Sunday, February 8, 2015


Along the Ring of Beara, heading toward Healy Pass.

I know that for many people travel is about seeing stuff. I mean, famous stuff. There’s a list, and you check things off that list . . . see Statue of Liberty, See the Duomo in Florence, Kiss the Blarney Stone. I’ve seen my share of monuments and tourist attractions, and even liked a few of them. But it’s not what I seek from travel these days.

My very simple list looks more like this:  
Get outside and find some stories. The weirder or more touching, the better.

In short, make contact.  

This is what Luigi and I talked about in Calabria, if you remember that post (and you can click there for a link, if you don’t remember)—making genuine contact with the land and with each other.

So today was a rare blue-sky day here in southwest Ireland. I decided to go out and try to make contact with the land, as best I could. I had seen the Beara Peninsula already, but under cloud cover, and with other people. So today was different. I was alone, under sunny skies.

That’s how I met John.

I had come through Healy Pass, which has a narrow road with a lot of switchbacks as you ascend and descend. Sheep climb the nearby rocky outcroppings and hills, and also plant themselves in the road a lot, so one must be cautious as one gawks, open-mouthed, at the scenery.

An old, blue sedan slows down at one of the switchbacks on his way up, as my car and another in front of me slowly descend. He gives a wave as he drives by. I wave back.
A little further along the road, I pull over to take some photos of a stream and some waterfalls.  

When I get back into the car and pull onto the road, I see the old blue sedan again, now going in the opposite direction from before. I pull over to let him pass, since I’m taking my time on these unfamiliar roads. He gives me another wave to say thanks.

About ¾ of a mile up the road, he stops. Doesn’t pull over. Just stops in his lane and gets out of the car. He sort of goes to the other side of the road on foot, and for a second I think he’s checking on something behind a gate. Maybe some sheep. But he weaves back into the road and toward my car. Now I’m expecting maybe a lecture or a tip about driving in these parts. I get neither.

I tentatively roll down my window and he walks over, holds out his hand, and after I say nothing more than hello, he asks how I’m enjoying my holiday in Ireland. I’m thinking it couldn’t be my accent that gives me away, not with just a “hello”. I’m guessing it’s the sunglasses, straight out of Real Housewives of New Jersey—a regrettable last minute purchase before leaving on my trip. They’re huge, and they aren’t really . . . me. But they were cheap and available. Kind of like the Housewives, themselves.
Anyway, he dives right in, there on this remote road.
In the very middle of this remote road, in fact.

The road where we stopped to chat.

As he speaks, I notice I can count the number of teeth in his mouth on one hand, and still have a couple fingers left over. This is very rugged terrain. This is terrain where you could definitely lose some teeth if you’re not careful . . .one step onto a mossy patch of rock, and there they go . . . or just trying to grow anything nutritious from this ground seems like it could be challenging. But no matter. His smile, though largely toothless, is warm and he is free with it. It’s a great smile.

I’m guessing this valley he calls home can get pretty lonely, too. Especially in the non-touristy season, which this is. He peppers me with questions, as though we’re reuniting after a spell.

Him: “So, do you like Ireland?”  
Me: “I do, indeed. It’s grand.”
Him: “Where do you come from?”  
Me: ”New Jersey . . . and you?
Him: “Up there [he points to the rocky hills reaching into the stratosphere from this valley]. What do you do?”     
Me: “I guess you could say I’m a writer. And you?”
Him: “Farmer.”  
Me: “Are those daredevil sheep on the hill yours?”
Him: “Yes.”

And then, he offers this one I loved: “How are your folks getting on?”
As if he hasn’t seen them in a while.

“Well, John, that depends on how you look at it. My father passed away some years ago. So I suppose he’s getting on just fine.  . . I think my mother’s doing OK, too. Enjoying the grandkids.”

He raises an eyebrow slightly. Then asks a series of related questions about how long ago my father died, how old he was when he died, and how old my mother is. After I answer, like Rain Man, he does the math and quickly says “So your mother was much younger than your father.”

“Yep. I guess he liked the young ones.”
“Well, we all do, darlin’”, he says matter of factly, with only the faintest hint of mischief.
I laugh. He’s an honest man.
He asks how old I am, and whether I'm married or have a boyfriend, and a series of related questions,again perhaps doing some math . . . my own calculations tell me he could be in his 60s or 70s. I’ve never been very good at guessing age.

Then he asks about whether I have brothers or sisters, how old they are.
“Ah, so you’re the baby.”
“I am,” says I, noting that we’ve been talking for a while and not a single car has passed.
He asks if I have children, and if my brothers have children, and how many nieces and nephews I have.
“Seven,” I say, “well . . . nine, actually, if you count the two in Italy, which I do.”
“So you’re the auntie. You like being an auntie?”
“Sure do.”

The conversation goes on like this for a while. I’m torn between wondering if this is just too weird not to be dangerous, and wanting to enjoy the uniqueness of it. I’m also aware of the time, and that I’ve promised to cook dinner for my Irish host and another person tonight. I can’t get back late. I’m also in desperate need of a bathroom, and as I said, this valley is empty and in the middle of nowhere.

“Hey, John, how far is it to . . . Castle Bear Town . . . “
“Castletownbere,” he gently corrects me, “Is eleven miles ahead.”

Yes, he said miles. Yet, this is Ireland—they speak Kilometers here**. Perhaps he likes to stop tourists from America on a regular basis or he’s got way more mathematical neurons firing than he has teeth.

He asks some more questions, a few of which are repeats. I think he'd like me to stick around a little longer. I’m feeling like I need to go or I won’t make dinner in time. I tell him so, and he pulls a "Minnesota" on me.
That is, the goodbye is long. There are about ten goodbyes followed by more questions, and well-wishes.
Through the car window, he takes my hand in both of his, shakes it, kisses the back of it and tells me I’m a very nice, friendly person.
I smile and say, “Thanks. But I think you take the prize for that . . . it’s not every day in America someone stops me on the road for a chat.”

He wishes me good travels, good health and long life. He also tells me he wishes it for my mother and my brothers and all of my family. He asks me to tell them so.

About five times he wishes me this, takes my hand again and tells me to have a good life.
I’m struck by the finality of that, “Have a good life.”
We shall not meet again.
I wish him the same, and soon drive on my way to Casteltownbere, laughing to myself a little and smiling.  Did that just happen? That guy learned more about my life in ten minutes than a lot of people would in ten days.

Daredevil sheep at Healy Pass.

Now, is it possible that I dodged a bullet today? Is it possible that, back at the farm, John has a basement full of once-friendly tourists? Maybe.
But this isn’t a creepy basement kind of blog, People. We aren’t going there.
I’m going with the notion that he’s one of those friendly folks for which this island is famous.
[Though, if I should ever wise up and write a more commercial novel than the one I’ve already completed, perhaps we can explore that possibility there, and profitably so . . . ]

As I drive off, I feel grateful to have him as part of my story now, and to be a part of his.
This is contact.
This beats the Blarney Stone any day of the week.
And I can’t help but think the world needs more of this.
Would that strangers could meet in this way more often.

I don’t mean in the middle of the road, though that will suffice.
I mean in this spirit of openness.
He did not ask about my politics or my religion; my diet or my views on the economy or the educational system in America.
He didn’t seek out differences, in order to pounce and pulverize them under the weight of words, of opinions, of the heel of his well-worn work boot.
He sought common ground, he sought what is essential:
Who are your people?
How are they? Are they well?
Who do you love?
What do you do for work? (which is another way of asking “How do you spend your days on this earth?”)

Perhaps if we’d spoken longer, or over a pint, those controversies would eventually emerge and lead to spirited discussion. Perhaps not.  I don’t know.
Maybe he was lonely and reaching out . . . if so, would that more of us would dare to reach out from that place, and more would accept that hand extended through an open window.

Maybe he was simply an inquisitive sort of fellow, curious about the world and those with whom he shares it. Again, I don’t know. And again, would that more people could be so generously inquisitive, without the need to pounce.

He seemed to understand that we all live in a wild and challenging place of unspeakable beauty, and we are moving on a long, winding road toward the same destination.
We ought to stop once in a while.
We ought to reach out a hand to a stranger and say with sincerity, “Tell me who you are.”

That road can seem long and lonely for anyone.

We ought to make contact.

**I discover after this blog post that the use of Kilometers is a recent phenomenon. Ireland spoke "miles" for a long time. You learn something new every day . . .

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