Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Fate (poem)

From the tomb of life this passion arises,

Her love driven by the hooves of hate.

She dances to the drums of time,

Fast rides the horse of Fate.

Spurred by a transcending passion,

She seeks the souls who stealthily ran.

In the shadows of time she will wait,

Drawing the hearts of man.

For even the dead may one day arise,

Tainted by the deeds of late.

For quick is the flame of life,

And fast rides the horse of Fate.


          And that’s how I spend my rainy, summer days.  With a long cloak, a black horse and a world of imagination.  (And a good bit of blueberry crisp, just to polish off last week’s pickings). 


Thursday, August 1, 2013

Ely Style Blues

          Well, put away the tank tops and forget that I mentioned summer.  One day in the eighties and it’s back to wind, forties and rain.  I had to dig through my closet and uproot the scarves and hats again in the futile hope that I would not freeze during my yearly trip in to Ely’s Blueberry Arts Festival.  Unfortunately, I don’t think that I dug quite deep enough.  The real problem here is the amount of fair food I bought to help me stay warm.  I felt sorry for the ice cream venders as I waited in line for my second funnel cake.

          Ely has a population of roughly 3,500 people.  So when 40,000 tourists sweep through its narrow streets during the all-famous Blueberry Festival, our little town is—to say the least—swamped.  And while the limited parallel parking prompts me to scowl at random strangers, I cannot say that I disagree with people’s enthusiasm for the festival.  Hundreds of white tents sprout seemingly overnight in Whiteside Park, filled with local arts, imaginative jewelry, handcrafted furniture, northern foods and—of course—an entire aisle dedicated to greasy food.  Not only do a wide array of local artists have the opportunity to display their work, tens of thousands of tourists get to sample the unique flavor that is Ely…that is the blueberries, not the grease.

          While I wholeheartedly support Ely and its endeavors towards the arts, after three days of crowds, noise and heavy food, I am always more than ready for things to get back to normal.  This year, I decided that the best ‘nightcap’ to the Blueberry Arts Festival would be a trip to pick just that…blueberries—Ely style.  After traumatizing my mother for twenty minutes of back-country four-wheeling (my arms are bruised from her death-grip), we made it to the little blue jackpot.  Aptly named the ‘secret blueberry patch’, all I had to do was flop down in the sun warmed grass and begin tossing handfuls of berries into a container.  Two hours later and we had enough blueberries, June berries and raspberries to fill three pies.  Another half an hour and my mouth is dyed purple and I feel like a blueberry myself.

          The great thing about picking berries is that they are best when squished into some kind of dessert.  All of the way back I was wondering what this particular batch of berries wanted to be cooked up as.  But since I let my mother drive home and my thoughts were interrupted by flashes of imminent, fiery death, I didn’t really have a chance to make up my mind until I was soaking the berries in our kitchen sink.  Blueberry cobbler?  Blueberry crisp?  Ice cream?  Milk shakes?  Crepes?  Pancakes?  Really…is there anything that we haven’t thought to put a blueberry in?  Probably not…Anyway, I finally decided, “go big or go home!”  So, two blueberry-June berry-raspberry pies: coming up!

          The trick with any pie crust, as my mother has taught me, is to make sure the water and butter are both chilled before adding them to the flour-salt-sugar mixture.  It’s the transition from cold to hot that make a good crust perfectly flaky every time.  So, following these instructions to the letter, I quickly did the lattice work on top of our pies before tossing them into the fridge to cool off while our oven got heated up.  To kill some time, we even made a cinnamon roll out of the extra dough.  I have to say…that is highly recommended.


          The smell alone was worth all of the hours picking.  Our kitchen was slowly filled with the warm aromas of berries, caramelizing sugar and piecrust.  Even with the cinnamon roll sitting in front of me, it was all that I could do not to rip open that oven door and tell the pie, “that’s long enough, chum!”  It was food-torture at its finest.  Or perhaps this blog is, because I have to say…it was delicious.  ;)


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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Lost in the Shadows of Time

When I stop and think about it, I’ve loved reading ever since the first Harry Potter book came out.  It took a couple of years, but I finally picked it up.  A hundred pages later, I was hooked.  I discovered that reading can be…well, fun!  And I’ve loved writing since I was thirteen, when I discovered Brian Jacques’ masterful series, Redwall.  Granted, I had some elaborate, premature plans of sending Mr. Jacques the script for a new character and that he’d be so blown away by the masterful writing that he would immediately have me co-author the next book in the series…so I was thirteen.  Didn’t you ever want to be an astronaut?  Actually…that was plan B for the writing thing.  Anyway, such are childhood dreams.

          While I never got to write with Brian Jacques and I probably never will get my Hogwarts letter in the fireplace, I did discover a myriad of worlds bouncing around in my overactive imagination.  Long books, short books, plays, songs, poems, stories, characters and scripts—I lost myself in writing.  Now that I’m twenty-one and over halfway to my Bachelor’s degree in English Literature, I find that I have about fifteen beginnings toward novels lurking in the darker recesses of Word and three completed books that stare glumly at me every time I think about editing.  With this many ideas bobbing around in my brain, I am never sure which one to work on or read or re-write.  It’s maddening.  Bad idea to start more than one book at a time…bad, bad Kristen.

          So when I discovered ‘text-based adventure games’ online, it was like a light bulb went on.  They are a way to explore my ideas in a quicker, more interactive fashion that does not actually require a literary agent, an editor, a publisher and one very flustered, slightly overzealous writer with a hectic imagination.  After downloading the software behind this system, I also discovered that computers are much more complicated than I originally gave them credit for and that I know painfully little about the language (a.k.a. coding) they use.  It caused more than a few headaches, but I have finally created my first text adventure game through Quest.  If you are interested it out, you can play it for free at http://textadventures.co.uk/games/view/hgr8xdshe0_crqkkfbiwbw/lost-in-the-shadows-of-time.

          Anyway, now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, it’s back to Ely so that I can help move hay and donate blood to the mosquitoes.  I’m hoping that the water will be warm enough for snorkeling soon.  If not, the blueberries are coming in full swing and Ely’s famous Blueberry Arts Festival is starting up this Friday…so stay tuned!  Minnesota is just getting warmed up!  (Literally…I just got the tank tops back out from our Colorado trip.)



Saturday, July 13, 2013

Los Angeles

I know that I’ve been away from my blog for an unreasonably long while, but not quite long enough for me to show up in Los Angeles, California…as my title might imply.  The drive back from Colorado was twenty-one hours of me staring down millions of truckers on Interstate 80…really the only route the US has if you want to get into the west fast.  After getting back to Ely, I had a momentary breather before I was moving my stuff back down to Duluth—another two hours tacked onto my weeks’ driving.  But all of this irrelevant to the point I’m working towards, so I’m just going to jump right into it…why LA?

Just before I embarked on my adventure in Ireland, one of my closest friends set off on her own journey.  I met Ayjiah M. at Vermilion Community College in Ely, Minnesota and the first thing that I learned about her was that she wanted to be an actress.  (The second thing was that we both are addicted to Chinese food, which resulted in countless late night drives to the nearest buffet…45 minutes from Ely).  I’ve met a lot of people who said they wanted to be actresses.  Really, who wouldn’t want the ‘fame’ and ‘fortune’?  But I never knew anyone brave enough to do anything about it.  Until I met Ayjiah.  She left everything she knew to follow her dreams.  Living in Los Angeles, California is probably the biggest leap you can make from living in Ely, Minnesota and she has made it alone.

          It's not often that I meet people who truly inspire me...so I figured that it would be worth my time to spend a moment telling the world about her.  With an entirely new life in a whole new place, I hope that this post finds Ayjiah happy and safe.  I miss my friend...but I'm so happy that she has the opportunity to find her dream.

          I’m off to do something about breakfast now…I think my subconscious is picking out pictures of Duluth’s food just to torture my empty belly.  Have a look at the link, Ayjiah really is worth it.  J


Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Mountain's Cradle

As my time in Colorado draws to a close, the desire to explore is growing exponentially.  Yesterday I was thinking that while I have ridden in the canyon below the ranch, I have not really taken my time poking around its massive meadows and caves.  So I emerged from my bedroom bright and early this morning, donned a smelly pair of cowboy boots and lassoed my palomino gelding, Capelli D’oro.  In less time than it takes to walk the dog, I was on my pony and heading south…down, that is.  Over rolling, jagged rocks and sweeping meadow, Capelli D’oro bore me into the gaping mouth of the rugged canyon.
            Flowers, cacti, pines, aspen, cougar, elk and bears…the variety of life who calls this canyon home is seemingly endless.  Half of my exercise today was simply climbing in and out of the saddle to take pictures of the breathtaking views.  With sides bared like the bones of a dinosaur, the canyon’s red rocks jut dauntlessly from the cloak of the pines. 
          After exploring a cave-like split in the sandstone’s cliff face, I rode deeper into the canyon until I came across a sweeping meadow.  Despite the thrill of climbing the cliffs and the awe of finding a spectacular view, the meadows remain my favorite parts of the canyon.  Not only do they give you room to appreciate the vastness of the ravine; they also provide Capelli with the opportunity to gallop.  There are few things in this world that I enjoy more than soaring over a prairie on the back of a spirited horse.

         As the day grew into the afternoon, the rain clouds passed and left us to bake in the noonday sun.  Despite my appreciation for the opportunity to work on my feeble tan, it didn’t change the fact that I was getting uncomfortably warm.  But on our way home, I began thinking about the bears and cougars.  Soon I was glancing sheepishly into the trees and caves, wondering if there were any hungry cats lurking in their shadows.  Then, as my sister’s mare caught my eye, I realized that Capelli and I had nothing to worry about.  I didn’t have to outrun a bear.

          All I had to do was outrun the mare.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Heart of the Ranch

          In the mountains of southern Colorado, opportunities to explore, enjoy and envision are truly endless.  I have ridden in the rocky cradle of the canyon, galloped across the grassy meadows of the mountain, and lounged in the evening’s crimson sunsets as they blossomed over a distant peak.  This is an entirely different world than the one I came to love in Ireland.  I have a completely untamed, unknown land to explore.  And none of my discoveries could have been made without the heart of the ranch.
This ranch has six horses, one pony and a mule who call it home.  They each have seen many more seasons than my own horse and even in their ever climbing age, I can’t think of many animals that are luckier.  If I were a horse, this is where I would want to retire.  Here, the animals have a vast expanse of green pasture to roam while soaking up the rays of a heartwarming sun; all the while still able to take on a rider and explore the wild Rockies.
Perhaps the most majestic of the six horses is the Andalusian gelding, Llanero.  With his solid neck and massive hooves, Llanero makes an intimidating presentation.  One second in his pasture, however, proves that looks can be deceiving.  He is a kind, curious soul who will back halfway to Canada if he thinks there’s a chance to get his back scratched.  With a big appearance and a heart to match, Llanero adds an impressive spirit to the valley.
Llanero’s counterpart would have to be the very, er, full bodied pony: Summer.  Her quiet, fearless nature makes her the pony of choice for many of the ranch’s riders.  She is, as they say, ‘bomb-proof’.  Not only will Summer get a rancher home safely, she will do it in only a halter.  No matter where a person ventures, Summer knows her way home.
One of the most difficult of the geldings to photograph has to be the kindly Quarter Horse: Ray.  This isn’t due to lack of participation—quite the opposite, really.  When I entered their pasture, Ray trotted up to me and that is where he stayed for the remainder of my photo shoot.  Even when I sat on the ground in the corner and tried to look as unobtrusive as possible, Ray’s nose was in my camera.  Finally, I gave in.  Ray gets the ‘totally hypnotized’ picture.


Just as Llanero had his opposite, so does Ray.  The two old girls of the back pasture have been retired from riding for more years than I’ve been alive.  Sugar, the aging mare, has the quiet, sleepy understanding that comes with experience.  She does not seem to care if someone is brushing her or if she is relaxing in the shade of one of the ponderosa pines.  The mule, however, has not let anyone get close to her for years.  Aside from Sugar’s company, the mule remains completely happy to be left alone.  On my first day at the ranch, I looked out the window and was surprised to see the mule trotting through the backyard.  Catching her was proving to be an impossible task until someone realized that all the mule needed was for someone to put Sugar back in the pasture.  Like two old friends reveling in each other’s quiet, the mule went where the easy going mare went.  If not for Sugar, I don’t doubt that she would be halfway to Texas by now.
One of my favorite geldings to ride is Knot.  He is soft, smart and remarkably curious.  When I was in his pasture, Knot hurried over and stood next to me, resting his head against me as he waited to get his neck rubbed.  Like Ray, he was so persistent that I couldn’t get far enough away to snap a picture.  Even when I gave up and went into the next pasture over, Knot was sure he could squeeze through the panels to pursue his new admirer.
Another pleasure to ride is the old ranch horse, Hank.  He’s a big Quarter Horse with powerful legs and a soft mouth, making him ideal for working cattle or climbing out of the canyon.  Used to my little Palomino gelding, Capelli D’oro, riding Hank was an entirely new experience.  Luckily for me, he made it a good one.
If Llanero gives the valley its power, the Arabian gelding Antara gives it its eloquence.  With the endurance of its desert racing forefathers and the quiet of his curious spirit, Antara offers a beautiful ride as well as a pleasant companion.  I discovered while readying him for his portrait that Antara’s sweet spot is right under his chin; he would have let me pet him all day long.
Whether they were rescued from an abusive past or raised right here, these eight spirits are what give the ranch its character.  Gentle and curious, the horses are perfectly content nuzzling a photographer’s shoulder and waiting for their rub downs.  Now I only have to keep straight who wants their chin scratched, their back rubbed and their neck massaged.  Who owns who here?
Silly question.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Great Sand Dunes

     So I’ve been surfing in County Mayo, Ireland…I’ve been skiing in Northern Minnesota, USA…but I have to say that I never thought I would consider snowboarding in southern Colorado on a hot summer’s day.  Actually, until I saw some guys grab their boards and rip down a sand dune, I probably would have laughed at the idea.  Can’t say that I’m laughing now.  Actually, I’m busy dealing with the horrendous amount of sand that’s in my mouth, eyes and ears.  At least snow melts…

     The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in southwestern Colorado, USA is nestled in the San Luis Valley immediately before the Sangre de Christo Mountains.  The long, winding drive through the southern Rocky Mountains preluding our arrival at the preserve made me have my doubts on what to expect.  How could there be a sand dune hidden in these rolling hillsides that are dotted with sage brush, tumbleweed and ponderosa pines?  I began to suspect one of two things: either the sand dunes were an unremarkable pile of dry dirt or we were hopelessly lost.  Thankfully I was wrong on both accounts…as I’d hate to have driven so far to see a sandbox and if our GPS managed to get us lost in the Rocky Mountains, I’d hate to think how we would find our way back out again!
     The dunes are a magnificent piece to the 330 square mile sand deposit that covers a portion of this wild valley.  The largest dune in the park (or North America, for that matter) is the Star Dune, rising 750 feet (229 meters) above the already soaring San Luis Valley.  I’m afraid that I didn’t climb that one (the sand is HOT HOT HOT) but I did watch a few guys snowboard (sandboard?) down the side of one.  Not understanding the size of these dunes before arriving, I didn’t think to bring my own gear, but I did try to sled down one on me…er, rear.  That probably had something to do with my sandy discomfort on the way home. 
     The dunes, despite their lifeless appearance, support a wide variety of wildlife and flowers.  There are tiger beetles, sunflowers, and a few unhappy looking bees as well as several other species of insects that are so well adapted that they cannot live anywhere else.  Poor guys.  I also discovered a beautiful, flowering, starvation prickly pear in the grasslands surrounding the dunes.  All I have to say about those little dudes is that you want to watch where you kneel when you’re photographing them.  Prickly, sandy jeans…not exactly an equation for a comfy ride home.  These gnarly little cacti really live up to their name (and yes, you can actually eat them…just not like a pear…if you value your tongue.)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The American West

In June, Northern Minnesota is gloriously lush and potently fragrant with a myriad of blossoming shrubs.  The fishing is at its best and birders are quickly overwhelmed by a symphony of song.  The weather is pleasant, the lakes are crystalline and despite all of this, it is close to unbearable.  While the loon may be the State’s official bird, a running contender has been and always will be that six legged pest: the mosquito.  June is bug month and these critters fly rampant over the countryside, frolicking on dozing fishermen and whining against those bothersome screened windows.  For visitors to this area, mosquitoes are a pest…but one that can be dealt with.  For a resident, the bugs’ persistence is enough to make even the heartiest of fishermen a little (sometimes a lot) crazy. 

          Even though my phone (tired and old as it is) can receive text messages from across the world via outer space, technology still is yet to come up with an effective cure-all for repelling mosquitoes.  So, when they descend upon our home like the aliens from Mel Gibson’s Signs, there is only one way to escape.  Run away.  Far, far away.  1400 miles, to be exact.

          A recent invitation from a couple of wonderful friends currently living in southern Colorado has provided my family and I with the unique opportunity to explore the great American west.  The ranch home is flanked by the Rocky Mountains on its western border, New Mexico’s flatland to the south and rolling hills to the north and east.  A gaping canyon of toothy sandstone cradles the rolling pastures that our Midwestern horses are now kicking their heels up in.

          In a week my palomino gelding will have acclimated to the altitude (7000+ feet in the ranch’s valley) and I will be free to explore the mountains, canyons and forests.  I’ve heard rumors of trout filled streams and hidden pools nestled in the mountain’s secret reaches and the canyon promises to be every bit as exciting—especially if the cougars take interest in my yellow horse.  As it is, the palomino and I have several hundred acres of valley to nose around in for the next several days.  Already I can feel this Colorado sun scorching my Minnesota/Ireland skin and I’m hoping for a summer tan by the time I venture back north.

             For now, I’m off to find my guitar and a patch of shade beneath one of those ponderosa pines.  Maybe a wide brimmed hat and a margarita while I’m at it.  Might as well make the most of the summer.  Slainte, mosquitoes!


Thursday, June 13, 2013


So I’m sure everyone out there has had those days that just…well, suck.  Or maybe even those weeks…months…yeah, you get my point.  Luckily for me, I know a place that always seems to pull up my spirits and gets my mind back on track.  Aptly abbreviated S.O.S., Smitty’s on Snowbank resort of Ely, Minnesota has just the medicine for anyone going a little (or even a lot) city crazy. 
Located half an hour northeast of the already rural Ely, Minnesota; S.O.S. is just the escape I need.  Julie Schmidt, a co-owner/manager of the resort, will provide you with a hearty, American style breakfast before you venture out into a wilderness that only Minnesota can provide.  During blueberry season, I have been known to lounge on an island in the middle of the lake and delight in the abundance of berries before swimming back to the mainland/boat that I first leapt from (provided my lift hasn’t bored with that particular fishing hole and left me bobbing in the middle of the lake).  Speaking of fishing, I have never had better luck than on the crystalline waters of Snowbank Lake.  Large and Small Mouth Bass, Walleye, Northern and Silver Pike, Lake Trout, Eelpout, pan fish…Snowbank has something for everyone!  I usually catch and release, but if I ever am craving a delicious supper, there is none fresher than a fillet of Walleye or Bass.
And if I’m not having any luck on the water (which, of course, is unheard of……) S.O.S. is a hop, skip and a jump away from the trailhead for Kekekabic hiking trail (to be on the safe side, I usually just call it the ‘Kek’), which winds through forty miles of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.  I have seen wolves, moose, deer, bear and an overabundance of rampaging squirrels during my hikes there.  And yet, strangely enough, the only time I have ever heard anyone scream was when my mother discovered a Pink Lady Slipper orchid growing along the side of the trail (she’s a retired naturalist…go figure).
After a day filled with so much adventure, nothing feels better than to return to the resort, enjoy one of Julie’s home-cooked dinners and share some belly-laughs with Den and Ron Schmidt, co-owners of the family-run resort.  I have to say, after our third or fourth trip out to S.O.S., I felt like part of an ever-growing family.  Now when I need a break or simply want to enjoy the best part (in my humble opinion) of Minnesota, I know that Smitty’s on Snowbank is waiting for me at the end of the road.  Check it out for yourself at http://www.smittys-on-snowbank.com/index.htm and discover why I call Minnesota home.  I’m off to take Beau for a swim, because honestly; S.O.S. is a doggie’s paradise too.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Luck of the...Minnesotan?

      The six hour difference between Ireland and Minnesota made for a fantastic amount of jet lag last week.  Four in the morning every morning for seven days, I was wide awake in Northern Minnesota.  By seven in the evening I routinely passed out, no matter what I was doing (playing cards, watching a movie, having a conversation…) or where I was (at the table, in a chair, standing on the porch…) or how much coffee I forced into my system (caffeine has finally failed me).  Actually, there was only one good thing about that detestable situation.  I was bright eyed and bushy tailed for every sunrise—the perfect time to sniff out some good fishing.
      Of all the things that I missed about Minnesota, fishing had to be one of the biggest.  The cool air of an early dawn, the placid shoreline shrouded by pockets of mist, the crisp smell of a frigid lake…there is a spectacular tranquility to rhythmically casting your line out and waiting for that small tug.  Just being on the water with some good friends and a quiet morning is more than enough to make me happy.  As the saying goes, “Fishing was good.  Catching was bad.”

      That said, it’s always a bonus to catch a fish (and slightly less humiliating).  Sometimes we save them for a fresh supper, but the majority get to go free (after taking pictures, of course…because the fishing stories tend to be heard with a skeptical ear). It’s especially important to let the big ones go this time of the year, because the bass are full of new little fish.  I’d rather skip the fresh supper than have no luck fishing next year. 

      With fishing opener just passing and the beauty of Minnesota in full bloom (before the hordes of mosquitoes come looking for a snack), the best places were crowded with hopeful fishermen.  It felt good to be back on the water and asking fellow Minnesotans what’s biting.  Even if inquiries to what people are fishing with have vague answers, it always feels good to boast a nice catch.  That morning we caught walleye and small mouth bass (and I snagged a Northern Pike, whose teeth will give any potential swimmer a worried pause) and everything seemed right in the world.  There are many places of beauty in the world, but I can’t but agree that “there’s no place like home.”


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Always Walking Distance

I can still remember my first breath of Irish air. The morning was cool and crisp, sunlight just beginning to trickle over the rain soaked land. I could smell the sweet scent of fresh grass, rich earth and freshly turned soil. I remember feeling the sharp thrill of a journey, my eyes ever so ready to take in a new world. My first bus ride was a blur of foreign sights, fresh ideas and mesmerizing scenery. I felt—despite the jet lag—revived. I did not know where the journey would take me; I did not know what I would find. My first travels embedded a startling love of discover. My first breath of Irish air filled me with inspiration.
      And then life set in.  I remember slowly immersed myself in the culture and realizing that even though Ireland seemed different to me, this was still a home.  People worked, shopped, schooled and relaxed.  There were farms to tend, sheep to herd, shops to open and lives to live.  Ireland went about its routine and slowly the fascination with every little thing faded from my perspective.  By the end of the first month, I no longer needed to look up every bird I saw or every flower that bloomed.  I already knew what they were.  I no longer panicked when people drove on the left side of the road…that was where they were supposed to drive.  I stopped wondering why the cars were parked on the sidewalk, I started calling the sidewalk a walk path and when someplace had good ‘craic’ (pronounced ‘crack’), I didn’t worry about the nature of the establishment.  These weren’t strange things, they were everyday things.  Things that didn’t confuse me; things that simply were.

       Maybe it is because I am writing this in the Park Inn hotel across from Shannon airport, but I am filled with the strangest mixture of melancholy reminiscence and simmering panic.  The majority of St. Scholastica’s students left for the States last Monday and I had the pleasure of enjoying Ireland for a while longer, but the time to leave has finally come and I just can’t quite seem to accept it.  I knew that I would have to become attached to this place; how could I not after living here for almost four months?  What I did not expect was the depth of the feeling of loss.  Perhaps I will return to Ireland someday, but this experience was a once in a lifetime kind of deal.  I made wonderful friends with the students and while I will see them in the States, our journey in Ireland has come to an end.  It is a strange and sad thought.

          Of course, it’s never really the end.  It’s just a new turn in life’s journey.  Tomorrow I will be back in Minnesota and I know that it will feel like home.  The Ireland experience will have taught me new lessons and the memories I will carry forever, through my travels and over countless new paths.  Regardless of where you are, somewhere is always waiting.  No matter what you’re doing, there is always so much within walking distance. 


Note: To the northern border of a wild country: Ireland is in Walking Distance continues on the rugged landscape of the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes...

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Croagh Patrick

As we near the end of our time in Ireland, I find myself thinking back over the highlights of the trip.  The coldest that I have ever been (at a Gaelic football game), the best upper body workout that I’ve ever had (surfing in a bodysuit), the first Guinness I ever drank…the list keeps growing.  And as of last Tuesday, I can gladly (if slowly) add the newest of the Irish life experiences.  The hardest I have ever worked to go just under one, tiny little mile.  It took three and a half hours and my knees may never be the same.

Croagh Patrick is known as Ireland’s Holy Mountain.  It rises from the countryside like a rugged pyramid, shadowing a bay of the Atlantic Ocean and providing a landmark for any wandering around the Westport/Louisburgh area.  The peak rises 762 meters above sea level and can easily be seen from Louisburgh on a clear day.  Since first arriving here, I have used the mountain as a beacon—especially when returning from one of our long trips from across Ireland.  When I see Croagh Patrick, I know that I am almost home.  I have looked upon it with a mixture of respect and intimidation, because I have also known that eventually I was going to climb it.  Now that I am comfortably massaging my weary feet in front of our empty fireplace (I simply don’t have the energy to build one right now), I can only think back to when I stood at the very top of the mountain and shake my head.  This was the experience of a lifetime.

Hikers begin the climb from a small car park eight kilometers outside of Westport.  Beginning the climb is intimidating to say the least.  The trail snakes up the side of a shorter rise next to Croagh Patrick, the mountain itself being too steep at this point for hikers to safely climb it.  The path is made from sharp, loose rocks that roll and shift underneath the unwary hiker’s boots.  By the time we reached the crest of the first rise, I could feel my calf and thigh muscles burning and I was more than happy to take a short break.  The view, even from this midway point, was breathtaking.  The island riddled bay glistened to one side of the mountain while the other side harbored rolling mountains, dark patches of pine forest and (of course) small, rock lined pastures filled with grazing sheep.  It was when I turned to look at Croagh Patrick, however, that I felt my heart sink.  The mountain looked steeper and more daunting than ever.

At this point, we walked along the narrow crest of the shorter mountain until we reached the side of Croagh Patrick.  Many of the people in front of us were nearly crawling as they scrambled up the steep side, loose rocks rolling beneath the hikers.  As we started to climb, I could feel the backs of my hiking boots protesting against my heels and I knew that it would be hell to pay once I made it to the top.  One of the most difficult parts of the climb was the fact that for every step I took, I lost half a step when the rocks I stepped on shifted down the mountainside.  I honestly don’t know how the mountain hasn’t completely shifted into the sea after all these years of traveling hikers and pilgrims. 

After an hour of this, I didn’t have to worry about my feet anymore: I could no longer feel them.  I did however feel (and regret) every single croissant and doughnut that I’ve ingested during this three month period (and it’s no modest amount, because quite frankly the pastries here are amazing).  The last leg of the climb is the steepest and when my two friends and I heaved ourselves onto the mountain’s peak, we were all out of breath and wobbling about on very shaky legs.  However, the view quickly trumped my need to collapse.

It was a mildly hazy day, but even so I could see Louisburgh in the distance, along with Westport, the Atlantic and, of course, the surrounding mountains.  The clouds cast startlingly beautiful designs across the sun lit bay, dancing amongst the islands like an ever changing puzzle.  The wind was incredible and while I had been getting very warm while hiking, I was quickly chilled as I soaked in the view.  Soon we were beginning the slow climb back down and while I was certainly glad to no longer be going up, I still was amazed by the strain this descent made for my already shaky knees (not to mention that I spent much of the downward progress on my rear, since the rolling rocks were still…well, rolling).

It has been two days since we made the climb and I can still feel the aftermath on my very red heels and extraordinarily stiff shoulders.  Climbing Croagh Patrick reminded me of three very important things.  First, the world is a magnificent, beautiful place.  Second, the greatest things in life are often the hardest to achieve.  And finally…

 I am laying off the doughnuts.