Day 1: Killarney to the Black Valley
You wake up in the dark. The wind outside is screaming. It’s the sea-bred, haystack-leveling wind that howled around Yeats’s tower and his stone bridge a hundred years ago. For an hour the poet paced and thought while gloom came in his mind. You’re not pacing. You’re lying in bed listening to the other-wordly wind.
Your bed is in the last room on the west side of the farmhouse, and the farmhouse is the last structure in the valley, and the valley is in the mountains, beyond the tourist town and above the lakes above the town. They call the mountains reeks. Saw-tooth edges of their peeks shred that Atlantic wind as it rushes from the sea. The wind undulates in streaming banners blowing from the peaks.
Your feet still feel the ache of stone. Your hips feel the ache of climbs. The wind kept pressing on the walls of the house and rattling the window panes. You feel like you were transported into another world. You think of faerie things, the ancient Tuatha da Danaan, the elven people who lived in Ireland before the Celts. Shape shifters. Soul stealers.
The eerie old farm woman who opened the farmhouse door. Her hand whispered a gesture that drew you inside. She closes her door, shutting the tempest outside. Water’s coming in streams off your raincoat. You prise your feet out of your hiking shoes and leave them under the radiator in the hall.
The farm woman might have been seventy or she might have been a hundred-twenty years-old. Nanny goat hair curled under her chin. When she mumbled her jaw seemed to chew the words sideways like a masticating goat. Her leg was something.
“I’m sorry, what?” you say, leaning your ear towards her.
Her leg was suffering, she whispered.
She was brittle as a dead leaf. When she led you down the dim corridor, she moved like a marionette, bobbing, floating.
Joyce had names for her, messenger of a morning world, silk of the kine, wandering crone, the poor old woman, names given her in old times, shan van vocht.
She’s asleep now somewhere deeper in the house. The howling winds don’t disturb her sleep.
When we started out that morning, skies were blue and clean white clouds skimmed across the mountain tops. We hiked beyond the people who were going back to the tourist town in the afternoon. They didn’t go further than the waterfall at the first ascent. We climbed above the waterfall and came eventually into a high, treeless declivity in the mountain tops. There was grass and gorse and brush and no people at all, and the one tree bent with its branches streaming like witch’s hair. The tree branches pointed to the east. The wind came off the sea from the west.
A creek of clear water ran over stones down the middle of the high valley, and we ate our lunch next to one of its pools. Cheese and bread and apples, like a Hemingway lunch. Your legs felt good to sit down on the bank of the creek. The water must have fed the stream that fed the waterfall down in the woods a thousand feet below.
You remember the morning start of the hike. You followed the paved path out of the tourist town. The shop fronts were still asleep. Droplets of dew jeweled the sleeping cars. You stood under a tree on the margin of the path to let five horses pulling five empty carriages trot by. They were headed into the town square to wait for their first fares. Each driver touched his cap or nodded at you as their horses trotted by.
After lunch, you remember, you followed the path went sharply up the side slope of the ridge, and the rocks are almost like stone steps. Some are too high for steps. Sometimes your hands help pull you up to the next step. Two people above you stand aside at a landing. They are going down. The woman is eating something out of a cellophane wrapper. The man talks excitedly.
“You are going into the Black Valley?” he says the way German people speak perfect English, more like a statement than a question. You think, where else would we be going? But it was just a way of opening conversation.
You say stupidly, “You’re coming from there?”
“Nine days,” he says. His eyes are amazed.
The woman’s hand is holding the wrapper up to her mouth, and she’s eating like a bird, dipping her beak into the food.
“You hiked the whole thing?” you ask.
“Nine days,” he says. “This is our last day.” He’s giddy. Nine days of walking did it to him.
“It’s our first day,” you say. You haven’t suffered much yet, hardly more than the day-hikers at the waterfall.
Who you were on the other side of the tourist town is disappearing. You take on a new identity. You’re a hiker, and no day-tripper either but a through hiker. So you and the German feel kinship.
“Bad weather coming,” he warns, and because he’s not a native speaker it comes out gleeful. He’ll be out of it. We’re headed into it.
You look west. Misty clouds are already beginning to stream over the battlements of the mountains, banners in the blue sky.
Up up and over the ridge. We stood still, like Cortez in the poem. There below us the valley, a place hidden from time. Cell phones don’t work. This was the last place in Ireland to get electricity. The road into the Black Valley goes nowhere–it dead ends at the far side. Remote.
The wind was hard and steady. We put on our sweatshirts and started down.
You lose track of time. You’ve been walking forever. There’s the twenty yards of trail in front of you and the landscape stretching out for miles. The sun disappeared. The sky was a gray lid. It might have been any hour of the day. No shadows telling time. Summer disappeared. We put on our raincoats because the damp air turned winter cold.
We came to a bog. That’s when the fog and the rain started. It wasn’t rain. It was water lifted out of the Atlantic and thrown like spears. The Black Valley is twenty miles or so from the coast. That’s as the crow flies. The road route twists through the Gap of Dunloe and winds over forty miles. Twenty miles of the mountains separated us from the Atlantic. But I swear the rain was coming sideways right out of the sea, a million darts thrown by Manannán mac Lir. The pelting rain came in pulses. It was hard and then harder and then hard again, like it was a living thing moving in a rhythm, and we who were no longer conscious things caught the rhythm. We were beasts only, insensate. Sore muscles, blistered toes, cold wet faces. We put our heads down and leaned into the harder wind. We lifted our heads when it lessened. We trudged.
There was nothing to see. The fog hid the mountains except the nearer slopes. We put our heads down again, looking at our legs and our boots, completely soaked through. Trudge, lean, trudge, lean.
When we could go no further the farmhouse appeared a mile away, a speck of yellow in the green countryside. Trudge. Head down. Rain howling past us. Day One was finished.