Tess, our star receptionist at Barnacles Temple Bar Hostel in Dublin, Ireland, went for a hike in Donegal, and ended up having a bit of adventure… Here, she talks about scenery, getting lost, man with a bloody apron, sleeping in a barn and Guinness. If you are looking to get lost somewhere, Ireland sounds like a good place to do it
My favorite day in Ireland is hard to explain. Most people I know would hate to be lost, stranded, sleeping in a raincoat and a hoodie, lying on top of moldy hay in a decrepit barn. But alas, this was my favorite day, and thus begins a tale that should end at 4PM on a Saturday, but instead ends at 12PM the following Sunday.
I’ve lived in Ireland for almost two years now, and I have grown accustomed to cold, damp evenings. Luckily, most of the time, they are accompanied by at least a pint (or two) of liquid warmth and a fireplace or a book to keep me warm. However, on my journey to Donegal, in the northwest of Ireland, I would find neither of these things. I travelled up alone, to a hostel just outside of Donegal town, for a quick weekend trip and an escape from the city. I arrived very late Friday night, crawled into my hostel bed, and prepared myself for the hike I had planned the next day.
The Blue Stack Mountains, just outside of Donegal Town, have a magnificent and much talked about walking trail. It’s a ridiculously easy walk, really, for anyone that’s done any walking. Almost the whole trail is farm roads and open pathways. It’s 11k to the trail head, and then another few around the first walking point, Lough Eske, a quiet and picturesque lake. From there, it’s another 50k, give or take, through the mountains (which are really just foothills). I awoke early in the morning on Saturday, grabbed my backpack (in which I had stuffed a light jacket, a jumper, and some water). I figured the walk out to the mountains would provide some much needed time for thought, and the stop at Lough Eske would be great for a quick bite and perhaps some photos of the nature I had grown to miss since moving to Dublin.
I only planned to go so far as the walk around Lough Eske, which would complete the smaller hike and send me on my way back into town. However, as I continued hiking, the scene became more beautiful. From small but still useable farm roads to tight, rarely walked trails, I moved my way through the northwest mountains. Early in the hike I stopped to hold a tiny lamb at a farm whose owner, Bryan, allowed to me refill my water bottle. I sneakily patted a friendly donkey through some broken fence at another farm nearer to Lough Eske. When I finally reached the lake, a smile grew across my face. It was truly beautiful. It had been a long while since I hiked and my legs had grown weak even from just the short walk. I took the opportunity to stop, enjoy the scenery, and indulge myself in a treat: a croissant I had bought at the Centra in town early that morning. I cracked a joke to myself about Europeans eating croissants on hikes. After about ten minutes, a family arrived to begin fishing at the nook I had found, so I moved on.
I got partially around the lake but noticed that the trail signs split. I could either continue around the lake, as I originally planned, or I could keep going, toward the mountains. I checked my clock on my phone; it was still early enough, just past one in the afternoon. I figured rather than finish the lake, I’d head up a bit further. I took a few last photos with my phone, which was on the verge of dying, and continued up. I figured I could turn around at any time; at least I wasn’t lost…
I didn’t tire until about three or maybe four hours later. At this point my phone had died, but I hadn’t realized that. I looked around, and realized the road looked significantly emptier than the ones I had previously walked on. I grabbed the map out of my back pocket of my jeans. Unfortunately, I only had the map of the walk around the lake, not the walk up into the mountains. “Ah sure it’s grand,” I thought to myself, “the trail is marked! I’ll just turn around a bit, find the next marker, and head back down!” I stopped for a moment and took in the smells, the views. Sure, these weren’t the mountains of the Pacific Northwest in Washington. There wasn’t snow here, there wasn’t a tree line, but there was openness, a beauty; it was truly stunning. The farms seemed to spawn below me for acres and acres. I had passed so many beautiful and seemingly ancient farm buildings; once again Ireland had blown me away with its sprawling, rolling hills of farms and quiet serenity.
Speaking of ancient farm buildings, I noticed ahead of me a really run down, stone building. I went up to it, hoping to get a picture. I peeked through the old broken stones, it seemed dark and abandoned. I walked around to the front of the building and pulled out my phone. It was then I realized that it had died. Disappointed, I opened the old door anyways. It creaked open under the weight of my hands, and I was terrified when I noticed the large, looming figure of a bald man, wearing a bloodied apron, holding a huge knife, standing in the corner. I stopped, I was frozen. He looked at me, but didn’t say a word. Perhaps I’d seen one to many Law and Orders, perhaps I let my own paranoia get in the way of rational thought, but all I could do was turn and run. I ran up the farm path as fast as I could. After only a few seconds of running I couldn’t help but turn my head to see if he was following, which my adrenaline had told me surely he must be! For God Sake, I was about to be the next headline of “STUPID TOURIST MURDERED IN THE WOODS!” I was completely sure. Indeed, he was standing in the road, with his beautiful Border Collie dog. However, he wasn’t following. He was just standing there, his leather apron splattered in blood, and he was slightly laughing. Again, instead of thinking any sane thought, I just continued running. “This is it”, I thought, “This is where I die”.
Of course, the man was just a friendly but real butcher and farmer, and I am sure my own disrespectful snooping around his barn had surprised him just as much as his appearance had surprised me. At the time however, I couldn’t stop running. I just kept going, ignoring turns, trails, or signs. At this point, skipping breakfast and only having the one bottle of water, I had begun to feel truly tired. I stopped, resting with my hands on my knees. I was actually panting. The level of insanity I was feeling was outstanding, as was my lack of physical fitness. I remember thinking “Damn, I’d definitely be murdered if this was a real serial killer…”
As my breath finally caught up with my brain, I looked around. I wasn’t on the farm roads anymore. I was somewhere, in the woods, surely near a serial killer. Perfect. The sun was starting to go down, and, when surrounded by trees, the sun sets much more quickly. I looked behind me again but there was no road this time. I knew, from previous hiking experience, that in general, when you are exhausted and out of water, sometimes it’s best to just forget about a possible 20k hike back past an ax-murderer and his wolf-like dog. So I began looking around for a spot to rest. It was raining now, and apparently it had been for some time, as my clothes were completely soaked. I must not have noticed when I began running. Oft in the distance, I saw another building, showing itself through the trees. I made my way toward its grey outline, hoping this time there was no serial killer/regular butcher hiding in its shadows.
I was lucky, it was empty and abandoned. I decided that was my stop for the night, and in morning light I would make my way back into town.
I can’t actually write very much about that night; nothing much actually happened. I slept, surprisingly well, on my backpack and woke up early with the morning light. It was a beautiful morning, I was cold but not too bad (I had changed into the extra clothes I had in my backpack, so I was no longer damp). I made my way back to the street; it was incredibly easy to see in the daylight. I felt slightly stupid, but more so, I felt determined to head back to town.
The walk back was much easier, though my stomach did gargle the entire way. I listened, saw, and absorbed my surroundings in a very serene way. I can’t describe it, really, because it was a mixture of realizing my own stupidity in combination with a realization that perhaps my brain knew I needed to be lost, so it gave me that time. I was, and have been since, a much more relaxed young woman. The trees seemed like trail signed, the birds my guides. Everything just made sense.
Alright, enough of the cheesey guff. It took me another 9 hours or so to get back to town. It had started raining again about six hours in, so I was fairly soaked by the time my weak legs and strengthened spirit landed back in civilization. Without a seconds thought I walked into the first pub with an open sign, and was greeted by the scent of peat burning, and a completely, utterly empty pub. To be honest, that might have been the most devastating moment. I stared at the bar, the beers stared back. I had never wanted a Guinness so badly as in that moment, and yet, there was no one to pour it. I sat, my back to the fireplace, warming myself, and exhaled. My legs were really truly tired, something I was almost embarrassed by. And I was sopping; my hair dripped on the floor. After what seemed like forever (probably about 3 minutes) a man came pushing in through the back door, firewood in hand, and apologized profusely in an accent I struggled to understand but made out to say “So sorry, what can I get ya?” Before I could answer, he looked at me and said “Sure, Guinness it is! And on the house, looks like you could use it!”
I thanked him, and we shared a laugh over just the ridiculousness of my look. After the first Guinness and a chat, he gave me a cup of chowder as well, and brown bread. He offered me an old t-shirt from the back that was at least warm, and took my sweater and placed it closer to the fire. His name was Michael, and he’d lived in Donegal his whole life. When he was younger, about 17 years old, he had planned to move to Canada, but fell in love and stayed in Ireland. The pub was his fathers, and his fathers before that. “We don’t get a lot for it, but it’s what we got that we got” he had said. He had pictures of the local hurling team on the walls, and old black and white photos of patrons past. It was the perfect, most wondrous, and completely empty pub I had ever been in.
Three pints later and I was pissed. I hadn’t eaten much in 24 hours, I was well exhausted. A few locals had come and gone and we chatted and laughed. I didn’t bother to stay much longer, just hopped the next bus to Dublin and went home. My sweater was warm, my t-shirt dry, and my stomach was satiated.
It’s not much of a story, really, looking back at it. But I guess what it did for me, that hike, and Michael, and the pub, that’s what matters. So no, my best day in Ireland wasn’t hitting the pub, or seeing Trinity College, or visiting the Jameson Distillery. My best day was when I allowed myself to get lost, to get scared, to stretch my legs and my mind, and to truly relish in a pint of Guinness. And most importantly, that best day didn’t have to be away from the city, but it had to be for me.