The lengths people go to

It’s not that I’m afraid of heights. I’m not. But I like to have something solid under my feet when there is so much distance between them and the ground. I had vague memories of crossing the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge on the north coast of Ireland but they were vague; so vague in fact that a second go, twenty years later, was the order of the day.

IMG_2784 (800x600)Faced with the problem of getting to Carrick-a-Rede island from the mainland, crossing a 20-m wide chasm that dropped 23 m to the sea, local fisherman came up with this rather innovative idea. And all to check their salmon nets. As I struggled to navigate the 70 or so rocky steps down to the bridge, I had visions of fit and feisty fishermen lugging their catch up home. Some days, working at a computer doesn’t seem half bad.

IMG_2770 (800x600)Back in the day, it had just one hand rail. Today, there are two. No more than eight can be on the bridge at the same time (which is comforting) yet the size of those particular eight doesn’t seem to matter (which is less than comforting). As we trekked the mile and a half or so to the bridge, I did stop occasionally to wonder whether it was worth it. But the view from the island is fantastic. You can see Rathlin Island, and on a clear day, Scotland.

IMG_2766 (800x600)The colours are gobsmackingly glorious and the remoteness of it all makes it very much worthwhile. Travel and Leisure notes it on its list of the world’s scariest bridges and I can see how some might be terrified (ahem, pH). But that fear is put on hold because it’s so beautiful.

IMG_2776 (800x600)There’s an old house down some steps that is probably a boathouse of some kind. It had me fantasizing once again about living in the wilds, far from the mania that is the twenty-first century. But given that there would be a steady trail of tourists passing overhead all day every day, peace and quiet might not be as I might expect.

If you’re in the vicinity, it’s worth making the effort. And if you have kids with you (even big kids) they’ll love it.

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2013 Grateful 25

Bleak. Barren. Beautiful. It’s hard to describe the scenery in New Mexico, especially as you drive towards the Arizona border and the competing beauty of the neighbouring state encroaches. Mile after mile of hills and canyons that should be alive with cowboys and Indians and homesteaders yet when we passed a ‘For Sale’ sign,we were left wondering what in God’s name anyone would do for a living out here.

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But people live here, in this heat, in this desert, and somehow manage to survive. It beggars belief. I wouldn’t last a week. Not even if James Garner, in his heyday, was the one issuing the invitation to come hither. Nor even Sam Waterston as he is right now. I can’t for the life of me imagine living a life so remote. Alaska was different. Alaska was cold.

IMG_5976 (800x598)And yet, far from the sameness of Nebraska, around every corner there’s a new palate of colour and a new something to marvel at. And marvelling done, my mind inevitably went back to wondering why people chose to live here? Or perhaps, the better question might be why they’ve chosen not to leave?

IMG_5988 (800x600)I used to think that choosing where I lived was a given – a choice that was a divine right. But I’ve come to realise that I’m one of the fortunate ones that get to make that choice, unbridled by family ties, career ambitions, or financial constraints. That’s not to say that had I all the money in the world, I wouldn’t up sticks and head for the west coast of Ireland in a heartbeat. But usually when I move, I have a pull factor that is as great as the push factor. Driving these barren miles through the New Mexico desert and crossing over into Arizona, I had plenty of time to think about where next. And you know, while the push grows stronger with each political development in Hungary, the pull is staying remarkably silent.

IMG_5992 (800x584)Our concept of home varies. For some it’s transient, merely an address. For others it’s a gallery of collected treasures. For more it’s about people. For me, it’s a state of mind. Eight states into our eleven-state trip, I couldn’t help but marvel at the diversity of the U S of A: its scenery, its people, and its frames of mind. Heat aside, the reminder just how much control I have over my life, and where I go, and what I do, was worth every bead of sweat. And for this opportunity to reflect, I’m truly grateful.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

Up hill and down vale

Somewhere between my mid-20s and my early 30s, the thought of a hot, sudsy bath became more enjoyable than the bath itself. Gone were the nights when I could spend an hour soaking in the tub, reading, or listening to music, while sipping on a glass of wine. In their stead came a longing that never quite matched up to the reality. I’d look forward to a bath – think of it all day – and then once in it, I’d last barely five minutes. But thanks to the inimitable MT and his IHBC winter hike, I have recaptured the glory of it all. I finally succumbed to a long, leisurely, soak that lasted nearly 20 minutes and a full BG&C. The magic has returned. Thank you, Mr T.

‘Don’t worry’, she said. ‘The smug feeling we’ll have when it’s all over will make it worth it.’ Yeah right. ‘Don’t worry’, he said. ‘It’ll be a short, easy hike. We’ll be eating by 2.30 latest.’ In my dreams. I can fault neither of them – the fault (if any) lies clearly with me – I believed them. And I was wrong.

IMG_1091 (600x800)I was a little taken aback at the chorus of ‘Mary! You’re here!’  that greeted me at the set-off point. Such incredulity should have been a warning. So many people couldn’t possibly have been looking forward to my company, scintillating though it is. The exclamation marks were deafening. They obviously knew what was in store – and I obviously didn’t.  I had the boots, I had the rain gear, I had donned my layers. I’d even remembered my bottle of water. And I was determined to get all my moaning over with before I put one foot on the hills. I had a vague notion that I’d need to save my breath, every breath – I’d need them to breathe.

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The first clue that things wouldn’t go to plan came on the tram. ‘Oops, I missed the stop!’ For a heartbreaking second I thought we’d have to walk further, but no. I was assured that, if anything, it would make it a shorter hike. Shorter than the advertised [and I quote] ‘shorter, less demanding and more sociable walk’. Note the use of understatement here… walk.  There’s a lesson to be learned here in relativity. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter and all that. I took heart in the fact that others, too, had brought their cameras, and if nothing else, the scenery would be worth photographing.

Not having been on any of the previous hikes, I had nothing to compare it to. When we left the paved roads and the fancy houses and hit the woods, it was beautiful. A veritable winter wonderland. As we picked up the pace I noticed that I wasn’t cold but I was wet. Wet from the inside out. And getting wetter. And pretty soon that wet sweat began to freeze and I could feel my shoulder tensing and my arm pulsing and my hand swelling to the point that my ring finger looked like a banded sausage. Vertical hills left me wheezing and although determined not to moan aloud, my facial contortions must have been priceless. I was in Agony (and that capital A is deliberate). Not all of the time – just some of the time. It didn’t help that MT was nimbly jogging up hill and down vale, keeping his errant strays in check. Or that others seemed to be literally taking it all in their stride. And to really add insult to injury, Sz and R were actually smoking!

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There were lots of distractions by way of conversation. Planning a US road trip with EZ, plotting strategy with Sz trying to wangle tips on dealing with a mid-life crisis from RB – all these momentarily distracted me from the fact that this hike was taking decidedly longer than planned.  The first time the map appeared, I didn’t pay much attention. The second time though, I began to feel just a little less confident. Don’t get me wrong – I had no fear for life or limb and I didn’t doubt for a minute that we would eventually get to where we were going, I just wasn’t at all sure that it would be by the appointed time of ‘2.30 latest’. And given that it was now closing in on 3pm, I was at least right on that point.

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When we hit the railroad track and heard a train coming, for one mad moment I thought seriously about hitching a lift. They make it look so easy in the cowboy movies…  I’d have done anything rather than face another incline.  Light was waning and the mist was settling in. The lead dogs were mere outlines in the distance. And from my vantage point, nothing much had changed.

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I used my camera as a prop, stopping to take photos while catching my breath. The scenery really was something else. When the restaurant called to see where we were, I was within earshot and even with my limited Hungarian, I knew enough to know that EP’s ‘fél ora’ meant that the day wasn’t even close to being over. It was one of MT’s ‘fél oras’ and as I had come to realise, he has his own unique way of measuring time. So I stopped and took more photos. I tried to take off my ring but my hand was swollen so much  it was impossible. I thought gangrene. I thought lumbago. I started to wonder how I’d face my Assembly of 150 anxious teens in the morning. I even started to draft my last will and testament.

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It was really beautiful, though. And the company was great. Had I been home, I’d have been in front of my laptop working. But I was getting cranky. Petulant. Irritable. I was discovering something about myself that I already half-knew – I just can’t march to the beat of someone else’s drum. Especially not when the other drummers are fitter and fleeter of foot. Just when I’d catch up with them, we’d be off again. That old adage kept coming to mind: no rest for the wicked. I wondered what I’d done to deserve this.

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When we finally landed at Normafa, I knew I wouldn’t be able to summon up the energy to lift fork to mouth, let alone the brain matter needed to decide what to eat. And I was sopping. So I jumped ship and bussed it back to town.  And at least I wasn’t on my own. IF captured the moment nicely when he said how glad he was that he’d joined the IHBC – ‘they’re a lovely bunch of people’.  They are. We are. Though it was demanding, it was very sociable.

I’ve crossed one more thing off my bucket list and for all my bitchin’, I am glad I went. The one unanswered question I have though is how RB managed to stay looking as if he’d stepped off the front page of Esquire!

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