We hiked for five days through the Wicklow mountains, and every day but one we hiked alone.
We had hired local guides, Christopher and his wife Teresa, to plan everything for us--they picked us up in Dublin at the airport, arranged for five nights in the hotel (and one night in the B&B with the river rocks), breakfasts and dinners at the hotel, sack lunches for the trail. Every day one of them picked us up and drove us to a new trailhead of the Wicklow Way, pointed out our route, and waved goodbye. And Doug and I hiked the 10 or so miles back, over hill, over dale, through bush, through briar, over park, over pale.
The day we hiked along the coast to Wicklow Town, they gave us a cell phone so we could call them at hike's end for a ride home. Christopher assured us that it made no difference when we called--four o'clock, six o'clock; "It's only time," he said.
The other days the hikes led us right back to Glendalough and our hotel. It was all very neatly planned.
One day Teresa asked if we would like a guided hike with Christopher. He was taking a group that day up Trooperstown mountain. It's the shortest hike, just six miles, and it's in his own backyard. "He likes to talk," Teresa said, and that sounded good to us--context and local color. So we happily glommed onto the group.
The group turned out to be two thin young English women in tight jeans. One of them slung a large rucksack from one shoulder, which did not look like a comfortable way to hike. I don't know what was in it--I imagined purses, cell phones, lipstick--but it did not contain a lunch, so Christopher sent them back to the hotel to get a couple of sandwiches. "Youth," he said, shaking his head as they scampered off.
But despite their frail appearance, they were good strong walkers.
Christopher, as it turned out, did indeed like to talk, but he was not chatty--just the right combination for strolling through the countryside. He told us things when he had something to tell us, and the rest of the time he stayed quiet. He brought his camera, which I found surprising. He grew up here, he had lived here for most of his 50-something years. Surely the landscape was deeply familiar.
"You've made this walk hundreds of times," I said. "Why are you still taking pictures?"
"Every day it looks different," he said, and you have to admire someone who can look at the same 10 square miles of land and be able to see that.
Our first stop was just feet from our hotel's back door--St. Kevin's well, a holy well a few feet off the road. We would not have noticed this on our own; from the path, the well is just a small grassy mound. You have to walk around to the other side to see it--the stone facing, the ferns growing around the sides, the little stone steps leading to the holy water.
Ireland is dotted with hundreds of these wells. When Catholicism roared through the country, the wells were assigned Christian saints and deemed holy in order to make their existence palatable to the church. But the special properties date back to pagan times. This well is supposed to improve eyesight (though I have not yet noticed a discernible difference in my vision).
Locals place various totems--ribbons and prayer cards and coins--in and around the well, mainly tied to a nearby birch tree, though someone ("they," according to Christopher) has been cutting off the lower branches to discourage this. Lord only knows why.
From the well, we hiked along the Green Road through the forest to the town of Laragh, and then up into the hills that Christopher knows so well. We were not on the Wicklow Way, which is marked with little signposts and the figure of a yellow man with a walking stick--we were just walking, often on no path at all. If Christopher had vanished, we would be walking still, lost in the hills around his village.
It was incredibly gorgeous--round steep green hills; blooming yellow gorse, giving off a fragrance of coconut and vanilla; spray-painted sheep; springy brown heather, just starting to bud out. (It will be beautifully purple later in the summer, when the blooms open.)
At the top of Trooperstown mountain, Christopher pointed out ditches and nearly-obscured pathways that marked where a whole village had once existed, before "Faminetime." Now there is nothing but heather and the wind.
At the top of the hill, a cairn marked the summit, and he told us that it was considered good luck to add a stone to the cairn, so we all did.
Christopher had brought along his aging dog, Pixie, who hiked better than any of us. As we cut through the shin-high heather, bushwhacking over the uneven ground, Pixie picked her own route. "She knows where the heather is the shortest," Christopher said.
On the other side of the hill, we stopped for lunch. We sat down in the springy heather and pulled out our sandwiches, and Christopher opened a tin of fish. The view below was stunning--fields of various shades of green, sheep, hedgerows, and small houses, one with smoke rising from the chimney.
We sat for a long time. Christopher was in no hurry. He pointed out his auntie's house, and the school he had attended as a child (population 12). He showed us his own house, and his daughter's house next door, and his mother's house down the way. "She has a fire going," he noted, for hers was the one with the chimney smoke.
He stared off thoughtfully down the hill and made no move to pack up and go.
Doug and I are impatient hikers. We are used to hiking briskly, stopping for lunch, and then moving on. This meandering route, this leisurely lunch, was new to us. It was hard, at first, not to fidget. I stood up once or twice, but nobody else moved, and so I sat back down again. Gradually, I relaxed. Paid attention to the view, and the fragrance of coconut, and the flavor of my chicken sandwich, and tried to tamp back that rushed feeling that nagged, "Get going! Get going! We've sat long enough," even though there was nowhere we had to be, and when would I ever be sitting on a mountainside in County Wicklow again? Don't rush it, I told myself. My breathing slowed.
Christopher stashed his empty tin in his pack and lay back on the hillside. Every now and then a story would come to mind, and he would tell it. Pixie bustled about, sniffing the ground busily. The rest of us just sat.
Finally Christopher rose. "I guess we should move on," he said, though it was pretty clear that he'd be happy to just sit in the heather for the rest of the afternoon. And why not? It was a lovely afternoon.
I could never recreate that walk for you; I could not tell you where we went. We tromped through the heather. We walked down a road. We lingered on a bridge over the Avonmore River, lingered again at the edge of a pine forest. It was a beautiful sunny day, not too warm, a little breezy, and we walked and walked. "Man," I thought, "this is the longest six miles I've ever gone." But we were stopping and starting so much I couldn't really tell how far we'd come.
Eventually Christopher led us to a trail that was part of the Wicklow Way--a part we had hiked two days before. Hmmm, I thought. I remember this part. We're still a couple miles from Glendalough. Surely that walk through the heather and over the mountain wasn't just four miles?
My feet were starting to hurt--my baby toes were getting crunched inside my hiking boots on the steep downhill terrain, and my right knee had a bit of a twinge. Six miles, and I'm feeling it! I was humbled.
When we got back to Glendalough, we offered to stand Christopher and the English girls a pint in the bar. Over glasses of creamy stout, we talked about the walk, and I finally broached the question of distance. "That was a pretty long six miles," I said, and Christopher looked surprised. "Ah, sure and I guess I added a bit to it," he said. "It was probably more like ten or eleven."
Aha. Time. Distance. We worry about these things too much, I think. We are too goal oriented, at least I am. To Christopher, it was just a pleasant walk on a lovely spring day, and it didn't matter how far it was or how long it took. That was a lesson of the Trooperstown walk, and one that we kept with us for the rest of the trip: Quit fidgeting, pay attention, and for god's sake, slow down.
Needle And Thread
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