Monday, 3 October 2016

part iv: to Dingle (alternate title: poop)

Okay, let me try to get this one out today...

Apparently, after consultation with the journal I'm forgetting to consult, I forgot to mention a trip to the grocery store, and two pub stops from yesterday. From here on in, assume there are always pub stops.

We got up early, excited for our hike, and ready for whatever the day brought us.

First we had a good breakfast, knowing we'd only be carrying snacks and nutella brown bread sandwiches. Once we had scarfed our tea and crumpets, or tea and whatever we had, we made our way back to our room. Our energy was definitely one of excitement. Selfies. Taking photos of the packed bags. Double-checking to ensure we had layers for when the sun came out and rain gear for wetter weather. It was only calling for high teens to low twenties and sun with scattered light showers all along our day's route, so we opted for leggings and rain jackets.

A few people have asked us about the touring group we went with, but it was really just us. We had a company arrange our B&B stays, send us maps and trail info, and cart our luggage from one town to the next, but that's it. We were a group of two, off to face this thing along, save for a few like-minded hikers that we happened upon on various legs of the hike.

Amped for an exciting day, we adjusted our walking poles to height, set our luggage out for the couriers, and hit the road!

Cloudy. No wind. Perfect.

We took six steps and it started to rain.

We zipped on raincoats, threw the camera bag's rain cover on it, and Nance whipped out the backpack cover she had bought for (or after?) a hike in Scotland years ago. All set, we started off again.

We took 30 steps and the sun came out.

Laughing, we adjusted our jackets to let in a breeze, and kept moving towards the road out of town. The first twenty minutes of this hike are indelibly etched in my memory simply because of our excitement. Everything was new - no sidewalks, the Irish road signs, even the road markers were all noteworthy and different from what we were used to.

Have I mentioned yet that I am allergic to bee stings? Well, it never occurs to me since the world is at a bee shortage, but holy beejaysus, there is not a shortage on the Dingle Peninsula. After day 1, I got used to them, but I was having a few "please, please, don't be mad at me for being here" moments.

The first part of our trek led us on roadways, which is, again, alarming and uncomfortable. People do not slow down to acknowledge pedestrians on the roads. Again, no sidewalks anywhere. But drivers wave a hello as they pass. "Hello, I may kill you! Sorry!"

We were tramping our way along a road that cut across a hillside, so the views were stunning. We passed pasture after pasture, old stone houses, and the ruins of many stone churches and other structures. We were shockingly close to cows and sheep, even getting a fright now and then when one would announce itself to us from a few feet away during a silent moment.

We eventually came to the first major sight of the day's walk - Minard Castle. Instagram link to said castle. (doesn't it burn you when you don't select that first letter you want linked!? Oh well.)

Minard Castle is in - surprise - Minard. It's a 16th century Fitzgerald castle and with its placement right on the waterfront, it is a stunning sight, even now, in ruins. You see it well ahead of arriving at its feet and it looks stately on approach. We read a little about the history of the castle and the area, and it was the site of bloody conflict. It all seems so Ozymandias now - fabulous old structures in ruins. Protecting no one. Ruled by no one.

I can't recall ever visiting a castle before, although I'm sure I have. Castles are a bit fancy for my usual tastes.

Fancy cat with top hat and mustachio.

After stopping here a while and narrowly avoiding having an entire ant farm inside my boots (so thankful for gaiters!!!), we moved on.

From this point, we headed up a hill to experience one of the most bizarre situations we found ourselves in throughout the entire trip. We walked up a steep hill, along a trail. On both sides of us there was thick, tall vegetation, and I'm guessing the cows on the other sides of the vegetation were not happy that we were near. It was a cacophony of mooing. Constant, loud moos all around us. They sounded either alarmed or annoyed. I'm not good with differentiating cow emotion. Once we reached the top of Moo Valley, as we quickly dubbed it, we were both sweating and I think it had more to do with the emotion in the air than the sun or exertion.

At this point in the journal I wrote "Cow Valley and the Chorus of Agonized Moos" and "Moo Valley High". My sense of humour isn't to everyone's taste.

Right around here we spied other hikers. I believe one couple was from Finland. We never did catch the other couple as they veered off on some side road, halfway up a hill.

Yeah, we were supposed to go that way too.

When one is in the middle of nothing but pastures and isolation, perhaps one should think twice about why that other walking couple is headed in a different direction than oneself. But no, we didn't do that.

We were back on roads at this juncture, and the sun was beating down on us. Every now and again, we'd stop and sip water or have a snack, but this hill felt long and killer. The road was bendy and it had a significant amount of traffic. Only when we came to a T junction and saw other hikers coming perpendicular to us did we realize we had gone the long, long way around. In our defense, the Finnish couple did the same thing. Hmm, maybe they were following us.

Because who doesn't want to add an extra 3-4 km onto a walking trip around an entire peninsula, right?

Let me talk about the water sitch for a sec. See, we had a nice big bladder with us with plenty of water for both of us in it. Sadly, my tired face could not work it. Nuh-uh. We had endless conversations that went like this:

"Bite just a little"
"I am"
"Don't bite too hard"
"I'm not"
"Tug it"
"Uh huh"
"Easy! Easy!"
"Not getting anything"
"Try sucking harder"

I only relied on the bladder on day 1. After that I switched to bottles. Nance had the bladder to herself and there were no further R+ rated conversations about the water bladder.

The hikers we had spotted at the T junction were a group of 6-8 Americans who we would see off an on for the rest of the day. About an hour after first seeing them, we ran into them as they stopped for a bathroom break in a small town and we went on ahead. Thankfully, we'd see them again later.

We meandered down long, wet trails, boggy fields, and then were back on yet another road walled by thick, brilliant hedges.

Ditch flowers fit for anyone's table.

After quite sometime on this road, we were starting to wonder where the next marker would be. On this trail, every so often,you see a black post with a little yellow man marker that tells you you're on the right path. He often denotes significant turns.

While looking for him, we saw this:

Sign on gate reading Beware of the bull. Whoah.

Jeepers, right?

It was actually part of this:
Beware of the bull is the way to go.

Note the little yellow man leading over the ladder.


So, we stopped for a nutella sandwich and a banana, because...last supper, amirite? We couldn't see said bull inside the pen, but the field was huge and largely surrounded by tall hedges, much like every other pasture in Ireland.

Then we went up and over the stile and hoped for the best. When exactly did I become a person who willingly enters a clearly marked bull pen?

This story ends well, fortunately, for Mr Bull was off having fun in the cow pasture on the other side of us. We made good time getting through this particular field, managing to avoid the bull patty mines all over the place. We weren't sure whether he was there or not (the pasture wrapped over a hill) until we had high-tailed it all the way up through the pasture and over the exit stile.

Did I mention that on day 1, we decided this chapter of our lives should be titled, "Let's Go for a Poop"?

Because there was a lot of poop. Sheep poop. Cow poop. The occasional horse poop. Goat poop. Poop. Poop. Poop.

For example, this is not mud.

Poop path.

And a lot of the paths had these fun signs!

Some were straightforward dirt roads.

Some came with the map warning, "may be a bit wet this time of the year".

Others had narrow metal bridges through what felt like paradise. Well, paradise plus scary bees. Scaradise.

Only on the loooooong road walks did we say "I need a fun snack. Now". The other terrain kept us interested, but the roads were sometimes long and laid out before us in endless swaths. 

Another common phrase of the day was, "stop hitting me with your poop stick".  Our walking poles were pretty shitty from morning until evening, and it was hard to manage the stiles, fences, drinking, eating, and other obstacles without the end of the poles flailing dangerously.

Somewhere after the bull, after the barking dogs, and before Dingle, we got a bit lost. Well, not lost lost, just not sure which way to go. The map read "go over the stile, pass two stone walls, and follow the path". Got it. Over the stile - check. But we couldn't find stone walls. Mind you, most stone walls are covered in brambles so thick, you'd never know they were there. 

We went North through the pasture, unsettling a few lady sheeps. Nope, didn't feel right. We went West, our path being ever westward - nope, not sure. I consulted the map while Nance headed South along a fence. When I looked up, I spotted a ram with his eyes set on Nancy's movement. I quietly called to her. Yeah, quietly called. Oxymoron that. "Babe. At your eleven o'clock, there's a ram watching you intently". Right about then, he started flicking his head in circles. I don't know much about ram speak, but I assumed that wasn't good. Then, using her great wisdom and physicality, my wife launched herself over a nearby barbed wire fence to escape an impending charge. 

I have since learned that farmers often call male sheep bucks, not rams. I am not editing my story. Backfill based on your new knowledge.

So, where are we? I'm on one side of a fence, with a stile in front of me that I know I have to go over. The angry ram/buck was on the other side. To my left, over a tall hedge/wall thingy was my wife. In a ditch. She managed to haul herself up over the stone wall - wait a second - we found the hidden stone wall! Hooray! Uh, yeah, she got herself out of there just as our friends, the noisy Americans arrived. 

See now, I don't think all Americans are loud. I lived in the grand ol' US of A and loved it. But this crew happened to be delightfully young and clamorous. And guess what? Male sheeps aren't fond of large groups of loud people. We all went over the stile and the head-bobbing tyrant was nowhere to be found. The group couldn't figure out which way to go either, but through trial and error Nance and I had figured it out and off we went.

The next kilometre or two or the trip were the poopiest and had the thickest mud of our entire hike. My high hikers threatened to suck their way off my feet a few times. Again, thank dog for gaiters. The Americans had fallen behind by then, several of their pack wearing low sneakers or hikers. None wore gaiters or had hiking poles. I remember as we pulled away from their group, one of the girls yelled back to her friends "It gets better" and I, trying to be helpful, yelled back to her "Sorry, it gets worse again!" as I mucked my way through unavoidable ankle high cow shit. I heard a small "fuck" from one of the guys.

The end of the day was a lot of field hiking with sheep all around us. The bucks would stand on guard but would politely move off the path if we lightly banged our poles on any rocks we passed. The final few kilometres were across a valley with views that would bring tears to your eyes. If reincarnation exists, I want to come back as a wild sheep in Southwest Ireland.

One thing I forgot about the weeks leading up to our trip - I had broken the pinky toe on my right foot, three week previous. It was purple and ouchie for a day or two, but then I simply...forgot about it. Well, right around the "Two km left to go" mark, my body decided to remind me. We were rounding the valley, coming out of field after field of sheep, and on the home stretch. When we hit road, my right foot felt uncomfortable. Huh. "Just tired, I guess," I thought to myself. 

Well, no. Not just tired. Broken, dumbass. But I still hadn't made the connection. I thought I had busted a toenail, which has happened on every race I've ever entered, or developed an ungodly rub blister. And let's face it, also on the table was the possibility that one of my many demons was trying to escape through the weakest point in my structure. 

The final two clicks were all downhill and by the time we got to our B&B I was limping, tearful, and trying to ignore the throbbing from my foot. Welcome to Dingle, baby. It's way down there.

Waaaaaay down there.

We were pretty tired from the full day of walking but we were still all smiles right up until I got halfway down that hill.

We found our B&B - the very hospitable O'Neill's - left our boots, poles, and gaiters at the entrance, and were shown to our comfy room. A foot inspection revealed nothing but a red toe and inflamey area on my foot near the base of the toe. Huh. That's when Nance remembered I had broken the damn thing. Day one and heading into three more days of longer hikes on a broken toe/foot?

We showered and headed out to see a bit of the town. I hobbled along, wondering how I was going to muster the gumption to keep going, all the while knowing I'd be impossible to live with if I quit. Poor wifey. We talked about our options. 

In reality, we found a pub so I could consult Dr Guinness for advice. I knew I'd be a cranky mess pretty much forever if I bailed on the hike now. So, we drank our pints at a pub named O'Flaherty's, and talked it out. It was not a hopping spot while we were there, but the town itself was buzzing with tourists. Dingle is a perfectly lovely spot, although much more touristy than the rest of the peninsula. The homes are brightly coloured as are the shops and restaurants.

After a pint, things were looking up...mainly because I had been seated for twenty minutes - so we hit the grocery store for foot wrapping supplies. We planned on buddy taping it, bucking up, and hoping for the best! This is pretty much how I make my decisions. I've been living ten years with MS - a few days of walking on a broken toe couldn't be worse, right?! Right!

Once the decision was final and we had our supplies, we hit a restaurant recommended by our hilarious server in Annascaul, and grabbed another pint each for good measure. I couldn't manage a proper walk about the town but we hit a number of shops in the downtown area and picked up a few souvenirs, including a tiny glass sheep for the wee nephew, lover of all small things. Fun fact: Dingle has an unusually high number of ice cream shops. We went to one to try different flavours and I had a sea salt ice cream. Keeping with a scrumptious theme, Nance tried the brown bread. Brown bread is everywhere in Ireland. And it should be. Deeelish.

We made our way back to the B&B before dark and enjoyed the comfort of the room before heading to bed for an early turn in. On the MS side of things, I was tired but not fatigued. We had planned out heat solutions well in advance, so I always had layering options.


part iii: Annascaul

Yes, I know it's taking me forever.

So, Annascaul, or Anascaul or, in Irish, Abhainn an Scáil or Abha na Scáil. Whatever name you choose, that's where we found ourselves.

I woke to the sound of a sheep bleating in the neighbour's backyard. It's actually an effective alarm clock and who can get mad at a cotton candy goat?

Before setting out on the hike, we had this beautiful day in this beautiful town to rest. The day's plans were to maybe do some light wandering, check out the farmer's market and see what trouble we could find.

Breakfasts at the B&Bs were quite an ordeal. Without ordering breakfast, you'd get cereals, fresh brown bread, toast, fruit, coffee, tea, and juice. Most places offered yogurts and some sort of pastry as well. The night before, you'd place your breakfast order for hot food. Every B&B had a different process for ordering, and at Annascaul House we had to fill in a little form and leave it on the front table so Noel could run to the market across the street before they closed. Cooked options were smoked salmon, porridge (made with Bailey's Irish Cream in most places we stayed), eggs done however you'd like, bacon, sausage, and white or black pudding.

Being from Newfoundland, I knew the latter options weren't delightful custards of any sort and steered far clear of them. Growing up, I knew black pudding as blood pudding. Pork meat, pork fat, beef or mutton fat, and a binder of bread and sometimes oatmeal. Blood optional. Without blood, it's called white pudding. With oatmeal, it sometimes has the tricky name of oatmeal pudding. Don't be fooled!

Just butter for me, thank you.

It's no wonder we don't eat meat.

After we had a very full breakfast, our host suggested a few sights for us to take in. People in Ireland are especially excited to offer the names of favourite pubs. He also mentioned the farmer's market and a nearby lake.

The sky was a mezmerizing blue but it was a cool day, so a little walk to a lake sounded inviting. We got a quick set of instructions from Noel - one or two kilometres down the road past the bridge. We'd see a sign for Tom Crean's grave. Go right and go through a gate to get to the lake.

We opted for the lake and after checking out the market, we found the bridge, and started down a road lines with tall fuchsia hedges. The wildflowers were stunning.



Twenty minutes or so into our walk, we were wondering where the lake was. We had yet to see much beyond a few homes, cows, and the odd black and white farm dog. We were not moving at any great speed, so we kept going, assuming the gate would be around the next corner.

In the meantime we were in awe of the flora. This may sound silly but I had no idea that holly grew much bigger than knee high shrubs. Imagine my surprise as we passed massive towering holly trees!

Holly tree
Squinty wife for scale.

By this point, we were 40 minutes into our walk and where the heck was the lake?

Finally we saw a little sign denoting the burial site, so we knew we were on the right course. The distance wasn't bothering me but it was warming up and I was in a cotton hoodie and jeans. Not the best "I have MS and have to stay cool" outfit.

We happened upon an older couple who were also tourists in search of the lake. Still nowhere in sight, but further proof that we were heading the right way.

So, it turns out that heading to the lake that's a kilometer or two up the road, on your rest day, can turn into a 12km trek. Twelve kilometers. In cotton and denim. 

What the fuh?

Mind you, once we found the lake, it was beautiful. It was surrounded by steep, treeless mountains, speckled with sheep, of course. The water was calm and the surface reflected the tall peaks surrounding it. It was surreal to walk through a valley with sheep bleating far overhead. They echoed into a chorus of wooly cries. Not gonna lie, most of them sounded bored.

While we took in the lake and stopped for a few photos, the couple we had met along the way caught up to us for a chat. They were from Florida and were overwhelmed by the landscape around us. I pointed out one particularly sure footed sheep high on the mountain behind us and we left them there with their cameras pointed up at the wee bahhing cloud.

We made our way back to town, taking in the vibrant scenery, careful to listen for traffic on the twisty, teeny roads.

Wifey's wingspan almost touches both sides of the road at once.
Wingspan wife for scale. This is not a one-way road.

When we finally made our way back to town after walking 12 kilometers on our rest day (do you get the sense this pickled my grits some?), we popped into a café for a bite to eat. To backtrack, we were not having a terrible time.

Instagram link to happy faces.

Up until this point we hadn't been eating fabulous lunches or suppers. There aren't a ton of veg options in most small towns, unless you want fries. When we saw chana masala on a chalkboard sign we basically ran inside the café. Nance ordered the masala and I got some kinda sandwich. Brie, spinach, pear, and cranberry on brown bread with a slightly tart vinaigrette. To. Die. For.

We didn't want to leave.

Curious about the plants of the area, we asked our waitress about one we had seen that looked a lot like humongous rhubarb. One leaf could obscure an entire person.

"Oh," she said, "that's giant rhubarb." Go figure. The shop owner filled her in on the plant's real name, Gunnera. She informed us with a smile that it's "not to be confused with...the other". Only in Ireland can waitresses make STD jokes at lunch seem appropriate and charming.

She was lovely, though, and asked all about our trip - where we were from and where we were headed. She even drew up a list of sights to see in Dingle when we got there. She also told us that there was quite a time across the street the night before and it got wild. That's Hanafins. The place we left as all the women loving women were getting tipsy. We missed a good time from all accounts.

After a bite to eat, we turned in to pack our bags for the next day's hike and to catch some Olympics. During our stay at Annascaul House we met people from Germany, France, the Netherlands, and New Jersey. Yes, I did just equate the land of Bon Jovi with countries.

That concludes our pre-hike portion of the trip. The next day would bring us from Annascaul to the town of Dingle via Lispole. It was calling for sun and rain. Lots to prepare for!