We had just boarded the bus for a daylong tour of what was once called, by National Geographic, “the most beautiful place on Earth” — Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula.
Yet the woman in front of us, a middle-aged American traveling alone, was already planning her escape.
She had booked this trip along the majestic Atlantic coastline, she told me, for one reason: Because she knew it would pass a remote harbor village called Dunquin.
She wasn’t sure if our tour bus would stop there. But if not, she confided, she was prepared to jump ship at the closest town and find someone to drive her the rest of the way.
The woman — I’ll call her Susan — pulled out her cellphone to show me the reason for her obsession.
It was a photograph of a flock of white sheep winding their way up a narrow path on a jagged cliffside, which pierced the water like a broken arrowhead.
Susan told me that she had seen the photo in a magazine a year earlier, while she was recovering from cancer. Now, she had traveled nearly 5,000 miles to see the site, known as Dunquin Pier, in person.
I had no idea, as I glanced at the picture on her phone, what an iconic image it would turn out to be. Or what a lasting impact it would have on me, as well.
I knew that the Dingle Peninsula was famous for its mesmerizing landscapes. Some 200 miles from Dublin, it’s the westernmost tip of Ireland, where Gaelic (or Irish) is still a living language. And the standing joke is that the nearest parish to the west is Boston.
Sparsely populated, its craggy cliffs and lush greenery draw an endless stream of tourists and filmmakers (it was famously a backdrop for a couple of “Star Wars”).
As luxury tour buses breeze along the 30-mile perimeter, showing off the magnificent views of the “Wild Atlantic Way,” it’s easy to miss Dunquin Pier.
That’s what Susan was afraid of.
When she mentioned it to our tour guide, Paudie, he tried to let her down gently.
The tours don’t stop there, he said.
That photo of the sheep on the hillside, he told us, was taken back in the 1950s. It was literally a snapshot in time, when the last inhabitants of the nearby Blasket Islands were relocated en masse to the mainland through Dunquin harbor — along with their flocks.
The photograph became a popular Irish postcard, and eventually found new life on the internet (just google “sheep highway” and Ireland).
But there are no sheep there now, he said. No place for large tour buses to park. And, Paudie assured us, there were even more spectacular views ahead on our journey.
Undaunted, Susan announced that she would abandon the tour at our lunch stop in Dingle, a coastal town 10 miles from her destination, and carry on alone.
The year before, she explained, she was flat on her back, losing her hair and drained from chemotherapy, when her daughter gave her a stack of magazines to try to perk her up. Somehow, the photo of the sheep highway lit a spark. She made up her mind that when — not if — she recovered, she would book a trip to Ireland and make her way to that glorious cliffside.
It kept her going during her darkest days. So no, she wasn’t about to give up now.
Shortly before lunch, Paudie made an announcement. We were making an unscheduled stop.
At Dunquin Pier.
Most of the passengers stayed on the bus. But Susan and I hopped off, trailed by a few others who — it turned out — knew all about the old photo saturating the internet.
“The only way I can take you there is through a graveyard,” said Paudie. He led us down a small hillside cemetery to an old stone path not far from the edge of the cliff.
We couldn’t see the exact spot from this vantage point. But he pointed down the path. “Fifteen minutes,” he said, returning to the bus.
Susan took off in a sprint, and I jogged after her. I asked if she wanted her picture taken when we got there. She turned to me, eyes filled with tears, and shook her head.
From behind, I heard someone shout “It’s this way!” Looking back, I saw a few people heading straight for the cliff from the cemetery.
One woman slipped on the damp grass when her feet left the path. I froze, and noticed a yellow warning sign, a few feet away, showing a stick figure falling off a cliff.
Suddenly, all I could think of were tourists plunging to their deaths for the sake of a selfie.
In the distance, I could see the Blasket Islands rising from the sea in all their glory. I figured that was close enough.
A young woman from San Francisco, who was braver than I, was brimming with excitement when she returned from the cliffside. She kindly shared her photos of the scene I had missed: No sheep, but breathtaking all the same. It was, she later told me, “one of the biggest highlights of my trip to Ireland.”
Susan was the last person to return to the bus. She kissed Paudie with a tender smile.
And returned to her seat for the long journey home.
Maura Lerner Fisher is a former Star Tribune reporter; she retired in 2018.