Roadtripping and Camping in Southern Ireland: Part I

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Last year we increased the number of kids in our family by 25%. Our oldest will soon be nine and the rest are spaced about two years apart, so seven, five, three, and one. It’s a lot of kids. Actually, the term a lot doesn’t do them justice. When they’re all together in one place you naturally refer to them with collective nouns that usually apply to animals. They travel as a herd. They eat as a swarm. They talk as a gaggle. If they all swam in the same direction together, they’d be a pod. Otherwise they’re just a horde.

Side note: According to Wikipedia, lots of alligators and magpies are both called congregations; however, a lot of magpies is also called a murder. That’s interesting. I wonder how magpies, and not alligators, earned such an endearing term.

I just realized that there aren’t any words specifically for collections of children. The first one that comes to mind is cacophony. This highlights the most striking characteristic of a lot of kids: consistent, mind-wrenching noise.

Five is a cacophony of kids.
Me, and anyone with a lot of kids

Anyway, five kids take about ten years to create if you have them one at a time, which we did. This means that my wife, Jill, sacrificed most of her twenties to the sorrow of conception. For 520 weeks she was perpetually multiplying and replenishing, growing, birthing, and then nursing babies.

It occurred to me last year that she deserved some kind of recognition or award for her prolific baby-making, something more than the crayon scribbles on construction paper that we call a mother’s day card, something like a trip to the UK, no kids attached, to see her best friend. I promised to make it happen the following summer, after baby five was weaned.

I thought about the logistics of such a trip about as much as I had thought about the logistics of having a horde of kids. So, not very much. But, I figured that minor details like cost, and timing, and who would watch the gaggle, besides me, would work themselves out. When something seems right, I say, go for it. Make it happen. Life is short. And ten years of parenting is cause for celebration.

Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.
W. B. Yeats

In the end, everything came together like it was meant to be. As this summer approached I was surprised to learn that the next meeting for a project I’m working on would be in Ireland in July. Thus, I excused myself from the sorrows of herding all the cats alone. My parents agreed to step in as zookeepers, bless their hearts. And so, after driving the crew back to California this summer, Jill and I packed our bags for our second vacation without children in ten years of marriage.

This is the first installment of what I can still remember from our camping road trip through the quiet, childless countryside of southern Ireland.

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County Clare

Before the road trip campout with Jill began, I spent a week in County Clare, on the west coast of Ireland. Jill stayed four days in Scotland, with her friend, and then we met up in Dublin for our grand giro.

For most of my first week I was in meetings. But during any free time I quickly went into tourist mode. I walked the streets, saying halloo! and howya? to everyone and taking pictures of things that are totally normal for Irish people but fascinating for a curious American, like plants growing out of chimneys.

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My first observation of County Clare was that plants grow everywhere. This proved to be true for all the other counties too. Plants seem to thrive on any surface, including vertical and overhanging ones. Even rolling stones gather moss. In contrast, Nebraska plants grow wherever you put them, but you have to put them there first, and they at least need some damp soil and a little sunlight, the standard plant diet.

But Irish plants just propagate. They multiply and replenish, even in dense shade, or shallow soil, or chimney soot. I actually saw two shrubs growing from different chimneys in County Clare. It was fascinating. Did someone plant them there? A disgruntled woodland fairy, maybe? I don’t have an answer.

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My second observation as I toured the streets and countryside of County Clare was that everything is made of stone. Houses, paths, walls, and bridges are all stone, and in some shade of grey. It’s like there’s a surplus of stone, and they don’t know what to do with it, so they keep making paths and buildings, and then stacking stone walls around them. Like the plants, this also continued for the rest of our trip. In Glendalough, southeastern Ireland, we stopped at an old village where all the buildings have vaulted, gabled stone roofs. No joists or beams, no flying buttresses. Just stone. And some pixie dust, of course.

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Killaloe

I stayed at the Lakeside Inn in Killaloe, a village about 20 kilometers north of Limerick on the River Shannon. In Ireland, the names of places always come after the thing that they’re naming. So, it’s the River Shannon in County Clare, instead of the Shannon River in Clare County. I’m not sure why they flip it around. It does sound more Irish this way.

I was reading recently about how some people are genuinely obsessed with the earth and all things outdoors. It’s called biophilia. Two episodes from my week in and around Killaloe confirm that I’m a complete biophile.

First, I had an incessant urge to swim in the river. This happens anytime I’m near open water. I’m drawn to it like a baby to a flame or to something fragile. Until I get my fix, I have a hard time focusing on anything else.

One night, we had dinner on a patio overlooking the river. Everything was fine until a group of local lads started jumping in from the stone bridge. It looked really fun. The bridge was about 20 feet high, perfect for diving and flipping. If only I had an excuse to join them. Unfortunately, no one needed rescuing, and no one dared me to go, so I just had to suffer, clothed and dry, while my land-loving colleagues finished their meals.

I swam the River Shannon the next day, in the 15 minutes after our meetings ended and before we met again for dinner. It was awesome. The water was cold and dark, with a reddish tint that reminded me of the River St. Croix, in State Minnesota, which is silted with iron and tastes a little like blood. Besides the color, everything else was new, from the smell of the river air to the consistency of the water itself. Long slimy leaves from unfamiliar river plants slithered past me like eels on their way to the Atlantic. Tall stone retaining walls on either side made the river feel like an ancient castle moat. And the tint of the water made it look more like ale. Overall, swimming in the Shannon felt very Irish.

Swimming is such an immersive experience. It connects you in an instant with the essence of a place. In a hot tub or jacuzzi, for example, you’re immersed in a bubbly soup of human microbes containing the essence of all the other people who join you, and those who dunked themselves before you. It’s sort of gross if you think about it. In a river, you’re immersed in a vast, complex flow of animal, plant, and mineral life. It’s not just a few other people staying in the same hotel as you. It’s everything that the rain touches. Limestone particles from a mountain stream mix with the starchy runoff from a potato farm and the organic runoff from pastureland and open countryside. These combine with the runoff from city streets, over rooftops, through gutters, and down storm drains, to form the one thing that contains a piece of every place. As a result, when you jump into a river, you jump into the essence of everything.

What I love most about rivers is, you can’t step in the same river twice. The water’s always changing, always flowing.
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I also had an incessant urge to explore the nearby mountains. A lad named Fergal who worked at the hotel recommended Ballycuggaran, about a mile north of the village. To save some time, I took a taxi to the trailhead right after my meetings ended.

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From the trailhead, I followed a dirt and gravel path west, climbing slowly to the top of Feenlea Mountain, and then crossed east along the ridge of Feenlea in an attempt to shortcut my way back to the “You Are Here.” After sliding about fifty feet down a slope of thick ferns, I ended up having to crush my way through endless head-high overgrowth. Occasionally, and unexpectedly, I’d slip down ten feet through something thorny that would thrash my shins and arms. In the end, I was dripping with blood, both mine and the plants’. It was stupid, but exhilarating.

Before I became a blood-brother with the Ballycuggaran flora, I also bonded with some of the local fauna. First, I stumbled upon a herd of sheep, lazing and grazing on the slopes of Feenlea. Then, a few minutes later I found myself directly above a family of foxes. Very awesome. And very Irish.

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Swimming and hiking were the highlights of my week in Killaloe. I did get some work done too, and I had some great food, and met some “really coo” people (that’s how they pronounce “cool”). On Saturday morning, having bid my colleagues farewell, I rented a tiny, stick-shift Opel and started an entirely different experience – nine days of driving on the wrong side of the road. More to come.

Farewell to Minnesota

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By now, Minnesota is long gone. We barely noticed the Minnesota corn fade into Iowa corn as we rolled south on our annual trip to California – south on highway 35 to meet 80 in Des Moines, then west on 80 for 1,700 miles, through Lincoln, Laramie, Salt Lake City, Reno, and finally dropping down into the heat and smog of the Sacramento Valley.

Unlike previous summers, this trip will have a different ending. When August comes and we make our way east, from the west-west to the mid-west, we won’t return to the unemployed, student-poverty, cramped-apartment life. Those days are finally behind us. Soon, our student debt will be dwarfed by a home loan, the most money we’ve ever not had, and we’ll begin the perilous tenure-race-track. But we’ve landed a job, and a house, and we couldn’t be happier.

When we arrived in the Twin Cities five years ago we were overwhelmed with an ambiguous feeling of excitement and anxiety. Our excitement evaporated with the summer heat, leaving only an anxious first winter ahead. My wife and I exchanged many frown-smiles with eyebrows raised during those first few months. It was a new type of adventure. Though we had lived far from home, on both coasts and overseas, for short periods of time, this was a 2000 mile move to a place we knew only from Jeff Foxworthy jokes.

With time, we learned there was more to Minnesota than notorious winters and an excessive number of lakes. I quickly learned about real winter camping. Not California-winter camping, where you drive 3 hours to find snow and then go sledding all afternoon in a t-shirt. I’m talking about stay-by-the-fire-or-freeze-to-death-in-minutes winter camping; why-am-I-doing-this?-because-it’s-awesome winter camping. None of my camping adventures deserve more hyphenated adjectives than those. Combine the thrilling winter options with the infinite waterways, available after the thaw, and you have an outdoors that doesn’t disappoint.

In addition to the excessively cold, persistent, harassing winters, and the lakiness (it’s like the entire state is sinking into a water table, and it’s only slowed by the annual freeze), we also discovered other people who didn’t seem to mind their location, some of them foreign and some native to the state.

First, we were blessed to find a dense collection of quality people who shared our lot – non-resident, diaper-changing, post-undergraduates, the majority unfamiliar with negative 20 degrees. This is the graduate-student-family-housing demographic, a mix of couples and families of different stages, ages, backgrounds, home countries, climates, languages, religious and political perspectives – extraordinary diversity.

Second, we were blessed to know some true Minnesotans, all of whom enjoyed the winters, or at least claimed to. These people have conquered the debilitating cold like vikings. They’ve mastered the long winters that bring grown Californians to tears. Their down-to-earth, hearty optimism was inspiring. Among the residents and non-residents, we found some of the best people we’ve ever known.

So, most important to the state are the people. At first, nothing could outweigh climate in our judgement of the place as a suitable home. It was unsuitable. Even finishing graduate school seemed tentative. But the people are worth their weight in gold viking armor. They’re worth their weight in farm-fresh cheese curd, and they turned the scales for us.

If the kids had immediately fallen asleep after we waved farewell to the messy old apartment complex, I might have had a moment to reflect on the great people we knew and the great time we had. Now that I have a moment to reflect on it, I’m sad, even a little teary-eyed. To the state as a whole – I’m sorry for making fun of you behind your back. To our friends – farewell, it was great, keep your stick on the ice. And to anyone considering or worried about moving to the land of lakes, especially the city of twins – it’s a wonderful place to live and raise a family.

Adventures in France: Some Photogs

This weekend I uploaded a couple dozen photos from our ridiculous 4-month trip to France. It was our most ambitious family adventure ever – all others pale and then shrivel up in comparison. Details to come in future posts…

I’ve organized the pics into the following categories:

  1. Skies – stratospheric and celestial phenomena
  2. Creatures – non-human lifeforms, mostly repulsive ones. Creatures not photographed include decapitated birds (the work of our cat Sila), the rolly polly infestation in our shower room, and the centipede habitat under our couch
  3. Home – our physical dwelling, a renovated shepherd’s cottage, and the surrounding regions

Enjoy!