Ireland is for Walkers

PEAT FIRE ON A WOODEN BOAT * WALKING, AN IRISH PASTIME * CABIN FEVER, TIME TO DRY OUT *

All is quiet and dark in the cabin, the others are in bed. Wet clothes hang with high hopes of drying. Spare drops of rain thud on the hatch, which I have cracked to release smoke and farts. The cool air dives in to contrast the warmth on my bare arms. In the comforting glow of embers, I forget for a moment that I’m on a boat.

Cold was never my boat experience. We dug this little iron stove from deep in the forward berth and screwed it down in the metal-sheeted cabinet under the folding table. It is the size of a restaurant can of tomato sauce, just a little taller. The front has a relief of a girl in a petticoat carrying a basket, under the words “Tiny Tot”.

In the small grocery store we found heavy bricks of compressed peat, which looked to me like a dreamy amount of dark chocolate. Just a bunch of dried up, decomposed twigs and sticks, sliced from the marshes, which we flake apart to feed the hungry fire. I pry open the stove top with a butter knife and peer inside. The chunk I added has not caught, too big. So I open the miniature door for air flow, with a small metal creak in the sleepy cabin, and feed in some crumbles. How novel, a fire on a wooden boat. Burning peat for warmth. So classically Ireland.

I have been bundled in clothes for nearly a year; driving across the US in November, a rainy winter in Northern California, crossing the North Atlantic. But now with this stove I am dressed down to my undies and tank top. Without the constraint of clothes and cold, my body finally loosens up to where stretching feels good again, expansive, not like pulling on frozen human-meat jerky. I need this, I realize. Even if it is raining and winter outside, I need a place to be bare and loose. Crouched barefoot on the smooth teak floorboards feeding the fire I felt grateful for the warmth in the Irish weather.

**********

Sailing down the coast towards Baltimore harbor, a cold white-out drizzle settled over us. We tried for Horeshoe Bay, just outside the main harbor. Isolated, lush, reportedly protected. It was, however, just a nook scooped out of the cliffs, a few hundred meters across. We laid anchor and watched the mist blow in through the entrance, stirring around the cove like steam in a pot. If we dragged anchor, we would be against a rocky shore in just a few hundred feet. Caution lead us to pull anchor and motor around the point to join everyone else in the main harbor.

We spent some days here waiting for the sun, getting the outboard going, and walking. My question of what Ireland offers was slowly being answered, step by step, trail by trail. Upon entering each town, you will learn of its pubs, and its “walks”. There were easy walks, steep walks, walks to landmarks (like the giant white cone guarding Baltimore entrance), walks to ruins, walks to points, walks to abbeys. The day we arrived in Courtmacsherry, there was a marathon. Not a run, but a walk…40 kilometers. Quite a long day of walking. We greeted one finisher who stood waist deep in the water, icing her legs.

Why walking, I wondered? Why hadn’t the Irish taken up long distance running, what with the cool weather and long country roads. The temperate Pacific Northwest has turned out hoards of runners. Maybe it is a nationwide lack of Vitamin D that keeps the people subdued, drowsily ambling along at their peaceful pace. It can’t be that though. Once again, take the Pacific Northwest. More likely, I reasoned, it’s a visibility thing. What with all the fog and cliffs, moving faster than 5km/hour could be potentially treacherous.

I was getting back into the swing of walking. My first walk in Kinsale reminded me of the nerve-regulating power of such a primordial bilateral motion. Just as many sages and holy leaders take their daily stroll through gardens or forests, we would stop in a harbor and set off for some walk, each one advancing my sense of well-being. I pledged to walk and absorb Ireland in the day, before sinking back into my fervent internet planning and searching in the evening.

One day, we puttered across Baltimore harbor and laid anchor at Sherkin Island, a picturesque artist community. We found the anchorage exposed and rolly, so decided on just a day trip to try out what the island had to offer. Mussels, fish and chips, beer…and walks.

I was agitated, as I tend to be when wondering what the hell I’m doing with my life. So I set off fast, translating that energy into the movement of my legs. I darted ahead and walked alone along a string of coast road.

One of my teachers explained the fight or flight nervous system this way. He described a rabbit, who has just been chased by a fox, and escaped, but still sits trembling and shaking. It is no longer being pursued, but still releasing the stress hormones built during the chase. We humans activate our fight or flight response often (mostly with our very own thoughts), but we rarely shake it out as much as is needed. If stress causes our bodies to fold in, close up, then by moving our bodies in the opposite way, we can trick ourselves out of being stressed. It’s a two way street.

Likewise, my fast pace gradually discharged my agitation. Anxious thoughts popped in, but grew bored of themselves, discouraged by my contrary body language, and escaped on my heavy exhales. As my stress-stuck body loosened, a sudden deep breathe rocked me back to reality and I blinked hard, noticing the beauty waiting patiently for my attention.

The cool green sea rolling up over sandy beaches or splashing triumphantly against gray granite walls. The narrow dirt road ribboning through rises of pasture and brush and bramble. Up on a hill I spotted a horse grazing hazardously close to the edge of a cliff. I cautioned him to be careful. He looked around at me like a bored teenager. I smiled.

*****

So we cruised and walked, and I obsessed over plans. I stressed about setting off into Europe with only $1,500 saved. I would have to be creative. I sent dozens of inquiries to hosts on workaway.info, from Ireland to France to Spain, using the keyword “surf”. I contacted bikes for sale, and boats for sail. I applied to luxury charter yachts, and thought of grad school. I formulated long term plans to slightly soothe the uncomfortable truth that I actually had no idea how these next few months would go.

Out on my walks I reminded myself to bring my thoughts in close, stay present with the experience, put the breaks on my planning mind. Then I’d find such peace that I thought maybe I should walk forever. Buy a tent, a pack, and just walk all over Ireland, and then Scotland, and France…and so I’d work myself back into an anxious planning frenzy.

It was hard to know when to leave the boat. I was stuck in a way. Attached to the lifestyle, the novelty of seeing Ireland from the water, and the little home and community we’d created these past months. But also plastered under the daunting weight of change, of having nowhere to go, and no strong desires or set system of travel in this new country. Hostels or AirBNB? Bus or train? Surf or see cities? I did not even have an appropriate pack for all of my things. And all of my things! What should I take, or leave, or send home?

As the days passed, our cruising world pressed in tighter, squeezing us out like damp towels. We were cold, wet, and irritable. It had been too long, and too much. I desperately needed some space, to dry out, stretch out. I hoped for a quiet place, where I could be cozy, and have time alone to write and rest and figure out some direction.

Finally a response from a host. Gerry from Achille Island in NW Ireland was already shutting his surf school, as were many businesses this time of year, but he suggested I write his partner near Sligo who always needs help in her garden and house. She wrote back right away, the day we cruised up the creek into Crookhaven, inviting me up.

We strolled that day to the supermarket and I randomly glanced at the bulletin board in the entrance. “50L pack for sale, 20 Euros.”

Weeks of pouring over internet ads and here was a pack, just in time. I phoned the number and spoke with Michelle, a nurturing, curly haired nurse, who drove out of her way to meet me that night on her way to work. I examined the pack, perfect, simple, purple with pockets and a frame and hip straps. I paid and hugged her, overjoyed and relieved.

It was time to go. The next day I stayed alone on the boat for my customary calming routine of spreading out and organizing. Sorting my vast variety of possessions, craft supplies, food, and gear. Meticulously packing and choosing what would come and what would go. Rolling clothes into tight balls, fitting gear together like a puzzle. Dad donated his down sleeping bag which I strapped to the outside of the pack, bulging awkwardly so I could hardly turn around. I stuffed books and writing supplies in another pack to wear on my front, slung my ukelele over my neck, a bag of food in my hand, and set off like an overloaded donkey.

Kissed Dana goodbye and walked to the bus stop with Dad. We stood waiting and traded thank you’s and I’ll miss you’s and I love you’s and I’ll see you soon. The end of a journey.

The red bus swayed up the left side of the road, the driver seated on the right, and I struggled aboard and settled in for a 7-hour day to Galway and then Sligo. I relaxed and snacked and wrote, calmed by the fact that my whole world was packed and organized and I was finally on the move.

Soon after, Dad and Dana headed home to New York, equally soggy and tired. Tiger stayed up that creek in Crookhaven. There, under watchful eyes of kind Irish men, she should be safe through the brutal hurricane season that approached. Scotland would have to wait for next year and nicer weather.

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