Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Galway, Ireland to The English Channel: I just biked across Ireland

I got into Galway around 9:30 and began my search for a place to sleep. I had already asked someone in the train station who “knew people” in Galway, but he seemed to think I'd be better off in a hostel, which was fine. I seriously considered getting a hostel, actually, due to getting in late and the predicted rain at about 3 AM that night. Once I got off the train, a friendly Irishman began asking me about my trip and suggested a beachhead in front of town, even going so far as to walk me there since it was on his way home. He would stop every few feet and point something out – “The city centre!” – then keep walking. Even his wife didn't wait for him. The spot he suggested was extremely visible from the city and there were people walking all over. It probably wouldn't have been any trouble for a night, but I had a bit of energy left and didn't want to risk it.

Since I was in Galway, I figured I'd treat myself to a walk out on the quay to watch the sun set before leaving town.

I scouted a few places on my way out and found one that seemed particularly promising: behind a billboard with no fence. For some reason, there was a horse in the same field, which I didn't quite understand. Was it so obedient it didn't need a fence? In any case, I didn't want to risk being trampled in my sleep, and the drainage wasn't good in case of rain, so I carried on. I also considered a castle near the water, but eventually settled on bivvying in a nice grassy area behind a church. And that was my first night in Ireland.

It didn't rain overnight and didn't even begin raining until well into the next day – inaccurate forecasts would become a theme of Ireland. So I got lucky there. The only grocery store I could find was small and expensive; I paid with a credit card and tried to grab some cash at the nearby ATM, but my card was rejected. So I was, for the time being, cashless (Ireland uses the Euro – I had only GBP from England and Wales). I passed an old church (though the church is disused, many of the gravestones were recent), two castles, and biked through an area called “the burren,” which is supposedly an archaeological marvel, being that rocks are visible from many periods of the earth's history. To me, it seemed hilly and rocky, if beautiful. Maybe I didn't bike through the right part?

At some point, the rain began. I had hoped for a Warmshowers host that night in Limerick, towards the middle of Ireland, but I also wanted to go down the west coast, so I resolved to head between the two until I heard or didn't hear from Warmshowers. Around 12, I borrowed internet from a local pub and there was no reply, so I decided to head west to the coast. By this time the rain was pouring and by about 2 it was starting to creep in my rain jacket and down my socks. I knew there was nothing I could do and resolved to stick it out, though the thought of camping in the rain for the next week didn't exactly brighten my mood. Cornwall: hilly but beautiful. Ireland: rainy but beautiful?

Then, a car I thought was passing me instead matched my speed and I heard from inside, “I live just down the road if you'd like a cup of tea to get out of the rain?”

“Yes, please!”

So, I followed this stranger in her car another 2 miles, mostly uphill (for bonus points, before it got real hilly she got out and insisted I dump my panniers in her car – my bike wouldn't fit. “It's nothing I haven't done before,” I protested. “It's pretty hilly,” was the reply. In went the panniers). At one point she disappeared and I worried for a moment all my belongings were gone, destined to be sold on eBay to the highest bidder, but she reappeared again around the bend. Eventually, we made it to her home, where she got out and introduced herself and the two kids in her back seat (kids are usually a sign that someone's not a serial killer, by the way). Erin, Lucas, and Maeve.

I was invited in for tea and, while I waited, Lucas showed me all of his favorite things – dinosaurs and trucks, of course! Lucas and I immediately became close friends as we had the same favorite dinosaur (stegosaurus, though we agreed it was a close call against triceratops) and the same favorite superhero (Superman).

At some point, Erin brought out tea, and Lucas asked, “Why are you feeding him, mommy?”

“Because he's been out in the rain.”

I looked around and noticed on one of their shelves a biography of a bicycle tour across the states.

It seemed one of those uncanny coincidences: I wasn't even planning on being there that day, but upon choosing to go to the coast and deal with the rain instead of doing the less adventurous visit to Limerick, I met Erin. I wondered if Lucas would remember this day when he got older, the day his mom took in a random stranger just because it was raining, and if he would one day do the same.

We talked for a bit more about our lives and our tours, and at some point I was very kindly invited to stay the night. Knowing I had a place to stay, I decided to venture into the rain again to see the Cliffs of Moher, which... I'll let a picture do the talking.

The wind and rain had picked up so by the time I returned, I was drenched. Erin's husband, Joe, had returned home, and I got to geek out with him, too, about cycle touring. Erin was from the States and Joe from Ireland, so it was interesting to see the confluence of their two cultures (Erin even keeps a blog about it here, if you're interested). They both had some wonderful stories to tell, which hopefully will end up on the map at some point. Side note – Joe works as a stonemason, which I thought was interesting. Not something you'd see in the States; but indeed, many houses here are still being made of stone. A very cool career.

Despite spending hours in the rain that day, I slept well that night in a warm bed. It was truly an unexpected blessing.

For better or worse, I had to continue my trip the next day. On Irish weather, Erin left me with this: “Sometimes it'll rain, sometimes it'll be sunny. Sometimes, the forecast will be rain, and it will be sunny; sometimes, the other way around. You just have to smile and enjoy it.” And yea... in the week I've spent here, that seems pretty accurate.

The next day was fairly uneventful, except for a cool couple I met on a ferry ride. I had parked my bike to look around the gift shop while waiting for the ferry; when I walked back to it, there was a motorcyclist sitting on a bench not too far away, smiling at me. I walked up and said, “Hello!” To which he replied...

“Je ne peux pas parler anglais.”

So naturally, my reply was, “Parlez-vous francais?”

And then we spoke in French. His wife came over a short while later, and we spoke in French, and then we got on the ferry and spoke some more, and they must have liked me because they paid for my ferry ticket and invited me to stay with them when I got to Switzerland. I could understand about 80% of everything they said, which is pretty good considered I've never actually used French without having English as a fallback – I learned it in middle school and high school, more than ten years ago now, but never used it in a non-academic setting until then (though when pedaling I do speak it out loud to myself to practice). They were there on a four-week vacation, motorcycling around the coasts of England, Wales, and Ireland. Before getting a motorcycle, they used to do bicycle tours themselves. They were awesome. And I hope to see them again!

Something sad did happen that day: my seat broke.

I “fixed” it by sliding it forward a bit, thus clamping the break in the seat clamp. To compensate, of course, I had to raise the seat a bit, and then tilt the handlebars back... fitting bikes can be such a pain. But, it'll keep me going until I can get a new seat.

That night I ended up asking someone if I could camp in their yard. That someone was Ted, who, along with his wife Maura, ended up inviting me in for tea that night and breakfast the next morning. We talked about Trump and travel – the two “ts,” naturally (I don't always mention it, but people do want to know what I think of world politics, sometimes going as far to ask me who I voted for). I was grateful for their hospitality. Despite the forecast for rain – both from my phone and from Ted – it just remained cloudy.

Ireland has four peninsulas on the southwestern coast, all of which, supposedly, are beautiful and culturally rich (the “real” Ireland, I have been told multiple times, happens the farther southwest you go). I had originally been planning to head straight south to Killarney National Park and then keep going south to Beara peninsula, which had been recommended to me by Ian and Ann in Aberystwyth. Ted, however, strongly pushed me towards Dingle peninsula, which had been recommended by a friend back in the States as well. Deciding to trust the local, that morning I turned west towards Dingle.

Ireland hadn't been too hilly until then, but when I got to Tralee, the city just outside Dingle, I knew I was in for a change:

Place I am going: those mountains on the left.

It was possible to go around the edge of the peninsula, which would have been fairly flat, but I hadn't summitted anything in a while, so I just charged through the middle, meaning a 410 meter climb and descent.

With the accompanying view, of course.

I took lunch in the city of Dingle, after seeing this busker/possibly gypsy (?):

...and then headed out to the edge of the peninsula (as Ted said, “If you just go to Dingle, you haven't seen the peninsula, have you?”), which was well worth it. It was really freaking beautiful. I took a lot of pictures. And swam in the ocean (which I would regret for the next three nights as I tried to get all the sand out of my tent which somehow got there via my socks).

When I got back into Dingle, I started looking for Dick Mack's, a pub Ted had suggested for their great Guinness. I stopped to asked someone for directions, and upon my asking what I should get there besides a Guinness, the reply was, “two Guinnesses.”

I made it almost all the way there (it wasn't too far, but there were lots of curvy roads...) and decided to ask for directions again. There was a group of folks on the sidewalk watching me in that this-guy-looks-interesting sort of way, so I asked if they were from here. The reply?

“No english, sorry.”

So just for giggles, on a whim, and honestly I'm not sure entirely why, I said,

“Parlez-vous francais?”

We all took a beat to recover (I surprised even myself) before one of them said, “Oui,” and then I asked for directions in French, and they were very happy to help and even repeated a difficult bit again slowly for me.

There was a brick-oven-in-a-trailer pizza place behind Dick Mack's so I ordered a pizza, intent on having pint one while waiting for it to cook (the chef: “It might be an hour or so. This isn't Domino's, you know. Do you like Domino's?”). I was caught up by a golden retriever on the patio, though, and upon asking to pet it, ended up getting invited to sit with the owners. We talked for a bit about my trip before they offered to buy me said Guinness, and we ended up discussing Trump and travel and musical instruments (I hadn't practiced uke yet that day so I offered to play for them – their son played guitar so there were some witty quips between us about whether 4 or 6 strings were better, and by the end of it I'm not sure how welcome my uke playing actually was...). At some point my pizza came out, and before finishing it my new friends were able to tell me where I could put my tent that night: by a castle.

So all in all a pretty successful day.

Days 4 and 5 in Ireland were not so great. Ireland was great. But between the rain, the wind, and being alone, I wasn't in a great place. When I left that table with the family in Dingle, I felt an acute sense of loneliness: now I'll leave the city by myself – again – set up my tent alone – again – and handle whatever happens, whether I like it or not.

I have had the privilege of being invited into peoples' lives and homes many a time on this trip, often intimately, and for that I am grateful and consider myself lucky. But I have yet to spend more than 48 hours with anyone (except when I took a week off in Madison and DC to see my friends and sister, respectively). I get asked the same questions over and over, which I am happy to answer, but I don't see anyone who really knows me, who I can trust completely and develop a rapport with. I would get to know very few people if I wasn't enthusiastic about what I was doing, if instead I discussed how lonely it was at times and how isolated I feel. I don't share the load of this tour, either physically or mentally, with anyone. My dreams are regularly about friends I miss – I've “woken up” on Schiff's couch, in Seattle; with Kerri, in Madison; I've dreamt about being served tea by Casey; going dancing with Mandy. I often wake, alone in my tent, more alone than I can ever remember feeling.

I never got so close as to consider quitting. I want to at least make it to a volunteer stay I have set up in Ukraine (one month in the same place!); honestly, I'd like to “at least” make it to the Middle East, the part of the tour I am most excited about. However, I don't know if I have the mental fortitude to make it around the world alone. I don't know how people do it. What keeps me going is knowing I have people to stay with in certain places, being excited about the Middle East, and sometimes, wondering what else I'd do with my time between now and the graduate school deferral I have for fall 2018 (which I can always not take if I do decide to go all the way around). I'd rather say I took a gap year to bike halfway around the world than that I worked at xyz job for money that, to be honest, I don't really need (There are two ways to be rich: one is by acquiring much; the other, desiring little. I don't “need” money in the sense that I live within my means).

I am lucky to be living this life and I haven't forgotten that. But I've also been thinking about the priorities I want to demonstrate. Do I put travel above having meaningful relationships? Can the two co-exist? I don't know. I often think fondly of the story told to me by one of my Warmshowers hosts in Illinois about the “cycle city --” the group of 300 cyclists who pedaled cross country together. To me, that sounds like the ideal situation: travel and seeing long-term friends in person. But I haven't heard of any other cycle cities since then.

In any case...

On day 4 I got to see Killarney, which was beautiful.

My sleeping arrangements involved walking into a bar and asking if anyone had a field nearby. Yep – the bartender. On day 5, I asked someone just getting home from work, and they let me use their yard, in addition to inviting me in for tea and a show that reminded me of Ms. Doubtfire (one episode's plot: the main character finds out her husband's lover will fall dead at 11 PM that night. She tries desperately to complete her bucket list, ending at a bar where on every few chimes starting at 11, another woman in the bar falls over dead... and then a few men, too). Thanks, Tony!

On day 6, I ran into Aris, a tourist from Greece:

We geeked out about our bikes and all the places we'd been and planned to go. He'd been on the road much longer than I, a few years all told, but broken up into segments. He, too, struggled with the mental aspect, quitting his first tour after 15 months (I'm not even done with month 3!), and since then has always returned home on a semi-regular basis. He invited me to stay with him in Greece, which was awesome, and I hope to take him up on it. He was inspiring.

That night I had arranged (and gotten a reply to!) a Warmshowers stay. On the way to that stay was a very long, very cool rail-trail bike path.

Complete with tunnel!

At one point, I passed three guys walking their bikes.

“Need any tools? Everything ok?” I said.

“Everything's ok,” one of them replied.

As I left I could hear them conferring. “What was that about?” “He was asking if we needed help.” A little while later I was pulled over taking a snack break, and the three passed me, riding their bikes now.

“Do you need anything?” one said. “A smoke perhaps?”

“Uhm, yea actually.”

“Meet us in Kilmac then!”

And they were off. A little while later I caught up to them again. I didn't plan to join them for a smoke, as I was running behind my promised arrival to my Warmshowers host. But we did get to know each other a bit, and I'm going to wonder if they would have offered me a place to stay, had I needed it. Did I miss out on new friends by over-planning my time? A question bicycle tourists frequently ask themselves...

As I pulled into the driveway of my host there was a man working on a landscaping project who semi-acknowledged me. He was busy so I didn't want to bother him too much, so I opened with,

“Are you Tom?”

“No,” flatly.

I took a beat to decide what to do next. Should I ask him if he knows Tom? This seems like the right house...

Then he chuckled. “Just kidding.”

And the tone was set for the night.

Tom and his family have excellent senses of humor, which I'll sum up with one of the O'Neill's own slogans: HTFU. Harden the … up. Humor can be made out of everything, even pain (I got whacked by some nettles on a hike through a field. Tom's reply, in a whiny voice: “No fair! Why didn't I get whacked by nettles...?” If I was feeling bolder, my reply would have been to whack him with nettles...). Tom and his family graciously let me stay two nights, and though they insisted I “take it easy” on my day off they also kept inviting me to do things like take a motorcycle tour of the coast, bicycle to the nearby castle, walk along the quay, etc., etc. The nights were filled with Settlers of Catan and storytelling – about Tom and his wife Fiona's motorcycle tour of Europe, and about Irish culture in general. To complete my education, we watched Father Ted.

I consider myself lucky to have landed such an adventurous, easygoing, down-to-earth family as the O'Neills, not just for one night, but two.

My last full day in Ireland consisted of another ferry, a castle (complete with mannequins in the oubliette), an Abbey, and my host, Pat, who lives above the pub he runs (thanks, Pat!), which has been in his family for three generations. On Tuesday, July 4th (happy Independence Day!), I biked to Rosslare and boarded my ferry to France. There's an accordion-violin duet strolling around the lounge, which made me smile at first, but they're playing Beer Barrel Polka for the fourth time now... maybe I should just grab the accordion and whip out some real accordion music? Guido Deiro, Clifton Chenier, Silly Wizard, anyone?

Ireland has been a plethora of things. Hospitable is definitely one of them. I've been introspective, wondering what I'll get out of this trip, what I'm looking for – if anything – and how far I can make it. Confused about the weather, yet it's been beautiful. And yes – there are things I need to come back for. I only got to do one peninsula of the four, and despite multiple claims that the “real” Ireland is in the southwest corner, there were also numerous suggestions that the northwest corner (the “untouched” Ireland) was worth a visit as well.

Ireland: there are fairies.

But for now? On to France.


  1. So wonderful to have this blog posted. Many wonderful people and stories! Your fortuitous stay with Erin, Joe, Lucas and Maeve sounds wonderful. I'll comment more later, but it is absolutely great to hear from you. Love you, Mom

  2. If you send me Lucas' address, I'll send him something Superman!!

    1. That's very kind of you! I'll ask Erin if that's OK, and if so, I'll e-mail you their address.

  3. On the credit card, did you notify your credit card company of your travels. Often, charges from foreign countries are denied if they are not aware. Also, do you have a record of their phone number in case it becomes lost or stolen so that you can report that?

  4. Let me know how old he is if she says yes.