Entirely on foot...
So it was that I set out with my trusty sidekick and brother Joseph (aka Hermano de Diablo) to conquer the heart of Ireland. Our plan was to walk from Belfast in the very east to Donegal in the very west, armed only with what we could carry on our backs and with those three invulnerable assets of youth: strength, foolishness, and determination. We could do anything.
We started off in Belfast, a pleasant microtropolis that felt like the island of Manhattan shrunken into the body of a 17th century colony in New England; that is to say, there were lots of expensive boutiques, Protestant churches, and Starbucks.
We spent our first day wandering the city. We stopped in at the library, a photo gallery, several cathedrals, and the neighborhood Goo store (this particular Goo store specialized in Fancy Goo). We also bought some fuel for our camp stove and looked (futiley) for a map that satisfied our needs.
That night we went out on the town, dressed to the nines in our fly blue Chinese prole wear. Nothing says "cool" like two dudes dressed in matching cobalt factory jackets. That's right-- we were out to snag the girls like "whoa". We went to a popular pub that was hosting a Comedy Night, expecting to find laughs and ladies. We found neither; after an hour of groaners and dogs we left the pub and went out for dinner: fish, chips, and lemonade. Not too shabby.
The next morning we were ready to rock; full of vim, vigor, and about three hours of sleep (jet lag hit us like an itch), we set out on foot from our Belfast hostel and walked southeast along the River Lagan. It was for the most part a pretty walk-- plenty of greenery and sunshine, easy terrain, and a well-maintained path (though that didn't stop us from getting lost). Our first day walking we put in a good 18 miles, and encountered a swan, a rainbow, and a delicious egg-salad sandwich along the way.
At the end of the day, we stopped in at a country pub and struck up a conversation with a man named Patrick, a blacksmith by trade, who showed us remarkable kindness and charity: he gave us a fantastically useful road atlas, great advice for our trip, and a place to stay for the night. We ended our first day camping out in his backyard, cooking sausages and spaghetti in the small stove/pot we'd be lugging on our back all day. Terrific.
If the first day walking was a beauty, the second day was the beast. It started off well enough: Pat gaves us a light breakfast and a ride into the nearest town, and we had a nice walk for a couple of hours beneath the warm, cloudy sky. That's when the rain started. "Torrential downpour" would describe the weather about as accurately as "lost" would describe our positional status. We walked north on one road for three hours in flash-flood conditions, only to find out that the road we were on was a dead-end, cut off from the rest of the west by a raging river that had neither bridge nor ferry. Blast! By the end of the day we were wet, miserable, and had only covered four or five westward miles.
Day three was better: good weather gave us good mileage. We covered 20 miles of beautiful countryside, and learned how to use the map, our compass, and the directions of local villagers to keep us on track and off dead-ends.
Day four we rested, and saw the Ghost Horse.
On day five, now about halfway across the country, we took a meandering route on small roads that led in and out of forests, meadows, mountains, and lakeside farms. It was rewarding work- - we got to visit St. Patricks chair and stone, a pair of Druidic ruins buried deep in a mountain forest that supposedly bring good luck to visitors, in addition to curing rare diseases.
We walked late into the night, and it wasn't until 9 pm that we started looking for a place to stay. We had enjoyed good weather all day, but ominous clouds lurked right above us and we were afraid we'd get soaked if we tried setting our tent up in the rain. We decided it was as good a time as any to make camp, so we went up to a farmer's house, knocked on the door, and asked if we could pitch our tent in his field. He pointed us to a patchy bit of grass, and we headed for it. Unfortunately (but really fortunately) it started raining before we got there. Unwilling to pitch our tent in the rain, we took cover under a tree, hoping it was a passing thunderstorm we could wait out. At which point the farmer came back out, waved us over, and told us to go round back to his shed-- we could camp there for the night.
In the shed, we found his two young sons cleaning up a spot for our tent. The father sent one of them back into the house to bring us tea. The tea came with a toaster oven, bread, butter, jam, and chocolate cookies. The father went back into the house, and reappeared a moment later carrying a plate of grilled chicken and a couple of beers; he was accompanied by his sexy college-aged daughter, one of two sexy twins. After a great late-night snack, they sent us boys to bed, but warned us: we were not to leave the next morning without breakfast.
The next day was more walking, interrupted intermittently by rain. By this point we had wised up enough to take cover under trees, sheds, and bus stops whenever it rained; we would simply play cards, sleep, read, or snack until the pouring stopped, then head out into the drizzle and make what progress we could. We covered another good twenty miles and spent the night camped out in an abandoned cow shed.
Day Seven was The Long Walk of Awesome. We woke up in a cow shed some fifty miles from Donegal. Though we didn't know it that morning, we would not sleep again till we reached our destination.
The day was productively uneventful. We walked... and walked... and walked some more. We stopped for a nice lunch at a cafe in a tiny, forgettable town, and walked even more. Then we walked again. By dinnertime, we had already covered over 25 miles. Totally exhausted, we flopped into a restaurant for big beefy burgers: they were listed on the menu as "American Burgers," and were twice as large as the others.
At 9:30 pm we left the restaurant bloated and beat-- it had been a long day. We wanted to sleep, but neither of us wanted to go through the rigmarole of knocking on farmers' doors, and we couldn't find any sheds, and we weren't thrilled about the prospect of spending another wet niht getting rained on. So what did we do? We kept walking. We bought ourselves four bottles of the UK energy drink Lucozade, a bunch of chocolate ice cream, and we set about walking the last 20 miles to Donegal in the pitch dark of night. It rained-- we walked. We walked-- it rained. This went on until about 3 am, when we crashed, soaking wet, in an abandoned cellar basement of some dilapidated building a mile or two outside Donegal. There we stripped off our water-logged clothes, curled up in some hay for warmth, and waited for the sun to rise. When it did, we walked into town, checked into a bed and breakfast, and promptly entered a coma for three days. It was July 4th.
When we came to, we took stock of our situation. We had accomplished our goal of walking across the country in a mere 7 days-- we now had another week to have a real "vacation" (i.e. not walk 20 miles a day). We figured that since we'd spent all this energy getting out to the west coast, we might as well enjoy it, so we hitched a ride with a fabulously foul-mouthed motorist ("Ya boys need a feckin' ride, aye?") and made our way from Killysbeg to Kilcar to Derrylahan, a photogenic coastal village of fisherman and farmers and not much else. We spent a night there, then spent the next couple of days exploring the cliffs and beaches that the coast had to offer, and spending our nights comfortably in hostel beds. It was a wonderful bit of rest, relaxation, good food, and (finally) a pretty girl, over whom my brother and I (barely) avoided coming to fists over.
When it was over, we got a bus back to Dublin, where we did what was left to do in Ireland before going home: eat our last pub meals, visit our last churches (this time Catholic, of course), and go to the cinema for an opening weekend viewing of Die Hard 4.0: Live Free or Die Hard. Awesome. We also walked a lot, got lost a bunch, and discovered that Dublin has some incredibly authentic Chinese food.
Finally, it was time to go home. All good things must come to end, of course. So it was that we boarded our NY-bound plane: two travel-weary road-walkers returning once more to whence we came. Overall-- we both agreed-- the trip was an enormous success. We found Ireland to be beautiful and thriving and the people to be engaging and kind. (Though as Joe quipped, "For such a friendly people, they sure do use a lot of barbed wire...").
We left Ireland strong, happy, tired, and proud. We learned a lot, met people that will stay with us forever, and grew closer as brothers to boot. Truly, a trip to be remembered.