Today was a wet and blustery day in Chicago, and as I did a duck-and-weave through the raindrops on my way home from work, I found that I wasn’t irritated at the rain. In fact, I was feeling pretty good, thanks in no small part to the outpouring of goodwill I’ve received since I yelled to the world that the International Business Times had reprinted my post from Tuesday. But if I tried to tell you the last time I felt this giddy in a rainstorm, it’d probably be January 2004, when I was almost blown off a cliff and swept out to sea in Ireland.
I’d finished my study abroad program in Rome and was visiting friends living in other European countries easily accessible by Ryanair. It so happened that one of my good friends from high school, Miranda, was abroad at the same time, so we decided to meet up in Dublin, take a bus across the country to Galway, and return after visiting the Aran Islands. This is, in fact, what we did, only slightly derailed by the part where the winds tried to destroy us.
The Aran Islands, on the west coast of Ireland, had been described to me as the most Irish part of Ireland. I’m not sure exactly what that was supposed to mean, but I gathered it meant strikingly beautiful landscapes, quaint towns, and locals speaking the mother tongue. This is pretty much the case, although everyone speaks English as well as Irish, especially since tourism is the main industry there now.
The main tourist attractions of the islands are the ruins of stone forts such as Dún Aengus (or Aonghasa), which were probably built in the 2nd century BCE. It’s unclear whether they were entirely defensive forts, or if they also held religious or commercial value, positioned as they are with a view of a large part of the coast and therefore a good look at trading vessels coming and going. In later centuries, many structures on the islands were made over to monasteries, and farming on the shallow, rocky soil remained the main occupation until very recently, when tourism became big industry.
Miranda and I took the ferry over to Inishmore from Galway and picked up a map at a small shop we got a bit of food at. Keep in mind that this was late January, not exactly the height of tourist season, so there were very few other people around, and we considered ourselves lucky for having the island mostly to ourselves. Armed with the basic trail map and our cameras, we headed off to find one of the ruined forts, Dún Dúchatair (the Black Fort), and soon we really did have the place to ourselves, aside from a few grazing cows. We were walking on a basic kind of trail, which often seemed to devolve into just a field for a space, and the wind was picking up something fierce, but we had our destination in our sights, so we pressed on.
The rocks were everywhere, stacked to form low walls marking off small plots of land, and when they weren’t stacked in an orderly pile, they were underfoot, tripping us up. We had to tread carefully, but the sky was expansive and the island a lovely mixture of green-brown grass and slate-gray rock, and we were inordinately proud of ourselves for taking ourselves on tour rather than signing up for a guided one. We reached the fort, perched on the edge of a cliff, and it was worth the trip. The Black Fort itself was an orderly collection of rocks, small walls shaped into overlapping horseshoes, which were themselves shaped like halves of concentric circles rippling out from a stone being dropped in water. It wasn’t hard to imagine that stone being a chunk of island, either, since the center was almost at the edge of the cliff, and that cliff dropped off sharply and steeply.
We’d been scrambling over the fort for a bit, but now we needed to see the ocean, and not from far away, either. No, we needed to get real close and personal. We walked right up to the edge (there are no railings here, you litigious Americans) and leaned over, not far enough to fall in, but just far enough to feel adventurous. But whoops, the wind was still quite strong, and I found myself pulled closer to that edge than I liked. I was an arrogant 20-year-old, convinced of my travel savvy and basic immortality, but I was also a little scared of heights and a lot clumsy; the possibility of me plunging over the edge into the (beautiful, deeply blue, whitecapped) sea was now far too real. I lurched backward and stumbled over to a more stable location, like one of the handily ubiquitous gray rocks, to catch my breath.
At this point, it became clear that the fierce wind was not just a consequence of being so close to the ocean; rain was starting to fall from the sky, and it was coming down fast. Miranda and I turned around and headed back, but we found ourselves a bit lost. Our map suddenly wasn’t so helpful in the torrential downpour, and anyway the wind was doing its best to tear it from our hands. We leaned into each other, and into Miranda’s umbrella, and did what we could to follow the right set of squiggly rock walls down to the village.
Now at this point in most travel stories, I’d share with you that things were tense. After all, despite the Gulf Stream current that keeps the western Irish coast unusually warm, this was still January, and we were dressed in our winter coats and gloves, and this was a small gale bearing down on us. We weren’t sure where we were, the only living creatures we could see were cows sensibly huddling together, and I’ll wager we were both hungry and in need of a bathroom. But all I remember is enjoying every minute of it. Miranda and I both saw the absurdity of our situation and decided that rather than grumble or despair, we’d laugh. Far the better option. Talking in the storm was difficult, so we’d just walk a little, turn to each other and raise our shoulders exaggeratedly, shake our heads like “what’re you gonna do?” and laugh, then repeat.
Eventually we did make it down out of the fields and rocks, and we found ourselves on the edge of the road. It didn’t take too long for a car to slow down, and a middle-aged man rolled down the window and offered us a ride into the village. We hesitated for a moment (young women, strangers, foreign country), but we quickly realized that he was just being nice, and was probably genuinely worried for us, since we looked like two barely resuscitated near-drowning victims. We got cheap, hot drinks at the same store we’d left so confidently a few hours before, shivered ourselves slightly warmer, and congratulated ourselves on being badasses. I don’t remember anything about the ferry back to Galway or the bus back to Dublin, but I clearly remember the wind whipping my hair into my face, the rain turning the gray rock a slick black, Miranda shouting with laughter, and a sense of wild freedom.
Once I was safely twenty paces back from the cliff, of course.