Though I like to think of myself as a rampaging paragon of travel capability, I still often stumble blindly into the dark beyond. There are times when, despite all of my puffed-upedness, I still end up looking like a rube on his first trip outside of the barn. I end up haggard and weathered, aging years in a single day yet still petulant and whiny like a small child, and I smell like death and whatever I have accidentally stepped in or been soaked by. Vomit or poop or foul local liquors. Nothing embodies this guileless, naïve and unprepared wanderlust spirit than my journey through the Irish town of Howth.
We were freshly arrived in Ireland, and had quickly run through all of our ideas for sight-seeing in Dublin. Wanting both to experience local trainsmithing and to get a day out of the big city, we settled on the cheapest and closest option: a small coastal city, accessible by local commuter train. There was good food and a lovely little hike and a golf course and a marina and, we imagined, dozens of quaint little Irish villagers in suspenders and lederhosen or whatever it is Europeans wear, frolicking through their lives gaily and without care. It would be a land without troubles or age, where the locals did not seem to grow old unless comically so, and all would be well.
Upon arrival, we found a map and set forth in search of the hiking route. Everywhere around us were Irish elderly and small, gambolling children, accompanied each by dogs so happy and numerous they may well have actually been living cartoon characters. At the trailhead, four colour-coded options were before us, each with a measured distance and proposed hiking time.
Now, as we only had so much water and very little food, we wanted to be careful–but the most difficult and rousing trail (purple) was still just barely an hour and a half and a measly few kilometres. Surely our supplies would be sufficient, and did we want the locals casting aspersions upon the character, the will, or the strength of the Canadian people if we chickened out? The other trails seemed positively insulting by comparison. The green trail was for infants and Victorian ladies riding side-saddle while eating crumpets covered in apricot jam. We saw what seemed to be whole Kindergarten classes, some individuals injured or missing various limbs, ambling stalwartly towards the purple without any looks of concern. Away we went.
For a long while, everything seemed fine: the cliffs were beautiful and magnificent, and around us everywhere people were smiling and walking and enjoying the sunshine. You couldn’t break a sweat if you tried.
We were so wrapped up by the majesty of nature’s splendour that we barely even noticed that the trail was becoming more arduous. People began to disappear, or veered off when alternate-colour trails re-appeared, but often so gradually that we never noticed the decline. It only occurred to us suddenly: there were the three of us and several wretched, vagabond Swedes remaining on this path. Everyone else had abandoned us. What a bunch of babies!
Smart babies, anyway.
Soon the coastal hike revealed its Escherian nature, as we seemed, continuously, to hike upwards. Jagged rocks and shorn, rippling jags of earth began to assault us, our footings became less sure and ever more precarious. Our supplies were low, but we were relatively certain, as we were for most of the five hours we spent hiking, that we must have been at or beyond the halfway point, and what were we going to do, turn around?
Our water soon ran out, and we realized how hungry we were. The baleful Irish sky, a peaceful, calming canopy of heavy grey cloud, suddenly opened up and began to bake us dry. We began to consider the wisdom of the Bear Grylls meme.
The trail took us through rocky beaches and over cliffs and down mountains. We cut through two different parts of a golf course and, once, a cemetery, as though a grim, glib reminder of our life choices. We traipsed through bogs and water and very possibly the Mines of Moria when we weren’t looking. With every passing second, Death seemed to close in on us, the wind nothing more than his cool, rattling breath raking through the holes in his skull.
Of course we did eventually make it out of the trail, thankfully directly by the train station and a restaurant. We poured ourselves into chairs and ordered food and drinks, and basically couldn’t fathom the thought of human speech, let alone conversation or continued planning of our trip.
My hike in Howth is forever the metric by which I measure all other travel hardships. All other ordeals can only hope to compare, and reach a fraction of the foot pain and swampy butt-sweat. Here, then, is a sliding scale of travel adversity, ranging from 0-5 Howths.
0 Howths: A walk through the foreign travel daisies. You are thoroughly watered and fed and your feet are like soft pillows. Your body has been recently washed, and you smell like roses and bath salts and maybe pad thai. It’s like you never even left your house, you are so comfortable. The vacation is a parade of drinks served inside of coconuts and discount foot massages on the beach.
1 Howth: One day it rained. And maybe you got some salt water up your nose. But otherwise: still coconuts and footrubs.
2 Howths: A trip where one’s feet have gotten a little sore from all the walking, and the heat was enough to both lubricate with prodigious amounts of sweat and to burn and chafe. But luckily the food was still good!
3 Howths: You have calluses on roughly 10 percent of your body, and a sunburn, and also a tattoo you don’t really remember getting. Also, the food wasn’t even good.
4 Howths: Your feet are essentially nothing but callus producing machines–husks of dead human flesh wrapped around a creamy nougat core of living tissue. They would serve well as cheese graters. You haven’t eaten in days, or what you did might well have been laced with Ipecac, given the results. Your clothes have semi-permanent sweat stains, and you think the water might be causing you to halucinate.
5 Howths: Your feet broke off of your body long ago, and you haven’t had food or water for days. And even then, it was mostly just parasites with a side of lettuce. You have taken to drinking your own sweat, or the sweat of others. Somehow you have managed to work your way into the parts of earth where there is sun all hours of the day, but also it is incredibly hot. You will almost certainly die here. And the view isn’t even that good.
How do your travels stack up on the Howth scale?