Joyfully Miserable

After spending more than a month working in Bulgarian luxury, it was time to shake things up and seek a bit of discomfort. I was just starting to hit my stride in the country and my project, but the timing felt right to change scenery and take a quick break.

Towards the end of the Camino, several of us had discussed getting back together for another hike. With little to no idea of the effort it might require, we decided on hiking the Kerry Way in southwestern Ireland. The Kerry Way is an approximately 230km loop hike around the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry. That’s roughly a quarter of the distance we traversed on the Camino … how hard could it be? That was our first mistake.

Our second was the time of year. One could argue that there isn't a truly perfect time for the weather in Ireland. That said, late September is ... umm, not ideal.

My personal mistake was not having ANY proper gear. Of course, why would I? No room for a tent or sleeping bag in the 35L “house” that sits on my back.

Overriding all this illogic was our insane desire to be together again. Such was the intense bond we created across those 800kms back in May and June. And so I found myself in Ireland, unprepared yet excited for a new adventure.

With my project still in full swing, I spent the first week hunkered down at my friend Ronnie’s place. She also had work and a Masters to attend to, so it was a week of diligent focus.

We did find time for a few fun adventures. A few hours spent wandering the lovely town of Kilkenny. A night out in Carlow. An afternoon of mushroom hunting (yeah, that kind of shroom) and a lovely day down in the city of Cork.

Finally, the day arrived, the main event. On a Friday evening, we drove up to Dublin to pick everyone up. Before their arrival, we snuck in a little hike to a place called Tiny Hidden Beach for sunset and grabbed fish and chips for dinner. We enjoyed a moonlit stroll around North Bull Island before having a pint of Guinness in Howth. At the pub, we met Jimmy, a delightful local with his own corner of the bar and a lifetime of stories to tell.

With the crew assembled and the hour pushing past midnight, we made the drive back to Carlow. The next morning, we repacked our things and made the four-ish hour drive south to the town of Killarney, where the trail begins.

Heading out of town, we made our way around Lough Leane and Torc waterfall, and out into the hinterlands. Somewhere around 10km in, near sundown, with the rain picking up, we found a little spot near a creek to pitch up for the night. Day one in the books.

The next morning, we rose to find ourselves in a beautiful valley, surrounded by ferns and fog. Turns out it wasn’t fog, we were just in the clouds. And those clouds opened and rain began to pour down. This was the beginning of what would be a tremendously long, rough and epic day of hiking.

Because we had started late the day before, we needed to hike extra far and extra long to make up the kilometers to stay on track to finishing the loop. That increased our total distance for the day to somewhere between 30-35km. Our Camino hubris clouded our judgement, as we scoffed at the idea it would be anything less than manageable.

We quickly found out that walking the Camino and hiking the Kerry Way are extremely different beasts. As the kilometers dragged on and the rain poured down, that reality set in and we settled into a very long, very wet day.

Around mid-morning we found reprieve in a wonderful outdoor cafe on the shores of Upper Lake, Killarney. The proprietors of the shop thought we were insane for being out there and likely a bit concerned when we said we were walking on.

Thus began one of the most challenging afternoons of my entire life. Through Black Valley and over the peaks of Macgillycuddy’s Reeks we hiked, passing below Ireland’s highest peak, Currantoohil.

Then Mother Nature began toying with us. The rain would stop and the sun would shine, giving us views of some of the most preposterously beautiful landscapes I’ve seen in my life. The minute I thought she was with us, the skies would darken, the rain would fall harder and the winds would howl. The trail became nothing more than a river, as water sought any pathway down the mountainsides.

Life wasn’t done with me yet, throwing me another challenge when the right strap of the backpack snapped. It was hard to tell, in that moment, if I was laughing or crying. But we had so far to go still, so we rigged the pack to my body and soldiered on.

glorious ireland

The trail wasn’t done playing tricks either. As we trampled through shin-deep bogs and trails turned rivers, the thought was that at least we were making progress. Every distance marker we came across became a reminder of just how slowly we were moving. This came to a head when, having earlier estimated about 10km to go, we came across a marker stating we still had 7.5km. We would have hoped for something closer to 3-5km. Spirits dashed, we simply had to grin and bear it.

Finally, as the light faded, we arrived in Glencar. Hours ago, way back at that cafe, we had taken the decision that camping in this weather was less than ideal. So we had booked into the only hostel, the only accommodation really, in town. And when I say town, I mean this one establishment on the side of the road. It was hostel, pub, restaurant and market all-in-one.

Exhausted and soaking wet, we took refuge in this oasis. While this day had taken its toll on me emotionally and mentally, it had done a number on Ronnie physically. The exhaustion left her on the brink, barely enough energy to crawl into bed and feeling quite unwell. While she rested, the rest of us took in a few pints and a warm meal, before calling it an early night.

Where day two had left us beaten and broken, day three gave us life! The sun shone, the forecast called for no rain and our distance for the day was a manageable 15km. We slid into our still-soaking socks and shoes, and walked into the wilderness with a renewed energy, buoyed by the grand weather.

By early afternoon we had reached the coastline and the town of Glenbeigh, our destination for the day. With nothing more to do for the day than find a place to camp, we rocked up at the first pub we came across to celebrate the day with a delicious Guinness.

After the refreshing pint, we made our way out of town in search of a place to camp for the night. With the sun quickly sliding towards the sea, we started to become concerned about a place to stay. With nothing materializing, we decided to start knocking on doors, seeking permission to camp in a farmer's field. The trail fairies graced us when we met Markus. He offered us his backyard and we gladly accepted. We set up camp and enjoyed the sunset over jet-boiled meals before turning in early.

Heading into our fourth day, we had to make some decisions. The Kerry Way typically takes about 8-10 days to complete, yet we only had seven. We would either have to up our distances each day, or skip something somewhere. Add to this that Storm Agnes was rapidly approaching the coast of Ireland, and our hand was forced.

The plan was to walk 18km to the town of Cahersiveen, get a place for the night and bus a day ahead the following morning. This would keep us on track and out of the storm.

The day's hike was another stellar one. Rain was minimal, we had stunning coastline views and the walk wasn’t overly difficult. Arriving in Cahersiveen at midday, we found ourselves lucky with our accommodation once again. The Sive Hostel is currently accepting only Ukrainian refugees, but happened to have a room to accommodate us. Perhaps they were taking some pity on us, as we were starting to look pretty ragged at this point. We also made arrangements for our next night's sleep and a taxi to take us there in the morning.

With logistics sorted, we spent the afternoon sipping Guinness and Irish Coffees and becoming regulars at the local pub. That evening we enjoyed delicious pizzas in a 160-year-old oratory. So excellent were the acoustics that we worried all night that we were being far too loud, which invariably made us even louder.

The next day, with Storm Agnes ravaging the coastline, we enjoyed our day off. A little grocery shopping and a few hours at the pub, before our taxi picked us up to take us to the most interesting of accommodations. We arrived at Valentia Island Retro Park unsure of what we might be getting ourselves into. Turns out we were to be housed in a converted 1979 double-decker bus!

This alone was fun and exciting, but we had another twist in store. It turned out that Emily had met the owner of the bus back in January while in India! What a small world! The bus was almost as charming as our host.

We spent the day relaxing in the bus, watching the storm blow through. That evening we took advantage of our access to a centuries-old stone house, which housed a full kitchen and large dining area. I cooked the group my favorite dish, Khao Soi. There’s not much better than a warm meal by the fire on a cold and wet day. After dinner, we filled our hearts to the brim by having a wonderful FaceTime chat with my mom. It was wonderful to see how happy everyone was to see my mom again, and you could see the same in her.

Our taxi driver from earlier had agreed to return the next morning and drive us to Waterville, where we would set out on our hike once again. The weather was much improved, and we had a wonderfully casual hike to the town of Caherdaniel. It wouldn’t have fit the theme, however, without a bit of discomfort. The first section of the hike had us up a mountain ridge, precariously perched above the crashing waves of the Atlantic. This had my acrophobia screaming. Thankfully this didn’t last long as we crossed the ridge and descended back to sea level.

We had started the day without an idea of where we would sleep for the night. But as on the Camino, the Kerry Way provided, and again in serendipitous fashion. Our host from the bus had mentioned to Emily that another friend from their India trip lived near Caherdaniel and suggested we give him a ring.

By midday, Michael had gotten back to Emily, agreeing to take us in for the night. And what a night! Probably the best night of the trip. Michael, a gracious host, opened his centuries-old family home to us. He cooked us dinner and shared countless incredible stories about his life and travels.

Just one of those amazing times when someone says, “make yourself at home,” and they mean it. I think I speak for everyone when I say it truly felt like home.

god's day

So comfortable were we that in the morning we lingered far longer than we likely should have. Having been watching the weather intently, Aidan declared that today was “God’s day.” He wasn’t wrong as the weather was absolutely stunning, matched by the scenery we walked through. We hiked over mountains and through valleys that were as Irish as Ireland can be.

Michael had suggested that when we reached Sneem, we simply go to the pub and ask the locals for recommendations for where to camp for the night. We did just that and were once again rewarded, as the owner of the pub let us camp in his backyard down the street. Our penultimate day had been a rousing success.

Unfortunately, our last day on trail was uninterested in maintaining this success. We woke up in the morning to pouring rain. There are few things more miserable than tearing down camp in the pouring rain. Ronnie and I were finished first and ready to move. We walked up to a cafe, ordered a full Irish breakfast and tried not to think about the misery we were about to endure while we waited for the rest of the group.

Nothing could have prepared us for the wretchedness of what we were about to experience. At around 35km to cover it was our longest day, and one cannot overstate the woe of those kilometers. We started the morning soaking wet and it only got worse from there.

While the rain did subside, that was certainly the highlight of the day. Our guidebook had spoken of an “unexpected expanse” of bog, so we were on high alert all day, waiting for it to make its appearance. The kilometers seemed to grow instead of shrink, such was our torment.

As the day dragged on, and our life force drained, all our ailments came to the fore and consumed our minds. And just when we thought we might finally be in the homestretch, we found ourselves mired in … The Expanse. The Bog of Eternal Stench. With each step, our souls sank deeper into the muddy abyss. Tired and weary, each step felt as if it was accompanied by a fall into the mud. As minutes turned into hours, few words were spoken, each step requiring the utmost concentration.

the expanse

After what seemed like forever, the expanse mercifully gave way to grass and eventually tarmac. The end was in sight. The hike was reaching its conclusion. Arriving in Kenmare, our modus operandi had us rocking up in a pub, looking for accommodation.

For reasons unknown to us, everything was booked or insanely expensive. After an exhausting day, mild panic set in. It began to look like our best option was about an hour's walk out of town, BACK the way we had come. Not ideal.

Ronnie met a woman in the pub who gave us a lead, while Aidan left the pub to go door-to-door to the myriad of BnBs in the town. When Ronnie struck out, I started to mentally prepare for walking that hour. Aidan returned, thankfully saying he had found a place with two rooms that could take us. It was a wee bit pricey, but the alternative wasn’t much cheaper, and again, was an hour’s walk.

Never has removing my shoes felt so good. Never has a shower felt so rewarding. Exhausted but refreshed, we wandered to the pub for a celebration dinner. In many ways, the last seven days felt as long and intensive as the 34 days we spent on the Camino. My body was shattered, my mind depleted. Yet my heart and soul were overflowing.

With one adventure ending and the next ready to begin, I find myself in reflection. This hike was a microcosm of this larger journey I find myself on. When I think about my experiences, three things invariably bubble to the surface. So many great moments involve at least one of them, and my favorite moments almost always combine all three.

Nature. Our planet is stunning. Its raw beauty can knock you off your feet. The sheer variety of landscapes, climates and ecosystems is mind-boggling. It’s this diversity that draws me in and keeps me yearning for more. I cherish the feeling I get from seeing a place for the first time. I become overwhelmed by a sense of scale, both large and small. I am blown away by the vastness of the landscape, which in turn makes me feel infinitely small. A reminder that I am but a speck in a much larger universe. It thrills and humbles me in equal measure.

Exercise. Our bodies need physical activity. We are not meant to sit still all day, every day. Our modern world tries to convince otherwise. But we are meant to be active, to move. ADHD makes this even more necessary for my health and well-being. The energy I get from a walk, run, climb or hike is tenfold more than the energy I burn and stays with me far longer. It revitalizes me and makes me feel alive.

Friendship. What a blessing it is to have good friends. In a world where people seem to be rapidly drifting away from each other, it has become crystal clear to me how important friendship is to my mental health. I love the feeling of discovering a new place or completing a difficult hike. But I’ve come to find that it’s the interactions with other humans that lift me the highest. Just sharing space with my friends feels incredible. I love our conversations and jokes, but so often it's the moments of quiet togetherness that I remember most.

In the rare times when all three of these combine, it feels like I’m wielding the Triforce from Zelda. I am in balance and the force flows through me.

This adventure was definitely one of those rare times. It was also a reminder of one of my favorite proverbs, “The journey is the prize.” Collectively we had discussed that this adventure was never about completing a hike. The prize was taking the hike together and deepening an already strong bond between us.

This was also one of those rare situations where I felt “joyfully miserable.” Multiple times, ankle-deep in filthy bog, with the rain pouring down, I stopped to take it all in and simply chuckle to myself, shit-eating grin spreading cheek to cheek. Somehow, in the most miserable of conditions, I was blissfully happy.