“UP THE MOUNTAIN ye were?” the woman said to me. I tried to look at her from the passenger seat, though my glasses were bedazzled with raindrops.
“Picked a day for it, too,” I said, and she laughed, and clicked her tongue. She was in her mid-seventies, wearing a corded cream wool sweater and speaking to me in that rough thicket of an Irish country accent that I encountered anytime I left the main towns and met a sexa- or septuagenarian. “My name is Aidan Ryan, by the way,” I said – appropriate, it seemed, now that I’d been soaking her upholstery for a few minutes. “Oh, not many Ryans here,” she said. And that was all I got out of her. I never learned my driver’s name.
The woman had picked me up about two and a half kilometers from Sligo Town. I had been walking the easy downhill road from Knocknarae for about three kilometers already, through intermittent mist under a white sky, and though my thumb wasn’t out in the universal hitcher’s gesture my smooth-soled shoes were waterlogged, my sky-blue shirt had been soaked into a royal indigo, and the camera around my neck labeled me a tourist, which in Ireland is inevitably seen as something of an innocent fool to be pitied and taken in for at least two cups of tea and a bit of advice. She pulled up to me beside some farmer’s field, and I stepped out of the road for her, into thorny bushes. She didn’t roll down the window or look at me; she just jerked her thumb into the empty passenger seat. I got in. And as we pulled into the busier traffic of the city, I remembered all the times that people of my parents’ generation and older had told stories about catching rides across the U.S. or Europe. “Back then you could get away with it,” they always told me, following this with a world-wise warning that if I dared to thumb a ride I’d be chopped up with farm implements, generally large ones like axes, honed hoes, scythes, or portable roto-tillers. I figured then, safe in that woman’s car, that there was a fair chance I’d tell the same things to my children, in some gauzy future dreading whilst anticipating that they’d someday give the opposable finger to caution (preferably in Ireland). She let me out at the corner of Wine Street and O’Connell, and in the bustle of a city switching into a higher gear for the Fleadh Cheoil, Ireland’s traditional music festival which was set to begin, then, in a week, the disassociation hit me: I was at once ripped out of and rooted to the spot. Somehow, I knew without comprehending, I was not still standing on the wind-swept top of Knocknarae.
. . .
IN SLIGO, Ireland, to study W.B. Yeats, I decided to take my only free Saturday to climb Knocknarae, one of the two smooth limestone sides of the town’s weather-catching bowl, the other being Ben Bulben, both eulogized at one time or another by the town’s (and the island’s) most famous poet. Cnoc na Riabh, translated as “hill of the stripes” (sometimes “hill of the kings,” or even “hill of the executions”), is a “large hill,” or a Marilyn (a name for the little siblings of Scottish Monroes), although I’d prefer to say of it what Robert Louis Stevenson said about Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh: it is “a hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design” – (or at least from some angles). Knocknarae, with its regal stony name, is itself a brutalist megalith of limestone that looms over the seaside surf-town of Strandhill and separates Sligo and Ballysadare bays. I admit the climb is not heroic – one doesn’t need ropes and carabineers or even, as I found out, good shoes – but many have attempted the height and failed, and turned back, and grabbed a pint at some warm public house on the lower slopes. In some places Knocknarae rises at gray dramatic right angles, sweeping upward, while painted sheep wander almost to the top.
I had only one day for Knocknarae, and it was the worst day. County Sligo is not known for its gorgeous weather – in fact, the mythical “fourth season” of summer comes in its full splendor so rarely that the residents still recall, and often speak of, the last Blessèd Year, 1995, that they had enough sun to do without Vitamin D pills – but on the day I rode the 472 bus from Sligo to Strandhill, the second of August, the rain seemed to come from all sides; it spat and howled and bit at every hem and button. Advised that the skies would clear (and fortified by an Irish “fry-up,” a deadly breakfast of ham, egg, tomato, sausage, potato, black and white pudding, and toast … and a Guinness) I ventured out in a blue cotton oxford and leather dress boots.
But seaside Strandhill was worse than Sligo, whipped as it was by Atlantic tides, great sea-horses baring their teeth and laughing, it seemed, at me. I was casting about for any open door, any shelter, preferably one with an iron stove and warm crowded wooden booths, but in the ocean about two dozen surfers in wetsuits battled the gray waves, paddling out again and again in a bay deemed too dangerous for swimming. I gave them a silent salute and went into The Strand Pub for a pint, hoping the rain would let up. It seemed that it had about an hour later, and after getting some scanty directions from a waitress (“Go up the road into town” – Town? I hadn’t noticed a town – “And turn left, and you’ll see a carpark”), I went out again into a lighter rain.
A hundred meters from the door of the pub, and fifty from the Strandhill bus stop, without thunder or lightning, without any warning sound, the clouds opened new unseen sluices and let down an even harder rain. Under a canopy of leaves, a glorified flower bush coaxed by some unsuspecting coast dweller into a shelter for travelers like me, I waited and weighed my options. I could see the mountain, but I did not know how far away it was, nor where to find the marked path. The changing weather was an even greater gamble. But the bus stop was now fifty meters away or more, and that, too, would be a trip through the rain. That walk of defeat might be longer than the walk up the rain-battered limestone slopes. I set out again.
I’d gone about four kilometers, still in hissing drizzle, before I became a traffic impediment. There were no shoulders, and as I walked the left side of the curving road I listened for cars behind, and when I judged they were close enough I’d jump up into the gorse and nettles to let them zoom past. I hadn’t even thought to stick out a thumb when one woman slid to a stop and asked me, leaning over her father, if I was headed to Knocknarae.
“Typical Irish pessimism, you know,” she said when I mentioned all the people who had tried to dissuade me from the climb – on any day – while I’d been in Sligo. “It’ll be slippery, though, so watch yourself,” she said. She pulled into a near-empty carpark, and turned to me. “Heading back into Sligo town? You’ll want to go left at the turn down there. Try to hitch back in.”
“Not to the bus?”
“It’ll be longer back to Strandhill, and then to wait on a bus. S’more direct to Sligo, and it’s a busy road. Somebody’ll pick you up – and if not, it’s only six kilometers.”
And thus in an afternoon hitchhiking went from a romantic anachronism to the beginnings of a habit. Across from me, a lady sat in a shack selling hot chocolate and coffee to climbers. Beyond her, what looked like an easy hill stretched up through pastures of sheep. The rain felt like it might be letting up.
. . .
THE RAIN was not letting up, and it was not long before I realized the importance of proper footwear. This was not the day’s first sartorial epiphany: the former had come about five minutes after leaving my house on Old Cartron Hill in Sligo Town, sans jacket. The month is August, I thought; August means summer. This was naïve. As soon as I hit the bay, the wind blew slantwise doubts through my entire day’s plan.
Stubbornness, bafflement, and Irish pity got me to Knocknarae’s foot, but couldn’t give my smooth soles more traction on the hill. Most of the going was easy enough – the incline was gradual, and softer parts were covered in a bed of rocks for grip. But there was a rainstorm, and the pebbles – really rocks the sizes of babies’ balled fists – slipped and slid under me, rattling back down the path. The solid parts were made of limestone steps smoothed by millennia of climbers and eons of Irish weather. These rock knuckles were the toughest to navigate, and there were no handholds save the barbed wire strung from perilous loose fence posts to my left. I climbed on, while I stared down – not the hill’s peak, in front of me, but the descent, below and beyond me in time and space. Typically, for me, I looked to the future not to plan for it, not to worry about it, not even to ignore it, but in a fascinated half-unbelief that I would actually be a participant. I high-stepped and scrabbled and clutched at the bramble bushes and slipped once or twice, and I thought: Well, this will get harder. I looked up, and saw that what earlier had been a clear straight five degree path had turned into a blank hillface with knobby black teeth biting out of it, row after broken rainwet row. I blinked the water from my eyes.
. . .
THE SIGN said six kilometers to Sligo, so I started walking north, one hand warming around a fresh cuppa from the shack at the foot of the trail. The air was light and full with oxygen, and I whistled odd Irish tunes that came to my head – the rain, a fine blowing mist now, was like holy water fallen from an aspergil shaken on an unseen peak even higher than my Knocknarae (my Knocknarae now), the white clouds great billows from some Druidic-Catholic thurible in the skies. I blinked, and I was back on the hill’s bare head, seeing in three hundred and sixty degrees the Atlantic, the twin bays, the surfers at Strandhill, the sheep of the hillocks, and the fog all over the land. I blinked again, and I was back on my downsloping road. I found I could do this as many times as I liked; I was a split self; I was exultant.
I came unprepared for Knocknarae in ways other than dress, for I didn’t know what sat at the top. When I crested one of the soft upper ridges, even the sheep below me then, I saw a massive pile of stones, like a crude crown on the mountain. I knew it was one of the famous cairns of the British Isles – but I hadn’t known I’d find one there. As I got closer I saw that though the top was smooth this was broken by a further peak – a small thrusting upward, in the rough shape of a man. I was still too far to tell – but I wondered if it might be some Celtic yogi in contemplation on the highest height of the storm battered rock.
Finally I reached it – some forty feet high, one hundred and eighty feet in diameter, a great rubble tumulus of stones head-size and bigger. A simple sign warned off climbers and vandals. I learned later that this was Maeve’s Cairn, the tomb of the mythical Méabh, lover of kings and Queen of Connacht in the Ulster Cycle of Irish lore. Though Queen Maeve was allegedly killed with a piece of cheese sent with a particularly deft sling, her burial site could not be nobler: she is entombed in the cairn atop Knocknarae, according to lore, standing upright, so as to face her enemies in Ulster, in the north.
So I sat on a rock at the edge of the cairn and looked out on all the land and sea until both land and sea disappeared in gray oblivion. The boundary line dividing flesh from spirit, living from dead, fact from intuition, thins to a tensile permeability in Ireland. We cross these divisions without even knowing, as easily as stepping over the low stone walls that box and divide even the most barren and desolate of the country’s hills – the centuries-old walls that ran near-vertically up Knocknarae, penning in the painted sheep. The cairn was one such boundary. I was sitting on it. A giant’s handful of pebbles separated me from a semi-divine queen. The same rain that touched me found its way to her. A few feet away from me a couple also sat on the cairn, smoking. I jotted down one or two thoughts in a leather-bound notebook. The rain sent the ink blooming and swirling down the page.
Sometimes in melancholy wet cafes I am given – as perhaps you are, too – to indulging those sober notions that by the busy industry of our lives we hope to keep at bay. I try to find some scales in which my wishes and my choices come out even; I think of the people that I’ve lost, and even more on the people I’ve as good as lost; I doubt the totality of the human endeavor. In such cafes, in such sober calculations, one wishes for Frost’s yellow wood, where paths at least diverge, where at least one has a choice, if a blind choice; instead there is the American superhighway dotted with rest stops, offering a choice of Dunkin’ Donuts, Chronic Tacos, Bojangles’ Famous Chicken n’ Biscuits, and a clean-enough bathroom, only leading back out to the Interstate, heading in one direction – wrong or right direction having no meaning when there isn’t a choice.
And then there are other times when I find myself on top of mountains resting my tired glutes on a crude rock tomb from a time before history. The human race is equally blessed and cursed, I think, by a layered, rather than a linear, experience of time. “There is no was, only is,” William Faulkner wrote. “If was existed there would be no grief or sorrow.” But at the same time, because of is, I will always be in some melancholy wet café; and I will always be on Knocknarae.
At first blush the cairn doesn’t compare well with other wonders of the ancient world. The pyramids impress for their engineering and design, so much that some of us are not convinced of human origin. No one, on climbing Knocknarae to find Maeve’s Cairn – whether they knew anything about it or, like me, were taken by surprise – would wonder how or why it was accomplished. Perhaps this is why Albert Camus chose Sisyphus as his prototypical thwarted man: because there may be nothing more essentially human than the desire to carry rocks up to high places and pile them there. I thought of his essay then, at the top, and put a twist of my own on the Greek myth, a tale as old as the tumulus I sat on.
I imagined every climber – booted or barefoot, pagan or Christian, very young or very old – carrying a rock to the top of Knocknarae. We use Sisyphus as a handy symbol of futility, because on reaching his hill’s summit, his rock will always roll back down. But would his endeavor be any more meaningful if he were successful, if he left his rock on top of that hill in Hades? I think Camus would say otherwise. “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart,” he writes. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” I imagine Sisyphus happy, and I imagine him walking back down that hill to fetch another rock; every trip down he walks lighter, every trip back up heavier still. And though his labors will never cease, will never mean anything, he’d have built something like the mute pile of rocks atop Ben Bulben’s southern cousin. We Knocknarae climbers are a string of Sisyphuses. (And in fact, as a local in Thomas Connolly’s pub later informed me, tradition holds that every climber ought to carry up some rock of their own, to make the pile bigger.)
So I turned to walk down – a bit lighter on my feet, head clear, empty, gray, rain-whipped. And, like Sisyphus, I knew some day I’d be back to visit Maeve’s Cairn, carrying some other rock.
As I turned from the cairn and walked the first easy downslope of the summit red neon flashed past. It was a runner, and I saw him skid in the wet grass and gravel at the edge of a small cliff, a limestone lip. He stopped on his toes, swaying there, and scanned the descent, from Sligo bay in the east to the wide whitecapped Atlantic in the west, the rough slope below. And then he was off, almost falling, in a mad katabatic flight down the hill. (I opened my bag to take a drop of the golden dew, I admit – prophylaxis against the common cold. Still the rain beat sideways, gusting.) I paused on the lip he’d just left, another boundary, this time dividing journey from journey, feeling from memory, thought from poetry. Easy to cross, as easy as falling. And I followed him down, feeling “cold and passionate as the dawn.”