A little story in honor of an old friend…
This place is called Inch. It’s a long white strand of sand, bordered on one side by a wide strip of tall grass, and other other, by the wild Atlantic. When we arrive, the ocean is discharging a fury that grew over a thousand blue miles of wind and waves. The beach is completely deserted. We are tired from cycling into the damp wind, but exhilarated by the ride. We lock our bikes to a chainlink fence and knock on the door of the dilapidated, rusty trailer home at the edge of the beach. There are a few other farm homes scattered down the road, but it’s not really a beach day, and there’s no one in sight.
It was Connie’s idea to spend the summer after our second year of college cycling around Ireland. I latched on to her idea immediately, as I had to most all of her ideas since we became friends in high school. I envisioned us cruising across the Irish countryside, past sheep, stone walls and faerie rings, occasionally taking breaks for ice cream in small villages. We planned a complete circuit of the southern half of the country, staying in hostels or with her many aunts and uncles along the way. We would spend our days pedaling, afternoons sightseeing, and evenings at the Irish discos that Connie had told me so much about.
Ok, let’s clarify something here: we were not cyclists. Back home, we trained for a couple of weeks before catching our flight to Ireland – five to ten miles at a time, stopping at our favorite bakery along the way before hopping back on our ten-speeds wearing sneakers, sweats, and helmets (late-80’s styrofoam helmets – not the cool, sleek ones they sell today). Maybe that’s why it was hard for us to convince any of Connie’s Irish family to actually let us ride. From the time we arrived at Shannon Airport, until the day we cycled to Inch, our trip was not quite what we expected (think: more scones, less cycling).
That’s not to say our trip was without adventures. Connie’s Auntie M met us at Shannon airport in a tiny German car (I remember that, because the driver’s side was on the left) with a length of rope to strap our bikes (still in pieces in their airline-approved cardboard boxes) to the roof of her car. And, because we weren’t exactly traveling light, we each had a large, heavy suitcase loaded with our biking equipment, and anything else we thought we might need for 6 weeks. (Do they have shampoo in Ireland?) After folding everything, including ourselves, into that tiny car, I was sure we would topple over as we rounded the first curve. Maybe the weight of our bags helped us stay glued to the road. Nevertheless, on the first day of our journey our bikes became nothing more than awkward, over-sized luggage. On that day, and every day we wanted to hit the road, a doting auntie would say, “Oh so – you’re goin’ to cycle in this weather? T’will be lashing rain most of the day. Let us drive you to Auntie K’s (or Auntie A’s or Uncle D’s, etc.)”
Instead of our imagined, epic, outdoor, coming-of-age journey, we immersed ourselves in Irish family life, evenings of Irish dancing and music at the pubs, if not the teenage discos. Barbeques and picnics with Connie’s cousins. Trips to the beach when the rain wasn’t lashing. Learning to fish on the lake. Our panniers and carefully planned itinerary sat unused in a garden shed.
But, at some point, Connie grew dissatisfied by that fact that we were missing out on our big independent adventure. So, one sunny morning, from the town of Tralee in southwestern Ireland, we cycled 20 miles south over the foothills of the Slieve Mish mountains on the Dingle Peninsula to the beach at Inch.
Connie’s cousin opens the door of the trailer when we arrive. He’s close to our age, working a summer job as a lifeguard on the beach, but he obviously has little to do here today. He’s offered to host us for the night. Inside, the trailer is as abysmal as it looks from the outside – like something you would expect to be inhabited by two 17-year old life guards. Crumbs and beach sand carpet the floor of the trailer. And the toilet isn’t working – we’ll have to go out in the bushes. Glad we packed toilet paper.
Connie’s cousin heads off to a party, or maybe a pub somewhere, and invites us to go with him. We decline, preferring to hunker down in the trailer after our day of cycling. As rain periodically lashes the crusty windowpanes we nibble on dry scones that one of Connie’s aunties has packed for us. I’m feeling a bit dismal about the gray weather and the stinky trailer. I know it’s a long ride back over a big hill tomorrow and wonder how we will manage to sleep on the bench seats at the ‘kitchen’ table here in the trailer. I gaze through the windows and see the cold sea and barren beach, then look back at Connie to find her smiling.
“I’m so glad we did that ride!!” she sighs. She actually looks thrilled. “Could you have imagined this adventure when we were in high school? Us – cycling?” I laugh a little. For a brief moment, I feel empowered, having summited that big hill across the peninsula, and I suppose I’m excited to be camping out in a beach trailer in a foreign country. I look out at the gray waves again, and feel a bit too tired for the excitement to last. We write in our journals for awhile. Connie is always writing. This is what she wants to do with her life. Write stories – about Ireland and family…and fairies, I think. When I look over at her again awhile later, her expression has changed, and I see tears in her eyes. I ask her what’s wrong. “Nothing,” she says, gazing out the window, “It’s just so beautiful.”
It is beautiful. But I’m still more focused on the uncomfortable bench seat and sand-encrusted carpet of the trailer.
I wish I had been able to see that beach on that gray day through her eyes. Sometimes, now, I think that people who aren’t meant to spend much time in this world can see and experience beauty in a way that takes the rest of us decades to learn how to do. No one could have predicted the car accident that took her a few years later, but somehow Connie knew she wasn’t long for this world. She told me as much. I couldn’t listen to her. Honestly, even with everyone I’ve lost, it’s still hard to hear when someone knows how short their life will be – how short all of our lives will be. We can only ride so many miles in this world.
That trip to Inch was our only real cycling journey in Ireland.
We traveled to Ireland together once more, two years later. On that second trip, we left the bikes behind. But that was my last visit to Ireland, 25 years ago. Sometimes, when I’m out cycling the Colorado countryside, I see gray clouds gather and feel a damp wind from the outflow of distant thunderstorm. I remember my first 20-mile cycling trip to Inch. And I hear a whisper telling me, ‘It’s time to go back.’
Happy Birthday, Connie.