I have mentioned my love of hiking and climbing things in previous posts. Opportunities for this are scant in the Midwest, so I was particularly excited to go hiking in the Irish countryside. Our Irish itinerary was shaped more or less like an upside down “L”. We spent the first few days in Dublin, then went to Belfast in Northern Ireland, spent a few days in County Donegal, then did the trip in reverse. While I was excited for all aspects of our trip, County Donegal was one of the most anticipated. I was so anxious to see if the countryside lived up to the postcards and images I had in my head. Ireland was both exactly and so much more than I expected.
Slieve League is the highest marine cliffs in Europe. The sheer cliff faces drop straight down to the Atlantic Ocean. Our drive to Slieve League was magnificent. We stayed at an AirBnB near Creevey Pier, which was an hour or so from our destination and just off the Wild Atlantic Way (WAW), which has been billed as the most scenic drive in Europe. Our host suggested we take another coastal drive further off the WAW, on the way to Slieve League. There we saw the Emerald Isle’s propensity to use every square inch of the land; fields where sheep grazed contentedly sloped down to the edge of the ocean, giving the illusion that land and sea were on the same plane.
On our drive, we saw a sign that said “Handknit Sweaters”, and took another detour so that I could check out the wares. We pulled into the driveway of a house where the residents were loading wood. They weren’t the least bit fazed to have their chore interrupted by a couple of Americans. The woman invited me in, while JD offered to help load wood. Before they heard his Chicago accent, one of them inquired, “You a Donegal man?” I think this might have been the highlight of JD’s entire trip. I can’t blame him.
After I bought a knit cap, we continued on. When we got to Slieve League, we saw a sign that said the main path was closed. Due to my manic desire to climb something, we drove on to the Pilgrim’s Path, another Slieve League hiking trail. We had seen several signs with camera flash icons to turn off the road for a photo op, but I hadn’t come to the highest marine cliffs in Europe just to take pictures. I wanted to climb to the top.
So, we set off on the Pilgrim Path. Of course we took a lot of pictures of the sweeping panoramic views, and of sheep. As we climbed, we talked and enjoyed being outside. I didn’t think much of the people passing us on the way down, equipped with water bottles, small back packs, and more equipment than seemed required for a light day hike. The further we climbed, the thirstier we got; we had forgotten our water bottles. It did seem a bit odd that we hadn’t seen the cliffs, or the ocean. Our host, Anthony had said that the walk would be about an hour. We had been walking over an hour, and were nowhere near the top. I mentally shrugged it off, even thought something wasn’t quite right.
We finally came to a sign that said, “Proceed at your own risk. Only for experienced with hikers. This is the end of the main trail. Do not proceed without water, a compass, and other equipment.” I was crushed and confused. I convinced JD to keep going, for a bit. “We ARE experienced!” I told him. We once were a badass tanker and paratrooper. They don’t really mean what they’re saying in the sign. So we walked on a bit more, my crazy determination to climb something outweighing all common sense and thirst. I think I mentioned we had come so thoroughly unprepared, that it was beyond reason. Finally my JD brought some reason to the situation. “My love” he said, “We don’t have any water. It will take at least another hour to get to the top, and it’s getting dark.”
I finally relented, and we turned around. When we drove back through town, we saw the “Photo op” sign again. I urged JD to turn off, telling him that we might as well get a picture of these cliffs that we didn’t get to climb. As we turned off the road, and got closer to our destination, we saw a crowded parking lot. We got out of the car, and climbed again. This time, as we turned the corner, we saw what we had been looking for; picturesque cliffs dropping straight to the ocean, the sun highlighting every brilliant color, the ocean’s blue, the grass’s green, the varying hues of the rock cliffs themselves.
We saw a well-worn, rocky trail. My mania for climbing hadn’t left. As I started to ascend, my JD just stood there. I told him that I was going to the top, and that if he wanted to stay at the bottom, he could. He reluctantly followed. We took so many pictures and stopped frequently to admire the sparkly blue ocean and the majesty of the cliff face. When we finally reached the crest, I felt like I was on top of the world. It was so freeing to be there with the expanse of ocean before me, and the wind whipping my hair around. I knew the climb would be worth it. When I asked my JD he said, “Yes, it was totally worth it.”
In addition to the breathtaking views, we learned something about our relationship that day. Listening to reason isn’t always easy, but if you trust each other, you both wind up with exactly where you were headed in the first place.