I’d like to think that my desire to try new things, sense of adventure, and just general love for exploring the outdoors was planted in me at a young age.
Home for me is a dot-on-the-map town in the New Hampshire countryside that proudly has one country store, one church, and zero traffic lights. Weekends growing up were spent running through the forest in the summer, or building backyard ski-parks late at night with my older brother under the flood-lights off the back of the house in winter. My parents are always quick to remind me how I would find any way possible to slip out of yard-work and physical chores, but my happy place was without a doubt deep in the dark pines breathing in the sweet, warm air that rose up off the forest floor and letting my imagination run wild.
I eventually got over my dislike for physical labor, but ended up taking a bit of a hiatus from pretty much everything outdoors and adventurous toward the end of my high school career. Rather unexpectedly, I decided nursing, and a massive school in the middle of the city, was the direction I wanted to take my college path – completely logical for someone who wasn’t science minded at all and came from a town of two-thousand.
True to my need to try things for myself, I jumped in to the city life full bore convinced that it was what I had been missing all my life. I swapped broken in jeans for tight, colored pants, dirty boots for flat-soled mid-tops, and moved down to Boston for the start of my freshman year. Suffice to say, my time in Boston didn’t last long. I transferred schools at the end of the semester to about as polar opposite a place as you could get: a school of twenty-five hundred, deep in the green mountains of Vermont.
It has been there, at Norwich University, that I’ve rediscovered my love for being outside (pretty easy when the general consensus for what to do on a Friday night is have a bonfire with friends on a mountain) as well as discover a new love for writing and sharing the stories of others. This discovery came about at around the same time my parents asked a simple question one night while home on winter break. Sitting at the dinner table, they asked “What ever happened to going to Ireland?”
Visiting the Emerald Isle had been a dream of mine since I was years younger. I can’t remember what sparked the initial interest, but I know I have always loved the art and music culture that is so iconic of the country. It had always been a goal to study abroad there at some point when I began college. But between transferring schools, changing majors twice and trying to figure out just what the heck it was I saw myself doing after school, thoughts of study abroad had all but completely faded away.
Hmm… I thought to myself, That’s a pretty good question.. My response to my parents was something along the lines of “Um. I don’t know?” But that question was all it took. I may not have known what had happened to my original plan but I was in the International Studies office within a week of being back on campus to find out how I could make it happen in my last year of school. Nothing like waiting until the last minute.
Fast-forward nine months, and here I am, at the University of Limerick in Limerick, Ireland, bearing down on the end of what has been the most amazing semester and overall experience of my life.
I have had the chance to meet people from all over the world, to hear the accents and stories of the Netherlands, Croatia, Iceland, Romania, Brazil, Germany, Switzerland, Poland, France, Spain, Australia, Russia, England, Malta, Italy, Syria, and of course, Ireland.
I have had the chance to gain perspective. To learn a new culture, its history, what its citizens have endured, and what they have come to value.
I have had a fire kindled inside of me to continue to travel, explore, and wander my way around the world meeting new people.
And I have had the chance to continue pursuing my love of the outdoors and visiting new places. One of my goals for my semester abroad was to see as much of Ireland as I possibly could; the caveat was to do it as cheaply as possible. The Outdoor Pursuits Club at the University of Limerick proved to be the perfect solution.
The OPC is a multi-faceted group with one focus: pursue the outdoors. Convenient name, right? Some of its members are very vested in caving, others in rock climbing or mountaineering, and some are just in it for the occasional day hike so they can be surrounded by stunning views and good people. Regardless the activity, and come rain or shine, they are out every Sunday exploring the natural wonders of Ireland, and traveling with them has been invaluable.
My first hike was the perfect introduction to Irish weather -- walking around Kerry through sheets of rain being blown in every which way by gale-force winds. As I crested the ridge on that hike and was physically moved sideways by a gust of air, I smiled to myself and thought, Well, welcome to Ireland.
Since that first Sunday, I have rock climbed on cliffs over the Atlantic Ocean in the Burren, I have bouldered in Glendalough Valley, I have hiked to the top of Mt. Brandon, around the Knockmealdown mountains, and most recently, I have summited Ireland’s tallest peak, Carrauntoohill.
The origin of Carrauntoohill’s name is unclear. Lots of different spellings have popped up through the generations, but translated from the Irish language it is generally taken to mean “inverted sickle”. Maybe it just depends on the direction of ascent but I didn’t quite see the inverted sickle connection. I got more of a “grandpa’s arm-chair” vibe from the two horizontal traverses that extend to the north- and south-west off the summit and the deep bowl that sits in between which, according to Google translate, changes the name to “Sheanathar Cathaoireach”.
Regardless of the name, the mountain is beautiful – an icon of Ireland’s rugged peaks that seem to carry the weight of their age in their stout but strong stature. It stands just 3,500 feet tall (shorter than most peaks in New England back home) but it’s 3,500 feet of steep hiking, loose rock, and sheer cliffs that start from sea level.
We could not have been given better weather for the climb. Carrauntoohill is notorious for bad weather and no views from the top, a fact illustrated by a local Irish student who said that of the six times he had climbed the mountain so far, this was the first in which he was able to see the summit as we ascended.
The sun played a constant game of peek-a-boo behind the clouds as we hiked, which made it impossible to ever find the right combination of layers to keep from overheating or freezing. But as a reward for putting up with its indecisiveness, beams of light punched through the low hanging clouds right as we came over the summit top, illuminating the landscape and putting all of southwestern Ireland on display.
The view was truly spectacular. County Kerry has a topography that is more mountainous and rugged that I had ever realized. Small mountain chains spread out in every direction, like a crack in frozen ice spreading out into jagged fissures. The peaks shot out of the ground from the flat valley floors beneath them, with small villages or dark blue lakes dotting the surrounding country side. The wind buffeted us on that bald exposed peak, but I was surrounded by nothing but smiles and awe-struck faces as people took in the scene. This was what I had come for. A chance to see Ireland as it has existed for thousands of years, away from the large crowds or any big cities. To be outdoors with a group of amazing people from all over the world sharing in one memorable experience.
I realized early on in my time abroad that often the most genuine experiences come from the least traveled places. The tourist-hallmarks are certainly impressive and worth the time and expense to go. But it will be moments like standing on top of Carrauntoohill with the wind tugging at my jacket and the sun shining down, or waking up early and slightly hung-over to go running into the Atlantic with friends in Brandon, or sitting on top of a boulder under the stars in Glendalough, that I will truly remember. And it is for those experiences, that I will be eternally grateful.