Though my last day of riding had dawned with aching legs and a spirit of mud, lunch has a magical way of mitigating these things. My blood sugar was up, the sun was shining, and we were riding the last twelve miles of our trip. Surely, things would be perfect, right?
Leaving behind the lovely village of Roundstone, I headed up the hill behind the kids, determined to take lots of pictures and stay within a reasonable distance of the group.
The first thing that I realized, as I topped the hill and exited the town, was that the headwind was even worse than before. Look, I don’t have a… uh… wind-ometer, or anything, but I would guess-timate the speed of the steady wind at around 25mph. The gusts were easily hitting 40 or more.
You say: how on earth is she coming up with those numbers? Well, simple. I live in the Pacific Northwest, where getting knocked down by wind gusts of 50mph in the middle of downtown Seattle while Christmas shopping at Nordstroms is a seasonal pleasure. As a child, I lived through the infamous “Enumclaw Hurricane” of ’83 where winds blowing down the clear-cut mountain sides topped 120mph, lifting up mobile homes and ruining my Christmas, which was spent at the neighbor’s house, huddled around their woodstove eating endless cans of chilli as they got to open their presents (mine were at my grandmother’s house in Seattle). I still remember, early in that storm, standing at the top of my street and letting a sock go into the wind… then watching as it disappeared into the distance, blocks away.
Winds are a fact of life here, and can cause incredible devastation. In fact, this December, just three months after we moved into our new house, a windstorm blew the roof off of it and covered our neighbors’ yards in asphalt shingles. Trust me, I’ve felt wind before.
I finally crested the top of the hill, puffing along a bit behind everyone else, and paused to look back. Apparently, we had missed one of Roundstone’s best features: a white-sand crescent beach. I captured it the best I could from the distance.
The hills sloped gently to the sea, but pushing up them was difficult: the wind kept shoving me back. Still, I had a certain renewed energy. The kids were already way ahead of me as I stopped to take yet another shot. Ah well.
Around a bend, I caught sight of a familiar van and then a welcome face: my Co-Worker. I thought everyone had stopped for me, and it wasn’t until he explained that it was only him that I realized he was driving.
Up to this point, I didn’t notice that my Co-Worker was now driving the support van, and that the Support Van Parent was leading the charge with the kids. It should probably say something about my actual state of being, as opposed to my cheerful state of mind, that I missed this rather important detail.
“You didn’t want to ride the last few miles?” I asked, astonished.
“In this headwind?” he replied, laughing. “I’m not crazy.” Seeing my face, he offered to drive me the rest of the way. “It would be fine,” he said kindly. “I wouldn’t want to ride in this wind. Seriously. I’ll drive us.”
But I was determined. “It’s my trip,” I said. “I have to finish it. I’ll just do it at my own pace. If it takes me longer than the kids, they’ll be okay. Besides, I’d drive you nuts, making you stop to take a picture every ten seconds.”
“Yeah, that would be pretty annoying.” Then he looked at me with real concern: “Are you sure?” he asked.
I was sure. Wasn’t I? Off I went, waving cheerfully as he passed me a moment later. I tried to put this all into perspective. I enjoy my Co-Worker’s company and our trip was nearly over, so the opportunity to ride back with him and hang out, waiting for the kids, was tempting. That said, this was my party and I could cry if I wanted to.
Fortunately, I wasn’t quite at that point. My thighs were still tired, but they worked. I was feeling as though I were slogging through mud, but at least now there was a legitimate reason for this: I was slogging through air!
Topping the hill, I emerged onto a sprawling heathered plateau edged on one side by the distant blue mountains of our morning, and on the other by the endless Irish sea.
Small patches of swampy water deepened the reflected color of the sky to a rich indigo.
The wind hit me sideways, forcing a word other than “feck” and a laugh from my shocked lungs. There was simply no other way to deal with it! How about a wind-swept self-portrait? Note what is happening to my hair and the squint necessary to see at all:
I turned to find the poor Raleigh hybrid fallen against the barbed wire in defeat.
The wind had literally picked it up and pushed it over off the gravel onto the fence! But at least it was mostly downhill at this point, right?
From a distance, I thought this might be another prehistoric site. It wasn’t until I zoomed in later in Photoshop that I realized it was just a graveyard! The road strayed back toward the foothills, which abounded in wild flowers.
Soon it had flattened out again, and I was riding through a small valley replete with lakes in a color of blue that was almost unnatural.
What gives these lakes their supernatural hue?
Side roads led directly to the sea.
But now I had a problem: the wind was so strong, I was beginning to feel discouraged. On a long, nearly-flat downhill, geared into my lowest gear, I was running at what I estimated to be about three miles an hour. At that rate, it would take me another two-three hours to get to our destination, and it was nearly three in the afternoon. I had been riding since lunch, and was certain that I wasn’t beyond the half-way point. Coasting? There was no coasting. Uphill? Didn’t matter. Downhill? Eh.
I saw several families cycling this route, couples and other groups… all were cycling the other way.
There were moments where the spectacular beauty of the area made the slog almost worth it:
Who wouldn’t want to live in a white, thatched cottage by the sea?
I might, if it meant I could get off the damned bicycle!
By this point, the chowder I had eaten for lunch had worked its havoc on my exhausted digestive system. I began to long for a town, for a pub… for anything with a bathroom!
Perhaps on that spit of land visible beyond the boat?
No. No pub there. Just more wind, and this lovely house that might persuade me to move to the west coast of Ireland, if I could live in it. And never, ever ride a bicycle there.
Finally, I made it up one last hill, and found a pub. The town was so small I couldn’t even locate a name. I rushed inside and found the bathroom, but in fact… I was apparently more tired than sick. My stomach roiled undisturbed. I wandered next door for some caffeine, at least.
Don’t I look sweaty and miserable? Outside, even the Raleigh hybrid had a certain wilted look.
I called my Co-Worker. He didn’t sound nearly as jovial and rested as I’d expected, but I didn’t stop to ponder why that might be; I was too tired and fussy.
“I’m at a pub somewhere, about halfway, getting a Coke. I thought I’d tell someone, because I’m now like an hour behind the kids and you all might wonder where I was.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure you’re an hour behind them. They were really struggling when I drove past them,” he reported. “Do you want me to come get you?”
“No… yes,” I said. He didn’t laugh.
“Be there in a bit.”
As I waited, I pondered the irony of my situation: I had planned this trip for nearly a year. Dreamed about it. Agonized over it. Plotted routes, researched stops, booked hotels, itemized expenses, recruited kids… and here I was, stopping a mere six miles from the end, too tired and nauseated to ride another foot. And best of all? I wasn’t even upset. I just wanted to see that car NOW.
When my Co-Worker at last arrived, we rigged an elaborate system of straps and luck to secure the hybrid to the rack without a fake toptube. I slid gratefully into the passenger’s seat, babbling about how the chowder had betrayed me, the blueness of the lakes, the strength of the wind.
“I should warn you,” my Co-Worker said abruptly as he pulled out onto the road. “Driving today has been the most frightening experience of my life.”
He wasn’t lying. I would like to describe what the scenery looked like in our last six miles, but I honestly don’t know. Here’s what I remember, in small lucid flashes heightened by terrible fear:
— Leaning as far as I could into the car, away from the thickets of brambles and rock walls that were mere centimeters from my mirror.
— My Co-Worker’s knuckles gripped white on the steering wheel, his shoulders tensed up around his ears.
— Cars passing about as far from his mirror as the brambles were from mine.
— The giant truck that barreled toward us and stopped, horn-blaring, in a cloud of dust as we hit the brakes, moments from taking off our front bumper, even though we were as far over as it was possible to be.
— Words other than “feck” coming in a solid stream from my Co-Worker’s mouth.
It was, without question, the most frightened I have been in a car since my ex-husband proposed that we drive the Going to the Sun Road in our Volkswagon Eurovan in the middle of August with ten thousand other people careening wildly past 1,000 foot drop-offs that had no barriers next to motor homes that took up both lanes.
“This fecking sucks!” I screeched.
“I KNOW!” my Co-Worker responded.
“How the hell has (the Support Van Parent) been doing this for a week?” I asked.
“I DON’T KNOW!” my Co-Worker responded. “THESE PEOPLE ARE ALL INSANE. I CAN’T TELL HOW CLOSE ANYTHING IS TO THE CAR. NO ONE IS GIVING ME ANY ROOM. THIS IS THE WORST DRIVING EXPERIENCE I HAVE EVER HAD!”
He was a little tense. And I want to state this for the record: his driving was phenomenal. I’ve never seen anyone drive as close to obstacles as he was without even scraping the sides of the car. While I was firmly convinced that we were both going to die, I also believe now that he would have been found totally innocent of any charges after the authorities reviewed all the forensic evidence left from our flattened, charred remains.
We pulled into Clifden a few moments later, shaking and sweating and squeaking like squishy dog toys. There we found the kids, exhausted and triumphant, having ridden the entire way in the gusting wind. The Support Van Parent was even a bit tired, though not much.
Our hostel located and the bikes parked, I checked with my Co-Worker. “How about you give me time to take a shower, then we walk around a bit and explore the town?” I asked. He was in complete agreement, as I’m sure he had hours of texts to catch up on at this point! We both had a desire for something other than pub food, and this would be an opportunity to find it. And you know, drain some of the adrenaline still coursing madly through our veins.
Somewhat more presentable obligatory bathroom self-portrait.
Clifden is a small, rather pretty little town, clearly suffering from the lack of tourist dollars during the economic downturn, as is all of Ireland.
My Co-Worker and I wandered a few streets in various directions, taking in the local churches…
And this beautiful old abandoned building, which had a giant anchor in the front garden. Why? Who knows.
We finished by scouting an Indian restaurant. Everyone was amiable, so we sat in a noisy, exhausted group, adults and kids. The boys, including the older ones, had some sort of testosterone-fueled spicy food battle that left all of them mildly queasy, but my palak paneer was excellent and very mild. Afterward, we hunted down a shop with local ice cream, and the kids bought my Co-Worker his only real souvenir: a stuffed donkey they promptly named “Charleston.” He carried it around on his shoulder the rest of the evening.
Later, down in the hotel’s tiny sitting room, they finally got me to watch their favorite YouTube videos. It wasn’t worth the wait, but it made the kids happy. And my Co-Worker, who was quite giggly about them at this point, sharing in all the in-jokes.
This is for you, guys: “I AM your sandwich! RAAWWWR!”
So, not a bad end to the last day, really. I fell asleep immediately and deeply.
But then at 5:30, I awoke with the worst sore throat I’ve had in years, groping around in the dark for ibuprofen. Could this have been the cause of the saber tooth tigers, the extreme exhaustion and the nausea? Could it really be that simple: a COLD?
The next morning, we left Clifden for a four-hour bus ride back to Shannon. My Co-Worker and I chatted companionably about how frightening the narrow roads were even from the front seat of the bus, then dozed shoulder-to-shoulder as we sped toward the city. My throat ached unabated.
Then the phone rang: it was the Support Van Parent, calling to tell me that the final hostel I had booked was not actually in Shannon, or in fact, anywhere near the airport. We had been had, it would seem. He kindly found us a spot nearer the airport, and by the time we arrived, everything was done for us: our gregarious Support Van Parent had even managed to get us a hugely discounted rate. The kids ate lunch in a local mall, did some shopping, and played a little full-contact frisbee:
We ate together one last time in a hip local restaurant with a smart-mouthed waiter who kept the kids in line and made them laugh at the same time. Much goofiness ensued:
Even the bathrooms had ambiance. As I went to take my obligatory self-portrait, the Support Van Parent suggested I also photograph the men’s urinals, which were unattended at the moment:
“Imagine how intimidating peeing in there is!” he noted.
I just found the ladies’ room sleek and cool, without the added pressure to pee in a sexy way.
By this point, my throat was not the only problem. I had started to sniffle, rather elaborately. By the time we crawled into bed that night, I was full-on filled with snot in a way that didn’t promise anything good for the flight the next morning.
When I awoke, I was dripping and oozing mucus so massively that I was literally spraying snot every time I breathed. I begged and pleaded with my Co-Worker to sit with me, which, to his credit, he did. Then I proceeded to miserably snork and sneeze and whine my way through the next six hours. I experienced absolutely no fear of flying on this leg of the flight, mostly because my head was so full that the descent felt like someone was shoving lead into every orifice in my skull and neck, trying to displace my brain. As I cried, Mr. Sensitivity next to me remarked: “I always feel so sorry for babies at this point, since their ears hurt so much. This was the point where we always broke out the breast to keep my son from crying.” Did he not notice that I was in a state of oneness with the babies? If anyone needed a breast in that moment, dangit, it was me! Or not, but you know what I mean.
During our stop-over in Jersey, the kids gorged on sushi and burgers. I had a smoothie, and barely kept it down. No one actually wanted to sit by me on the last leg, though one child was forced by the ticketing agent. By the time we arrived home, I was as sick as it was humanly possible to be without being met by the CDC upon landing. I did manage to reserve the presence of mind to try to get one last snap. After seeing my unsuccessful attempts to get a good shot of his moving back, my Co-Worker paused.
“You want one last photo, don’t you?” he said, not unkindly. I nodded, and he stayed still while I found the right adjustment.
That’s Charleston, of course.
So now, we’re home. I’ve been to the ER twice with this damned illness, once for coughing up blood (never mind the golfball-sized balls of mucus) and a second time because my irritated airway swelled shut and I literally felt like I was breathing through a straw. It’s just bronchitis, they tell me, and I will eventually recover. Ha! It’s taken me literally six hours to write this blog entry (stop laughing: I know it’s long, but I’m normally a very fast typist). Fortunately, I seem to be the only one suffering this fate. Everyone else is as healthy as can be.
So in finishing my Ireland trip, snot and all, I will say only this: as horrible as this cold has been for the last nine days…
… nothing will ever be as scary as that last six miles to Clifden!