3 January 2008

Hiking in Kerry

An American Hiker’s Thanksgiving Journey
By Renee Navarette

It is important to note from the start that, for the most part, Americans consider Western Ireland a primitive land where short-tempered, drunk men wearing kilts run about the countryside looking for battle with a warring clan while the women and children toil on farms and tend to the thatched roofed cottages they call home. For weeks prior to my arrival in Ireland, family, friends, and co-workers were questioning my decision to spend the Thanksgiving holiday hiking in Country Kerry. The cacophony of doubts and naysaying heightened once I informed them of the gear that my guide, Nathan Kingerlee, had instructed me to bring – hat, gloves, hiking boots, waterproof pants, waterproof jacket, backpack, and two fleece. I was barraged with questions almost daily such as, “Just where is he taking you? The wilds of Ireland?” I would reply with a smile, “God, I hope so.” People would walk away shaking their heads not understanding my desire to escape the comfort food and college football games of America’s most popular family holiday for hiking into the unknown in Western Ireland.

I knew that I had likely not done the amount of preparation necessary to face the challenges awaiting me in Ireland. I have a monotonous, demanding desk job requiring long hours and copious amounts of energy. My training during the week was limited to a one hour walk from downtown through the Strip District of Pittsburgh at lunchtime and walking two hours a day on the paved rolling hills of my hometown on the weekends. I naturally have a great deal of endurance so that coupled with my sheer will and determination would have to be relied upon to pull me through. I also had every confidence that Nathan knew me well enough from a previous tour that he would select hikes ideally suited for me.

There are number of hiking trails in Western Pennsylvania but many are paved or well-graveled and if the trail is not so civilized, the dirt paths are comprised mostly of clay which provides steady footing. I live in an area of hills and valleys but most are grassy and at a gentle grade, except in state parks where there are gigantic glacier-deposited boulders or steep hills for hikers to scale. The bottom line is that for the most part, I would be in alien territory hiking in Ireland.

In fact, most of the hiking trails in Western Ireland would likely be considered barbaric at home in Pennsylvania. When I was not pulling a stuck foot out of a bog or mud, I was walking on a path that seemed suspiciously like a rocky stream bed. Stepping on white rocks at home is a good thing – solid limestone – but here it was quite a bad thing. Nathan would attempt to lead me through a less precarious path but inevitably I seemed to have a magnetic attraction to bogs and slippery rocks. Much of my days were spent – step, step, slide, step, step, stuck – with a few sheep ladders and metal or barbed-wire fences to overcome to add another level of challenge to my five foot stature.

Through all of this, I also had the unfortunate discovery that waterproof clothing and boots are only waterproof for a limited time when traversing wet terrain, particularly when walking for hours in slightly windy rainstorms. The only item I wore that proved itself worthy of the designation of waterproof was a felt slouch hat that kept my hair tucked underneath it dry even in downpours. I strove to ignore whatever discomfort and focus on enjoying my exploration with Nathan of a land that at times appeared straight out of a setting for a gothic novel or a child’s fairy tale.

Despite the mental and physical challenges, or perhaps because of them, I loved each and every hike I completed in County Kerry. No matter if I was gaping in wonderment at a waterfall, scaling a mountain or beach rock, sloshing up a sponge-like almost vertical hill, traipsing through a dense forest, meandering through a pasture, or stomping through a stream, I felt vibrant and alive – colors seemed richer, the scent of fetid leaves and peat more aromatic, the sound of trickling water more soothing, and time itself seemed to stand still. Though I will return to face further hiking challenges that await me in County Kerry, this idyllic week can never be replicated.

On the surface, my life appears to have returned to normal. I am back at home plowing through piles of work on my desk – concentration a task more arduous than any hike. For now, I have learned that eating a packed lunch on top of the Windy Gap on Thanksgiving can be far more satisfying than sitting at a table eating turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie in celebration of an over-rated American holiday. And next time I see a rainbow, I will know there is not a pot of gold at the end, but I will recall a memory far more precious to me of a pot of tea at the end of the trail in Glenbeigh.

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