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 at a small cloth-covered sewing table beside an old wood stove. Irish music plays softly as the scent of coffee and burning wood permeate the air, and soothe me. With pen in hand, I search for words to make my husband understand why I must wander 3,000 miles from home.
After eight years of marriage, he’s learning to adjust to my inability to stay put 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 am 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 absorb the magic of this country. It was something I needed to do alone. Pictures of the West Coast always took my breath, so I decided to start there. 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 a couple of hours from Shannon, the bus ride through the narrow country roads make the trip last an eternity. I keep a death-grip on the seat back handles for most of the ride. I didn’t realize buses had handles and now I knew why. Fellow passengers with motion sickness issues create unpleasant smells and sounds that are impossible to ignore.
Sleep deprivation, anxiety, and the odors have me fighting bouts of melancholy and nausea. I try my best to stay positive and think of the adventure ahead. When the bus finally arrives in Doolin, I’m so grateful to be off the bus, I want to kneel down and kiss the pavement.
From the bus stop, I walk the short distance to a dirt road that cuts through a field of cows, sheep, and a lone donkey. This is my first hostel experience and I have no idea what to expect. Karl, the welcoming hostel manager goes over the house rules.
“There’s free laundry, free internet and a full kitchen that everyone shares,” he tells me while walking me to an empty bedroom with four sets of bunkbeds. “This is it.” You’ll share with seven others.”
“Just girls, right?” I ask.
“Nope. Boys and girls.”
There are no other rooms available so I have little choice but to deal with it. I collapse into an empty bottom bunk for a few hours before the barnyard symphony wakes me.
Across the street in an empty pub, I have an early dinner at Fitzpatrick’s. Kieran, the bartender explains dinnertime doesn’t begin until after 7:30. He grabs me a bowl of creamy hot Seafood Risotto loaded with fresh fish and shrimp. It is the best meal I’ll eat in Doolin.
“Music starts at nine and ends whenever the place empties,” he says. Daylight I learn, lasts until 11:00pm during the summer.
O’Conner’s pub, a five-minute walk from the hostel is, according to Karl, a favorite spot of the locals. The pub appears deserted from the outside, but inside is 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 thick, chocolatey, and delicious. The locals here tell me most Irish prefer American beer.
My bartender attempts a Shamrock design in the head of my Guinness, but his creation looks more like male genitalia. It brings a smile to my face. I keep 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.
“Better take advantage of this grand day. It won’t last.” Karl says in his thick Irish lilt as I butter my toast.
“Any suggestions on what to do?”
“Hike the Cliffs of Moher. It’s just around the corner. I’ll tell you how to go.”
(*Note- I think it was 5 miles. I learned everything, no matter how far in Ireland, is “just around the way.”)
Two girls 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 washed away, climb over rusted barbed wire fences, under electric ones, and pass through fields filled with cattle. One particular cow decides to chase me. At first I laugh, 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 go out. I don’t know what makes him give up. Maybe he was just having a little fun with me, but decided, like a few men I’ve dated, I’m not worth the chase.
Continuing along the scenic seaside path in silence, I begin to relax. but serenity is short-lived. The trail ends abruptly. Standing at the edge of the cliff, Kerri and I discuss our options. Sarah barely speaks English. Our choices are either to hike back a few miles and look for a different path or head straight up the mountain. Before we decide, Sara is already climbing and yelling to us, “Follow me.” Kerri shrugs and obeys. I hesitate, considering the danger. Because there’s not another soul around and I don’t want to be left alone, I brush off my instinct and follow them up.
My mistake is quickly evident as my tread-less American running shoes lose their traction on the slick mountainside. I look down at the jagged cliffs below with a racing heart and trembling body. Descending the hill is impossible. I know If I don’t get myself together, I’m going to tumble straight down onto jagged cliff edges. With deep breaths, I continue upward, clutching fistfuls of grass with each step. I pray.
I keep distance with the two girls above me knowing if either falls, they’ll take me out with them. The melancholy I’ve been experiencing since I left home has been replaced with terror. Flashes of an unfinished life play in my head. Moments I’ll miss — first dances, graduations, and weddings. If I survive, I will not take this life for granted. I’ll appreciate every breath.
As I give in to whatever fate lies ahead, the mountain begins to level off. I struggle to contain my enthusiasm. I made it through to the other side of fear, and survived.
Lunch consists of fried fish-flavored mashed potato patties at an outdoor picnic table at McGann’s Pub. A trio of old Irish fellows strum the guitar, smoke cigarettes, and drink beer. Still euphoric from the hike, I absorb the banter and laughter in between songs.
After dinner at another local favorite, O’Conner’s, I end the evening at Fitzpatrick’s where booming young crowds sing along with the one-man band. Barry Manilow and Johnny Cash are big hits. When Sweet Home Alabama starts, people go nuts. Girls leap onto bar tops and everyone bellows out the lyrics, making this an unforgettable day and night.
I make new acquaintances and friends, including Illinois governor, Pat Quinn. As the music quiets and word spreads through the local crowds that I’m alone and aimlessly traveling through Ireland, the suggestions start coming. Galway comes highly recommended.
Pelting rain on the rooftop wakes me in the morning. It’s dark, blustery, and raining sideways. I don’t know how the Irish deal with this weather.
“Aww, you just get used to it,” Karl says.
I bundle myself up best I can with what I have and walk a mile in the rain to the farmer’s market. A interesting-looking Irishman sells produce outside. Inside there are grandmotherly crafts, breads, pies, and cheeses.
Afterwards, I make my way to this little cottage bookstore, where I sit beside the warm fire and sip a latte. I’m waiting for the bus to come to take me to my next destination, Galway.
For a moment, I put my pen down and reflect on my experiences from this trip, and begin for the first time, to embrace my returning melancholy.