I made up a saying that sounds like a proverb: they don't need to send poets to the island, the island will make poets of the people. Just look around you and write what you see.

A poet would do the job better, of course, but let's make do with what we have.

A few days ago I was lucky enough to tramp around some mountains in the North of Ireland. This isn't my first hike. I've been in the valleys and ravines of middle Tennessee, I've kayaked around mangrove swamps as a child, and I've even glided through the trees of rainforests in various climates. So I had seen beautiful places before. Moreover, I was prepared for the weather and for the hunger of a long walk up and down some rocks and dirt. I had waterproof clothing and a bag full of water and a lunch. I had almonds.

Some friends and some friendly picked up me up in the morning, slightly sleepy but happy to be heading out to move our bodies. We drove a ways South of Belfast, down the A-24 and country roads, through the seaside resort town of Newcastle, and I saw the open Irish Sea for the first time since I landed at the airport. It was a cloudy day, but in the distance we could we could see the sun on the water. What seemed to be a single mountain loomed as we approached Newcastle, but as we skirted around its hills I saw it was several mountains. They weren't huge like some of the Appalachians or the snowcapped peaks on some of the Hawaiian islands, but they were big.

We parked. We checked our gear. And we walked up a country road.
Ooops, wrong way.
With other hikers, we walked up the path along stone walls, placed together with no mortar. We walked by horses and cows and sheep and hay. We walked by living farmers. But we also passed by abandoned stone buildings. The place could be bleak, I imagine, and someone must have given up, one way or another, and left a few of the barns. Eventually we came to a single wall and hugged it. The Mourne Wall. A stone barrier to keep animals out of water, a reservoir project from years no one in our party was sure about. It looked old enough to be mythological, but practical enough to be comprehensible. We kept the wall on our left. It was clear where we began, but we could see fog up ahead. And in the wind, I heard from my guides, it was possible to lose your pals in the mist.
I looked back over the moss and sand and mud we had walked up already. We had left some people behind already. It was easy to lost track of other people. The heather was still blooming, though the purple flowers were fewer than the brown buds retracting into itself for winter. The scent of farms and dung and peat was pervasive. It soon grew comfortable.

But within the hour we were high up, still along the wall. A forest came into view below. Its edges faded into smaller trees and fields.
I found it difficult to imagine that people once lived up here. But I suppose they did. Transhumance, I think it's called. You live in one place for a bit and then move someplace else for a bit. It sounds familiar.

When we get high enough, we cross the wall on a scissor-ladder to get out of the gusting wind. With the wall at our backs. We eat our lunch and laugh about our food choices. We share our food. We move physically closer together. So we can hear each other better, but maybe for other reasons.
The mist is disorientating for me. I've seen fog before. But this fog blows through. It thins and it thickens. It comes and it goes. It's moving much faster than me. My muscles feel so slow. Other peaks are glimpsed in the distance. Are they peaks? Yes, I'm told. But they could just be hills.
I guess I feel small because I see other people look small. We stop more frequently as we get higher. My ears pop, but I feel physically good. I want to keep going. I want to go faster.
Shrouded in the clouds, I think of the cliche "rugged beauty." But this is just beautiful. Today it is relatively warm, so the pools of water sit in little cupolas on the rocky tips of the top of the mountain. I can tell that when they freeze, they make the rock crack. There are streams where water once was and where water will be again, taking little pieces of the mountain down to the sea. The mountain looks like the walls. Perhaps it inspired them. It blends into them.
Hikers sometimes appear out of the mist. They move quicker than I do. They pass away. The wind makes me almost deaf. It makes my face red and my nose run. I pull up the hood of my jacket and put my hands in my jacket. I feel peaceful. We begin our walk down the other side of the mountain. The mountain, by the way, is called Slieve Binnian. The name blends into the names of other mountains, and I forget it over and over even after I look it up. It's tough to see where one mountain ends. It's tough to sound it out too.
We come out of the mists and the worst of the wind. A bit of sun for a moment. I can see a blue loch. That's it name, Blue Loch.
I read that on a clear day you can see Wales or Scotland, I forget which. Perhaps both. But for now, as I come down the Slieve, I see a quiet valley, named, Silent Valley. Many voices explain that it's the reservoir. There's a dam, and in the distance, more mountains and more lochs. A road winds through the valley. We come to a cliff and look down on it. I feel very small. I know the Grand Canyon is bigger, but the difference in scale is lost on me.
I can see well-trod trails down toward a crossroads. We're heading there. And then, from the crossroads, we will walk through a valley crossed by streams, alongside the forest I glimpsed on my way up, and back to the Mourne Wall.
Sometimes the sound of running water is a slow moving creek. Sometimes it's a waterfall in the distance.

I feel mentally and physically tired after my visit, but we stop for a pint on the way home to relax. We laugh and the ride back seems quicker than the ride to the Mournes.

I read that this area was once a kingdom, taken and retaken over the years, but difficult to subdue. The various Celts and Gaels gave it their shot, and the Normans broke some castles. The Kingdom of Mourne. But there was smuggling here too, in later days, in Imperial times. Where there is land to graze and distance to see, it will always be hard to catch a shepherd, I guess. You can't stop humans from going across places and fading into the mist.

Leave a Reply.