Ross Castle

Ross Castle

It was one of those horrible bus tours—the kind where everything is planned down to a tee, including tourist sites, hotel buffets and bathroom breaks. I’m more of a backpack-and-wander kind of person but my mom had never been to Europe and this was on her “bucket list,” a bunch of things she’d been ticking off since my dad died three years prior. She’d since learned how to mow the lawn, pump her own gas, use her ATM card and pay bills online. She fulfilled a lifelong dream of seeing Boston by traveling with a friend and next she wanted to see Ireland. She didn’t want to travel alone with a bunch of strangers, so when she offered to pay for my ticket, I agreed to go. I’ve been all over most of Europe, the US and some of Central America, but Ireland has never been at the top of my list. I couldn’t care less about my Irish roots—I’m happy being an American mutt.

shawna bike ireland

The trip was a well-organized whirlwind. It took us by coach from Dublin to the Cliffs of Moher and back in 7 days. It was a bit of a cattle-herd, with too much focus on shopping and too little time to explore for my tastes, but perfect for my mother and twenty other mostly senior citizens, many who had never traveled abroad at all, some with significant mobility issues. I enjoyed the bits of history gleaned from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, geeked out at the Yeats exhibit at National Library of Ireland and appreciated the emerald vistas while silently suffering through the Guinness Factory tour, too many potato-based vegetarian-option meals, and the pub-centric nightlife. By the time we reached Killarney, I knew I needed a day to myself. ‘Twas fate that lead me to see a flyer for a “bike on a boat” tour (at a pub, of course), inspiring me to take a solo trip while the rest of the group headed to the Dingle Peninsula for a day of shopping. I called the number on the flyer from the hotel, and a nice Irish gentleman suggested I come back to the pub the next morning at 9 to buy a ticket for the boat, then I’d have to rent a bike from a place around the corner and ride it to Ross Castle, where all of us in the early tour group would put our bikes on a boat to begin our 22 kilometer trip. The boat takes people and their bikes up the Lakes of Killarney, dropping passengers at somewhere called Lord Brandon’s Cottage, where we’d begin the cycling part of the trip—2 kilometers uphill to the Gap of Dunloe and then a mostly downhill 7 miles back down to the town of Killarney. He estimated we’d be back around 4 pm, which would give me time to return my bike and walk back to the hotel with time to wash up for dinner.

 

My heart beat a bit faster at the sound of it all. I rode my commuter bike all over the city back home in Los Angeles, had been mountain biking a few times in Maryland, and once rode up the coast of Denmark to Kronberg Castle, but this would be a new adventure on wheels for me. My mother worried a bit about me leaving the group but understood I wanted adventure instead of shopping. Others in our tour group seemed concerned when they heard of my plan. In the breakfast line the next morning, one woman took my arm and looked at me with teary eyes, saying, “I’ll pray for you.” I assured her I’d be fine. I headed out with a backpack, sunglasses, snacks, some cash, strong legs and a cute new raincoat I’d snagged from a local thrift shop for 3 Euros.

 

I purchased the ticket at the pub as instructed then walked a few blocks to the recommended bike shop. An elderly man helped fit me for a bike, and when I told him I was off to see the Gap of Dunloe, he asked in a brusque brogue, “what do you wanna see that shithole for?” I laughed and said, “because I’ve never seen it, I guess.” I gave him my driver’s license and he gave me a map and sent me on my way. Mist surrounded me as I rode through the Killarney National Park, arriving at Ross Castle, a fortress straight out of Game of Thrones. After taking a look around the castle (I’m an American—it’s required!) I rolled up to the edge of the pier and leaned my bike against a post, waiting for the boat and the others. Soon came a red wooden canoe-looking thing with a small engine attached. Its weather-faced captain was accompanied by a little beagle standing starboard. A few moments later, an elderly man and a boy who looked about 10 years old walked up to us. “Where’s the rest of the biking group?” the captain asked me. I shrugged. “The pub said there’d be four others but they’re not here, so let’s go,” he finally said. The man and his grandson said they’d be hiring a lorrey once we landed at Lord Brandon’s Cottage, which meant I’d be on my own after this. Shoot. I thought I’d be riding with a group through the hills of Ireland. When they said “bike on a boat” tour I thought there’d be a bunch of us on bikes getting a tour. I also thought it’d be a ferry picking us up—not this little thing. I took a deep breath and prepared to tour alone.

 

With my bike at the hull and the beagle at my side, we the four of us took off up through the Lakes of Killarney. I learned the grandfather and grandson were visiting from Limerick but otherwise no one seemed chatty. We took in the landscape while our captain focused straight ahead, throwing us bits of history here and there. He shared he’d been doing the trip since the 60s, when they use to paddle the whole 11 kilometers without a motor, “fueled only by Guinness.” As we hugged the shore at one point, the dog jumped out of the boat, running alongside us on land as his owner muttered “you little scoundrel!” He hopped back on as soon as he could and we all had a good laugh. Then it started to rain. I put on my slicker under my huge life jacket and popped up the hood. Spots filled the lenses of my sunglasses, my legs shivering beneath my leggings, and I began to wonder why I wanted to do this trip in the first place.

my bike, on a boat

my bike, on a boat

sheep

Momma and baby sheep

 

Finally a cottage appeared—Lord Byron’s cottage—and we were released on shore. It took me a moment to get my land legs again. I was thrilled to use the bathroom and order a hot chocolate before getting on the bike. A lycra-clad man was leaving on his bike as I arrived, and two women in their twenties sat at picnic tables, enjoying warm drinks of their own. “Are you biking the Gap of Dunloe?” I asked. The said yes, that they’d come on an earlier boat. “I’m Laura, this is Johanna,” said one. They asked if I was American and told me they were German. One of them was visiting the other, who lived in Killarney. I was relieved to know there’d be others on the mountain with me but did not want to invade their friend-time. We all finished our drinks about the same time and headed off up the dirt trail to the road. Together we rode for about 10 minutes, until we came to a mother sheep and her new baby. We stopped for pictures, causing me to lose momentum up the slight hill. They slowed to check on me, but I urged them to go on ahead and not wait for me. Within seconds I was alone—just me and the sheep. The incline steepened and I eventually got off and walked the bike up what seemed a never-ending narrow road. At one point I reminded myself that there was no reason to rush. I’m on vacation, I thought. I may never come here again. I walked on mindfully, breathing the clean air, appreciating the water-colored sky, stopping at waterfalls and stretching my legs on boulders. A horse and buggy wound up the road toward me and I recognized the waving passengers as my boat companions. “You’re going to beat me in this race” I huffed as they passed up over and down a hill, then out of site. Just as I wondered when the uphill part of this trip would be over, a fluorescent yellow sign loomed at the peak ahead; it was an arrow pointing to the road down, back toward town. I muscled the bike up to the sign and was greeted by the lush vista of tow mountains separated by a deep valley in the distance. This must be the Gap, I thought. I leaned my bike on the ground as just as I was taking it all in, heard something behind me. I looked up and over my shoulder to see Laura and Johanna sitting atop a rock, waving madly with snacks in hand. “We’ve been waiting for you!” they called. In the middle of nowhere on the other side of the world, I suddenly felt supported—connected. They scrambled down from their rock and we snapped photos of one another. Again we headed off together but when they slowed to film one another on their bikes, I waved goodbye and rolled away back toward town alone. A kidney-shaped lake and dots of bleating sheep eventually gave way to horse farms, thatched-roof cottages and Gaelic signs pointing me back to Killarney. I pedaled toward the cathedral in the distance—my landmark for finding our hotel. The toughest part of the whole trip for me was navigating the right-turning round-about as the directionally-challenged North American that I am. After a few Bowfinger-like attempts, I finally figured it out, moseyed to town, returned my bike and walked back to the hotel in time to shower for dinner. The tour group cheered as I entered the dining room, everyone wanting to know the details of my trip.

gap of dunloe

Rocky stance at the Gap of Dunloe

 

I found out later that the woman who had prayed for my safe return had lost her daughter in a skiing accident a year prior. I felt bad for laughing off her concern and suddenly grateful for the opportunity to travel with my mother—for all the troubles we’d had over the years, for the life I’ve lived so very different from hers, for the sacrifices she has made which allowed me to choose my own adventures. I treasure the time I spent in the mountains that day, alone in a way that I never am, far from the worries of my everyday life, in the good company of my self.