Day 11, Mind Over Matter

Spanish Point → Doolin

Mileage:   22.1 miles                                                       Elevation gain:   1,278’

Total mileage so far: 477.7 miles           Total elevation gain so far: 25,374’

You’re not going to believe this but it’s raining and quite windy on the west coast of Ireland this morning. I had two gloriously sunny days, which I suppose was some sort of record for the Wild Atlantic Way, and today the wind and rain have returned with a vengeance. Perhaps the sun is tired from all that shining and needs a nap.

Check-out in Spanish Point is not until 12:00 PM. I’ve got a short ride today so I’m snuggled into a comfy chair in the hotel lobby with a cup of tea. I can leave as late as I like and noon sounds about right.

In my inbox is an email from Paul, the owner of Wild Atlantic Cycling. Apparently my post about Simon had him in stitches. “Poor lad didn’t even get his shower!” he wrote with a chuckle. His reaction surprises me because when I was writing it I had felt so earnest, a sincerely conflicted solo traveler wrestling with deep-seated emotions far away from home.

Meanwhile Paul was laughing his arse off. And now another friend is congratulating me for “adulting with the Frenchie” via a text message from home.

I go back and read the post through their eyes. I can’t tell you how much it helps to lighten my mood. Does this entire month have to be a constant analysis of the depths of my overall loneliness, or can I relax and actually enjoy the experience? I admit that I do have a tendency to take myself, and life, a little too seriously. Europe may not be the best place to do that.

The rain and the wind are not letting up and at some point you just have to get up and get on with your day. I pack my panniers, prime á la Tony Robbins and pull up the hood on the new rain jacket I picked up in Dingle. Today I’m listening to my Peak State music playlist in my headphones for the first time and it’s making a huge difference. The rain pelts me but I don’t care because Katy Perry is passionately reminding me I’ve got the eye of the tiger / a fighter / Dancing through the fire / ‘Cause I am the champion / and you’re gonna hear me ROAR…

I’m flying with the wind at my back. This isn’t the prettiest ride so far but it’s the most exhilarating because finally my head is in the right place. Passing my 473rd cow pasture bobbing my head to Party Rock Anthem by LMFAO is a lot more fun today than it was yesterday without the tunes. And I think the cows are taking note as well. More and more of them are popping their heads up to check me out. “Hi guys!” I yell with a wave as usual.

Half way to Doolin I start to realize I haven’t been letting myself do enough of the things that keep me balanced. I’ve had my head down trying so hard to fully experience where I am that I’ve unintentionally bottled myself up. It’s gotta be OK to be me here, even if I look and sound like a dork at least I’m smiling and letting my guard down.

This month long trip is too long for me to not practice at least some of the daily rituals I’m accustomed to. For today, traditional Irish fiddling is dead to me. It’s just Katy and Gaga and PitBull from Spanish Point to Doolin. And with happy fun music in my ears the ancient ruins I’ve been avoiding on the sides of every road start to feel less creepy and a little bit more interesting.

Some of them make me grin. Seriously this is what I’ve been passing every day. You know, just some cows grazing below a medieval castle.

And I don’t think of the storm clouds as a hindrance so much as just a simple fact of every day and nothing worth worrying about.

Even the international hostel I check into is less annoying and much more comfortable than I would normally think.

Doolin is an adorable town on the Aille River. I’m looking forward to exploring it tomorrow and I’m feeling a little bit more like I can see this journey to the end. Sending love and light ❤

Day 10, Dinner with Simon

Ballybunnion → Spanish Point

Mileage:   56.0 miles                                                       Elevation gain:   2,241’

Total mileage so far:  455.6 miles         Total elevation gain so far: 24,096′

This morning starts with a 12 mile ride to the ferry that goes from Tarbert in County Kerry over the River Shannon to Killimer in County Clare. The Wild Atlantic Way covers six Irish counties and today I’m entering my third.

On the ferry I run into a French guy—the same one Noel and I said a quick hello to at the café at the Gap of Dunloe four days ago. We chat for the twenty minute ferry ride but then take off separately once we reach the shore. Initially he is taking a left and my GPS is telling me to go straight so I do. I can see on my map that we’ll end up in the same place but I tell myself I need to stick to my route. I know he’ll ride much faster than me and I need to stay focused on my own safety. Sure the French guy seems nice but I’m a single woman traveling abroad. Who knows what could happen if I’m not careful.

My adventurous spirit is waning today. Maybe it’s because I’m on another long dull slog through cow country. If the second half of yesterday reminded me of Iowa, then today I feel like I’m in Kansas. To those unfamiliar with the tedious repetition of the American Midwest, neither of those is a compliment.

But Ireland’s got a fuck ton of peninsulas and they can’t all be the Ring of Beara. Yes some of them will be mind bogglingly gorgeous but others, like today’s Peninsula du Jour Loop Head, will just be boring.

Or maybe my spirits have dropped because I miss my dogs so much. I’ve never been separated from them for this long and at night I find myself wishing more than anything that they were curled up next to me keeping me safe (read : hogging half the bed).

Overall the rides and experiences are amazing. It’s the end of the day when I check into my room and have no one to re-live the highs and lows with over dinner that I find myself slipping into negativity. The loneliness of solo travel is catching up with me and I find it difficult to engage with new people. In the U.S. we don’t really do the talk-to-strangers thing.

Halfway through the day I stop at the Wild Atlantic Break, a cute coffee shop in Doonbeg. The song on the radio is that one that goes “I see you baby, shakin’ that ass, shakin’ that ass” and all of a sudden I’m laughing. It reminds me of the friends I met a few months back at the Tony Robbins seminar I went to and Joseph McClendon’s refreshing advice that we should constantly give ourselves high fives and shake our ass.

After checking into my room I take a walk down to the beach at Spanish Point and listen to a Tony Robbins priming exercise in my headphones. From that point on I start to remember all the things in life that bring me joy and comfort. Meditations, songs, comics. At a café by the beach I pull up a David Sedaris New Yorker article on my phone and feel closer to home and every day normalcy as I bite into a panini that, I swear to god, comes with boiled carrots in it. (We can all agree that Ireland isn’t known for its cuisine, right?)

A few minutes after I sit down to eat, the French guy finds me again. I learn his name is Simon and he joins me for dinner. He orders the fish and chips as the sun starts to come out, sparkling off the ocean and warming us up at our table by the window.

Simon’s English is pretty good and for the most part we compare notes on the day with little confusion. As we finish up our food I tell him there’s live music and free WiFi at my hotel. Simon is camping so anyplace warm with WiFi is a place he wants to be. But when we get there the WiFi is in and out non-stop, the worst I’ve experienced so far, and the music won’t be starting until 10:00 PM, too late for Simon who needs to be at camp before dark. He jokes that I promised him the world and gave him nothing, but still we sit down for a drink and keep on talking. He gets a Guinness. I order my new favorite thing: Lemon Club.

He tells me about Le Grand Sentier, a 22,000 km (14,000 mile) trek that crisscrosses all over Canada that he wants to do. I’m impressed but it sounds way too cold. I tell him about the Pan American Highway, a 30,000 km (19,000 mile) route that starts in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska and runs south through twenty-one countries including Canada, the U.S., and most of Central and South America ending in Ushuaia at the southernmost tip of Argentina.

Then Simon opens my eyes to a gold mine: the EuroVelo routes. Holy moly! Do you guys know about these? There are thirteen of them covering all of Europe. He did #6 on the Crossbar CR7 bike he’s on now, sneakers and flat pedals the whole way. He shows me on a map how he started from his home in Nantes, France and rode 4,500 km across ten countries to Romania.

I’m writing on my laptop and Simon wants to know if I’m going to blog about him. I tell him maybe. I’m impressed that he’s camping the entire way and traveling with only one piece of equipment—a tiny gas operated stove so he can make fresh coffee each morning. He steals sugar packets from the table as he explains the device to me. I appreciate how hard core he is, especially considering how sleight he seemed at first glance. Something about his French accent and tiny frame made it seem like he would melt in hot water.

Simon thinks he’s older than me, and that is a beautiful thing because he is 28 and I am 39. Simon also wants to have a shower in my room but that’s where I draw the line. Now I know what you’re thinking. I can hear you screaming at your computer screen. “Jennifer! When a cute young French guy wants to get naked in your hotel room, you let him!” Frankly I think Simon would move in with me if I allowed it, but no. I’m just not feeling it. Cute, yes, but in a very boyish kind of way.

I know I’m probably the only American woman alive who doesn’t get turned on by a French accent, but what can I say? This evening what I really needed was company and conversation and I got it. I really believe that my ability to relax on the beach (thank you Tony Robbins!) and invite in a lightness is what allowed it to come into being.

This trip is not taxing me physically nearly as much as it is mentally and emotionally. Tonight I am so thankful to have gotten a break from the loneliness, to have gotten to say, “Kilkee was boring as hell but did you see those crazy Irish kids surfing?” And to have someone respond excitedly, “Yes! What were they thinking?! It must be freezing in that water!”

Sending love and light from Spanish Point ❤

Day 9, Sheep Shearing up on Connor Pass

Dingle → Ballybunnion via Connor Pass and Brandon Point

Mileage:  74.6 miles                                                     Elevation gain:   3,849′

Total mileage so far:   399.6 miles     Total elevation gain so far:   21,855′

This morning I’m climbing 1,700’ out of Dingle to the top of Connor Pass. I put my bike into the small ring manually. (Did I even mention the part about how my bicycle doesn’t let me shift down into my low gear while I’m riding and that’s a big part of why I haven’t gotten up all the steep hills?) I’m covered in grease but I’ll be able to make it all the way without dismounting.

It’s ridiculously windy at the top of the pass.I don’t stay long because I’ll get too cold if I do.

Halfway down the backside I come across some live action sheep shearing on the cliff side of the road. This is the beauty of traveling by bicycle. The drivers are concerned about passing on the dangerous single lane curves that fill this descent. Meanwhile I’m swiftly weaving my way through stopped traffic full of nervous tourists and pausing on the side of the road to chat with local sheep shearers. I never would have caught this if I was in a car.

They tell me I can have a discount on a haircut today.

The wind blasts up the pass with such ferocity that I barely need to squeeze my brakes for the three and a half mile coast down. Even with a 10% grade the wind holds me back to a comfortable cruise. Mount Brandon towers to my left and the ocean stretches out in front of me.

When I get down to the bottom I take a left to head out to Brandon Point. I’m not sure at the turn off if it’s going to be worth the extra miles but it absolutely is. The views of Ferndoyle Strand (beach) are so cool. Low tide has dramatically pulled the ocean far out from the shore. I’ve never seen anything like it.

I take a few pictures then ride down to the beach to experience the salty sea air and take a snack break. After that, and for a long time, I’m on a road that climbs high above the shoreline. Cow pastures fill the space in between me and the ocean. It’s a beautiful clear day and I am loving every minute of it.

The second half of my ride from Tralee to Ballybunnion is surprisingly boring. It’s the first dull stretch since I started in Kinsale. The route turns a bit inland and I kind of feel like I’m in Iowa farm country. (No offense, Bret.) For thirty miles I’ve got my head down, hands in the drops, spinning into the wind. This part is more of a workout than climbing the pass had been.

It’s a sweet relief when I get into the cute seaside resort town of Ballybunnion and can stop pedaling. This is where the River Shannon opens up to the sea. It’s a beautiful area and I feel quite welcome upon my arrival to town.

Day 8, Hobnobbing in Dingle

Rest day in Dingle

Mileage:  0 miles                                                                     Elevation gain:   0′

Total mileage so far:   325.0 miles       Total elevation gain so far:   18,006′

I’ve been here once before but I was a different person then and Dingle was a different town. There was no Oceanworld Aquarium, no tourist shops selling tacky shamrock and leprechaun tchotchkes, no carnival rides on the pier. And it was certainly not known as the ‘foodie’ capital of Ireland.

It was just a quiet, though colorful, seaside fishing village that attracted hostelers, artists and musicians from all around the world.

I was sixteen years old in 1994. Wider eyed with a mid-90’s grunge style—dark blue flannel, always green pants and purposefully mismatched socks inside my silver Doc Martens—when I flew over to meet up with my sister who was studying abroad.

All of my memories from that trip are affixed tightly to the emotions I was feeling. Anxiety on the ride from the Dublin Airport clear across the country on a bus that had to take on the passengers of another that had broken down on the side of the road. Fear that we would be robbed or murdered if we stayed at the Rainbow Hostel just outside of town. Relief when my sister solved that problem by finding us a private room at a B&B. (Does she remember the bathroom closet?) And wonder as we walked around at night and I saw more stars in the sky than I ever knew existed.

For three days we “backpacked” around (meaning we carried backpacks and we walked around). At the one local convenience store (probably the Spar that’s still there) we bought a loaf of bread, jars of peanut butter & jelly, and a sleeve of the best cookies imaginable: HobNobs. Basically crispy oat cookies with chocolate coating on one side, also known as sweet perfection, quite possibly the most delicious cookie in the world.

I remember very little about the details of that trip but the feeling of it has stayed deeply rooted in me ever since. My sister opened me up to a world I would have been afraid to approach on my own. She didn’t get mad when I didn’t want to hitchhike to the Rainbow, she just solved the problem in town so I could feel comfortable. She didn’t make me try new foods (except delicious cookies of course). But she did insist we go to a pub and listen to the locals play traditional Irish music. And with all that, she gently set my life on a course of adventure.

Here’s me today with my Hob Nobs, wishing she was with me sharing them ❤

Day 7, Stopping To Take Pictures of Cows

Killarney → Dingle and the Slea Head Loop

Mileage:  67.3 miles                                                        Elevation gain:  2,892′

Total mileage so far: 325.0 miles           Total elevation gain so far: 18,006′

One of Noel’s pet peeves is people who stop on the side of the road to take pictures of cows. I never let on to him that I am one of those people. For our six days together he respectfully refrained from taking pictures of his food, which is my pet peeve, and I repeatedly beat back my urge to pull out my phone as we passed cow after cow after cow.

But those days are over. Noel is gone now and I’m free to take pictures of whatever I want.

Hey girl, how you doin’?

My first true solo ride is spectacular. From Killarney to the beginning of the Dingle Peninsula I cruise along back country roads around little farms. Once I get back out to the ocean the landscape changes and grows more and more dramatic the farther out I get.

Dingle town is a crowded tourist trap. I’m happy to get through it as quickly as I can and take the turn onto Slea Head Drive. I’m going to make a long loop out to Ballydavid where I’m meeting my parents. They landed a few days ago and have been traipsing about Dublin and Cork. This evening they’re coming to Dingle and we’ll all get a day together tomorrow.

Every inch of Slea Head Drive takes my breath away.

I’m tired today and with my parents now. Though the scenery and rides have already surpassed my expectations, homesickness is overwhelming me tonight. I hope I can fight my way through and see this journey to the end but in this moment I’m not exactly sure.

Sending love & light ❤

Day 6, Two Gaps and a Valley

Kenmare → Killarney via Moll’s Gap and the Gap of Dunloe

Mileage:  35.6 miles                                                        Elevation gain:   1,591′

Total mileage so far:  257.7 miles           Total elevation gain so far:  15,114′

I’m thankful for the rain today because it’s sending us on a route I would never have discovered otherwise. The rain is steady enough to make it tough to leave my B&B, but stalling in a dry room really only delays the end of the day. It doesn’t change how much time will be spent getting wet. And once I get out on the road I realize the rain’s not as heavy as we expected.

I’m only leaving with a twenty minute head start this morning but it’s enough to get me to the top of Moll’s Gap before Noel. I make a video of him cresting the hill as I cheer congratulations for his second place finish, ha!

The descent into the Black Valley is just awe inspiring. It’s not a desolate or scary place as the name implies. It’s only called the Black Valley because it was the last place to get electricity. Once we get down to the bottom we race alongside a raging creek. The small rolling hills are again like mini roller coasters and we zip up, down and around quick narrow corners for miles. All in all I think we pass three houses, only two of which may be inhabited.

On the far side of the valley we begin the ascent up to the Gap of Dunloe. A gap in Ireland is a mountain pass. It’s a tough climb filled with sheep on both sides of the road. The views stretch for miles but nothing prepares me for what’s coming at the top. I almost can’t believe it when I get there.

I wouldn’t know how to begin to describe the Gap of Dunloe. I can share a picture.

I can tell you about the Wishing Bridge,

the men driving horse buggies, the dips and turns and the beautiful lakes. But nothing will compare the experience of being there.

Before continuing down into Killarney we stop for tea and one of the most delicious berry muffins I’ve ever had at The Coffee Pot Cafe.

And for the rest of the day we explore the old city from end to end including my first castle, Ross Castle, and of course more ice cream, this time from Murphy’s. Noel knows the city well and insists we end our night at The Killarney Grand. From the outside you’d never think to give it a chance, but the locals know it’s the place to be for the best Irish music in town.

This is a very bittersweet night for me. It’s exactly the experience I’ve been excited to have, but it’s also my last night with my impeccable tour guide Noel until we meet again in Galway.

Day 5, A Day off in Kenmare

Rest day in Kenmare

Mileage:  4 miles around town                                             Elevation gain:  0′

Total mileage so far:  222.1 miles           Total elevation gain so far:  13,523

Noel estimates we burned between 3,000-4,000 calories yesterday so I had goat cheese bruschetta, garlic bread, pasta, a side of vegetables and apple pie for dinner last night. This morning I plowed through pancakes, toast, a protein shake, tea and orange juice while the family across from me looked on in shock and horror. An early lunch of avocado sandwich, salad and fresh juice gave way to a mid-afternoon waffle cone of Kenmare’s finest mint chocolate chip ice cream. Late day snack was a Clif bar and some ON Essential Amino Energy. And I honestly can’t wait for dinner.

A day off between rides is necessary for rest but I have to admit it’s a bit of a downer. Long rides bring a sort of cyclists’ high. They are grueling and exhausting but bloody wonderful. At the end you feel the absolute best kind of tired, but on a rest day you kinda just feel blah.

Kenmare is a cute village with a small pier and a bustling town center. Noel and I take a stroll to the stone circle which was built during the Bronze Age (2,200 – 500 B.C.). Stone circles are believed to be ritual sites, often orientated on specific solar or lunar events. Little is known about them but the Kenmare site is likely the burial place of someone who was once considered very important.

We’re tired today and a little blasé. After a few more tourist stops to see the pier and a big beautifully constructed church, we head back to our rooms to rest.

On the main thoroughfare every other door leads to a bar with live music. Foley’s, O’Donnabhain’s, Davitt’s, Crowley’s and on. Later we hop into one for dinner then check out the others for music.

The forecast for tomorrow is a 95% chance of heavy rain. My idea to ride the Ring of Kerry is scrapped because it’s a very long slog and we’ll see none of it in the weather. Noel has a better plan to head up to Moll’s Gap, down into the Black Valley (one of Ireland’s most remote areas) and on to Killarney through the Gap of Dunloe.

“Even in this crap weather you won’t be disappointed,” he promises. “It’s a short day, only 50 miles or so,” he continues as the banjo and guitar start up. “We can take off together, but if you leave without me, I’ll meet you at the top of Moll’s Gap.”

I just smile. “We’ll see.” 🙂