Saturday 8.6.16

Here’s what I want to remember about traveling to Ireland, in case I ever have the opportunity to do it again: 

Whatever the cost, take the direct flight.

My route: Uber to Paoli Station, Paoli Station to 30th Street Station, 30th Street Station to Newark, Newark to Birmingham overnight, Birmingham to Dublin, Dublin Airport to Heuston Station, Heuston Station to Killarney Station, where someone would pick me up at 3:15 PM.

Once I’d finally committed to taking the trip, it felt like I had a script to memorize in order to reach my destination. At 39.9, this was my first visit to Europe and only my second time overseas. I wanted to feel like I knew what I was doing, even though not knowing was part of the adventure.

Everything worked out fine through Birmingham. My Uber driver was waiting for blood tests that would tell him whether his cancer had returned; we had an abstract conversation about living life for each day. I thought I lost my phone while waiting to board Amtrak, but just as I’d given up searching for it and taken my seat on the train, it fell out of a pocket in my backpack to the seat. I was able to read on the plane and sleep comfortably on the flight across the Atlantic. 

But my luck didn’t hold once I reached Europe. 

I didn’t realize that in order to transfer flights in Birmingham with only an hour layover before my flight to Dublin, I would have to meet the border agents to have my passport stamped, and go through security again. The lines for both stations seemed half an hour long, and the agents were all still Saturday-morning-sleepy, moving slowly and methodically through the motions of the work. By the time I reached the terminal, the board was flashing ‘last call’ for my flight. I ran flat-out through the duty free shop and several turns through airport corridors, but the doors were closed when I reached my flight. 

The agent called the plane. “One of the passengers is here, can you still take her?” and a second later she nodded and escorted my to the plane. “Your checked bag won’t make this flight,” she said. “It will be on the next plane to Dublin, arriving at around 12:50.”

It was a little after 9 AM. I thought I would wait in the vast baggage claim area, so I found the wifi network and a stiff seat. But no more than five minutes later, a polite agent explained to me that I couldn’t stay there, and would have to continue the rest of the way through the exit to the terminal. After I exited, there was no re-entry, but I could call a courtesy phone to check on my bag later.

I found the bus and train schedules and figured out an afternoon route. I called the stable to make arrangements for a later pickup. I texted family. I calmly settled into the airport to watch people. I had some coffee and browsed a few Irish newspapers. And when it was 12:50, I walked confidently to the courtesy phone, where a frustrated woman kept redialing and slamming down the single receiver.

She repeated this routine for about twenty minutes. Her daughter, who looked about three with a head of blonde curls, kept trying to get her attention and pull her away from the phone, but no luck. Eventually I shrugged at the little girl and tried a different route. 

Customer service at Aer Lingus was having a bad day. Their self-check stations were in the middle of IT failure, and so the check-in line was out the door of the terminal. Nonetheless, an agent found the time to call the personal cell of a staffer in baggage handling, which he answered even though no one was responding to the main phone line. She escorted me through some back security halls, where other staffers met me to bring me back to the baggage claim cavern. 

How it feels to search through mountains of lost luggage, and not find your backpack that has all your gear and clothing for the riding vacation that you weren’t sure you should take – I thought I would use an emoji here, but there just isn’t one that will do the trick.

I left the Dublin airport without my bag or any certainty that I’d still be able to take the trip. I messaged my family with all of the details and claim numbers, knowing that I’d only purchased a very limited data plan for travel and wouldn’t be able to make many calls or check my email regularly. 

I also asked if they could help with possibly finding an early return flight. If I wasn’t able to go on the ride, I’d have to arrange for alternate accommodations, as the ride included overnight stays. With no refund on the ride – a trip that was already beyond my means – there was no way I was going to be able to afford six more nights during peak holiday season.

A too-slow bus through Dublin delivered me to Heuston Station fifteen minutes past my scheduled train’s departure. The next train wasn’t for almost two hours. I called the stable again to arrange for an even later transit. Sitting on a bench taking in the sights and sounds of the train station should have been joyful, and I suppose that after an hour or so it was. How crazy this all was. How typical.

Donnie O’Sullivan (seriously) picked me up at the Killarney Train Station at 20:15. He told some great jokes about the Catholic Church in a heavy Irish brogue as we drove through a town packed with tourists to the stables. The horses – there must have been 40 or more, every color and size – were all turned out in a large indoor ring, munching hay. They regarded us calmly, and the calm was contagious. He asked me what size of horse I would like to ride, and I described the two horses back home. “So, big,” he said. I nodded.

Donnie showed me shelves of riding helmets, muck boots, and coats, and let me choose.

Back in the car, and off to a comfortable downtown guest house where I would spend the night. As I write this from my notes a day later, it’s now been 48 hours since there’s been any sign of my backpack. I’m wearing the same clothes I traveled in, although other guests on the ride have offered to share breeches and coats. There’s a ‘drying room’ at the hotel, where I was able to dry out rinsed clothing overnight. 

There’s a metaphor here, somewhere, and maybe I’ll find it in today’s gallop on the beach.

Sunday 8.7.16

The first thing I noticed about my Irish traveling companion was that he was huge. A few months ago, a riding friend told me that she imagined I’d be riding a huge draft horse, just like you see in the pictures of old Irish farms and foxhounds. Her vision was exactly what turned to look at me with soft, liquid eyes. “This is Peter,” our guide Vicki said as she led him over to me.

I take his reins in one hand, and a swig from Noreen’s whiskey bottle with the other. A teenage girl on the ride takes a swig from that same bottle, eyes wide. “Well, you don’t get to do that very often,” her mother laughs as she takes her own horse’s reins.

The next thing that I noticed was that getting on was going to be a challenge. Peter was at least 17.1 hands and solid. Back home, I don’t use a mounting block to get on board my two horses, Nelson and Yale. They are each in the 16 hand range, a good four or five inches shorter than Peter. The friends who ride with me all use mounting blocks even though they don’t need them on smaller ponies. They usually make some comments about me being young or crazy when they watch me mount. I’ve always felt – and said – that when I needed to use a mounting block, it was time to think about ending my time in the saddle. Lately that end has felt imminent for other reasons than the mounting block. I hauled clambered my way onto Peter’s back, sans block, and it wasn’t pretty. But each time we’ve had to mount and dismount in the Irish countryside over the last few days, I’ve thought to myself, “Well, maybe you’re not quite done yet.”

During breakfast that morning at Foley’s Townhouse in Killarney, I looked around the room to guess who the other riders were. I was wearing my borrowed muck boots and travel sweatpants, and I wanted to hide when I saw the other obvious equestrians – high, polished boots, trim breeches, stylish tops, looking straight out a Dover catalog. But as we all met in the lobby to wait for our transit, Lauren lent me a jacket, and others immediately started making plans to have me try on clothes that night. By the time of our 10 AM departure, my luggage was missing for more than 24 hours. It’s two days later as I post this, and I’ve now been wearing the same clothes for three days, with a few exceptions borrowed from our group.

Ten of us set out on the ride together at a trot – eight vacationers and two guides. Another family of four rides in a separate group about thirty minutes ahead of us. We’re told they have a shorter ride, only four days to our five, and so they are going on slightly different routes. As the horses begin trotting up a paved road, it’s immediately clear that they know their jobs well. Without any demands from the riders, they pace themselves in an even single-file line, loose reins, nose to tail. The guides tell us that the farm owner, Donnie, bred and raised every horse on this ride except for one. He invests the time to train his horses to do exactly this job, and do it very well.

Hiking signs tell us that we are on the Kerry Way trail. Later, I read in my guidebook that this 214km trail is the longest in Ireland, cycling through the country’s highest mountain range and along the Kerry Coast. It’s greener than I’ve ever seen, and there are sheep everywhere. I learn that the pink and blue marks on their backs have to do with breeding – the males wear chalk packets around their necks, and this is how proprietors can tell which sheep have been bred and to whom. It’s surprising to me how much we trot on the pavement. Back home, our horses wince and walk slowly when we have to cross a road. But our horses are barefoot, and these horses have sturdy iron shoes and strong feet and legs. Not long before our lunch break, one of the guides’ horses wrenches a shoe. She dismounts, walks some way, and then pulls the shoe the rest of the way off. Over lunch, Donnie pulls a farrier’s kit from his Range Rover, hammers the shoe flat, and replaces it with a few taps.

We ride through the rocky, narrow Windy Gap. A guide tells us that this rugged path was what rural outliers used to walk each Sunday to make their way to mass in Glenbeigh, the village where we are staying. We give our horses their heads to pick their way along the rocky path. On the other side of the Gap, we progress along narrow roads and through green pastures. At one point it starts to rain in sheets. The horses are clearly used to the weather – they don’t even shake or snort, just keep going forward. We even canter through the rain. My reins keep slipping through my hands. When we come to a steep rocky stream bed, the guides ask us to dismount and walk across as they send the horses across freely, one by one. We re-mount on the other side. I’m not sure how I do it, but I manage to crawl my way onto Peter’s back again. He’s patient. He has an endearing habit of swinging his head around to the side to watch and make sure his rider is okay.

We finish the day’s ride at a roadside cafe, and the guides load the horses onto a huge semitrailer. Vicki tells me that the guides untack and put up each horse for the night once they return to the farm. It feels strange to hand off a still-tacked horse to someone else who will care for him at the end of the day, but I am grateful. Their stamina is awe-inspiring. The pain in my legs, seat, and lower back reminds me that I turned 40 today, and I’m not capable of much else after six hours in the saddle.

But back at the hotel bar, drinking Guinness (it’s true – it tastes much better here), I learn that one woman on our ride is 65. She learned to ride in the last year she could vacation with her daughter (31) and son (25), and they plan to take one of these rides each year. She offers to lend me a shirt for the next day. Early to bed to let my body heal and my soul wonder.

Monday 8.8.16

What I don’t want to forget from Monday’s ride is how it felt to be free.

Peter’s stride at the canter is so huge that it feels like a waltz – 1 – 2 – 3, 1 – 2 – 3, 1 – 2 – 3. But while I’ve always found the waltz to be a little constricting and stiff, the only thing holding us back as we canter Rossbeigh Beach is the well-mannered single file line of horses. Nose to tail, we canter through the deep, wet sand. While other horses seem like they are galloping, Peter’s pace is no more than a lope – yet we keep up without any trouble on a loose rein. Around us, nothing but sand, sun, ocean, and cool air that feels more like early springtime than August. It feels like flying. It feels free.

We started the ride that morning at the cafe where we left off the day before. The guides were gearing up in rain pants, which seemed like a foreboding sign for the day’s weather. I asked Bertille if she ever bothered to check the weather before setting out on a ride. “No,” she laughed, “because it’s always wrong.”

The horses were fresh and eager to go. To get to Rossbeigh Beach, we had to take a narrow one-lane road down a mountainside. Whenever a car rounded the bend, there seemed to be nowhere for any of us to go – a face-off between a group of ten riders on large horses and a compact European volkswagon. Somehow we always managed to squeeze around each other, the horses on the cliff side, riders holding their breath.

As we made our way down the mountain, the sun peeked through the clouds over the Atlantic, and the beach below was illuminated in sun. Everyone smiled – not that anyone’s face had shown less than a smile since we started Sunday’s ride. The horse pricked their ears and walked a little faster as we approached Rossbeigh. The beach is nearly four miles of uninterrupted sand. It was awarded ‘Blue Flag’ status – an international award for water quality, safety, environmental education and services. We spent nearly the whole day there, and I’m not sure if I saw even one piece of trash. There were no crowds of people, either, only occasional beach walkers, some families at a recreational center, and a few other riders. It was pristine.

When we cantered on the beach, it was careful – not the all-out gallop that I think some members of our group were hoping for. But the level of care was just enough structure for everyone – including the horses – to feel safe. During a lunch break on the sand dunes, I couldn’t help thinking about my experience at school over the last few years. I’ve been craving structure and support so I feel more safe to take risks. If we had done the full-out, cast-caution-aside gallop, I doubt I would have been able to feel quite so relaxed in Peter’s loose stride. I trusted him, and I trusted the support of our guides and the trip’s rules. Maybe trust is a condition of feeling true freedom. Maybe it’s how we eventually get to our best work.

Back at the hotel, our group enjoyed dinner on the patio in the chilly evening sun. The pastimes of the evening were swapping offline phones to show photos of beloved animals, and telling pet stories. At this tiny 1860s hotel in Glenbeigh, there is no wifi in the rooms upstairs, and really only a good connection near the desk in the front lobby. And the only function of my phone while on horseback is to take photos of scenery that I don’t want to forget. Somehow this has also felt free – not to be constantly connected to anything but what is in front of me, beside me, or under me. I think I’m learning a lot more on this trip than lessons on the Irish landscape and history.

Tuesday 8.9.16

The itinerary for Tuesday’s ride suggested that we would see some peat bogs and ride through the forest. In the morning, we packed our bags and checked out of our hotel in Glenbeigh, a little reluctantly. Lately when I travel, I have this sense that I’m visiting many places for the last or only time, and that the farewells are final. It didn’t feel that way when I was younger – with so many possibilities out there, surely I would end up revisiting my travels. But, realistically, I will probably never see the village of Glenbeigh again, and that felt a little sad and strange.

I’ll note that for me, “packing my bags” still means stashing my laptop, grabbing my borrowed riding helmet, and that’s about all. As of Tuesday morning, I’ve gone 72 hours into the Irish vacation I planned for eight months without any clothes or gear besides what I wore on the flight. All the careful planning, shopping, and checks on the packing list is for nothing when the airlines lose your luggage.

But maybe there’s a lesson in this. I’m doing relatively okay. I’ve been able to borrow muck boots and a helmet from the stable, a jacket and a pair of breeches from another rider on the trip, and even an international adapter to charge my laptop. I think about all the times I’ve hesitated to do something because I didn’t feel prepared, or like I had enough of whatever I imagined it would take. I can be okay with less, or nothing at all, or without the over-preparation I always think I need. (I can also scream at airline customer service at international calling rates when I have to.)

The ride was slow and thoughtful today. We’d passed many homes with peat logs stacked in sheds, and we saw where and how this fuel is cut from the earth. It takes thousands of years for peat bogs to form, and it’s considered a nonrenewable energy source – like coal in some ways. It was surprising to see how haphazardly the peat was laid out to dry – tarps half blown away, many piles out in the rain to be inevitably re-soaked. We rode through pine forests, too – none of them natural, according to our guides, and stripped away in sections to leave nothing but dry branches behind. The work of collecting and stripping these resources seemed to be done more by human hands than by industry – fallible and careless at times, but somehow more in partnership with nature. The landscapes left behind were eerily beautiful and like nothing I’d ever seen before, but they begged reflection on how we take care of our resources.

On the theme of resources, the horses have a strict one-hour lunch break, during which they go almost immediately to sleep. On the first day they were tied to a wall; since then, they have stood tied in a circle, noses in. Once they are arranged for the break, they are almost completely still – eyes half-closed, only a tail twitch here or there. We are not permitted to visit them or feed them our leftover apple cores. Our host, Donnie, tells us that it can take years to teach the horses this routine, but it’s necessary for their health and sanity on these rides. I think about my 20-minute breaks at school – our students have 35, but it always works out that I’m staying behind to clean up the studio or recover something I’ve left from the morning. When the horses finish their break, they are fresh and rested, ears forward for the afternoon’s work. What would happen if I somehow carved out the same resource of rest for myself?

Tuesday - 6

I felt a little cranky and tired after the ride today, without any good reason. So, after we checked into our new hotel in Cahirsiveen – which mistakenly had only one night booked for me, so I’m not sure as I write where I’m staying for the second night – I took a walk into the village, and then a longer walk to Ballycarberry Castle about two miles away according to signs on the street. What I didn’t know about Irish ruins: You can walk right up and into a crumbling castle, circa 1560, while cows watch you from the pasture that surrounds it. You can touch the stone and peek through ancient windows. You can feel very, very small as the sun sets over an Atlantic bay.

Tuesday - 17

The night closed with an amazing solo meal of fish and chips at a downtown bar, with pictures of British royalty and award plaques on the walls and a cozy fireplace in the main dining area. It felt good to have some time to myself. The bartender knew Donnie well, and showed me photos of the horse he bought from him several years ago. He even knew the route of our ride, and wished me luck on the next leg.

Tuesday - 25

Wednesday 8.10.16

Near the end of our last full day of riding on the Ring of Kerry, our guides told us we’d ridden nearly 125 kilometers, with still a half-day of riding to go. Our ride on Wednesday ran long, with an itinerary change to take advantage of beautiful, sunny weather. We started off in the hill and forest ranges where we ended on Tuesday, rode through a breathtaking valley, hacked roads to Waterville, and ended the day with a gallop on the beach.

As I ride, I keep trying to shift my perspective so that I don’t get used to the beauty of the landscape. It’s breathtaking, but when you’re immersed in breathtaking all the time, you start to adapt. Riding in another country feels a bit, to me, like flying on a plane. When you’re buckled into your seat, or your feet are in the stirrups, there is little else you can do besides be present with yourself, your own thoughts, and the space. There isn’t really room for anything else – on the flight, no room for my laptop or my piles of work; on the horse, no room to shift your position or get distracted by worries.  I’m flying 30,000 feet over the Atlantic. I’m riding a horse through a greener-than-green valley on the Ring of Kerry. You have to stay in the moment, but when awe is part of almost every moment, it’s too easy to get used to its rawness.

Taking a drink at the lake

Taking a drink at the lake

Maybe this happens in everyday life, too. I think about the landscapes in Chester County, or in western PA. There’s so much beauty there, too – it’s just that I’ve gotten used to it. I think about the countless times each week where I experience a moment of beauty or kindness, but I’m too busy or preoccupied for the awe to sink in.

Donnie made the decision over the lunch break that we would extend the ride into the evening to visit the Waterville beach, which is normally part of Thursday’s itinerary on this ride. We rode the horses to the edge of a crystal blue lake just outside Waterville to let them drink one by one, and take a break to eat some grass. Then it was off through the town at a trot, following stop signs when we met them. Waterville Beach was just as pristine as Rossbeigh, with maybe a few more tourists walking along the shore. There were golf courses nearby, and an invitational tournament flying flags that overlooked the beach.

For each canter, the guides sent Peter and I to the back of the line. They needed to set a pace where everyone would get to canter, and Peter’s waltz is the slowest of the bunch. Paulina, who had been riding Peter’s “best friend” and lookalike Davit for the trip, opted to join us in the back of the line for this final beach ride – and, according to the guides, the final canter of the trip. We agreed to hold our horses back when the group picked up the gait, so we could wait and open up in more of a gallop. Both of our horses were happy to oblige. It was the first time I’ve seen Peter break his cool – snorting, almost bucking, ears pricked forward as we flew through the surf.

It felt like pure joy.

Paulina, scheming before the gallop

Paulina, scheming before the gallop

Reality check, though – today we spent between seven and eight hours in the saddle. One of our guides, Patrick, commented that no one comes to a trip like this ready for five hours each day in the saddle. My legs are bruised, my seat is sore, and muscles I’d forgotten I had are screaming at the end of each day – especially this one. When I dismounted Peter at the beautiful Waterville pasture where he would spend the night, my legs almost buckled and I thought I was going to pass out. I’ve recognized that sleep each night is the only thing that lets my body heal a bit before the next day. That, and more than one good drink each night with new friends.

Before we closed out the evening tonight, my dinner companions pulled me into the hotel bar, where there was a gorgeous slice of chocolate-berry cake, a candle, and singing. Through the stories we’ve shared on this ride, we’ve all realized we have more in common than you’d ever expect in a group that came together so randomly for a ride in another country. I’m grateful for borrowed clothes, shared laughter (and pain), and new friends. My life needs more of this.

Wednesday - 65

Thursday 8.11.16

“Do you do these rides year round?”

“We used to,” Donnie says with a sigh. It took me a few days to understand his thick brogue, but now it sounds almost musical. “You had to be on point, all the time. When the rides are going on, it’s always something. You have to be available all the time. A horse falls. A rider falls. Someone loses their luggage, or an inn neglects their room.” He winks at my first-hand knowledge of the latter two happenings.

“I would never think about taking any time away, and family suffered,” he says. “So now, we run May through October.”

He sighs again, and his eyes get a faraway look. “Still, though… when we unload the van after that last ride… I feel empty.” He pauses. “You go all-out, full-pace, all the time… and then you just stop. It’s like you hit a wall.”

Donnie, storytelling on the road. He's lived in Killarney for his whole life.

Donnie, storytelling on the road. He’s lived in Killarney for his whole life.

We are sitting in a Waterville pub on the last afternoon of our five-day ride through the Ring of Kerry. I empathize more than I can express to this Irish gentleman in his seventies, who has taken such good care of us during our stay in Kerry.

What he describes sounds like the close of every school year. It’s what I’ve been running from for the last ten years.

It’s been an eventful day on the ride. When we arrived at the backyard field where the horses had spent the previous night, the guides told us that the herd had wandered far out to the edge of the field, and wouldn’t come when called this morning. The guides looked tired already from the morning preparations. Yet the horses looked fresh, standing not in their customary tie line or circle, but with heads high, facing towards the lake.

We trotted through Waterville, residents and guests poking their heads out of pubs and shops to see the source of the clatter. As we headed out of the town, we headed into the first true corruption of the landscape we’d seen – the construction of a massive golf course, bulldozers roaring back and forth working to level the rolling hills.

“American financier,” Patrick remarked, with a hint of resentment in his voice. “When it’s finished, there will only be a hundred members.” Someone asked if it was Trump. “No,” he said. “He has another golf course in Ireland, already.” The golf course divided our Kerry Way trail from the Atlantic Ocean. It was all you could see when you tried to take in the landscape.

Golf course on the left.

Golf course on the left.

To make sure those hundred people would have easy access to their links, our road was under layers of construction in both directions. It was odd, actually, to be riding along an authentic two-way road. Most of the roads we traveled were narrow face-offs. If the horses were headed one direction, and a car headed in the opposite, one of us would have to give way. At the top of the hill, a guide cued us to cross from our line on the left side to a smaller gravel road leading off to the right.

And then it happened. We watched as a gray draft mare slid on the new blacktop, first her hind legs and then her front legs giving way. She fell hard, and her rider never had a chance to get fully out of the way. No one even had a chance to shriek. Incredibly, they both stood up calmly, and we quickly cleared the road to assess the damage.

The mare was fine. She quickly walked over to her closest companions in the herd, and stood quietly to see what would happen next. The rider, however, was not fine. His training was in medicine, and he knew his injuries were enough to need a doctor. In no more than ten minutes, Donnie pulled up in his truck to transport him to the nearest hospital in Tralee. We later learned he had broken one wrist, the other elbow, and some significant bruising on his legs.

The fall rattled our group. We set off again quietly, with the mare led by one of the guides in the back of the group.

This is one of the biggest challenges of riding – and, more broadly, of life: No one had done anything to result in an accident. The mare was doing her job, and the rider was competently doing his. If I could blame anyone, I’d want to blame the golf course owner, for making the new blacktop and construction necessary. But even that was not fair; who could predict that on a Thursday afternoon in August, the humidity would make the pavement just slippery enough to take a large mare and her rider down? None of it was fair, as is so often true beyond the Ring of Kerry ride. My takeaway was how calmly both the mare and the rider faced the situation. No fears, no upset, no anxious reactions – just taking one breath after the next into next steps. It seems important that I remember this.

Although we were less jovial, the day’s scenery was some of the most beautiful we’d seen. It felt like we rode directly into a bright green mountain, then circled slowly down into the valley below. Streams weaved back and forth around our trail, and widened as we got closer to their outlets into the ocean. We saw an ancient round stone fort, constructed so that farmers could herd their livestock inside to avoid raiders from the sea or the land. We saw cottages with gardens meticulously blended into the wildflowers of the landscape. We watched as fog settled, rose again, and descended to cliffs along the shore. I know that ‘breathtaking’ is cliche, but it sometimes really felt like beauty squeezed the air right out of my chest.

Photos could do this no justice.

Photos could do this no justice.

As we trotted back through the construction and into Waterville, the end of the ride felt ominous. We dismounted in a parking lot behind the pub, and Donnie quickly began herding us inside. After so many years of leading these rides, he’s certainly used to how saddening each goodbye can be. I kissed Peter on the nose, and he tipped his ears and soft eyes forward. Once inside group sat silently and a little awkwardly around a pub table, everyone checking their phones for some connection to the reality ahead.

Oh, these endings – knowing I would never see this horse again, doubting that I would ever see County Kerry again after our departure the next day. You’d think I would be better at endings. When each school year ends, I say goodbye to students, relationships, conditions that we’ve worked hard to build over one, two, three, or four years. Maybe these relationships don’t end, but they change significantly – I stay behind, my students move on to build their lives. In all of my running away from the end of each school year, I’ve ended up colliding with more endings – the end of each summer job, the close of each camp, the knotting-up of relationships formed around campfires and crises. And there are other endings I won’t write about here, but contribute significantly to my resume of moving on.

But, like Donnie described when he joined our group, every ending – no matter how many repeats, no matter how well-practiced, no matter how necessary – still feels like colliding into a wall.

On a slow van ride back to Killarney, I pretend to doze off so that I can disconnect from stories of back-home and what-next. I need to be alone with my own thoughts. Just one breath, after the next, into the next steps. It’s what I need to remember from these slow five days on a horse in County Kerry.

The blessing of being sharply aware of endings might be that each moment, each breath, each gasp at beauty is worth just that much more.

Thoughts, Post-Ride

“You’re just going by yourself?”

I had to shrug and nod to this question a lot before I left for my trip to Ireland. People acted surprised. “Be safe,” some said. Others – usually friends with kids – sighed and made some expression of envy.

I don’t write or talk about this often, but I’m now 40 and single. I’m not sure if many people plan this outcome, but lots of us end up here. Chalk it up to options, or selectivity, or even the narcissism that some articles claim, but every single friend with whom I commiserate has a how-I-ended-up-single story as unique as the proposal or honeymoon stories we read on Facebook. I might have a month of self-pity here or there, just like my married friends in tough times, but I mostly try to be a good sport about life. Or, at least I keep myself so busy that I don’t dwell on circumstance.

There are some things that I probably will never do. Buying a home seems out of the question with a second income and with a brutal student loan. I doubt children of my own are part of this story. I probably won’t get to plan my own wedding, although I’ve gotten pretty good at contributing favors and designs to my friends’ well-orchestrated events. You can’t always get what you want, although I’m not sure I truly ever wanted these experiences. It’s just the script that people who grew up in my world have come to expect.

But taking this trip was part of an admission that for a long time – too long – I’ve been putting off things I thought I would do when my life was somehow, magically, different. An event I’d like to attend seems to be planned for families. A trip sounds like it’s designed for couples. I worry on imposing like a third, fifth, or seventh wheel, or the odd woman out for group activities. So I stay home. I work hard. I wonder if the reasons why we work, beyond the intrinsic benefits of a job like teaching, are also designed only for couples and families to enjoy. And I know in my soul that this can’t be true.

The magical moment when my life suddenly aligns with what I expected it would be is a ridiculous fantasy. (I’m told it’s just as much a fantasy for many friends who got married and started families, too.) ‘Now’ is the only intersection point of who we are and what we hope for. This is what I really mean when I say ‘bucket list.’ It’s not that I’m ticking off the things I want to do before I die. It’s that I’ve recently realized I need to be a lot more thoughtful about the way I want to live.

So, advantages to traveling single? There were so, so many. Here’s five, with apologies in advance to any readers traveling with your families. I appreciate your journeys, too, and I ‘like’ so many of your pictures and descriptions on Facebook. Humor me with just a few of my own highlights.

  1. No need to plan out each day’s agenda. I could do so, if I wanted to. I could also wake up each morning, decide where the day would take me, and adjust mid-journey when something new caught my attention. After a long day of riding, I decided that I wanted to hike a few miles to visit a 15th century castle. I didn’t have to check in with anyone, confirm these plans, accommodate for someone else’s energy or exhaustion level – I just went.

  2. A journey at my own pace. I don’t know of a better way to explore a new city than on foot, but I can think of only a few friends who would have wandered 12 kilometres of Dublin with me in one day without complaint. I’ll admit that I was a little sore and tired at the end of the day. But I took breaks when I needed to, spent as much time as I wanted to spend at each stop along the way, and adjusted my pace without feeling like I was holding anyone up or leaving anyone behind.

  3. No waiting at restaurants. Every venue can seat one person. I talked with a lot of interesting new people while eating at the bar, and sat at some of the coziest window seats. When my meal was over, I lingered at the restaurant without feeling like I was holding up a table for more guests, or left quickly without waiting for someone to have another glass of wine.

  4. Fitting in the tiniest rooms. It seems like just about every hotel, bed and breakfast, or AirB+B can make room for just one more person. There’s always a small room, “designed for single travelers,” one venue told me. Of course, splitting costs is nice, but too many times when I’ve traveled with a companion this hasn’t ended up being much of a fair split.

  5. The adventure. Sometimes travel involves fantastic exploits, like galloping through the surf on an excitable horse. Other times, the adventure rests more in the mundane problem solving. I learned that I could figure out a bus schedule in a foreign country, navigate a city with an old-fashioned map that doesn’t buzz in my pocket, figure out what to do when my AirB+B host didn’t have the room ready, make it back to said AirB+B safely after one too many pints, and use an app on wifi to handle a small crisis back home. I found adventure in self-reliance, and it felt damn good.

And my top five destinations, post-ride?

  1. Innisfallen. I had only skimmed over the entry for this small island in my Lonely Planet guide, but I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to take a motorboat out on an Irish lake on a sunny day. The destination? Amazing, well-preserved ruins of a 12th century Augustinian priory, and even earlier ruins from another monastery that became a leper colony in the 7th century. There were just a couple of other people on the island, piloted by the same Irish boatman through choppy waters. He told us about the Annals of Innisfallen, a book of Irish history compiled on the island by monks between the third and fourteenth centuries, now housed at Oxford. We were a small enough group that wandering the ruins felt like a solo experience. It was magical, although I wondered why Augustinians would have isolated themselves so much from the rest of the world. It’s a question I’ll have to ask some of the wiser people I know.

    Ruins at Innisfallen

    Ruins at Innisfallen

  2. O’Connor’s Pub, Killarney. The live music filtering out to the street was why I chose this pub for my first post-ride meal. Then I asked my waitress whether the Shepherd’s Pie was worth forfeiting a vegetarian streak. She laughed and said, “Most definitely.” And it was.

    The loft at O'Connor's

    The loft at O’Connor’s

  3. Irish Tour Guides. Marie was my group’s tour guide at Ross Castle. Martin took our tour through Muckross House. Both locations had some really interesting sights and stories, and I learned a lot – mostly because the guides were engaging storytellers who seemed to truly love their jobs. At Ross Castle, we learned a lot about the ways that medieval Irish families slowly poisoned themselves and died very young. Our tour of Muckross House really struck empathy for 18th century servants, and how ridiculously impractical some of their necessary jobs seemed. Servants had to carry hot water up three staircases whenever the man of the house wanted to bathe. The last few museum guides who have toured me through US museums seemed bored with their jobs, and made me wish I had taken the self-guided routes. But I was sorry to say goodbye to engaged, passionate, funny Irish guides when I left each site.

    Panorama at Ross Castle. (No photos inside.)

    Panorama at Ross Castle. (No photos inside.)

  4. Hanover Quay. It was not possible for me to spend two days in Dublin without visiting at least one U2 landmark. So, early my first morning in the city, I loaded up my backpack and took a pilgrimage out to Hanover Quay. The band’s headquarters and recording studios have changed hands a few times, and I don’t think it’s where they do their recording today, but the site felt gritty, quiet, and like a memorial to the band I’m still proud to call my favorite.

    Hanover Quay Graffiti

    Hanover Quay Graffiti

  5. A pint in Gravity. Yes, the Guinness Storehouse feels tourist-y. I grew up across the street from a brewery that offers tours, and never took one. I’ve already got a decent sense of how beer is made from growing up with the smell of hops on my clothes. Still, it was pure fun to take the gimmicky tour through all of Guinness’s deserved bragging about their craft and history, and to end up on the top floor, with a 360-degree view of Dublin, in a bar packed with people from all over the world and more than one bachelorette party. The celebratory pint felt like a toast to the whole trip – and yes, it really does taste better in Ireland.

    The panorama of people in Gravity Bar

    The panorama of people in Gravity Bar

Before I sign off for my flight back to the US, just an observation about blogging this trip. When I think back to last Sunday’s ride, on the day I turned 40, there are already many aspects of that beautiful, rainy, windy introduction to Kerry that I would have forgotten if I hadn’t documented. I used to be a compulsive journaler, but I’ve fallen off in the last few years as life has gotten busier and busier. When I read back through these posts, I keep seeing variations of the phrase, “I want to remember.” And so I’ll say that I want to remember that I want to remember. Because I think that there is often just as much beauty in my American days as there was in my travels through Ireland. I’m feeling like my documentation is a lot more important than I’ve been crediting it.

Here’s to the journey ahead – and doing whatever it takes to remember it clearly.

Glenbeigh, morning walk

Tuesday – 4

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