Days 19 & 20, Bye Bye Belmullet

Achill Island → Belmullet → Ballina

Mileage:  120.5 miles                                                      Elevation gain:  4,660’

Total mileage so far:  789.1 miles         Total elevation gain so far:  38,843’


Yesterday I left Achill Island around 9:00 AM and suffered all the way to Belmullet, which lies somewhere in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Belmullet is like small town U.S.A. where people have nothing better to do than race Greyhounds, set off fireworks and do donuts in the middle of the street.

There was a group of men, maybe five or six, working on mopeds at the B&B I stayed at. One of them, tall and handsome, smiled at me when I walked in with a grocery bag full of dinner snacks—cheese sticks, bread roll, a pint of blueberries. I thought he was an American, but when I made a joke about how many of them there were they all kind of grunted in confusion and looked away. It turned out they were German and none of them spoke English, but I was proud of myself for at least attempting to make conversation.

It’s quite possible that Belmullet is actually beautiful but I have no idea. I paid it no attention whatsoever. I ate my snacks and went to bed early, feeling cranky and depressed.

This morning I don’t feel any better. Though the fog is thick and the rain spritz starts early, I can’t wait to get out of here. The Germans are in the driveway suiting up in the most outrageously overdressed way. Standing next to them I fling my leg over my bicycle. My calves are bare, my thin jersey the only layer under my even thinner rain shell. I don’t wear insulated gloves like them or sunglasses. I don’t wear shoe covers. I am exposed.

I pull out ahead of them, quietly grumbling, “Pussies,” under my breath. A quarter mile down the road they each pass me with a wave and at the corner they turn south where as I continue north.

The streets are empty. There is no one out. Not a single house has a light on inside or a car in the driveway. It’s Sunday but the church parking lots are empty. Where has everyone gone?

It’s a dark and dreary day and for the first time I’m cold. For a few miles I cycle in and out of tiny forests before being spit out into a void.

The landscape is different up here. Vast swaths of emptiness stretch as far as my eyes can see. Out here there is nothing, no side streets, no houses. I think to myself, all of this has to mean something. All this loneliness, all this drudgery, these miles after miles after miles on my own.

My first turn is in Barnatra. I stop at the intersection with a gas station and a recycling center, both closed due it being Sunday, and sit down on a cement wall across the street. I lean my bike up against my knees and pull out the custardy yogurt granola dried fruit concoction I bought at the store. I can’t help thinking this is as lonely as it could possibly get and that’s when it comes to me.

Tony Robbins talks about how nothing in our lives changes until the change becomes a must. We can have as many “shoulds” as we want. We should lose weight. We should get a new job. But until those things turn into “musts” nothing new will happen. We get what we tolerate. It’s up to us to raise our own standards.

Up to this point, which means for close to a decade, being single for me has been OK. For years it was necessary and then it morphed into something I tolerate. Letting someone in, having a boyfriend <GASP!>, is something I should do, something everyone tells me I should do. Avoiding the prospect has been the must, embracing it the should.

The road through Kilcommon is eerily quiet. It’s not until I get to Belderrig, fifteen miles farther, that I see a few more houses. I come back out to the coast road and this is where the route turns truly wild. The cliffs are high, the terrain rugged, the wind and the waves constant and fierce.

I usually don’t post pictures that are not mine, but I think this aerial is important to really show you what I’m talking about. (Just imagine it without the sun 🙂 )

There are stories from down south around Dingle about how European explorers who assumed the world was flat considered the southwest coast of Ireland the end of the world. But it’s up north at the Céide Fields, the oldest known stone-walled fields in the world dating back 6,000 years, in County Mayo, where I feel like I’ve reached the edge.

It’s here that my GPS goes haywire, unable to locate my position and inexplicably adding 30 extra miles to my ride that I never actually rode. It’s here, in the middle of bumfuck nowhere, on the northwestern coast of Ireland with nothing but ocean in front of me, that something crucial becomes clear.

I can see now that at the end of this trip my should will change into a must. I can see this journey as the physical manifestation of how much my heart has been breaking, and for how long. The way I feel right now—completely alone at the edge of the world—is how my heart has felt for nine years and counting.

It’s a good thing, really. Please don’t flock to the comments section to send heartfelt messages of sympathy. I can take it. In fact, this is what I needed. I had to get here in order to understand what I’ve been doing to myself.

After the Céide Fields I sit up higher in my saddle. The rain spritz continues but the winds die down a little. My eyes are open. I see the beauty again. I smile uncontrollably. I stop suffering and remember how lucky I am to be here.

Nine miles later I take a left at Downpatrick Head. A narrow twisting road leads me through cow pastures to a parking lot where I lean my bike against a fence and change into my sneakers. I walk up a hill and cross an open field with a few signposts warning about the cliff edge. And then almost as if it rose up to greet me I see the Dun Briste Sea Stack.

I walk right to the edge without any fear of falling and my worries disappear. It’s as if something internal permanently shifts. We don’t get what we want. We get what we have to have.

Walking down the hill back to my bike it’s Rihanna and Calvin Harris in my head.

Baby… this is what you came for…

The rest of the ride into Ballina is sublime.

Sending love and light ❤

Day 16, Back in the Saddle

Galway → Westport through the Maam Valley

Mileage:   78.9 miles                                                       Elevation gain:  3,695’

Total mileage so far:  609.4 miles         Total elevation gain so far:  30,918’


Today I’m saying goodbye to Galway and hello to a 14 member tour group halfway through their Mizen-to-Malin trek. This is what Paul and Noel do together with Paul’s company Wild Atlantic Cycling. The tour is a 7-day, 575 mile straight shot from the southernmost tip of Ireland, Mizen Head, to the northernmost, Malin Head. The riders are from Ireland, the U.K. and the U.S. with varying levels of ability.

It’s a day without panniers for me thanks to the Support + Gear (SAG) vehicle and I’m so excited I can barely stand it. It promises to rain but I don’t care. I’ll take a downpour over saddlebags any day.

Usually Noel drives SAG for these trips but today Paul will take the car and Noel will cycle with the group. He’s pumping up my tires, tightening everything that can be tightened, and running back and forth to make sure everyone in the tour group has what they need.

Paul takes one look at my saddle, Saddle #2 that I picked up in Bantry. “Yah that’ll give you blisters on your ass,” he quips.

“Yep,” I agree with a knowing nod. Granted it’s an improvement over Saddle #1 but it’s still not right.

He pulls a spare from their trailer—Saddle #3—a beautifully unpadded skinny little thing that looks exactly like my road bike seat at home. This will most definitely spell THE END to my saddle sores. He says I can rent it for ten quid a day. I love Paul because almost every single thing he says is a joke and he laughs all the time.

The drizzle starts as we set out. Our first twenty miles run along Galway Bay. Noel is in front of me to set the pace but he can’t provide any shelter from the wind gusting at us from the bay to our left. For the first hour he constantly checks back for me and skips a few pedal strokes anytime I need to catch up. I appreciate that he’s staying with me because there are quite a few strong riders in this group who are eager to see what he can do. They’ve been Googling him to see his race records and are blown away by his results.

“One year I won nine races,” Noel had said to me over drinks in Kenmare two weeks ago. This was only a few years after he started cycling in his mid-40’s. I followed up with the tale of my last place women’s finish at the Syracuse Half Iron Man. It’s safe to say Noel and I participate in races for very different reasons.

Paul put it the most succinctly. “We all hate him,” he said on our way to dinner last night. “I can’t help it if I’m an athlete,” Noel sighed.

Today though, Noel is a coach. He’s pulling me, silently egging me on to go just a little bit faster than I can. The wind doesn’t let up and for a while it gets so hilly my legs and my lungs can’t take it. And yet somehow they magically do. The unspoken rule of the day is that Noel will slow down so long as I speed up.

Finally we make a right turn away from the coast and the countryside opens up to reveal a desert-like scene. Despite the rain I fully expect to come upon prairie dogs and tumbleweed. The landscape is empty for miles, save for the Maamturk Mountains in the distance. The road is long and curvy, snaking its way across the plains at a very slight decline. The wind kicks back up and blows the rain sideways in sheets, seemingly changing directions with every turn. It is pelting my eyeballs like ice chips as we pick up intense amounts of speed, leaning into corners, gently pumping brakes so as not to skid. I get up to 35 MPH, holding my tuck as best I can. I am terrified and grinning like a donkey. It’s quite a lovely combination.

Caffeinated after a quick tea break I’m able to keep up with the leaders, all strong middle-aged skinny white dudes. Cycling definitely attracts a specific type. Again my legs and lungs can’t take it, yet again they somehow do.

At our lunch break we all change out of our soaking wet kits, wringing water from our socks into puddles on the floor of the pub we’ve stopped at by Killary Fjord. Warm and dry, we plow through soup and sandwiches before heading back out to be re-drenched for our last 26 miles.

Now we are riding through the Maam Valley without a house in site. Sheep line each side of the road and the lush green spreads as far as we can see.

At the beginning of the final big climb Noel says he’ll see me at the top. Climbing big hills on a bike seems to be one of his favorite things to do in life and he’s off with a whoop like a happy little kid. He rides to the top, turns around, comes back down and meets me a third of the way up to climb it again.

“Who knew you were such a good climber?” he jokes.

“I can do anything without panniers!” I cry.

We crest the top with the group and head down into an enchanting mist.

As we come down from the pass and inch closer to Westport Noel gets sentimental. “This could be our last ride together,” he says.

“Don’t say that!” I protest. “It’s just for now.”

We’re quiet the rest of the way. I stay strong so I can ride next to him even though my knees are aching and I’m so tired I can barely stay upright.

In Westport, after 79 miles of cycling at a 17 MPH average (the fastest I’ve managed so far), I head to my B&B blissfully exhausted for a shower. Meanwhile Paul and Noel head out to Croagh Patrick for an extra 27 mile spin before dinner.

I’m nervous again when we say goodnight out in front of Matt Molloy’s pub. I know I’ll be fine on my own but I just feel like I do so much better with my safety net in place.

Sending love & light from Westport ❤

P.S.
As of today I’ve climbed the equivalent elevation of Mount Everest!

Day 13, Through the Burren

Doolin → Galway through the Burren

Mileage:   52.8 miles                                                       Elevation gain:   1,849′

Total mileage so far:   530.5 miles        Total elevation gain so far:  27,223′ 


Cycled through an area called The Burren today. Didn’t get rained on.

Took in a geosite called Murrooghtoohy.

Made friends with some donkeys.

Passed a castle.

Even had someone to talk to for most of the way. His name is Lee and he’s from Newcastle. He’s riding the exact same crap bike that I am, except that he has no trouble at all getting down into his small ring.

Lee will ride twice as far as me today, all the way to Westport. I’m stopping in Galway where I have two days off before meeting back up with Noel and finally meeting Paul and their entire Mizen-to-Malin tour group.

It’s been a damn fine day and I am absolutely adoring Galway. Sending love & light ❤

Day 12, A Cow is Born

Rest day in Doolin

Mileage:  0 miles                                                                      Elevation gain:  0′

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


This morning is starting out with a 2 km walk from my hostel to the Doolin Harbor. I stop to pet every dappled grey horse along the way, convinced that they have fallen in love with me as much as I am in love with them. It’s overcast and windy but not raining.

Yesterday when I cycled past the Cliffs of Moher (perhaps more importantly known as the Cliffs of Insanity! to geeks the world over) they were socked in with a fog so thick and I could barely tell I was anywhere near the ocean. So today I have the brilliant plan of taking a ferry ride to the first of the Aran Islands, Inisheer. The tour will swing past the cliffs on our return trip giving me a to-die-for view of the very spot where Wesley inconceivably kept up with Fezzik (who was carrying Princess Buttercup, Vizzini and Inigo) just before the best choreographed duel of all time. But I digress…

Never mind that I’m a Pisces and the daughter of a sailor—I’m afraid of boats and drowning. Like a lot afraid. Yet I understand the importance of regularly doing things that scare us. The winds are strong this morning and the sea is churning. Still in the harbor our small ferryboat is banging and clanging into the others and I feel seasick before the gangplank is even released from the dock.

Heading out to sea I do my best to keep my eyes on the horizon as the waves bob us up and down six to eight feet at a time. I don’t have the mental fortitude to release my white knuckled grip on the seat in front of me. As if when the boat capsizes I’ll be able to save myself by simply not letting go. Rockin’ and rollin’ on the high seas, we are in this together. When the ocean comes crashing over the front of our boat the whole crowd screams in unison and when we slide down the backside of a particularly high wave we all groan in tune.

My glasses are smeared with salt. The wind is fierce, the sea unrelenting but Inisheer is getting closer. It’s a good thing I didn’t eat much for breakfast.

The harbor to this tiny island is like the entrance to an old world filled with horse drawn carriages and dogs running underfoot.

Everyone is hiring a carriage driver or renting a bicycle but I’m happy to take off walking. Within minutes I’m in the midst of a maze of rock walls lining the paved road. They twist and turn to create small animal paddocks and pathways to the houses on the hill.

The rock walls go on forever. I can’t begin to imagine how long it took people to build them there are so many. At first glance the rocks look haphazard but somehow there is a pattern to them and the walls are sturdy, enduring harsh weather conditions and standing for centuries. In less than an hour the clouds and wind have cleared to reveal a perfect summer day. Ponies trot quickly past me. I feel like I’m in a fairytale.

On the far side of the island is the Plassey shipwreck, an entire boat wedged into the rocks and completely rusted through.

A carriage driver is stopped nearby and I walk over to say hello. He was born on this 3 km X 3 km island and has lived here all his life with the other 260 residents. His first language is Irish and he has one eye stuck in a permanent squint. He rolls a cigarette as we chat. “You’re here for the beauty, right? A lot different than New York, eh?”

I can take the road down to the lighthouse, the only road to the lighthouse, cross over the rocks and then look for the path to the castle. This is what he says to me without a trace of facetiousness or self-deprecation. And this is exactly what I do.

Out past the shipwreck seagulls chatter on the beach paying me no mind as I make my way to the lighthouse. On the rock path I’m reminded again of the difference between pictures and what we see in real life, stories we read vs. experiences we have.

The path to the castle makes me wish I were a little kid. Oh how my imagination would soar and I’d want to live here forever! The rock walls continue but there is no more pavement on the ground. The now grass lined paths are narrower, flushed with flowers and vines. I stroll happily in the sun… scratch that… I frolic. I skip wistfully up and down rolling hills through this never-ending maze of indescribable beauty.

When I come down the hill from the castle I happen upon a calf being born in a paddock. The mother cow is lying on her side, the baby’s feet are out and a farmer is gently pulling him as the mother pushes. I suppose even cows sometimes need midwives.

For half an hour I am transfixed. I can hardly believe I’m bearing witness to this. The baby comes out quickly and the mother immediately stands up and gets to licking him clean. He’s already mooing and figuring out how to stand and walk. We always think we’re smarter than animals but this guy’s got something figured out in twenty minutes that it takes us a year to learn.

It never occurs to me to pull out my phone to take pictures. I just rest my chin on my forearms on the top of the paddock wall and take it in. Stories vs. experiences.

With the sun out, the water on the beach by the harbor has turned aquamarine. For a short stretch it looks like the small cove is a tropical paradise. The water couldn’t be any warmer than it was this morning yet there are swimmers in the deep and children splashing at the water’s edge. Young boys are taking turns jumping from the sea wall, which now, with the tide out, hovers fifteen feet above the surface.

The boat for the return trip is much bigger and more powerful than the one we took to get here. We surge into enormous waves and skim along the surface at high speed. Children rush to the sides, squealing as they get sprayed by the salty water.

And yes we stop to take in the majestic Cliffs of Moher, Ireland’s #2 most popular tourist destination just behind the Guinness factory tour. And yes they are beautiful. But all my pictures contain the heads and iPhones of tourists duking it out for the best shot. And besides, I’ll gladly go out on a limb and say they don’t hold a candle to my day on Inisheer.

Back in the Doolin harbor, captains zip the ferries around like cars, parallel parking them along the dock. I am grateful to be back on the mainland, as the Irish call it, but even more grateful for my dreamlike walk in the sun.

I’d been told there’d be nothing to do in Doolin and I wholeheartedly disagree. The town is full of restaurants and artist’s shops. There are walking trails, castle ruins and a babbling river. I love it here. This has been my favorite day off so far.

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 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.