“Here is the country not in its Sunday best, but in its old clothes, unpaved, unfenced, full of character, ungroomed, unvisted, barely penetrable.”
-Elizabeth Hay, Alone in the Classroom
Recently, after a long hiatus, I have returned to writing in earnest. Not only have I been keeping up with these blog posts on a regular basis (finally) but I have also waded into the writers’ community here on WordPress. Aside from the – albeit important – fact that writing is good for my mental health, reading the wonderful posts by other like-minded creatives has encouraged me to continue expanding the amount of time I devote to the craft; you can only improve with practice, right?
In returning to my writing with more and more energy and zeal, I have also picked up the threads of my unfinished debut novel. Though I have never taken down the post-its that have served as a makeshift storyboard since I began working on this book *gasp* six years ago, the story itself has sadly lain largely dormant for the last three. Apart from a few halfhearted attempts to return to this world I had begun to create, I have not well and truly reentered it until this past weekend. And, let me tell you, it felt amazing. Almost like a homecoming of sorts – it felt right.
But, I did not set out in this post to write about my novel. I’ll get to that perhaps once I have finished at least this thread on the Gurski Grad Trip from all those years ago.
No, I bring up my rediscovered novel because of a memory found while looking through my long-abandoned leather-bound notebook which holds all novel-related thoughts.
Upon opening this notebook, I was surprised when a carelessly-folded scrap of drafting paper fluttered out, floating gently to the ground below. Thinking it might be a hastily-scrawled plot point dreamt up in the middle of the night (this does happen), I picked it up, careful not to tear the delicate frayed edges any further.
What I found instead, however, was a piece of my first trip to Doolin that I wasn’t even aware I had hung onto. On the inside of that scrap of paper was a roughly-drawn map filled with scribbled, barely legible, words, oddly slanted miniature castles and a dotted line marking some kind of trail leading (eventually) to a very legible “car park”. If I hadn’t recognized it immediately, I may have thought it a poorly-drawn treasure map where the clever pirate had conveniently forgotten the X marking the spot.
My photographic memory was jogged by this little fragment of paper and quickly called up an image of the hand and then the man who had drawn this map for me nine years ago. And there I was again, transported back in time so clearly the events might have just happened moments before.
It was a few days into my first visit to Doolin and, having recorded and transcribed all of my interviews for the day, I was looking for something to do with the remnants of my restless energy.
I remember asking the lovely man who ran the hostel, Karl, for his advice on what to do. Glancing outside for a moment at the grey clouds overhead, heavy with impending rain, his face broke out into a grin as he turned back to me.
“I’ll bet you have a couple of hours yet until the rain comes – fancy an adventure?”
Having no idea what exactly I was agreeing to, but liking the idea of an adventure with a natural time limit, I nodded eagerly. And that’s when he grabbed my pen, ripped a page out of my notebook, and began to draw.
I remember he spoke non-stop as he drew, explaining every scribble, every dash, every inch of the chicken-scratch. While his exact explanation has faded, when I look at the map, I can picture every step of the route he showed me – the route that would take me all the way from the peaceful town of Doolin to the highest peak of the famed Cliffs of Moher.
His grin may seem strange to you. There was and is ample signage showing the way to the Cliffs, being one of the most famous attractions in Ireland; why would he be so gleeful as if he was imparting some great secret? And why did he feel the need to draw me a map?
Well you see, dear reader, the map he drew did not chart the clearly-marked roads leading to the public viewpoint at the top of the cliffs. Oh, sure, this road was on this map, but only to make sure I knew how to get back home again by an easier route.
The dotted line, the one I was to follow, detailed the other, less-traveled road. The unmarked one. The reason why he checked first if I was up for an adventure before he laid it out for me. This map would lead me to exactly the sort of unpaved, unfenced, ungroomed adventure I was looking for: A 4-hour slog along the cliff-face to the tourist shop at the top.
Perhaps unwisely, I set out for my first attempt alone – probably not the best idea for a none-too-graceful woman terrified of heights. As luck would have it, the storm clouds grew unbearable full much faster than Karl thought they would and soon burst under their great weight, bringing my rambling to a premature close. Aside from the fact that I turned away from the cliff and hopped over a low fence into a large pasture that turned out to house a particularly ornery bull (we didn’t cross paths, which I was told later was an extraordinary fortune…luck o’ the Irish?), I made it back to the hostel safe and sound, albeit soaked through, but determined to set out again when the weather was more cooperative.
As it turned out, I would get not one but two opportunities to complete this hike, and neither time was I alone.
Out of the two successful hikes, near-disaster only struck once when I slipped skipping a little too confidently over a small waterfall – It was my second time doing the hike and my inhibitions were significantly lessened by the ease with which I had completed it the first time. This time, however, I slipped off a lip near the very edge of the cliff, giving one of my companions (a super-fit grandmother in her 60s from Colorado) a near heart attack. I remember my own grandmother asking me later if I had experienced the “life flashing before my eyes” moment and I told her, honestly, that I had not. Perhaps that only happens when you give into a sense of panic that you are about to die. I don’t remember panicking. In fact, I felt surprisingly calm considering what transpired so quickly. But I do remember feeling quite winded when I had successfully pulled myself up to solid ground, after coming to a sudden halt on that precarious ledge.
Unbelievably to me now, I proceeded to catch my breath (and allow my companion to catch hers), brush myself off, and insist on finishing the walk. It was well-worth it, I argued and, besides, I was fine.
Revisiting these memories so many years later, however, I can’t comprehend how calm I was. Perhaps, you might say, I was in shock. I would counter that apart from the few seconds where I was well and truly hurtling towards the edge of a 40-foot drop, I don’t remember feeling fear. Exhilaration and relief, maybe, but not fear.
Thinking back on how different things might have turned out had I fallen a meter further, or a little bit faster, or if I had not been able to claw at the ground to slow myself down, my whole being begins to shiver. I can’t imagine not being here to meet my niece and nephew, or see my sister get married, or meet the love of my life. But, luckily, it wasn’t my time.
Wow. That got dark. Moving on.
Finish the climb I did, and both times when I hopped over the safety barrier to the shocked stares of the tourists who had arrived at the lookout comfortably by bus…I felt an incredible sense of accomplishment. I had seen the Cliffs of Moher up close, full of character, and ungroomed. I had conquered my fear of heights (twice) and made it to the summit. I was unbelievably proud and felt so…alive.
It was exactly this type of feeling I was chasing when I returned to this unmarked path with my sister a few years later. Having attempted to show her several secluded fairy dens along the rugged coast, and gotten lost in the process, I knew this was an experience I could share with her without worry of losing the path. After all, a sheer cliff face to one side is a pretty surefire way to stay the course.
We walked up the same narrow road, nodding to the local cow mafia with their impassive faces as we went, with me eagerly describing the path ahead.
If I remember correctly, the gate once marked, “no entry” was open when we got there, which should have been a sign that things may have changed a little in the intervening years. I ignored this omen and led Kristen, solemnly, to the grave of a young man who had tragically fallen to his death not too long before I first set out on the path to the summit. For me, it was mostly to pay my respects to someone who had so needlessly lost their life to an unforgiving coastline. But I think this act was also a way to impress how dangerous this route could be, to make sure Kristen was making an informed decision on walking it with me.
Standing there for a moment, in silent contemplation, we then turned to our left to survey the path ahead and I could barely suppress a gasp of surprise – there was a barrier? A clearly-visible fence not to demarcate the edge of a farmer’s field (or the border of a bull’s domain), but a safety fence along the edge of the cliff.
Kristen looked at me, bemused. After all of my stories about this daring trek I had completed not once, but twice, sometimes walking not 30 cm from the edge of a precipice, here was an obvious fence keeping any hikers a few feet back all the way along the trail.
I stammered out an insistence that this fence had not been there not four years previously. I had watched in awe as a local ran along the cliff, his dog running ahead off-leash, both sure-footed and confident of their ability not to fall. I had swallowed my fear, hard, as I walked gingerly along a particularly narrow stretch, not daring to look down. I had almost fallen off for goodness sake! There had been NO fence.
I feel the need to prove this with the following photos from previous hikes:
Seeming to believe me, she asked if I still wanted to go ahead with the plan and I insisted I did. I think a rather sadistic side of me was hoping that once we had walked a ways, the fences would disappear and I could once again feel that rush of walking on the edge of the world.
The fences never disappeared, they continued the whole way along. I imagine someone must have expressed concern at the amount of inexperienced hikers who had been traipsing around clutching vague hand-drawn maps in their sweaty palms. Who knows, maybe the person who complained was the lovely woman who almost witnessed the making of another cliff-side memorial to a lost youth. And I wouldn’t blame her.
Although, I highly doubt it. Did I mention she lived in a cabin in the mountains of Colorado, regularly falling asleep to the (comforting?) sounds of the local large predators celebrating their latest catch? Grandmother she might have been but fit the stereotype of overly cautious and easily frightened, she did not. Not unlike most of the Grandmothers I have had the privilege to know.
Despite the fences, the view was still as breathtaking as it had been the first few times around. And even with the barriers, I still marveled at the ease with which my ever-agile sister ran up the steep slope – reminding me only slightly of a mountain goat. Her power and grace will never cease to amaze me. I, on the other hand, took my time, remarking both how similar it all looked and, somehow, how much everything had changed in such a short span of time.
The modern safety features may have struck me as being out of place but, looking past them, here was still the country I admired so much. Not in its Sunday best, but in its old clothes. Unpaved, full of character, ungroomed, a little fenced and clearly more frequently visited, but still as impenetrable as ever. Just the way I like it.
I realize this post is a little late but I hope to get on track starting this next week.
And, remember, life is Beautiful.