There were so many reasons Stacey and I should not have completed the Cailleach Beara Loop in Bonane, Kenmare, Ireland. The trail through the farm and tourist center at the beginning of the hike was closed and gated that day, since work on the only road had shut down much of the town. Neither Stacey nor I had completed anything more than a couple hours of hiking here and there throughout our lives: We didn’t know how to follow the maps (and had a mere internet printout, at that), hadn’t broken in our new hiking gear and certainly hadn’t done the physical training necessary for the trek. But these were things we learned along the way and, despite the tough lessons of the day, I am deeply grateful these things didn’t keep us from the journey. This proved to be one of Ireland’s most unforgettable days…
As I indicated, the gate at the beginning of the hiking trail was closed and locked when we approached. Feeling daring and rebellious, I climbed the fence and made my way up the hill – We’d spent an extra day’s worth of the travel budget to make this hike, and weren’t about to let road work and a gate deter us. The cute little farm just over the fence put me in the best of moods, and we were off.
My eager near-skipping up the farm trail quickly came to a dead, shocked stop as the most fantastical, mystifying screams I’d ever heard came from a hidden portion of the path ahead. Not one, but several creatures cried out as if they were ready to attack, were being tortured, frightened… I couldn’t make out the meaning of the loud and piercing sounds. As we conquered the bit of an incline, we soon saw what was making all the raucous:
The biggest pig I’d ever seen, likely frightened by our presence, was fighting and attempting to eat it’s way, through steal, out of it’s pen. Terribly loud and quite ghastly to behold, its pale blue, transparent cataract-covered eyes stared us down and made me wonder if eating pig could really kill a person; nothing this ugly could possibly be good for you. But my disgust gave way to feelings of pity, as I looked at how small its space was and how terrified we’d made it.
I’d only taken a few steps more before Stacey, who led, was walking back towards me… swiftly, an air of fear about her. There were more animal screams and, from behind a barn, a mule followed her. Stacey moved behind me, and we both made our way slowly back from where we’d come. The mule positioned itself with its whole body across the path, and I wondered if this was the Irish version of a guard dog. Then a second mule joined him and positioned itself a bit further down. A mule stand-off was something we hadn’t exactly planned for.
Stacey made it clear there was no discussion to be had; she was afraid of animals, and wasn’t going anywhere near them. Speaking softly to the mule, asking its permission to pass by and approaching it as I would a cat (mule, cat… what’s the difference?), I trembled as I walked towards “Spike the Guard Mule” watching closely for his reaction. He seemed peaceful and curious about me, and showed no signs of readying to donkey-kick me into the pig pen. I stood beside him and Stacey scooted by. I walked down the path towards the second mule, and “Spike” turned to follow right by my side. Standing between the two beasts, I did question whether it was cooler to come to my fate by slipping off an Irish cliff or as part of a mule sandwich. But both were tame and quickly disinterested, finding patches of grass to munch on – We passed with no problem.
We chatted a bit with some chickens and wooly sheep, but were soon on our way up the side of the hill. A bit of an anthropological soul, Stacey was full of knowledge on the things we encountered. She showed me ancient boulders placed to line up and point to certain astronomical features. I saw the first of many famine houses, crumbled and left in ruin. Walking around the now skeletons of these once packed rock homes was stimulating, the energy of the people who once lived and worked there still lingering about.
Once past the initial trail, we climbed a ladder over a fence and on to a dirt road, making its way up the mountain. Winding between barbed wire fencing, decorated with sheep wool hooked as the animals passed by, and making our way across a decaying, iron bridge vine-covered and straight from fairy tales, the scenery was pristine. We also lucked out on the weather; locals tell me that it rains more often than not across the country, but on each of my visits I’ve been greeted with blue skies and warmth. Stacey warns me of depressive dampness – not to believe in the sunshine one bit while considering my move to the area.
Some time had passed since we’d met any more creatures, but soon I was trying to convince a sheep to pose for a picture. Sheep have the fantastic ability to run from you if you pause to look at them, then run at you as soon as you turn your back. I’m quite convinced that if one hikes in the middle of the night, they will find the local farmers engaged in games of “Red Light, Green Light” with their flocks.
I hopped over another fence and ran about a field attempting to get good pictures of the sheep. All ran from me and the effort was near fruitless. That is, until I met Warner.
Despite the fact I didn’t belong in the field, Warner took to me immediately. He would tuck his head and blink his eyes as if in flirtation and, once I’d returned to the trail, he followed Stacey and I for quite aways, singing songs in his baaaaaa-d, out of tune voice. Though he tried to woo us to set him free, we had to leave him behind and trek on. But Warner made quite the impression, with his baaaaaaa-d ass haircut and his sparkling personality.
Just past Warner, we reached a place for decision. We’d already been at a constant pace for a couple of hours and, at a place where the trail split three ways, pondered which path to take. In a mere instant we decided to take the longer path-less-traveled, up and over the mountain. For me it was simple — I couldn’t miss out on anything.
After a bit of an ascent, we stopped off the the now narrow path for lunch, balancing ourselves uncomfortably on the few rocks not covered in sheep poo. Feeling truly “woman vs. wild”, I drank from a mountain stream and peed out in the open, accomplishments that, to me, felt like I’d proven my “ruggedness”. I don’t get out much.
I returned to find Stacey taking pictures of the scenery, unaware that she was being watched from further up the road. She didn’t seem as amused as I was when I shared the thought of how she’d react if the mess of sheep headed her way.
We climbed on to find that the road ended where the sheep stood. The rest of the hike would be over fairly rugged terrain, following brightly painted stakes up and over the mountainside to (barely) keep us on track.
Reaching the top of that first hill was unforgettable. I looked down at where I’d been, I looked out at all that was… and I just started to cry. Cry, because I’d been so seeped of energy for so long — so sad and misplaced for as long as I could remember, and it felt so, so good to be this happy. To see such beauty. To have accomplished this:
I lingered in this moment for quite some time. I felt close to God; a feeling I hadn’t had for a long, long time.
Reluctantly, the hike continued. We couldn’t see it until we reached the top, but there was a second peak to climb. Invigorated, we began the second ascent. The scenery was like nothing I’d experienced before: the sun struck through the clouds, vibrantly coloring moving portions of the land, the wind shoved us along – the sound of it and sheep all we could hear and the flowers and rocks at our feet made each step seemed like yet another artist’s work. Though quite a distance further, it felt like we reached the “Summit” in no time, and we celebrated. We were on top of the world and had accomplished something even greater than we’d meant to. For this we were rewarded with pure, pure beauty.
The terrain leveled out, and we moved across for quite awhile. Then awhile more. It became late afternoon and we started to feel a bit tired. The descent must be on its way. We had no doubt.
Yet we began to climb even higher, still. Surprising us both, we exchanged wonder at how much more we had to climb. And this ascent was intense – nearly straight up in parts. But there was no turning back – We were committed to keeping on.
This turned out to be the third and final ascent. And, apparently, the gods of the mountains feel that, if you’ve made it that far, you are to be declared royalty. A throne, cut or broken from a large stone, sat looking over the sea – the first we’d seen of water as we reached this height.
We could have stayed there forever. But time ticked on. And we were behind.
The decent began. Ah, the easy part! I was excited. I sensed the distance was still great, but at least downhill would require a lot less effort. This I actually believed in my completely naive and inexperienced noggin.
It is on this part of the trek that both of us, each at separate times (thank goodness, as we could help each other) nearly crumbled. I was the first to fade. I’d opted for a walking stick that was strong on it’s camera pod features, but would snap apart each time it sunk in the mud, throwing me forward a few times too many and resulting, at times, in my boots sinking to my shins in mud. It was unclear whether to trust the rocks or grass as more reliable places to step, as both would give way. Navigating the mud, loose rock and steep descents in the rain (yes, it started to rain) proved to be HARD. Really, really hard.
I don’t know how long we were climbing down from that mountainside. All I do know is that, when we finally reached the end, the final ladder-over-a-fence was guarded by a not-so-happy-to-see-us sheepdog. And, at this point, I opted to ignore him and go over, anyways, figuring he could just finish me at this point – exhaustion getting the best of me. Tough guy proved more bark than bite, and we made our way down the road, stopping for a brief chat with his owner.
We.had.made.it. Muddy, exhausted, starving and soaked, the car was an oasis in the mist. We were so, so happy to get in, and had one peaceful, relaxed deep sleep as soon as our heads could hit the pillow. Proud. Happy. And knowing we’d made memories that would never be forgotten.
Until next time, Kenmare. I will be back.