Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Slieve League

The Cliffs of Moher are one of the most photographed places in Ireland, their sheer drop into the Atlantic attracting thousands of tourists from around the world.  But, as our bus driver so subtly announced, County Clare’s Cliff of Moher are a cute stepping stone to the less known Slieve League Cliffs of County Donegal.  Rising nearly twice as high as the Cliffs of Moher, these majestic giants stoically embrace humanity’s awe without the hustle of tourism that inevitably congests County Clare.

Of course, as with most things, to avoid the crowded streets and clogged pathways, one must go where it takes an effort to reach.  County Donegal is a beautiful area, with rolling pastures and abrupt ridges that protrude unexpectedly from the traditional Irish landscape.  Our coach driver, Owen, took a recently updated road along the coastline, winding along the rough contours of the Atlantic.  While narrow, the road was in good condition—the same cannot be said for its predecessor, which would abruptly vanish over the ridge’s side at random intervals during our drive.  I should have guessed that things were soon to change when Owen pulled over and declared that we would be switching busses.  Our second coach was considerably smaller.  When asked why, our new driver, Barry, chuckled and mentioned that the first one would not be able to turn around at the top.  It was not long before I realized that this was not entirely true.  Yes, the first coach would not have been able to turn around.  It also would have been hanging over the edge of either side of the road on the way up.  Which, by the way, supports traffic from both directions.  With sudden switchbacks and abrupt corners, the narrowing roadway had many of the students on the edge of their seats.  Barry had mentioned that the people on the left side of the bus should probably not be the faint of heart…how could I resist?  Front and left, I clung to my seat with white knuckled fists as the ground was suddenly swallowed beneath the edge of my window.  Three hundred feet straight down, the Atlantic surf foamed against the edge of Slieve League’s cliffs.

By the time we reached the car park, I was more than ready to have my feet on solid ground.  A mixture of wonder and terror swirled into my gut as I stepped free of the coach (no, it had nothing to do with the windy road we had just climbed).  The power of Slieve League is beyond words.  Pale cliffs spread against the brilliant blue of the Atlantic, sunlight pouring over the rocky landscape.  We had one of those random, unlikely days in Ireland where the sun exists in more than theory and the view was spectacular.  From the car park (or parking lot, depending on where you are from) a muddy pathway of carved, stone stairs crawls up the steep hillside, winding up and up and up to one of the highest points along the cliffs.  The ground surrounding the pathway is blanketed in short, cedar-like plants bearing what resembles blue juniper berries, these spiky plants growing from a solid mat of sphagnum moss.  Should you decide, like me, to venture free of the pathway, know that this carpet of vegetation can conceal unlikely surprises.  I was lucky enough to be watching my feet when I discovered that one step more and there would be nothing but empty air beneath them.  Hidden in the center of the hillside, a gaping crevice plunges into the earth, granite and quartz rock peeling back to reveal the bones of Slieve League.  Upon climbing down into this unlikely chasm, I found handfuls of quartz crystals and a heart-full of wonder.  Sunlight seared through the surface and settled on the dew encrusted stones, endowing this hidden world with golden light.  Thin rivulets of water trickled through the mosses, adding to the deep aroma of earth and water and I filled my lungs with the impossible beauty of this secret place.

Eventually I made my way farther up the hillside, where I once again lost my breath to awe.  On a clear day, you can see seven surrounding counties from the top of Slieve League.  Normally cloaked by the rolling countryside, I was surprised to see sunlight glistening from pockets of lakes, their bodies tucked into the swells of moss and stone.  Ocean winds blasted over the cliffs, whipping down the backside of Slieve League and tossing the grasses far below.  I turned in a slow circle.  There was nowhere I could look without being moved by a building sense of wonder.  If you are ever in Ireland, go to Slieve League.  Spend the day in Donegal.  Have fish and chips in Killybegs, where the incoming fishing vessels carry that day’s lunch.  Wander the hidden pathways and wonder at the power of the Atlantic.  And when you climb along the cliffs, take the time to lose the time.  It was my idea that I would find out who I am during my travels through Ireland.  At Slieve League, you don’t find out who you are.  You find who you were meant to be.

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