“You’re going to sit on me lap, are ya lass?” The Irish taxi driver asked as I stood by (what I considered) to be the passenger-side door. I smiled, nervously, and walked back around the cab, “Oh, uh, sorry.” Fiery-haired Declan was as kind as they come, he illuminated the taxi ride by showing off his Irish soccer tattoos, photos of his three children from his time-worn wallet and handing his phone over to show YouTube videos of local rugby highlights. I thought to myself then, if all of Ireland has folks this friendly then my trek through the Wicklow Mountains would be a true adventure.
I explored Dublin for the day, gathering my supplies and a few good trail maps of the Wicklow Mountains to ready myself for the miles to come. A quaint bookstore along the cobblestone path looked promising but displayed titles like, Where No One Can Hear You Scream: Murder and Assault in the Wicklow Mountains, on its old, wooden shelves. Wicklow Way would not be my first solo trek and as a woman, I am all too familiar with the fact that there are plenty of solo female travelers out there–quite confident in their own ability to endure the roads and trails of our world. Data and statistics speak against the prospect of a woman on her own but those numbers haven’t shaken my faith in the goodness of humanity; and I know I’m not alone in that belief.
I stopped to flip through the pages of Where No One Can Hear You Scream: Murder and Assault in the Wicklow Mountains and considered the book, weighing its ominous title back and forth in my mind—to hike or not to hike? In then end, I decided to trek those mountains and would savor each of the 81 miles through the heart of Ireland–from Clonegal to Dublin. The next morning, my large bright orange pack and I took Bus Eireann from Dublin’s Busáras to Bunclody to charge up at Moss Cottage. Moss Cottage is located just miles from the Wicklow Way trail head in Clonegal. The charm of the cottage gardens and country roads wiped away any worry as I was reminded why I choose to believe in the good in the world, rather than dwell on the dangers of being a solo female traveler.
I dropped my pack off at the cottage and headed to the local pub for a Guinness before my first day on the Wicklow Way trail. There, slurring with a thick Irish accent, a drunken local named Jim phased in and out of drunken consciousness, explaining how the potato famine was a lot like the holocaust. His chocolate Labrador retriever was seated on a pub stool beside him as I listened to his tales, taking in the deep Irish pub experience and readying myself for the 7-day exploration of Irish lands and culture to come.
Day 1: The Trail Head of Wicklow Way (Clonegal to Lugnaquillia View Guest House)
Green swaying pastures seemed to stretch on in every direction as the Wicklow countryside charm had me gaping at the cluster of sheep and cows around me. I would collapse into the deep, green grasses, nuzzling against the golden blossoms (needless to say, I didn’t make the best time that day). While hiking, I stumbled upon a father and son from Denmark who were making their way down the trail. The son was my age and the three of us kept their self-diagnosed “man pace” as we exchanged tales from our different worlds. Fields of flowers lit up the scenery and horses roamed freely while the sunshine illuminated the shades of green hillside. It was enchanting and the day escaped me quickly as I arrived at my first destination: Lugnaquillia View Guest House.
Day 2: Lugnaquillia View Guest House to Kyle Farm House
I enjoyed bluebird skies and sunshine in the infamously rainy Ireland as I spent day two hiking solo. Up treacherous climbs and overlooking valleys of green from old country roads, I belted out, “You take the high road, and I’ll take the low road, I’ve been to Scotland, before yeeeee!” I began to march along to my own beat, banging a stick against my water bottle for percussion as I neared Kyle Farm, my lodging for the evening and spotted a rusty old barn along the way. Curiosity got the better of me and so I approached the barn and knocked on the door.
“Can I help you lass?” A white haired man answered the door and surprised me with a bright smile on his face. Hugh, the farmer, led me inside and took me on a tour of his milking operation. Huge suction cups throbbed steady streams of white, creamy liquids from the cow udders. “Can I milk one?” I asked Hugh. I had never milked a cow before and, like hiking across Ireland, milking a cow was on my bucket list. Somehow, over milking and cow introductions, Hugh and I began discussing religion. His take was refreshing, “Religion is good to keep you on the straight and narrow. But God? I don’t know. There are two things everyone wants: The right person and to be happy.” So I asked, “Did you find the right one?” He answered, “You know, I did,” with a confidence and Irish intonation that left me changed for the better.
I met up with the Danish father and son hiking team once again and told them about Hugh, milking cows and his thoughts on religion. Christian, the father, thought quietly for a few paces and replied, “You know, I like sitting and thinking in churches.” He looked off stoically into the forest before us as his son, Nick, chimed in, “But we shouldn’t fall for that bullshit in the 21st century.” They stopped for lunch as I continued on, a few miles later running into an elderly couple, Charles and Frances.
Charles and Frances were returning to their countryside home after walking their dogs. I guess a small girl in a big orange pack draws attention, because they proceeded to invite me into their Irish cottage with ornate fountains and gardens adorning the overgrown grass.“America puts the fire in my belly,” Charles explained over chocolate covered marshmallows and diet cokes. Charles volunteered for the US Armed Forces during WWII and he spun his tales wildly before me. His cottage was littered with relics and trinkets from the past, collecting dust as if I was their first visitor in years. He flaunted medals of honor and old photos. Charles concluded his recount of battles fought with two words, “We won.” And he smiled like they won on that very day, so fresh in his memory while his wife, Frances sat behind him, quiet and beautifully aged.
I continued on my solitary way for the remainder of the day’s hike, considering the goodness of humanity and the connections I was blessed to have made along the way. It was just myself and the dark enchanted forests for kilometers and kilometers; the great greenery of ancient medieval quests and travels of yore from township to township. I imagined the days it would’ve taken to get from one place to another by foot; for months, for years people walked these lands in search of something or someone. I persevered through the fatigue of uphill and I welcomed the grace of a flat stretch as my thoughts wandered through life and love.
Day 4: Glenmalure to Glendalough Hostel
I hiked alongside Christian as we began day 4 with steep uphill sections. To pass the time, Christian began to tell me of his true love and how it came to be: “I met her in the Maldives. An Italian beauty. I had only planned a day on the Island, but for the rest of my trip I found a boat, any boat, to return and see he. And when I left, I wrote. I wrote her a letter every day.” He had learned Italian and she had learned Danish, their love refusing to be lost in translation; his passion swelling in his eyes as he recounted their romance. We split paths once again as I trekked to the Spinc en route to Glendalough Hostel. I never did see Christian again but his story of true love found is one that would always stay with me.
Beautiful lakes, falls, and rolling fields unfolded before me as I climbed higher and higher. I once read about the histories of Irish rebellions that had occurred here over thousands of years and I imagined the battles playing out before me. I caught a glimpse of the rare red squirrel and met a man who had 22 children—“we thought my wife was just plain fat for being pregnant for 30 years straight.” But then I met another man who informed me, “Ireland’s famous for their liar’s convention—it’s become a year-round event.” I stopped on the “Brothel Ruins” for a break with a hiker named Sheelagh. She met her husband at 17. “I feel lucky. He’s an even-keeled man; It’s good for the kids.” Sheelagh brought her kids along the hike, thinking the adrenaline would be good for them. “Feel the fear, and go anyways,” she preached.
Day 5: Glendalough Hostel to the Wicklow Way Lodge
When I arrived at the Wicklow Way Lodge, I was more than grateful for the opulent comforts, warm shower and a balcony from my room over looking hills and hills of a neighboring Christmas Tree farm. I walked into the ornate foyer and listened to the tales of lodge owner, Seamus. After icing a few blisters, I asked if I could volunteer in the fields with the migrant workers I spotted from the balcony. Seamus zoomed me through the rows and rows of piney fragrance in his large farming truck and reported he’d come back for me in a bit; the migrant workers and I picked the buds off the upper branches to help create the triangular tree shape, our hands sticky with sap as I asked the laborers for their life stories—humbled by their tales.
Back in the lodge, Seamus’s son, Tony, offered to show me secret gems of the land. He brought me to fields of violet bells and then we rowed across a placid lake to a secret island owned by an Irish billionaire, laden with white sands and crystal waters. That night, Tony treated me to an evening of Irish countryside music and more Guinness. The lovely old men of the village, bold in their years, grabbed me for a dance to the upbeat accordion melodies as “Galloway Girl” reverberated against the distressed wooden walls fueling our dancing.
Day 6: Wicklow Way Lodge to Knockree Hostel
I was able to score some solitude for the morning section but ran into a slew of married men from Holland on a boys trip. They invited me into their pack as we took on the most impressive day of the Wicklow Way. These men loved their wives and all spoke highly of great women and their growing families back home. A group of Christian men who had, for the most part, all waited until marriage to have sex and were grateful for that decision. I was learning a lot about true love on my journey and all the different forms it can take.
The peaks we traversed overlooked the seas and scores of mountain as we hiked along the lake and valleys used to film Braveheart. I met training Irish Armed Forces troops and they included me in a round of hill sprints, as the slew of husbands carried on. I finished the day on my own, searching the deep forests for the hidden Knockree Hostel. My room held a window covered wall between myself and the acres of treetops, where I was able to look down upon the distance I’d covered and the days I’d walked, remembering and reflecting on the people I had met along the way. My joy and disbelief matured into a sorrow, knowing I only had 1 day remaining in these lush lands of good people and great tales.
Day 7: Knockree to Marlay Park in Dublin
After climbing a few peaks among the skirts of Dublin, I approached a ridge. The large city of Dublin materialized below me. The air seemed less fresh and the silence I had enjoyed over the last week filled with a distant buzz of city living. I wanted to turn around rather than return to the busy, modern world with its crowded streets, bustling pubs, advertisements and shops filled with things we don’t need. Instead of retreating into the forest, I ate my last back country meal and stepped back into reality.
The trail culminated into a city park where sparse trees littered the path. I came across a large oak turned into a fairy village with small windows and doors adorning the wooden grooves. Fairy-sized ladders and stools adorned the tree knobs and my hand traced the mystic fairy dwellings. I internalized my last taste of Irish magic as I left the enchanted forests behind me. An old man sat alone on a bench where the Wicklow Way trail came to an end. I sat beside him, not wanting to take my final steps. He looked over at me, “You have eyes like mine,” and kissed my hand. Irish poet, Yeats, once said, “Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure, nor this thing nor that, but simply growth. We’re happy when we’re growing,” and I agree for I’m happy when I’m growing, being challenged, physically and mentally. In the past 7 days, my greatest joy was not at the completion of my journey but at each step and wisdom gleaned along the way.
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