The first island I reached was Inishbofin, a mile long hill, guarded on the west by craggy rocks that the swells thundered into. Around the north tip were more rocks. I paddled wide around them and came into the instant calm behind the island. A broad sweep of beach lay nestled between points of rock to the north and south, a safe refuge from anything but an east wind.
I landed and hastily carried the first load of gear to a flat spot behind the cobbles of the beach. Dozens of holes tunneled into the soft earth and round grainy pellets lay scattered everywhere. The island looked as if it was overrun with rabbits. The tent was up in a matter of minutes and the heaviest stones I could find were piled on the corner stakes. More gear was brought up from the boat: the food bag, water bag, stove, and pots. In the backpack was the camera, journal, and the radio so that I could get the weather forecast. In a half hour I had my camp set up and the stove roaring away beneath a pot of water. The weather report called for northwest winds at Force 6 to 7, swinging to the northeast by tomorrow afternoon, then to the south by evening. A series of low fronts were backed up across the Atlantic and would bring unstable weather for the next few days. I tuned the radio off and stuffed it back into the pack. It was the same forecast I had been hearing for most of the summer: shifting winds as fronts moved in, held for twelve hours, then were pushed toward England and Scotland by the next one. I was tired of the constant winds. They had been with me since the very first day of the trip, and the cat-and-mouse game of running from them was wearing me out.
l sat in the tent, holding the warm pot of rice in my hands and mentally clicking off the next thirty miles of paddling. Horn Head was eight miles to the east, then another ten miles to Fanad Head, where I could paddle into Lough Swilly if the winds forced me ashore. From there it was a twelve-mile crossing to Malin Head, the northernmost point of ireland. On my map, I had drawn spiraling circles and made a note of "large tidal eddies" to the west of Malin Head. This was the area that a lighthouse keeper I met in County Cork had warned me about. I remembered him saying, "If ye hit it at the wrong time, ye might as well get out an' walk, for ye won't be goin' anywhere."
His advice was a simple explanation of the tidal flows around the headland. At the height of either tide, the current rushes around the point in standing waves that no boat challenges. On the other hand, if the tides can be used properly, the passage can be fast and smooth. The tide floods west to east at almost five knots, a terrific assist, until it hits the headland and sweeps back on itself. The trick would be to approach the headland at the last hour of the flood when the backflow was at its weakest, then sprint the four or five miles to Malin Head and get as close to the rocks as the swells allowed. lf the timing was right, the ebbing tide would begin and I would be able to find a countercurrent close to the rocks. Without the wind factor and in the absence of swells on the headland, it was a straightforward piece of timing and fast paddling. With the wind, especially if it was a wind against a tide, the plan would be useless and I would have to come up with another. Because of the strong tides, the only option would be to sit and wait for the winds and tides to flow together. I finished dinner, then walked down to the beach to wash the pots with a mix of fine sand and seawater. The banks of clouds that had hurried me into the protection of the islands had drawn thick and were now a single, gray blanket that sat heavy on the sea. Smudges of massed clouds slid over one another, partially masking the energy of an hour earlier. Maybe I was wrong about the winds? I returned to the tent, set the stove and cooking gear in one comer, and slipped the headlamp into the pocket of my raincoat. Before darkness closed completely over the island, I wanted to have a look around.
l set off for the southern end, turning around now and again to see the peak of the tent blending into the hillocks of sand and green. A small building of stone - two windows and a doorway that were barely more than a total ruin - was the landmark I would have to find on the way back. I turned and followed an old track that cut across the uneven ground on the low end of the island, then disappeared as it climbed over a ridge toward the crest. The deep ruts lay hidden beneath long grass and occasionally cut into the center where the tractor or cart had lurched out of the mud. As I walked over the crown of a small hill, I felt the first gust of wind coming from the west. It seemed as if it had been waiting for dusk.
The higher the track climbed, the stronger the winds became. In the dim light, amid winds that now blew like waves across the grass, I stumbled, gave up on the rutted track, and turned toward the summit. Along the shadow of land rising into the last light of day was the silhouette of a man leaning into the wind. His pace was unhurried, as if the long summit of the island had been his destination and he had slowed to catch his breath. A border collie appeared on the ridgeline, frolicking and apparently filled with the energy of the evening walk. The sight of this lone figure set against the sky added to the drama of the winds and the sounds of the breaking seas that came with them. The man spotted me as I came out of the shadow of a dip, waved, and waited for me to finish the climb.
When I was almost at the top, the dog bounded off the ridge in a puppylike welcome. He raced toward me, pink tongue hanging out as he circled, then took off in a streak back to the man. It was a good sign: a friendly dog is often a mirror of its owner. The fellow was indeed friendly. I introduced myself and explained that I had landed on the protected beach, the first safe landing I could find. He told me his name was Patrick Coll. As if to reassure me, he said, "Ah, the beach is fine when the wind is from the west. In an east wind she can be rough but she's fine tonight." Then he asked, "And what kind of a boat are ye in?"
Whether it was the wind or the island dialect, I didn't know, but it was hard to understand Patrick's short sentences. "It's a kayak," I answered, and went on to explain where I had come from that morning and that I was paddling around Ireland, hoping to get back to Dublin before the fall winds set in.
l expected the usual disbelief, the flood of questions, but instead he simply said, " 'Tis a fair bit to go in a canoe." It wasn't a statement of disinterest, but rather a simple fact, as certain as the fact that the beach was a safe landing in a west wind.
A gust tore over the summit and the first drops of rain slapped onto my raincoat. Total darkness had settled over the island and I could no longer see Patrick's face. He said he lived just over the hill, pointing with the glow of his cigarette to the south, and invited me out of the wind for a pot of tea. The shelter of a roof and the chance to find out more about the island sounded like a good way to spend the evening. We dropped off the exposed ridge, following the dog and another track that I could barely make out by looking slightly to one side. It eventually led us out of the wind to a cottage set back from a grass-covered road. Patrick disappeared into the house and a moment later the glow of a gas lamp flared, then settled into a warm light spilling through the open doorway. When I entered, Patrick was coaxing the first flames beneath a stack of newspapers and peat in the fireplace. The wind funneled down the chimney and sent tendrils of smoke from the crumbled newspaper drifting into the room. He moved the match to another comer of paper, playing it along the edge under the dry black turf. The peat slowly caught, added color and heat to the flames, and established a draft that pulled smoke and rounded tongues of orange and yellow straight upward.
l dropped into the comfort of a worn chair on one side of the hearth while Patrick put the kettle on in the kitchen. I heard water being poured into a metal pot, the heavy thunk of the jug being set down, and the clink of two spoons dropped into mugs. The raspy whisper of water beginning to heat, and the gentle snap of the fire blended with the sounds of the kitchen. In the warm and snug cottage, the sounds seemed so delicate compared to the pervasive noise of winds and seas that I lived with twenty- four hours a day. I settled into the comfort of the fire as it flickered a reminder of the winds beyond the thick stone wails.
"Doyetakesugarinyertea?" The words rolled off Patrick's tongue fast and thick as a foreign language.
"I do if you've got it, but black is fine if you don't," I answered.
He brought in steaming mugs of tea, a bowl of sugar, and a fine crystal pitcher of cream. The tea was strong, dark as the night framed in the windows, the cream white and thick as it swirled the blackness into golden brown. He pulled a chair to the far side of the hearth, lit a cigarette before settling, then without coaxing began telling me stories of the island.
"So, yev come to lnishbofin. Oach, there's stories on this island like no other. Yer tent's down by the beach, is it? Well, if ye looked, ye wouldn seen a . . . ah, I don't know the English word. Ye see, we speak the Gaelic here. English on the mainland but here it's the Gaelic. A stone house, not a house but it was once."
I was hanging on each word and struggling to tie the sentences together into the story he was telling. "A ruin?"
"Yah, a ruin. No roof but a pile of stone. A man, Porter Kingsley, built it. In the twenties or thirties. His wife and he lived in that hut 'til the day he disappeared. A rich American, he was. Owned an estate east down the coast from here but lived in the stone hut." He drew on his cigarette and took a sip of his tea. "one day his wife came inta the village an' said he was gone. The people searched the cliffs and beach but never found him. A strange story. Some tink there was foul play. Maybe the wife wanted the estate. Who knows."
Another story was about his father and grandfather, who fished the island waters for salmon, "that was before the nylon nets, an' the fish could see the cotton by day. My father and his father would sail at night, in the yawls. Oach, now, they were a fine boat. Graceful, they were. There's one, two left on the mainland, but they're not used. The outboard is better. More money, but in those days they only had sails. Everything cotton, sails and nets. We fished at night. I did as well. Oach, now that's goin' back. More tea?"
The tea was poured and the sugar bowl held out in a hand that was lined and cracked at the joints of the fingers. Working hands larger than mine but holding the bowl as gently as a child.
"Me fatha would catch the salmon, and in the winter cod. Mackerel in the summer. More fish than is caught today, fer sure. The fish are gone. Japanese trawlers ripping the bottom up an' takin' our fish back to Japan." With a cigarette in one hand and the cup of cold tea in the other, he tilted his head, squinted through the smoke, and told one story after the other about the history of the island. In the course of three hours, I listened to this handsome, gray-haired fisherman and pieced together stories that flipped back and forth as if time itself didn't matter as it did in the rest of the world. Fragments of tales. Overlapping time frames, smoke hanging in the air, and the soft bum of the peat. Patrick's dog was stretched out in front of the fire, his black and white coat glistening in the soft light of the gas lamps and the glow of the flames, his legs twitching in dreams. Some islanders went to Alaska and the Yukon. Lookin' for the gold. I tink the families live in Seattle now, maybe Montana. Islanders 'ave gone all over the world but I come back every year. Come out in May an' stay till the mackerel and salmon are gone, then back to the mainland.
" 'Ave ye seen McGregor's hut? 'Tis down on the rocks - ye must 'eve seen it. Queerest thing I ever saw. But for a man, Neil McGregor was the smartest. A goldsmith from London, we never knew 'ere he came from or why he came to the island. Didn't ask. The island is that way. Oach, that man could fix anything from a stone wall to a fine watch. Some days I would see 'em on the back o' the island and he'd wave - sometimes he'd walk right past without a word. A queer man, but if there was help needed, he'd be there. I carried him out. Dead, he was. No one had seen 'em an' I went and looked in his shack-ye have to walk to the point an' look at it. Nothin' but a sheep hut, but he lived there closer to the sea than anythin'. On the wall inside are, ah . . . in the Gaelic I can say it but . . . pictures in the stone, chipped, hammered iota the rock."
"Etching? Or carvings?" I tried to find the word he was looking for.
"Yea, carving maybe." Patrick was gazing into the fire with a look of wonder, the stub of his hand-rolled cigarette held loosely between thick fingers and his weight shifted forward and leaning on the arms of the chair. "Ye should have a walk down to his hut before ye leave. 'Tis a lobster, a salmon, and a gull on the stone. l've never seen the likes of them lookin' so real - and in a shack so small you wouldnt tink a man could live in it."
"You said you carried him out? What happened to him?"
"He died. He was there on 'is bed. Like he was sleepin'. But dead he was. I carried the body out and a nephew of his showed up to claim him. We rolled a rock ageist the door and 'tis the way it is now." The stories continued: a meeting on the Aran Islands two years ago, islanders from all over gathering to make their voices heard. They want power and water brought to the islands; they want a share of EU (European Union) money. Ireland is changing and Patrick is worried. He shakes his head and gestures with his hands. The drugs in Dublin, the violent crime of the cities. Again he lifts his hands in the simple expression of a man who doesn't understand the ways of the outside world.
It was late, close to midnight, when I heard footsteps in the outer hall. The dog woke, stood, stretched, and waited for the inner door to open. A tall, trim man, mid-fifties, walked into the living room, looked directly at me, then over to Patrick, and said, "I didn't know there were strangers on the island."
Patrick echoed the man's words, "Oach, ye didn't know there were strangers on the island."
It was an interesting exchange. The visitor then greeted Patrick. "Good evening to ye, Patrick." Patrick returned the greeting, "Good evening to ye, and it's a wind we'll be feelin' tonight and rain before long." After a few rapid sentences in Gaelic and a nod in my direction, Patrick introduced me to his friend. The man wasn't unfriendly but neither was he outgoing: a man comfortable in the presence of other islanders but withdrawn in front of a visitor.
A week later I met a man from Londonderry who had studied the ways of the island people. I told him of my visit with Patrick and the greeting that I had listened to with such interest. He said the islanders were different; they kept to themselves, but if they took you in, you couldn't find finer people. The curious pattern of repeating phrases and parts of a story was a holdover from the days of old, the repetition drawing out the story and making the telling more dramatic and suspenseful. What I had witnessed was the beginning of the story of my visit, a story that would be retold in the village again and again. It was the isolation of the islands that made the telling of stories so important: something to add to the evening hours in front of the fire.
l left Patrick and his neighbor sitting in the warm glow of lamplight and peat, their voices soft and unhurried as I stepped into the chill of the night. Thick, dark clouds raced across a half moon that illuminated the crown of the island. My eyes adjusted to the moonlight and I found the old road leading to the summit, then angling down across the slope of the island in the direction of the beach. My feet raked the sodden grasses and the wind found its way through the flaps and pockets of my raincoat. A light flickered on the northern horizon, then swept across the darkened sea in a solid beam. It swung in a smooth arc, the pinpoint spreading out as it probed the blackness, sweeping the sea and reflecting off the clouds. The beam blinded me for a second, then raced away and sent its message of light into the Atlantic. Every thirty seconds the light returned, flared across lnishbofin, touched the mainland two miles behind me, then faded again as it reached into the black horizon. The light was from Tory Island, built high on the cliffs so that it could be seen thirty miles out, its four-second beacon guiding fishing boats and shipping into the restricted waters between Ireland and Scotland. In a howling gale or star-filled summer night, the light kept a vigil over the waters. I thought of Neil McGregor and the nights he must have shared with the silent and lonely repetition of the beam.
I let the slope of the island pull me down to the beach and to the ruins that stood against the skyline. The toppled pile of stones near the campsite now had a story that accompanied me on my walk. A few hours earlier the island had been a place of refuge, a rockbound shelter that blocked the onslaught of westerly swells. An Irishman, a peat fire, and a sleeping dog had brought the place to life. Now the night was filled with tales of island hermits, canvas sails, cotton nets, and the voice of a Gaelic story-teller. I zipped the tent shut and settled in for the night as the light on Tory Island filled the space with a soft glow.
By morning, the winds had dropped to barely a whisper. The forecast was for a northeasterly, Force 5 to 7 by midday. lf the report was right, I wouldn't be going anywhere beyond the protection of the cluster of three islands. I had breakfast, then walked over the ridge and down to the row of houses crowded around the village pier. Lobster pots, fish crates, and netting with small oblong floats rested against and on top of the stone wall that ran in front of the whitewashed houses. Three men stood at the top of a concrete boat ramp, leaning against a rusty winch and looking out across the narrows to the mainland. They wore dark trousers and worn black jackets over white shirts. Crumpled caps, each worn differently - one pushed high on the back of the head, another down low to shade the eyes.
At first I thought they were waiting for someone to cross from the mainland, but after a half hour of standing and chatting with them I realized that they probably did this every morning. We talked about the weather, how fickle the winds were, shifting and covering the sea in white-caps. I asked about the winters, what the seas were like and if they fished at all once the weather turned.
The fellow who did most of the talking cocked his head to one side and simply said, "Ah, the winter seas er rough, and there's no fish to be had."
The other two men echoed his reply. "Oh aye, rough, very rough. No fish a'tall."
Without looking at the other two, the first fellow said, "We'Il go to the mainland in September, won't we?"
The reply was a curious partial echo, expressed on a sigh as if it were inevitable. "oh aye, in September, in September."
The echo seemed to be a way of reassuring each other, of making a statement and trusting that your neighbor or fishing partner was there to back you up.
A couple of men who looked as if they must be in their eighties shuffled down the pier and climbed into one of the small open boats. Their clothes were the same as the younger fishermen I stood next to - the same, but more worn and hanging loose without the bulk of muscle to fill them.
There wasn't a word said between them as one went forward, the other aft. Gnarled fingers cast off the lines with a splash and the man in the back pulled twice at the outboard before it sputtered to life. They sat on the wood seats, a last-minute shift in weight to trim the boat, each with one hand on the gunwale and their caps pulled low over their eyes. They disappeared around the end of the pier, in the direction of the mainland. The sheltered harbor was the center of island life. Doorways faced the pier, a dozen houses, some boarded up as if a reminder, like the old fishermen, of days gone by. Oars, nets, and open doorways looked out on the harbor. A couple of men were chatting on the far end of the row of houses, enjoying the morning sun, talking to each other but looking in my direction. A beautiful young woman with ringlets of flaming red hair came out of one of the house with a wooden tray of salted fish. A child of four or five ran to catch up with her as she carried the tray to the stone wall bathed in sunlight and began spreading the fish out on the stones. Out in the middle of the harbor were five or six miniature wooden fishing boats, each brightly painted, the hulls black below the waterlines, blue or green above, and the pilothouse another color. The boats were two or three feet long and perfectly built so they rode over the tiny waves without taking on water. One fisherman told me when a child wanted his or her boat, one of the adults would row out and get it.
I wandered out to the end of the pier, aware that I was being watched. Massive rings, rusted smooth, were pinned into the concrete and held the lines of fishing boats. More lobster traps and coils of tangled lines lay heaped to one side of the pier. Smells of fish and drying seaweed hung in the air. They were the smells of a working pier that spoke of early morning departures when the winds were calm and the open boats could work the seas.
By the time I walked back to the boat ramp, the fishermen were gone. Most of the men were out fishing and the only signs of life were two aproned women standing in a doorway above the harbor. A peaceful silence floated over the village and along the grass road, bordered on both sides by high stone walls. I walked up the road - more of a path because there wasn't a single car on the island-to Patrick's house, the last one before the track faded into the meadows of the island. I turned in the general direction Patrick had pointed when he told me about Neil McGregor, and started across the island.
A stiff wind flattened the grasses and snatched at the bill of my hat. The waters around the island were black, menacing and flecked with the roll of whitecaps. The winds were coming in early. From a knoll overlooking the northeast point of the island, I could see the hut that had been the island hermit's home. As I drew closer, I was struck by its size. It looked like the shelters I had seen on Blasket Island that had been built for the sheep. Nothing more than a five-foot by eight-foot stone shed with a flat, tarred canvas roof. The stones were carefully laid so that no mortar had been used, the roof no higher than my chest. Rather than being built in the shelter of a draw or snugged against the slope of the hill, it sat forelorn but solidly, a few yards above a finger of rock that reached into the sea. In a northeasterly blow it would have been drenched by spray. I rolled the rock away from the door and was surprised at how smoothly the hinges swung open. I squeezed through the child-sized doorway, sat on my heels, and looked at the home of Neil McGregor. A small window of glass held in place by tiny stones and bits of rolled cloth offered what little light was needed to fill the claustrophobic space. Below the window, on the ledges of several stones, were the melted remains of thick candles, the dripping wax hanging in suspended droplets as if the flames had just been blown out. Bits of newspaper had been jammed into spaces where drafts must have whistled. The hut was tidy, the dirt floor packed solid and swept free of any loose stones. On the wall beside the door were the etchings Patrick had told me about. When I saw them, I understood the look of wonder that had come over his face.
The etchings were the patient works of an artist. A salmon leaped from the surface of one stone, its back arched, its tail rippling the water in concentric circles. Fins, an eye, and the curve of mouth and gills gave the fish life. It hurled itself out of the coarse grain of the stone and floated into the shadowed light of the hut. I forgot it was still part of the stone and half expected it to have the feel of fine wet scales beneath my finger-tips.
On another rock was a gull standing as only a live gull would, almost arrogant in its posture of supremacy. The curve of stone held the gull's shoulder in perfect proportion, its back feathers tapering and layered into a resting stance.
The third image was that of a lobster: each leg, antenna, and the segmented tail was painstakingly cut into the stone. One claw was bigger than the other, the larger one used for crushing and the smaller for feeding and tearing.
The stone art and the manner in which the hut was built spoke more of Neil McGregor than the stories I had been told. I could almost hear the tapping of hammer and chisel emanating from the squat hut on a windy winter's night, see the soft yellow light of a flickering candle casting shadows on the stone as he added detail and life to his work. One man alone on the edge of an island, tapping out an image while the waves broke over the point and the Tory Island light swept the skies with its watchful beam. His world would have been rich with the life of the ocean and the winds that either scattered the clouds or bound them together in quilted gray layers. Whatever secrets he lived and died with on that remote finger of land, I wanted to believe he had found peace.
A gust of wind rushed over the hut, swung the door on its hinges, and mixed with the noise of the waves. Once again it was the stones, those that had felt the cut of the chisel and held the winds at bay, that knew the stories and lessons of the past. The hut that had sheltered the life of Neil McGregor now held his thoughts and soul within its walls. Most of his story would never be known except by the winds, the gulls, and the seas that washed the rocks in front of his hut. I closed the door, gently placed the rock against its base, and left the hut as I found it. By the time I reached the tent, the winds were piling small breakers on the beach. The tent was straining at its tether of rock-buried pegs, the rip-stop nylon stretched taut and billowing in with each fresh gust. The oaters on either side of lnishdooey Island, a half mile away, were covered in breaking rollers.
My visit to Inishbofin had been intense. Suddenly I wanted some distance from it. I wanted to see it as I saw lnishdooey, far enough away that I could look at it as a whole rather than a compilation of stories. The trip had been filled with these moments of intensity that needed distance for perspective. The day was windy, maybe too windy to be out on the water, but now that I knew the stories of the island and had met its people, I wanted to see it again as an island: a green hump of hillock and ravine, rising out of the sea and having a life and spirit shaped by the winds and waves that wrapped around it. The winds were too strong to venture far, but a camp on lnishdooey would give me the perspective I wanted. Before leaving lnishbofin, I needed water, and walked back over the island to fill my water bag. The village spring was along the track near Patrick's house. As I approached, an older lady was coming up the track with a bucket in each hand. She wore two sweaters over a printed dress that ended miscall above a pair of boots. She was thickset, her sleeves pulled halfway to her elbows, and wisps of wavy gray hair catching in the stiff winds. We met near the spring, a circle of stones almost hidden in the grasses spilling over its rim. She was breathing hard from the walk up the hill and set the buckets down beside the spring.
"Good morning," I said.
"Good mornin' to ye and 'tis a fine day. You'd be the man camped on the strand that Patrick was tellin' about."
l liked the woman's direct manner. Who I was was neither a question nor a statement that needed acknowledgment. It was simply a fact of the island. Talk of my visit must have spread house to house as quickly as the wind carried the smoke of the peat fires.
"I am. I wanted to get some water, say good-bye to Patrick, and head out before the winds pick up too much."
"Ah well, ye won't be finding Patrick on the island. 'This momin' I saw him off to the mainland with the other men. He won't be gone long but for sure he isn't home. An' where is it yer' off to today?"
"Patrick told me there's an old chapel on lnishdooey and some cottage ruins that I think I'll have a look at. I want to get over before the seas get too choppy."
The woman's jaw dropped and her composure suddenly changed as if a cloud chilled a memory. Her eyes grew wide with fright and her response surprised me. "Oh sweet mother of Jesus, don't be tellin' me you'll be goin' to lnishdooey on a day the likes of this. For if ye do, I won't be sleepin' tonight." She was looking at me as if I were a son setting out to fish during a hurricane "Ye can't be goin' out there with this wind. "Tisn't a place to land with the seas and wind as they are."
I didn't know what memories haunted her, but I had heard enough tales of drownings in my trip along the coast to know that I had inadvertently touched a tender spot in her heart. Fishermen, and the woman who wait for them, know the tragedy of boats gone missing, and on an island as small as lnishbofin, with the men fishing the rough waters, I was sure there were stories of men lost at sea. I wanted to take back my words and leave the woman with only the cares of drawing her water. But I couldn't retract them, or hide my intentions. The only thing I could do was try to reassure her, point out the direction of the winds and how I planned to get onto Inishdooey.
"Patrick said there's a cobble beach on the near end of the island. I'll be in the lee and it's only a half mile. If the winds stay east or northeast I'll be over there in a half hour. I'll be fine. I don't want you to be worrying about me," I explained.
The woman looked a little relieved when she heard I had talked it over with Patrick. "Ah, but the winds. I wish ye hadn't a told me ye were goin' to lnishdooey. But if yer to go, then ye best be quick. 'Tis true there's the cobbles, but the wind is still strong. Oh mother of God, ye best be careful. I'll be sayin' a prayer for ye."
I thanked her for her concern and dipped the buckets in the well for her. We said good-bye, then walked down opposite sides of the hill, she to return to the village and me to the strand and the sea.
I paddled across to lnishdooey, landed in the shelter of its lee, and found a ravine, barely out of the wind, to set up camp. I had made a half mile of progress into the remaining two hundred fifty to Dublin. On days like this, when the clouds dragged their darkened tails across the wavetops, the distance to Dublin seemed long.
lnishbofin sat framed in the opening of the tent, an island filled with stories and cloaked in drifting mists. nen a squall rolled past and the island cleared for a moment, I could see a low, dark square above the point where the waves washed white. It was Neil McGregor's hut. From a distance the hermit's home looked terribly lonely and exposed.
The first rain hit the tent with the flat beats of a drum. I was writing in the journal about my visit to lnishbofin. I would look up in thought and watch a bead of water run down the outside of the tent. It would start slowly, then gather speed as it collided and absorbed the weight of other drops. At the bottom of the doorless tent the droplet hit the sewn seam and hung for an instant before another followed the ease of its wetted path. The drop swelled until a gust of wind shook the tent and sent it, and a half dozen others, into the woven mat of fine grass and tiny rosettes of green leaves. I let my thoughts grow with the same weight, gathering, collecting memories of conversation and textures of Inishbofin that I penned along the lines. When I had tired of writing, I gently bent the edge of the journal with the flat of my thumb and watched the pages of black writing flip past. Page after page of cryptic lettering floated from one cover to the next, ending with a dozen blank pages that would soon hold the remaining days of the trip. In my hand, I held a thousand miles of paddling memories. The past three months had been intense, perhaps more so than I realized. I looked across at lnishbofin, saw the island set against the sea and the mainland through a transparent veil of rain, and knew that I would need the same distance from the trip to fully appreciate all that I had experienced.
l closed the journal, noting the dings and soft depressions in the leather cover and admiring the worn look of it. All the gear had that same patina of heavy use, the scratches in the brilliant gel-coat finish of the boat, the slight play in the shaft of the paddle where the two pieces had originally joined tightly, and the blackened outside of the pot where the stove had heated many meals. My tent leaked more than it did at the beginning of the trip, and the bottom of my left sandal was split from miles of walking and climbing. They were all simple things, little scars that I noted and was secretly proud of. They spoke to me of shared travels. Back home, I would not think twice about the sole of my sandal. When it eventually split in half, I would more than likely go out and buy a new pair. But in a place where the track of a raindrop was watched with quiet attention, there was time to be aware of the little things that held my simple life together. I brushed a droplet of water from the closed journal and looked up at the seam of the tent straining against the winds. The prayer pennant with my friends' names and mildew-spotted outline of the Olympic Mountains hung damp in the peak. A gust of wind buffeted the tent and the pennant swayed gently. My clothing, the sleeping bag, and the pages of the journal and letters that I had written were damp. I thought of sunny days when I had spread the colors of my gear across the loft of wind-blown grasses. The gentle warmth of dry days would certainly return - days when the gear would be dried again and the seas would roll easily and allow me to continue.
I pulled on my raincoat, zipped into the chill of the hood, and stepped out into the mist drifting like fog over the island. A flock of sheep lifted their heads in a wave of panic as I walked over a rise in the land. The ones closest to me turned and bolted, panicking the others in a stampede that flowed like water over the contours. Blasts of wind pushed me off the top of the hill and into what little protection there was in the ravines. The island was shrouded and cut off from the mainland by clouds of fine moisture, not rain but wind-driven vapor that condensed on everything it touched. It was like a fine veil of shimmering cloth blown on the winds, drifting until the lower reaches caught on the top of the island, then settling over rock and grass with the same moist breath. Looking back, I could see my path cutting through the soft glimmer of weighted grasses, my feet having disturbed the delicate silver.
This island was the last one I would visit on my journey. I wanted to remember the feeling of this walk: the winds, the cool wash of mist, and the purity of island isolation. I crested a gentle rise running the length of the island and looked toward Horn Head, straight into the winds that came tearing out of the east. There was nothing to see but the lines of black waves covered in breaking white crests. They advanced out of shadows, one minute a quarter mile out, and the next barely beyond the reach of the last rocks. I wanted the mist and fog to lift for just a few minutes, long enough for me to get a glimpse at what lay beyond the gray blindness. I was wet and chilled but still I watched the sea. Somewhere through that drifting veil was a route that would lead me over the top of Ireland.Reproduced with permission from Chris Duff