After convincing the kids that our first real day of cycling would be the hardest one, I was gratified to be right for a change. After a delicious hearty Irish breakfast, featuring some rather spectacular ham, we headed out for a day-long loop from Doolin up through the countryside above. We had originally planned to head all the way up to Ballyvaughan, but that ride would simply have been too long for our kids.
Instead, we saddled up and headed north to explore the backroads in the area, without pressuring ourselves to hit a certain route.
Before I go any further, I have a new photo to add from the first day. Our Support Van Parent gave me all his cell phone photos of the trip last night, which are a great resource to have. Suddenly, there are photos of… me! Amazing. This one is from our first short ride, right after we arrived in Ireland. What I love about it is how perfectly it conveys the ease of my relationship with my Co-Worker. We’ve further cemented our friendship on this trip, so this picture was a pleasant surprise to see: “that’s it,” I thought. “That’s how it feels when we interact!” I’ll try to add these other photos in where appropriate, giving the Support Van Parent full credit, of course. He was a fantastic resource for us.
Anyway, back to the ride. We started out on a rather steep climb up out of Doolin, into the hills above. The busy roads of the day before had convinced us that it was time to find something a bit quieter for our kids’ sake and our own sanity. These roads, two lane and very winding, were perfect.
The views coming up out of Doolin spread out to the coast. The weather was cool and a bit rainy, but nothing too worrisome. Even though the hills were just as hard as the day before…
…the kids were far more willing to walk them if necessary. This kept everyone cheerful, and that hearty breakfast certainly didn’t hurt.
I was surprised by how comfortable my crappy Raleigh hybrid bike was. The saddle was no more or less irritating on a long ride than my not-quite-broken-in Brooks, and with the handlebars rolled back, my hands and wrists weren’t too bothersome. I didn’t like the positioning of the straight bars as much as my North Roads, but they didn’t hurt, either. For the most part, our biggest complaints about the bikes had less to do with comfort than with maintenance. They were poorly kept-up, which meant that several bikes had barely-functional derailleurs. Though my Co-Worker is game to try to fix anything (he’s a physics teacher. They’re like that) and the Support Van Parent was quite knowledgeable about bikes, there’s not much one can do with a badly bent derailleur on the road with limited tools. We swapped bikes with stronger/weaker kids when necessary, did as much adjusting as we could, but in the end, some of them just didn’t ever work correctly. The worst was my Co-Worker’s bike, which never quite went into that big chainring, and often didn’t jump to the little one, either. But with his thighs, he just powered through in the middle. My Raleigh was relatively reliable, and I had only a couple times when I had to stop, reshift, and run it through before starting again. Every kid who dropped a chain learned to put one back on. In short, we survived bad bikes. I certainly appreciate the pleasure of my very good one!
The scenery was very pretty. Not as spectacular as it would be later, but very nice. Rolling hills slid down to the gray sea, punctuated with neat rock walls and equally circuitous roads.
At the top of the hill, we turned inland and rode that way for a while, just following the roads over the top. I stopped to get frequent photos of empty barns and weathered cattle. The loneliness of this area is striking. Isolated and sparsely populated, it is the perfect place to cycle and reflect.
Many years ago, when I was in my early twenties, I fell in love with a boy from Northern Ireland. I was studying in England at the time, where I did my graduate degree. He was studying the bizarre management specialization of “Queuing Theory,” which explains why and how lines form: lines of traffic, lines in the grocery store, etc. We started out as best friends, and I cared very much about him. It was this that led us to date, and eventually, to try to get married.
The problem wasn’t us, per se. It was his family. I just wasn’t someone they understood. Prior to him, every boy I’d dated who’d introduced me to his family had found me a happy reception. Not so much in Ireland. His mother absolutely loathed me. I was sophisticated, whereas she was uneducated and insular. I was thoughtful, and she was… well, a bit backward. She had no desire to know anyone outside of her inner circle, and no desire for anyone to intrude into it. Though we put up a good fight, in the end, her vitriolic dislike was just too much for a relationship that really should have stayed a friendship.
Still, that time in Northern Ireland shaped my life profoundly, and left me with many memories of the Irish landscape and its people. The wind, for instance, that battered us as we rode across these open fields, felt like the howler that used to bear down on our Belfast windows from the North Sea, rattling the 100 year-old plate glass like a freight train. The houses looked like the houses he and I had admired together, and thought we might like to someday own. I was reminded by smells, tastes and sounds of a time in my life that has long slipped away.
When I left Ireland for the last time, after we had broken off our engagement (I had the dress, for heaven’s sake: we were serious!), I had the strangest sensation: that part of me had split away and was living there, living the life I had so long imagined for myself. Part of me was still in the Belfast house’s narrow Victorian kitchen, staring at the orange-and-white Moroccan tiles that covered the wall around the sink. Part of me was still squatting in the coal shed in my pajamas, covered in gray dust, jamming a poker into the hardened clinkers in the boiler to restart the fire, so the freezing old house would feel warm and comfortable again. Part of me was still sleeping up in the bedroom with the plate glass windows, listening to that freight train of wind. It took many years for that sensation to pass completely, and being here brought it all back: the intense heat of the coal fires in the pubs, the wind hitting our faces with the smell of the sea, the isolation of the walled-off paddocks and lonely farmhouses.
But of course, I was now cycling with a bunch of happy kids, and of course, I was happy too. Each gust of wind blew fresh vigor into my riding. The sleep deprived torpor of the day before was gone.
About this point, we had our first crash: one of the boys stopped suddenly, and one of the girls ran into him. She was unhurt, but he landed in the stinging nettles beside the road. Some antiseptic wipes and Tough-It-Out-Kid talk later, and everyone was back on their bikes. We entered a stretch of national forest, which quickly resembled the so-called national forests in my home state:
Well, hello, clear-cut. Haven’t I seen you somewhere before? Did I suddenly get dropped in South-Western Washington?
At the top of the hill, we stopped at an abandoned house for a quick snack break and pee stop. I was a bit apprehensive about making a potty stop au natural, after the nettle incident earlier, but managed to find a pretty, secluded spot that seemed nettle-free. I was probably peeing on some Neolithic tomb, but if so, I couldn’t tell. There were some nice large rocks.
After cresting the hill, we were able to descend fairly rapidly into a small town for lunch. The weather was beginning to clear up in a promising way.
Of course, with so much downhill, open road in front of them, the kids decided to break loose and really fly down the grades. Not surprisingly, we had our second crash. One of the young ladies lost control of her bike at high speed, but managed to ditch right into a grassy verge.
No one was very shaken up, and she was quickly back up on a bike. Just not the same bike, as she had totaled the front brake. Fortunately, since our Support Van Parent had to head back the next day to take the young lady who had decided to forgo the rest of the trip to the airport, we had the ability to return the bad bike and still have an extra bicycle. Well, this is how you learn, I suppose.
The views were expansive again, and totally distracting. I kept saying: “Okay, Ireland. Your seduction has worked! Take me, I’m yours!” Those views were so good. Mmmmmm… views…
At the bottom of the hill, we found an amazing bright blue pub, just out in the middle of absolutely nowhere, and settled in for fresh sea food for the grown-ups and pizza for the kids. It was a wonderful break.
Once we’d fueled up, I was ready to roll! Photo courtesy of our Support Van Parent, of course.
We headed along the busier coastal road, stopping frequently for rock exploration and cliff tiptoeing.
Nothing gets a teenager off a bike more quickly than the possibility of plunging 300 feet to their death off the side of a cliff. Look Ma, no guard rails!
After much rock frolicking, we were back on the bikes, riding up some very steep terrain to get away from the beach and back toward our original route. Okay, much of this was spent walking the bikes, but who’s checking? We got there.
We arrived at a local Castle/hotel we had seen on our way down, and quickly found the bathrooms. Bathrooms were a strange priority on this trip, as though the area was “wild,” we weren’t generally in the sort of spot where the call of nature could be answered out of doors. The kind owner of the hotel let us in after hearing my sob story about teenagers and riding and bladders. Then it was up to explore the “castle,” which was mostly just an old lookout tower. As we stood at the bottom, looking up at the battlements and stonework…
… We heard a most extraordinary sound. Now, my students are not country kids, and didn’t recognize the loud braying coming from the castle’s yard, but I did. Sure enough, here was the source:
The sound also brought up my Co-Worker from the grassy hill below the castle. He grew up on a farm, and was soon loving-up the rather neglected, and very sweet, donkey.
Who knew he had a soft spot for farm animals?
Given the length of the donkey’s hooves, this was probably the most attention he’d had in a year. Well-deserved, my donkey friend, well-deserved. You guarded the castle with a most effective show of braying bravado, until ear scratches were offered. A donkey needs to know when to give in, after all. Conquered!
The rest of the kids were down rolling around on the lawn. Another small dog had joined them. My Co-Worker, still grumpy over the previous day’s dog disaster, claimed that no dog could impress him at this point. The little dog immediately lay down on its belly and slid right down the hill with the kids, feet first, gaining a grudging admiration from our local dog curmudgeon. “That dog doesn’t need us,” he said. “He’s impressive enough as it is.” The doggie received plenty of love from the kids, who were content to hang out on the castle’s lawn for quite some time, rolling in the grass and giggling. The views were impressive here, too.
Finally, we arrived back in Doolin (with only one break, for my Co-Worker to point out an adorable baby donkey. His weakness has clearly been located). We ditched the bikes at the hostel to explore the town a bit. And when I say… “a bit,” I mean A Bit. There is very little in Doolin. Here’s main street:
We bought a few cheap souvenirs at the novelty shop, and had something to drink at this pretty little restaurant/coffee bar, which bills itself as…
The Last Music Cafe Before America.
Perhaps it is.
My Co-Worker and I left the kids there to drink lemonade and hot chocolate, and we went for a walk to see “the rest” of Doolin. It took us about 20 minutes. I did like this traditional Irish farm house.
Not for livability, mind you, but because it’s interesting. While I was living in Northern Ireland, I visited an open-air building museum, and learned all about this form of traditional housing. Most of the house you see here is actually a barn. The section with the walled garden is the house-proper. Farmers built the barns onto their houses to help keep the main house warm: farm animals generate a great deal of heat. I particularly remember our guide’s story about the pig pen. Above the pen, he said, one would have the corn crib, where cobs of corn could be stored for the winter, to help feed the pigs. He claimed that Irish families would put their infants in these corn cribs to keep warm, thus giving us the word “crib” for a child’s bed. I don’t know how true that is, but I like the story.
At any rate, downtown Doolin didn’t hold our interest for long, and we ended up in yet another pub, eating more pub food.
Pub photo courtesy of the very well prepared Support Van Parent. He and I had a great time chatting after the others had returned to the hotel.
After returning to our B&B, I wrote up the first day’s rideblog, and headed to bed. The next day was the Aran Islands! I couldn’t have been more exited. And for the second time on the trip, I was totally justified.