Clifden to Donegal

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Clifden Castle in Connemara

David and I love open air swimming, so we had it on our list of must-do’s in Ireland to get into the northern Atlantic at least once. Our second day at Dolphin Beach Guest House in Clifden we took our first dip. Nestled into the side of a steep ridge of rock, heather and gorse poking out the end of Connemara, the guest house has a small beach that is sometimes visited by dolphins and always tricky to walk on, as it’s all small rocks. There were no dolphins the day we went in, but I’d been running and was hot and the day was warm enough (in spite of mist), and the tide was high, so we went for it. Well, not exactly a swim. More like a dunk after hobbling over rocks.

There were many other aspects of our visit to Connemara that were equally thrilling, Just getting to the Dolphin Beach was exhilarating. It’s on a loop of road that climbs over and around the ridge, giving views in every direction. And those views are stunning. Sea, mountains, surf, wildflowers and the ever-changing show of clouds forming, racing, floating, opening, raining, and misting. The exhilarating part? That road is one lane with sheer cliffs on one side, so driving in and out from the guest house required total attention and occasional pulling over into small spots to let another car coming from the other direction go by.

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Connemara bogs

But we managed the drive, and all the other one lane roads around the peninsula that makes up Connemara. There are areas full of small loughs, or lakes — ponds, really — where there is nothing but peaty bog and pockets of water. Driving across it was like driving on a different planet. Lough Inagh sits in a fold between two mountain ranges and the road along its shore is dramatic, with mountain slopes falling to the water on every side.

From Clifden we drove to Donegal in northwestern Ireland. When we drove up the steep pitch leading to the Rossmore Manor B&B David and I were smitten. The view across the tidal inlet to rolling hills of green pasture outlined with the darker green of hedgerows is the perfect of image of Ireland.

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Rossmore Inlet

But Donegal County is more than rolling green hills. Again, there are vast patches of boggy land where we could see peat harvesting in progress. Slieve League, perhaps the highest sea cliffs in Europe (hard to say for sure because everyone gives you a different answer here) is on the southern shore and the day we climbed up beside and then over the top of the cliffs we were often walking through mist and then heavy rain showers.

But we could see that out at the end of the point there was sunshine holding on, in spite of the clouds stuck on the top of the Slieve League ridge. We headed for the sun. In Glencolumbcille, where we’d planned to do a small loop hike, we were stunned by more cliffs — only 200 meters, not the 600 meter cliffs we’d just seen, but still incredible.

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Glencolumbcille Cliffs

But we still weren’t in sun so we kept going until the road ended. Stunned again. We found ourselves at Malin Beg which we’d had no idea was a scenic spot. Below the parking lot was a long scallop of white sand in the curve of 100 foot cliffs, falling away from green fields. The water looked turquoise over the white sand. We climbed the many many stairs down to the beach to get a better look.

The sand and rolling waves were beautiful and the sun was out, warming us up after our chilly couple of hours on Slieve League. When we got to the end of the beach, where no one could see us because we were so far away, we talked about going in the water again. We had no bathing suits or towels, but here was the perfect spot. Sand under our feet instead of rocks, sunshine instead of mist, and the most beautiful beach either of us have ever seen.

We took off our clothes, left them in a pile under out boots so they wouldn’t blow away, and ran for the water. It was warm enough to be bearable, and cold enough to make us feel brave. We came out laughing and ran back up to our clothes so we could dry off and put all our layers back on.

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Malin Beg

Today we drive back south and tomorrow we fly home. The trip has been terrific in so many ways — scenery, being outdoors for most of every day, walking, walking, walking, meeting lovely people everywhere, eating local fish, meats and vegetables, and best of all, boiled new potatoes with butter and mint.

Nothing better than all that.

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In and Out of Clouds

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Ireland is constantly in and out of clouds, so it only makes sense that David and I have been walking in and out of clouds.

On Saturday we crossed a ridge from Ardgroom to Lauragh, climbing a steep pitch off the road into a bowl of valley with a green field on the opposite slope where we could see sheep dogs rounding up sheep in a cluster that kept moving over the bright pasture. Mist threaded around us as we followed the boggy trail and heard water roaring in streams criss-crossing the pass. The inch and a half of rain the day before was rushing off the hills and everything was wet.

Everything is always wet in Ireland. I’ve come to think of it as the land of perpetual dampness.

We passed the Cashelkeelty standing stones, one of the many circles or lines of stones we’ve seen. The stones are aligned to mark solar occasions like the solstice or equinox and the fields and high passes on the Beara peninsular have many of these ancient remains — 3,000 years old or older. It’s impossible to fully understand what it means to see such ancient constructions.

Meanwhile, more modern stones stacked in walls covered with moss, fuchsia, ivy, brambles, and all the other green growth that makes Ireland seem like a jungle are everywhere, and often mind-boggling beautiful.

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Once we got to Lauragh we visited the Derreen Gardens, an estate transformed in the 19th century into a sub-tropical garden at the head of Kilmakilloge Harbor. The tree ferns and tree-size rhododendron made it seem we were walking some place much further south than Ireland.

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Yesterday we crossed a ridge  of mountains from Lauragh to Kenmare, starting out in mist and walking into sheeting rain. We passed the Uragh stone circle, with a ten foot entrance stone, set on a hillock between two lakes. We felt particularly isolated and lost in time, as we stood in a pocket of rain and fog.

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Climbing our second ridge, the fog got thicker and soon all we could see was each other and the boggy path a hundred feet ahead. Thankfully the Beara Way is very well marked, and just as I would feel uncomfortable about whether we were still on the path, I’d see another sign post ahead with the familiar, bright yellow image of a walker and an arrow pointing us on.

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Nearly at the top of the ridge David and I talked about the views we were missing, wondering what mountains and hillsides we’d be seeing if the mist cleared. I looked across the open land to the top of the ridge on our right and realized it was clearer. Then I turned around and the mist was gone, revealing the last mountain we’d climbed, bright in the distance. I could even make out the gray of the Uragh stone circle far below.

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When we finally cleared the top of the ridge, there were the mountains of Kerry, patched with bright green fields ahead. It’s become clear that worrying about poor weather here isn’t productive and makes no difference. Days are sunny then cloudy then rainy then clear then misty then back to clouds breaking open to blue skies again.

IMG_8929In the moments of hiking, there is only what I see ahead of me, the sound of water finding its way downhill, and planning my next footstep to avoid as many muddy sink holes as possibleFullSizeRender (17).And then there are all the flowers.

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Ireland – U.S. Cultural Exchange: Craft Beer and House Painting

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Eyeries

The Irish have certainly figured out exuberant and charming paint color for houses. The villages we’re walking through on the Beara Peninsula have houses painted in over-the-top colors, but it works.

What doesn’t work is the craft beer. In Cork, and here in these tiny villages, people talk about the new craft beers from local breweries. I’ve been trying them all and have yet to find one that comes any where close to what I can get in the U.S. There’s a hollowness in the middle of the taste, with no complexity and or layering of flavors.

But then, houses are usually painted boring colors in the U.S. I think we need a cultural exchange. Brew masters and house painters from each country should travel to the other and exchange ideas and recipes and tips. Then we could all have flavorful beer and cheery villages.

Meanwhile, heavy rain is whipping past the window of our B&B, blown horizontal by 40 mph winds. We left Eyeries early this morning, knowing a storm was coming. We got about halfway to Ardgroom before the rain started, and at first it didn’t seem that bad. Then we traversed a ridge to come into the village and by then the wind was fierce. I got blown off my feet a couple of times, staying upright only by planting my hiking pole downwind and leaning into it. It was wild and exciting and a bit scary, then very satisfying to get to the B&B with a friendly hostess who put our wet gear in her dryer.

Today is the exact opposite of yesterday. We had bright, warm sunshine and gentle breezes as we crossed the Slieve Mishkish Mountains with Coulagh Bay below us. We sat in the sun for the second night in a row and watched the sun set over the ocean to the northwest, green green green everywhere we looked.

That’s what all this rain does.

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Coulough Bay

And We’re Off

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Derreenataggart Stone Circle

David and I have been in Ireland since Monday morning, but didn’t start our walk of the Beara Way until today. We spent Monday and Tuesday in Cork, which is a lively and scruffy-around-the-edges small city. We walked a lot, sampled a few pubs and had an amazing meal at Café Paradiso, a vegetarian restaurant that’s one of the most popular spots in the city. The new potatoes with butter and mint was one of the most delicious dishes I’ve eaten in a long time.

We visited Sin É, a highly recommended pub with trad music, eclectic customers, and a riotous display of posters (many of Led Zeppelin), signs and cards tacked on all the walls and the ceiling. We met a lovely young woman there, who asked what I was drawing and when I said I was sketching, trying to get better at drawing after a life time of writing, she agreed that it’s always good to be learning new things. She’s a photographer, cyclist, dancer, writer, and most importantly, a plámáser. A plámáser? It’s an Irish word that has no English equivalent: someone who can sweet talk others into doing what she wants them to, but not in a creepy or manipulative way. Kinder and more clever.

Yesterday we took a three hour bus trip to Castletownbere, which turned into a four hour trip when the windshield wipers on the bus stopped working and we had to stop in the small town of Dunmanway to wait for a repair van. David sat in the open luggage compartment playing his guitar and I had time to shop for a hairbrush, since I left mine at home.

Castletownbere is scenic and charming. It’s the busiest fishing harbor in Ireland, with the hills of Beara Island just across the water, creating a quiet space for boats and a small bay for mussel farming. From there we set out this morning to walk across the ridge of small mountains that forms the spine of the Beara peninsula, headed for Allihies.

Not only were the long views spectacular, the close views were too. When I imagined this walking tour I thought about the green fields and ocean views. I didn’t expect such an abundance of wild flowers. There are hedges of wild fuchsia, heather in multiple shades of purple lining the walking tracks, small purple flowers that look like pincushions, yellow gorse, and pink foxglove. Also many flowers I couldn’t identify.

Walking in such open land, with patched green fields and ocean views in every direction, and ancient standing stones along the trail, is magical. Walking is perhaps the best possible way to spend a day. We’re delighted we have many more days ahead.

Summer: There, Here, Gone

I’ve been an infrequent blogger this summer, mostly because for the second summer in a row I’ve largely let go of any writing habit. It started with the week in June with Emilio, playing like a six-year-old since I was with a six-year-old, which was enormous fun but left no room for writing. An editing job with a July 1 deadline also ate up most of my desk time, making other people’s writing work better, leaving little energy for pulling my memoir into a better shape.

Then it was vacation time with family, followed by a week at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference, a week spent immersed in workshopping, generative writing, outstanding readings by the outstanding faculty and talks about the craft of writing. It was inspirational and gave me a clear bead on exactly what I need to do next to get my memoir in shape to get it out into the world. But there’s was no time to actually work on the memoir.

The week at home after the conference and before returning to New York for another week with Emilio was consumed with harvesting and processing the bounty from my garden (yes, an electric mesh fence really does work — at least so far — to keep the woodchucks from eating my vegetables and flowers before I can get to them). The time I did have for creative focus I found myself drawing, pulled into my right brain after a week of such intense language, left brain focus.

Today I fly back to New Hampshire and will have 24 hours at home before David and I leave for over two weeks in Ireland. It’s been a very fun week again with Emilio — playing miniature golf, seeing how many times in a row we can catch each other’s throws (55 is our record), going to parks and playing the game of Life. He and I can be silly, serious, focused, scattered, wild and quiet together. He’s sweet and intense, loving and competitive and fiercely athletic. I’ll miss being with him and Ava every day; the energy of small children is amazingly centering because there’s no time to be anywhere other in the moment you’re in with them.

An added bonus of the week: celebrating my birthday which included Ava painting her legs with the blue frosting on my ice cream cake. It was impressively messy and abandoned. Emilio continued his habit of taking whacky selfies while I’m driving.

Now I’m looking forward to a traveling adventure with David. It’s been a long time since we’ve spent a couple of weeks only with each other, exploring a new country. We’ll be walking the Beara Way, then traveling to Connemara and Donegal. From everything we’ve read and heard about Ireland, I expect we’ll be stunned by beauty, heartened by a friendly culture, and cheered by the camaraderie of pubs. I’m also going on a Twitter fast. Who knows, maybe I’ll even go a day or two without checking the news.

All of this activity has made the summer fly. But it’s not over yet and this next journey should be as rich as all the summer I’ve already lived. Want to get a sense of what it’s like to walk, drive, drink, tour, discover and relax in Ireland? I’ll be blogging while we travel, so follow along.

Love Wins By A Lot

David and I went to a Stand Up Against Hate vigil today in Portsmouth, pulled together by Occupy New Hampshire. They hold a Civil Rights Sundays demonstration every week, and this week the focus was to condemn the violent bigotry of white supremacists rallying in Charlottesville, VA this weekend, which led to the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

David and I have been talking a lot recently about how hard it is to hold people accountable for their actions when we don’t have effective ways of sanctioning bad behavior, a basic premise of reciprocal social exchange. For a long time I’ve thought humans probably function together best at the village level. If you have to look someone you’ve harmed in the eye, it’s harder to continue with hurtful behavior. Too many people in power in our country never have to see, in any way, the people harmed by their hateful and inhumane acts.

So today as I stood on the curb in Market Square, holding my sign that read “the Granite State Says NO to Hate,” I looked at people as they drove past. I made eye contact whenever I could. Many people in cars smiled and gave the demonstrators a thumbs up, some honked in solidarity, many ignored us, some were rude. I decided to gather some data.

I counted positive responses — a honk, a smile, a wave — while I counted the number of cars driving by. Ten out of 25, eight out of 25, eleven out of 25. The people who were supportive were young and old, alone and in groups, and included a couple in a truck on jacked up wheels with Virginia plates. The woman driver started honking and waving the moment she saw us and kept it up as she passed the demonstration.

The data is encouraging; almost 39% of passers-by openly supported our message of love and our condemnation of hate.

By counting the number of cars that passed in blocks of two to four minutes, I estimate that about 750 cars drove through Market Square in the hour of the vigil. From those, there were five people who shouted profanities, or make America great again (we agreed with that sentiment, with several signs declaring that hate will not make America great), including one man who calmly told us he voted for Trump. It sounded like a confession. At one point I watched a stern looking man drive towards the curb where we stood, then finally turn with the curve in the road as he gave us the finger. He was number three of the four who flipped us the bird. In total, that’s nine overtly negative responses out of 750 — just over 1%.

That leaves 60% of those who passed us not responding at all. I suspect many of them didn’t connect our presence and signs to the violence in Charlottesville. Many of them likely don’t pay nearly as much attention as I do to national news. Some of them may have felt too inhibited to respond, a theory supported by the phenomenon both David and I noticed. When there were a number of cars passing us at once, if one person honked, many others did too.

By the time we left, the knot of tears that had been in my throat all day was dissolving. The loving responses beat the hateful ones by a lot.

In It for the Moss

When I was first working on climbing the 48 peaks over 4,000 feet in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, I had many companions. Eric came on most of the hikes, sometimes Adrienne or Sam, and many different groups of friends. But as the hikes got longer and less rewarding (e.g. limited views at the end of a very long trek), Eric was the one who stayed with me.

Our hike to Owl’s Head, a remote peak with a steep scramble up a slide of rocks and no view at the top, 18 miles roundtrip with two tricky water crossings, ended with us walking for miles in the downpours from thunderstorms. By the time we got back to the rivers we’d used water shoes to cross on our way in, we walked through the water in our boots. They were already soaked.

The day we hiked to Mt. Isolation, a 13 mile trip that required a car drop at the end of our trail out, then hitchhiking to our starting point, was so sticky and buggy we kept stopping to puff a cloud of deet around us, hoping to keep the black flies and mosquitos away. The bonus of that hike was the isolation — we had the peak to ourselves.

Mt. Cabot is the northern most of the 4,000 footers, mostly viewless and tricky to climb because of a private property closure on the trail that has the shortest route. Eric and I climbed it on a snowy day in November of 2002, and that was the day Eric first noticed a change in his eye sight. When he looked at his pole he saw a crook that wasn’t there. It was two weeks later that we learned he had a cancerous tumor in his left eye.

Eric was still with me when I completed my list in October of 2003. Then he finished his list on Mt. Madison in March 2005. Our last hike together, in March of 2006, he complained about the pain in his back when he tried to run down Mt. Israel, a small mountain with an excellent view. Two months later he was dead, his liver and bones overrun by cells from that original tumor.

I thought about all of this yesterday as I hiked up to Jennings Peak with David and our friend Anne. The view was excellent, but much of what recommends the hike is the ridge leading to the peak, which is covered with beautiful moss. It’s not a trail to a 4,000 footer, but it was one of the first hikes Eric and I did together, and he was enchanted. Over the next several years, as Eric and I talked to friends and family about my peak bagging quest, he was often asked about his reason for doing all the hikes with me. “I’m in it for the moss,” he’d say, remembering the hike to Jennings Peak, and all the other beautiful mosses we saw over the years.

Yesterday I was in it for the exercise, the companionship with David and Anne, the challenge, the view, the chance to be outdoors most of the day, the magical ridge of moss, and the memories of Eric.

Silver Water

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Though David and I have been renting a camp on Jenness Pond, a few miles from our house, for over a week now, we’ve only just started staying here at night. There’s been a wonderful assortment of people filling the camp — family, friends, and friends of family, including our children and grandchildren and our children’s friends and their children, lots of little ones from age eight to two. There’s nothing like the noise of children playing in water. There’s nothing like playing in the water with children, no matter what age.

With fewer visitors coming through the camp this week, last night we blew up the air mattress to sleep on the screen porch for the first time, something I’ve been thinking about since we did it last summer. Falling asleep in the night air is such a treat, and not having to set up, then crawl in and out of, a tent to get that sky-just-past-the-mesh feeling, is a highlight of this camp.

Except last night was the coldest yet this summer. Rain all day, wind, and temperatures in the low 50’s, by dinner time we lit a fire, the first time in this house, probably the first time in July. After an evening warming up by the fireplace in the living room, we went out to the porch to go to bed. Layered between two comforters beneath and three above, David in a wool hat and down jacket and me in a hooded sweatshirt, we fell asleep with a cold summer night all over us. What a treat.

This morning David and I sat on the porch couch, a comforter over our laps as we read. A pair of kingfishers spent the morning chitting from the trees along the shore, flying to the post at the end of the dock and the railings of the raft ladder, scanning the water for a meal. At one point a guttural squawk made us both look up. A heron was flying directly towards the porch, then turned and moved along the grasses on the shore.

Late this afternoon the noisiest event on the pond was the flapping and prancing of ducks, lifting themselves out of the water by the dock with a furious slapping of their wings. The sun and clouds traded places and the pond was silver and then black. There was enough sun to warm the air, enough that I probably won’t have to pull up the hood of my sweatshirt when I go to bed.

I’m so lucky.

 

Haunted

July 4th, 2003

Last night I went to the 4th of July BBQ I’d planned to be part of two years ago. A lakeside camp, boats, swimming, friends and lots of my friends’ family including adults I’ve known since they were kids now with kids of their own. Burgers and hot dogs and fresh strawberries and then fireworks set off from the raft off the beach and other rafts up and down the lake front. I had fun.

Then this morning I got up and cried. I missed the BBQ two years ago because I wanted to be with Chris, my sister whose metastatic cancer had progressed enough to make her so sick she couldn’t see how sick she was. My other sister Meg had a cookout at her house with my family and David and I knew that was where we wanted to be. It hurts to remember how fragile Chris was that day, how she had trouble standing on her own, how she talked about being patient while she waited for her new medication to work.

At one point while we were eating she looked up at Meg and thanked her for the invitation, as if she hadn’t spent more holidays with Meg than almost anyone else in her life. Why does that moment haunt me more than others?

The rest of that summer haunts me, and last summer when our friend Peter was so sick, and the summer after Eric died and all the summers he was alive and healthy when we had our own July 4th traditions — a day of kayaking on Squam, followed by a BBQ and fireworks at a good friend’s house, Eric along with his buddies John and Mark bending over a batch of fireworks with a lighter and then backing up quickly as light and color exploded upward. I remember the heat of summer sun on our skin, the fresh smell of lake water, the ease of a cold cocktail on our friends’ deck as burgers and chicken sizzled on the grill.

Last month David and I spent two weekends with my family, bracketing the week Chris always rented a house on the beach in Humarock, near where Meg and my parents live. The rental on Humarock tradition has continued and much of my family was there. At one point we did a Face Time call with Adrienne and Emilio and Ava because they couldn’t get there, and after my mother had said hello to her great-grandchildren she handed the phone back to me.

“Who else do you want to talk to, Ava?” I asked.

“Grandpa Eric,” she said with a smile.

I’m happy we’ve done such a good job telling her about the grandfather she’ll never get to meet that she wants to meet him.

If only she could.

Peony Porch

 

 

Home, on my porch, as gray storm clouds pitch across the sky and peonies poke through the balusters. For a change I’m not going to miss peony season in my yard. The last couple of years I’ve been away during the peak of peony blossoming. To extend the season, I wrapped buds in newspaper and stored them in the refrigerator. When I took them out weeks later, once I was home for awhile, they bloomed.

This year I’ll get to pick the heavy heads as they open their extravagant faces, petals tucked in petals tucked in petals in silky folds that seem like forever. The house smells like heaven. I have such peony bounty yesterday I brought a bunch to a family gathering in Massachusetts.

This morning I sat on the porch of the beach house my siblings are renting, watching sun begin to brighten the ocean out near the horizon, the never ending in and out of the waves, white water on white sand. Beautiful.

But I’m happy to be home. Instead of the hot, dry, empty, full ocean beach view, now I face a green world of rampant vegetation and peonies so thick they become part of the porch. I live in a beautiful place and it’s a treat to be here in the height of the light season.

I’ve been away a lot. Last week I was in New York playing with Emilio. We had a blast — a ferry ride to Fire Island, wave tag on the beach, ice cream every day, a DIY water park in the backyard with Ava, timing how long it took to round the bases of a ball field and run the smallest circle on the running track at the park. Short distance, Emilio is faster than me. Youth is a powerful thing.

Now I’m sitting still on my porch as the rain approaches and wind begins whipping the tall grasses in the field across the street. Most of the coming week ahead I’ll be home. Next week too. And the next and next and next until I’ve been home the seven weeks I don’t have to be anywhere else for longer than an overnight. I’m delighted.

I’ll bring in a fresh bouquet of peonies every day. Then it will be zinnias and cosmos, marigolds and nasturtiums, salvia, rudbeckia and poppies. Plus lettuce, kale, peas, beets, squash, cilantro, basil, peppers, and dill.

Yes, I’ll say it again. I’m happy to be home.