The Roller Coaster

Trip Start Jul 28, 2004
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Trip End Sep 21, 2004


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Saturday, August 14, 2004

A day spent traveling can feel like a lifetime, with all the attendant highs and lows, accomplishments and defeats, ideas learned and unlearned. I came off the high of Aran and found myself rebounding in Doolin, a little town on the southwest coast. I walked about four miles to the Cliffs of Moher, and perhaps because of my state of mind, I just could not appreciate them. They were spectacular--but it seems like the entire west coast of Ireland is spectacular, but most of it is not crawling with tour buses and people selling kitschy Celtic jewelry and wall hangings. To make matters worse, the paths were teeming with tiny black flies that absolutely covered your clothing when you walked through. It was only mildly irritating, until I leaned against a stone wall and none of the flies flew away--I walked home downtrodden, my freshly laundered pants covered in fly blood.

On my second day in Doolin, I had intended to hike around and explore the Burren, a unique landscape of limestone and shale. Since coming to Ireland, I had walked probably 10-15 miles a day (I know, Scott and Jamie are totally unimpressed), and my body was tired. So I skipped the Burren and boycotted walking for the day. Because it's Ireland, I still walked several miles--to the harbor, to the grocery store, to the pub. But I spent most of the day reveling in the feeling of Not Walking. And frankly, it was wonderful.

I don't know if it's the physical exhaustion, or the constant stream of temporary friendships, or just the stress of navigating a foreign country, but the highs and lows seem amplified on the road. In Doolin, I felt deeply lonely, and every part of me but my intellect just knew the feeling was permanent. Hours after hitting this bottom, I was sipping cider and swapping stories with new friends, listening to fantastic music. It can be difficult to keep things in context, and to remember that I can travel from trough to crest many times in a day. I hope that I can learn to keep the big picture in mind, and not feel so tossed about by the vagaries of a single day.

After Doolin, I headed to Kilrush, on the banks of the Shannon River. What a great town! Not exactly off the beaten track, but not really on it, either, Kilrush was refreshing for having more going on than just tourism. I stayed at the only hostel in town (I think), a big old house renovated by a wonderful Irish couple and their dog, Prince. Prince has come to realize that people with large packs are there specifically to visit him, so when I walked up to the gate he whined and ran off to get Mary so she could let me in. She claims he does that any time anyone with a pack walks by.

On Friday, I took the boat out to Scattery Island, in the middle of the Shannon. This 150-acre island was apparently continuously inhabited from at least the 6th century until 1978, when the last two people left the island. The mailbox of this last couple still stands in front of their now-derelict cottage. It's hard to imagine being the last two people left on your tiny little island, and finally deciding that it's your turn to leave, too. As recently as 1999, prior residents of Scattery have been buried in the little graveyard by the defunct village, so I guess the ties still run deep.

In the 6th century, Scattery was settled as a monastic enclave, and the most impressive feature on the island is the 9th century (or so) 120-foot-tall round tower, one of the tallest in the country. From the top of the tower, the monks could see the Viking ships turning into the Shannon, and would have some time to prepare. Unfortunately, the towers would also function as chimneys when the Vikings made it that far, so the round towers were not in use for very long. Scattery also has several other monastic sites, including a holy well whose water is now, a little shockingly, being diverted to the toilets in the visitor's center.

I wasn't done with the river yet, so on Saturday I took a boat out to see the Bottlenose Dolphins that make their home in the Shannon Estuary. They were easy to find, and we had plenty of time to spend with them. We found a group of ten or so, and they were traveling with a 2-week-old calf. I realize that all baby animals are cute, but no kidding, this one was really cute. While the adults would make slow, graceful arcs across the surface of the water, the little guy would sort of shoot out like a little cannonball and splash back down next to mom. Still learning to be a dolphin, I guess. Any day spent on the water is a good day, and when you throw a baby dolphin into the mix...well, toss me overboard, it just doesn't get better than this!!
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