bookstore tucked away against an Irish hillside. With a latte and warm chocolate croissant in hand, I sit down take at a small cloth-covered table next to an old woodstove. Irish music plays softly as the scent of coffee and burning wood permeate the air, soothing me. I sit, pen in hand, searching for words to make my husband understand why I feel the need to be wandering around 3,000 miles from home, in Doolin, Ireland. After eight years of marriage, I think he’s finally adjusted to my inability to stay in one place for long, but this is the first time I’ve left the country. Being a writer and photographer requires periods of solitude, preferably long ones. And that’s not exactly conducive to marriage and motherhood. I’m lucky enough to have my own mother, always willing to help, nearby.
Magical tales of leprechauns and mystical images of the Emerald Isle have danced in my head since I was a little girl. I’ve always dreamed of Ireland so, a couple of weeks ago before I could change my mind or come to my senses, I bought an oversized backpack and an overpriced plane ticket to Shannon. I wanted to capture the magic of this country and knew it would be something I needed to do alone. Pictures of the West coast always took my breath, so I decided to start there. I decided Doolin, known as the place to go for the real feel of Ireland and the home of traditional Irish music, would be my first stop. I find a 300- year old cottage-turned-hostel online, Aille River, for €15 a night.
Even though Doolin is only about 30 miles from Shannon, the bus ride through the narrow mountainous countryside make the trip seem like an eternity. I keep the death-grip on the handles on the seatback in front of me for most of the ride,
come to think of it, I’ve never been on a bus with handles on the backs of seats. A few of my fellow passengers have obvious motion sickness issues. Sleep deprivation, gloomy weather and the added fresh odor of vomit have me fighting my own bouts of melancholy and nausea. I try my best to stay positive and think of the adventure ahead of me. When the bus finally arrives in Doolin, I’m so grateful to still be alive and off the bus, I consider kneeling down and kissing the pavement.
Feeling like I’ve been dropped off somewhere in the Midwest,I walk the half-mile to the hostel, past a few tiny shops and restaurants, but mostly past fields of noisy cows and sheep. As I cross a little stone bridge to the hostel, a skid-row-looking donkey greets me. This is my first hostel experience and I have no idea what to expect. Karl, the quirky-looking hostel manager goes over the house rules, “There’s free laundry, free internet and a full kitchen that everyone shares,” he tells me. Karl then walks me to a tiny bedroom and says, “This is it. You’ll be sharing the room with seven others.”
“Just girls, right?” I ask.
“Nope. Both guys and girls,” he says.
I try to hide my shock, figuring I don’t really have much choice at this point. I pick an empty bottom bunk and attempt a quick nap, but it’s quickly cut short by the barnyard symphony outside.
Around 5, after my failed nap, I go check out the pubs within walking distance. Across the street there’s Fitzpatrick’s, a classy modern restaurant and pub. Since I’m the only customer, I chat with bartender Kieran. “Dinnertime doesn’t usually begin until after 7:30,” he says. He grabs me a bowl of freshly made Seafood Risotto, which turns out to be the best meal I eat in Doolin. It’s loaded with fresh fish and shrimp. “Music starts at 9:00 and ends whenever the place empties out,” he says. Daylight, I learn, lasts until almost 11:00pm during the summer. This makes me happy. I tell Kieran I’ll stop back later and head off to check out some of the other places.
McCann’s pub, a five-minute walk from the hostel is, according to Karl, a favorite spot of the locals. From the outside, the pub appears deserted, but inside there’s standing room only. A great band is playing, so I order a Guinness and find a spot to squeeze into. The rumors about Guinness in Ireland are true. The beer is ultra thick, chocolatey and delicious. I’m surprised to learn from the locals that most Irish prefer American beer.
My bartender attempts to create a Shamrock design in the head of my Guinness, but his art more closely resembles male genitalia. I smile, keeping the thought to myself.
Rare sunlight streaming through the curtain-less window wakes me. Karl suggests I take advantage of the unusual warm sunny day and hike to the Cliffs of Moher. “Don’t go on the paid tour. Hike there,” he says. “It’s the only way to see the real beauty.”
Two girls also staying at the hostel, Kerri, from California and Sara, from Germany, overhear our conversation and ask to join me. “When you see the gates that say Danger- Do Not Enter, you’ll know you’re going the right way,” Karl says.
We do as instructed and walk miles, running out of trail several times, along the way. We jump across gaps where paths have been washed away, climb rusted barbed wire fences, under electric ones through fields filled with cattle. While crossing through one, I snap a few shots of grazing cattle. Perhaps there’s Amish lineage with one particular cow (No photos please), but something upsets him and causes him to run straight at me. I laugh at first, but as he gets closer and noticeably larger, panic sets in. I run for my life. Being trampled by a cow in Ireland is not how I want to die. I don’t know what makes him give up, maybe he was just having a little fun with me, but he decides, like a few men I’ve dated, I’m not worth the chase.
For the next few miles, we continue hiking the scenic seaside path. My serenity is short-lived when the trail abruptly ends. Standing at the edge of the cliff, Kerri and I discuss our options. Sarah only knows a handful of English words so we don’t include her. Either we hike back a few miles to look for a different path or head straight up the mountain beside us. Before we reach an agreement, Sara starts ascending the mountain, yelling in her broken English “Follow me.” Kerri obeys. I hesitate, believing this may be the worst decision of my life. I don’t want to be left there alone, so I brush away my gut instinct and follow them.
I pause to look back down the mountain at the jagged cliffs below, realizing the huge mistake I made. My heart races and I lose traction. My body trembles. Descending a mountain, on wet grass, in running shoes, is impossible. I know If I don’t get myself together, I’m going to fall off of this mountain and die. I take a deep breath and continue upward, clutching fistfuls of grass with each step. Every few minutes, I pause to practice my relaxation breathing… and to pray.
The heavy camera I’m wearing around my neck takes the blame for my constant stopping as I snap off a few pictures. I’m also trying to put distance between us, knowing without it, if either of them falls, they will take me off of the cliff with them. My melancholy has been replaced with terror. Flashes of an unfinished life plays in my head. There are so many moments I’ll miss- first dances, graduations, weddings, and grandchildren who will never know me.
If I survive this, I promise myself I will never take my life for granted. I promise to appreciate every moment going forward. If, I survive.
As my nerves begin to settle slightly and I give in to whatever fate lies ahead for me, the mountain begins to level off and at last we have reached flat ground. I can barely contain my enthusiasm, both at having accomplished something so terrifying, but mostly because I lived through it.
We finally reach our destination around the mountain to the touristy portion of the cliffs. As I look around at the tour buses, the gift shop, the safety rails, I’m a little disappointed this is all there is. I almost died trying to get here.
I guess life’s just like this sometimes, the journey being so much more then the destination.
After hitchhiking back into town, another foreign experience for me, I’m feeling euphoric and happy to be alive. We strike up a conversation with two weathered Irishmen chatting on the side of the road and tell them about our hiking experience.
“Two fellows jumped off those cliffs yesterday. One guys says. Found em’ a couple hundred meters apart.”
“How do they know it was suicide,” I ask. “Did they leave notes?”
“That’s where everyone goes to end it,” he says.
I can’t help but wonder, after the experience I just had, how many are actually accidents.
I order the fish and potato cakes our waitress says are “lovely” at McCann’s pub. They arrive and look and taste like deep-fried-fish-flavored-mashed-potato-balls, not exactly lovely. At €10.50, they weren’t exactly a bargain either. Outside, we find a disheveled old man strumming his guitar and singing along with two other weathered men. They plead with us to join them for a “song or two. “
It’s standing room only at dinnertime at another local’s favorite, O’Conner’s Pub. I find one empty stool at the bar. The toe-tapping crowd taps bobs their heads to the booming traditional band. “King prawns wrapped in pastry are a great starter (Irish appetizer ),” suggests the bartender. I also order Irish brown bread. Tiny salad-sized shrimp wrapped in greasy fried phyllo dough arrive (€10). I take a bite and chew and chew and chew. I try, but can’t bring myself to force this greasy rubbery concoction down, not even with a Guinness chaser. On a positive note, the warm brown bread with Irish butter is hearty and satisfying. I make a few new friends, which makes me think it’s impossible to feel lonely in this town.
Knowing walking alone in the dark in a foreign country is a bad idea, I end the evening at the place across the street from my hostel, Fitzpatrick’s. While crime is almost non-existent in this town, so are streetlights and shoulders along the road. Fitzpatrick’s is booming with a young, attractive crowd who sings along with the one-man band. Except for a few favorite Irish songs, most of the music is 70’s and 80’s American. Barry Manilow and Johnny Cash are favorites here. When the musician plays “Sweet Home Alabama,” the crowd goes crazy, climbing on top of the bar and the stools, while bellowing out the lyrics, making this a memory that will stay with me forever.
I make a few new acquaintances, including Chicago’s governor, Pat Quinn, who tries to engage me in a political discussion. As word spreads among locals and they learn I’m aimlessly wandering around Ireland looking for stories and taking photos, they seem thrilled to offer suggestions on towns I must see. Galway is a town they “tink [think] I’ll love.”
The next morning, pelting rain on the roof wakes me. It’s dark, chilly, windy and raining sideways. The gloomy weather makes me struggle to get up. I don’t know how the Irish deal with this weather. “Aww, you just get used to it,” Karl says when I ask him. I bundle myself up the best I can, with what I’ve brought and walk a mile to the nearby farmer’s market, where dozens of vendors sell their goods. A quirky looking Irishman sells produce outside. Just inside the door, a cheese vendor sits behind giant wheels of sheep, goat and cow cheese. Inside there are several vendors offering breads, pastries and pies. For breakfast, I buy a slice of fresh cheese and a soft yeasty sweet potato roll for €1.60.
Afterwards, I find myself here, in this little cottage bookstore, drinking my latte while waiting for the bus to my next destination, Galway. I put my pen down and decide to just embrace my returning melancholy and reflect on my experiences from this trip.
Until the bus comes, I’ll just sit here watch the falling rain through the bay window, as I silently say goodbye to Doolin.