Just yards from the back door of our hotel, our guide led us off the path and down a steep grassy hill. He had something to show us.
My husband and I had hired Christopher Stacey to plan our hiking trip along the Wicklow Way, a rugged 82-mile trail that winds through the verdant Wicklow Mountains just south of Dublin. Christopher and his wife, Teresa, run an accommodating little guide business called Footfalls Walking Holidays: They picked us up in Dublin (and returned us at week's end), arranged for our hotel and meals (including sack lunches for the trail), planned our hiking route, dropped us off each morning at the trail head, and gave us a cell phone so they could pick us up when we reached the end. "It doesn't matter when you call," Christopher assured us. "Four o'clock, six o'clock. It's only time."
Doug and I usually prefer to hike alone, but three days into our trip, Teresa asked if we wanted to tag along on the Trooperstown Walk, a 6-mile hike Christopher was guiding for two English women. "He likes to talk," Teresa said, and that sounded good to us -- a local guy pointing out places of interest and putting everything into context.
This explained why he was now leading the four of us away from the path toward what appeared to be just a small lump in the grass. It's nothing that would have caught my eye, but when we walked around it, we saw that it was a small, watery cave. Leafy ferns fringed the edges, stone steps led to a dark pool. Ribbons and colored strings fluttered from the lower branches of a nearby birch tree. This was St. Kevin's Well. Ireland is dotted with thousands of these holy wells, hidden away down country roads, in farmers' fields and deep in forests. The wells have been held sacred since pagan times, but after Catholicism swept the country, each was assigned a Christian saint, and now pilgrims gather every year on the saint's day to pray, leave totems and dip their fingers into the waters, which are considered curative.
We trudged back to the path, and Christopher led us through the Glendalough Wood Nature Reserve and on into Ballard Forest, pausing to point out native trees (holly, rowan) and explain the Gaelic origins of place names. (Ballard Forest, for instance, got its name from "baile-ard," or "high town.")
The countryside was so green, so gorgeous, that it almost didn't feel real. Lambs baaed to us from velvety fields. Ferns and other greens pushed between the gray rocks of century-old stone fences. Prickly gorse bushes, in full yellow bloom, gave off the surprising scent of coconut.
Learning to slow down
On barren Trooperstown Hill, where there was nothing but heather and wind, Christopher pointed out small depressions in the ground -- old ditches and potato furrows that indicated where a village had existed before the Great Famine. Now everyone is gone -- dead or emigrated -- and the stones from their houses and fences have been carried off to build houses and fences somewhere else.
Christopher pointed east. "If it were just a bit clearer, you could see Wales," he said, but despite the muted sunshine, the air was hazy with the promise of rain.
We sat in the springy brown heather, and I pulled a sandwich from my daypack. Christopher opened a tin of fish. The view was stunning -- a long sweep of green fields, hedgerows and white cottages, one with smoke rising from the chimney. Mountains rose in the distance, a patchwork of green and pink and brown.
This was Christopher's world. He pointed out his auntie's house, and the school (population 12) he had attended as a boy. He showed us his own house and his daughter's house and his mother's house down the way. "She has a fire going," he noted, for hers was the one with chimney smoke.
I am an impatient hiker. I am used to walking steadily, stopping precisely at the halfway point for as long as it takes me to swallow a sandwich and then moving on. This meandering, aimless route, this leisurely lunch, was new. It was hard not to fidget. I stood up once or twice, but nobody else moved, and so I sat down again. Gradually, I relaxed. Paid attention to the view, and the coconut fragrance of the gorse, and the juicy tang of my orange.
I tried to tamp back the rushed feeling that nagged me: "Get going! We've sat long enough," even though there was nowhere we had to be. After all, when would I be sitting on a mountainside in County Wicklow again? Don't rush it, I told myself. It's only time.
Christopher stashed his empty fish tin in his pack and lay back on the hillside. Every now and then a story would come to mind, and he would tell it. His dog, Pixie, bustled about, sniffing the ground busily, wagging her stumpy tail. Finally he rose. "I guess we should move on," he said, though it was pretty clear that he'd be happy to sit in the heather for the rest of the afternoon. And why not? It was a lovely afternoon.
A pint, of course, at the end
I could never re-create that walk for you; I could not tell you where we went. We tromped through the heather. We walked down a country road. We lingered on a bridge over the Avonmore River, lingered again at the edge of a pine forest. We walked and walked, stopped, walked some more. "Man," I thought, "this is the longest 6 miles I've ever gone." But we were stopping and starting so much I couldn't really tell how far we'd come.
In the late afternoon, our path hooked up with the Wicklow Way -- a section that Doug and I had hiked the day before. Hmmm, I thought. I remember this. We're still a couple miles from Glendalough. How is it possible that we've only come 4 miles in all this time?
My feet were starting to hurt -- my baby toes were getting crunched inside my hiking boots on the steep downhills, and my right knee had developed a twinge. Only 6 miles, and I'm feeling it! I was humbled.
Back at the Glendalough Hotel, over glasses of creamy stout, I broached the question of distance. "That was a pretty long 6 miles," I said, and Christopher looked surprised. "Ah, well, I guess I added a bit to it," he said. "It was such a nice day. It was probably more like 10 or 11."
Aha. Time. Distance. We worry about these things too much, I think -- at least I do. To Christopher, it was just a pleasant walk on a lovely spring day, and it didn't matter how far it was or how long it took. That was a lesson of the Trooperstown Walk, and one that we kept in mind for the rest of the trip: Don't fidget, pay attention, and above all else, slow down.
Laurie Hertzel, the Star Tribune books editor, is at 612-673-7302.