‘Your future self is watching you right now through memories’ – Aubrey de Grey
It’s often said that what happens on the road stays on the road but I’m going to break with that tradition as you can tell by the title of this latest instalment of ramblings. This is the final part of this series and as I write this, it’s the week before Christmas and another year has flown by. Not as much bike travel this year, purely because I have been saving holiday/money for more/bigger trips next year. I think it goes without saying that Ireland on this trip was as fabulous as ever. Like the memories of your first true love, the feelings never change.
The shot above is taken on the road from the McGillicuddy Reeks to the Ballaghisheen Pass and it’s as straight as an arrow. With no one around at all and a long straight stretch of tarmac ahead of me I kept to 60mph all the way along it. Well, two untruths there. Firstly, there were purple bottomed sheep and secondly, I didn’t look at the speedo so I can’t be entirely sure it was exactly 60mph.
As the tarmac flits by underneath the wheels, I sometimes feel as though I am on a never ending escape – like the real life version of those nightmares when you sense there is something chasing you. Every new dawn washes away the memories of the previous day and the world opens up in front of you, deftly avoiding any reason to look backwards and be lured into the comforting arms of familiarity and routine.
I often wonder about the reasons why people ‘travel’. Are they running from their memories in a vain attempt to extinguish the fires of their own personal hell or are they running towards that next horizon, hoping to find a better version of familiarity and routine. Or maybe they are just seeking to provide a diet of yet more high tech ignorance for sharing and liking before they perish in a blaze of obscurity.
I’d met an American lass in a pub on the Beara one night and a three way conversation between me, her and a farmer was about the oddest meeting of minds you will get at the foot of the Healy pass. A 25 year old reiki healer, a lifelong dairy farmer and me. With conversations ranging from the weather and cattle sinking into the mud and the prices of imports of feed from the EU through to the healing powers of crystals and the revelation that you can become a master healer without ever having had a ‘patient’. The guinness flowed and we talked about travel and Wisconsin and her degree in Economics and her family farm. I said little, sensing that she needed to talk and let it all out (a rare occurrence for a female). It felt like an attempt to make sense of what to do with her life, albeit paraphrased in the language of someone who has read but never lived. I swirled the last of my guinness, savoured the final gulp and threw on my jacket, ready to face the 2 mile walk through the rain back to my tent. I wished her luck with her travels, she smiled and then said ‘thank you for enriching my life’. Those words hung in the air as I walked back through the driving rain, nodding at the cows that were sinking in the mud.
You always know when the evening is coming to an end when someone strums the first few chords of Waltzing Matilda. Perching on a stool at 3am after far too many pints and whiskies takes a lot of concentration. You sway, you correct yourself, your foot slips off the wood and you massively overreact, throwing your hands out as though a sinkhole has opened beneath you. then you disguise it all by reaching once more for the glass in the vain hope of finding salvation in yet one more mouthful. Being in a bar in the middle of absolutely nowhere with an Austrian opera singer, 2 german long distance cyclists, a couple of Yorkshire bikers and 2 American walkers along with half a dozen locals does not engender an early night.
The guitar came out at about 1am and I don’t recall most of the songs. I think wonder wall was in there at some point as was whisky in the jar. The volume of the singing seemed strangely to be proportional to the number of beers consumed. Having an opera singer belting out every tune makes you feel very self conscious of your voice with most of us mumbling along like insolent children until the scales of inebriation tipped in our favour. He sang, we shouted out the chorus and yet more pints appeared magically in front of us, presumably a divine gift from Apollo himself.
The cloud above is how I nursed my hangover, sitting with head almost touching my chest, my eyes bleeding from the light and my legs dangling over the rocks. I chose caffeine and carbs that day in a completely pointless attempt to convince myself that at my age I could shake off hangover like when I was 20. Not just the hangover though is it? 4am. My god, I’ve usually getting up at that point. The combination of cirrhosis levels of alcohol and lack of sleep put my willpower at an all time low. Thats my excuse for spending the evening watching the Eurovision song contest with an Irish woman from Dublin and her friend who was from London. They both worked for the same company and were taking a few days out at the end of a sales conference to visit Kerry. Three settees in the TV area, each of us had one with the table in-between decorated with the remnants of a curry that they had cooked earlier. The conversation naturally moved to Brexit. I wanted to sat something like that we were all one people planet wide and we should live in harmony and avoid the agenda of an elite that manipulates us through divide and rule. I didn’t though. I think it may have been the Latvian entry, I don’t recall, that stunned us all into silence with a visual and aural assault that probably has only been matched in war. I’m not sure if that makes me a leaver or a remainer having seen that.
It was only when processing this shot of the Black Valley that the emptiness of the frame gave me pause for thought. This was taken at about 11am but if I had taken this later the day, there would have been a figure half way down the road and walking towards the camera.
That lonely figure would most definitely have been moving away from the past and looking for a new horizon as she huffed and puffed up the hill. With a walking spike in one hand, red walking bottoms and an even redder face, framed by shoulder length curly hair she was intent on walking the paths of Kerry. With no walking experience, being completely unfit and carrying considerable more weight than is healthy she had set herself a target of walking the Kerry way solo.
A misplaced figure when you saw the bulk of the walkers being bags of wind swept sinew and bone with all the latest gore-tex and backpacks. She had flown in from San Francisco, bought her gear at a local shop and set off on her merry way despite never having read a map before. She was acutely aware of her weight, her lack of fitness and even more so, her lack of experience and the warnings she had been given at the walking shop.
Megan had been in a long term relationship that had ended abruptly and although she didn’t say much more than that, the heart ache was clear to see as well as the self-consciousness of her weight. I sense the two were linked but I’ll never know and nor did I want to because, quite simply, it was irrelevant and hopefully she will see that in her own time.
Her body ached and she was struggling with the miles she had already covered but I told her that the worst was behind her and it was less hilly from now on. I’ve no idea if it is to be honest as I’ve not walked it but I guess that falls into the white lies category.
I guess there’s two things I take from this. Firstly, you can put yourself into any photo if you want to, either in real life or by walking in another shoes. Secondly, whether by bike or foot or car, you can leave your past behind by looking for a new horizon rather than dwelling on the past, no matter how painful that may be. I think it was the Dalai Llama who said ‘every day we are born anew’
I’ve no doubt she made it and eventually met her mum at the end who was flying in to be with her for her birthday. Focus and determination conquers all.
The tranquility of remoteness is amplified at night. The peace of the day is always interrupted by birdsong, by the distant sounds of a car or by the burst of light through the clouds. At night that stops.
It’s you, the kiss of the wind on your cheeks and the hypnotic rhythm of the sea as she draws breath and then exhales on to the rocks.
As your eyes adjust to the dark, the whole canvas of the heavens becomes your horizon with a million points of light that seem to draw you in to the centre of the Universe. You feel small, those mountains you saw in the stark light of day seem small and as a star falls to earth leaving its last trail of light in the void, you realise just how small you really are.
Watching the red tail light of a plane pulse its way across the night sky gives a fleeting sense of company but as it passes into the dark, your senses return to the slow breathing of the sea, the feeling of remoteness returns and you are alone with your thoughts.
The things that keep us apart, keep me alive. The things that keep me alive, keep me alone. I’m not sure all these people would understand why it deserves a quiet night.
My final night of this strip was spent in the Wicklow mountains. It had been a long ride back from Kerry and I’d pulled in at a petrol station for the usual sandwich and cup of tea and a play with the suspension which had given up several days previously and made cornering an unwelcome lesson in physics and mortality.
The mountains in Wicklow are stunning, especially if you get off the beaten track. I was staying at a small farm and after a few miles of riding up a single track I eventually pulled into the deep gravel outside the farmhouse and the farmer showed me to the small outbuilding which would be my home for the night. I sat outside, slugging water from my pack while I scanned the forest which surrounded the buildings. Looking skywards, I caught the last glints of the sun clipping the canopy and savoured the warmth on my face. Even in that quiet, I hadn’t heard Cindy approach. We spent a short while sat on the steps but I took my leave despite the disappointed look on her face, telling her I would be back later after finding something to eat and taking some shots of sunset across the mountains.
I headed off to a pub which was several miles away down single tracks, almost coming off the bike as a deer jumped a cattle fence and landed right in my path before jumping again and heading off into the forest on the other side of the road. I eased off on the throttle – it had been a long day and riding rutted single track with wild deer around was asking for trouble. Having eaten, I headed back up the tracks and past the farm, glancing sideways to see Cindy walking across the grass. I waved and carried on into the heart of the mountains, eager to get to the view of the lakes before sunset. The sunset was beautiful but unfortunately, my lack of planning had put me on the wrong side of the lake and so the shots were poor – I’ll return next year.
Back across the moors and the fuel light glowed. I glanced down and saw just 12 miles remaining of fuel range – it should come on at 50. GPS was showing 9 miles to the farm and I knew for certain that the nearest fuel was back where I had eaten…another 6 miles beyond the farm. It was a fraught journey, riding single track after the sun has gone down with little visibility into the woods to see if a deer was about to run into my path is not something you would choose to do. No matter how hard I peered into the creeping darkness, all I could see was that orange fuel light glowing. I found fuel eventually although I was on fumes when I got there and began the ride back up the track once again, arriving back at the farm in the dark with aching shoulders and an overwhelming sense of relief.
Cindy wandered over after a few minutes and I smiled. We spent an hour walking at the edge of the forest, feeling the crunch of twigs beneath our feet and enjoying the awkward silences. I woke early the next morning as sunlight streamed through the thin curtains, I slipped out of bed quietly, grabbed my water and sat outside on the steps. Cindy joined me a few moments later, sitting at my side. I looked down and smiled, reaching out to stroke her hair as she pressed against my leg. A perfect moment.
What amazed me most was the small collection of rocks that she had gathered overnight and left on the steps as a present for me. I smiled, headed out on to the grass and threw them for her as we had done the previous evening, such boundless energy she had as time after time she fetched the rock and skidded to a heart in front of me with a tail wagging like a death metal metronome.
So that was Ireland in 2018, as good if not better than ever. Amazing biking, amazing scenery, amazing people. I will be back, my affair with the mistress of isolation is an intoxicating one
I talked earlier about the reasons why people travel but I didn’t include perhaps the most important reason. I don’t know who made the original quote but it goes something like this – the reason we work is to pay into our pension of cash, the reason we travel is to invest in our pension of memories.
It’s almost 2019 and whatever 2018 has been like for you, good or bad, I wish you all the best for the coming year. we truly are born anew every day – make each of them count.