Flirting With Disaster (Hiking Sugarloaf Mountain in Ireland)

“Mother nature sure has a dry sense of humor,” the taxi driver says as the first spouts of rain hit the windshield.

Something within me sinks. Impeccable timing. Whatever or whoever’s turning the dials up there really does have a way of screwing with things sometimes. Yes, please and thank you, on the day we’re going to hike up a half kilometer mountain, bring on the rain and fog. The sun’s overrated, anyway. Just ten minutes ago, you could’ve said the angels were out with how beautiful the day was. But the Irish climate sure is bipolar and partial to static drizzle and bullying winds.

So, I’m not all that surprised.

Within the taxi, which is being driven by a baseball cap wearing man who’s listening to a Rugby game on the radio, Dam, Yaro and I watch the rain fall. Up and over highways, roundabouts, and other roads and buildings, we traverse through a winding route to the base of Sugarloaf Mountain, a half kilometer high pile of rocks right smack dab in the middle of empty, treeless farmland.

The rain comes down harder as we move along; then, for about a minute, it turns into a full downpour before lightening up again. None of us are expecting the hike to be that difficult or long—we’re looking at this like practice for the twice-as-tall Carrauntoohl. But in this kind of weather, going up Sugarloaf will certainly rattle our bones, toughen us up (or something like that), and make Carrauntoohl seem like a skip through a flower garden on a dry day.

It takes about twenty minutes to get to the base of the mountain from the center of town. The driver drops us off and tells us to call him when we want to go back. He then backs out of the lot hastily and peels off into the countryside. I can see up the path as people descend toward their cars, a lot of them in fluorescent vests and rain sacks.

I take stock of what I’m wearing while my friends hydrate and have snacks. In my hoodie and rain jacket, I should be fine in the torso region, but my jeans are going to get soaked—that’s a definite—and my socks might be in for a swim if the weather worsens again. But as of right now, the rain is even and the wind isn’t blowing too badly down here in the parking lot. Half a kilometer up, though? Oh yeah, can’t wait…

We saddle up our things and head out, pushing against the current of people coming back down. The path is wide and pocketed with enough thick patches of grass to walk on so that we don’t have to step ankle deep in the pools of mud that have already formed. For a while, the rise is gradual, and that pile of rocks in front of us keeps coming closer and closer as if it’s the one moving forward and not us. Tricks are being played on my vision. My glasses are splattered with rain, so I pocket them in my jacket and immediately take the brunt of a ghastly shock of wind that seems to shut my lungs down for just a second.

Hey, you up there, I think. I don’t know what games you’re playing, but give us a handicap advantage, will you? “Well,” Yaro says behind me, “at least this is the real Irish experience.”

Fog has completely taken over the Earth now; the top of the mountain is hardly visible through it. Within fifteen minutes of our journey, we come to a section on the path that becomes pure quartzite rock and angles upward at a sharp 45 degrees. Our calves are really pumping now as we hop, skip and jump from rock to rock. I move on autopilot, looking down slightly and letting my feet direct me. No calculating distances, heights, angles or kinematics—my body just moves independent of thought.

I stop where the path angles sharply again, this time at approximately 70-75 degrees, and wait for my friends to catch up. Yaro’s pace is solid, and it only takes him half a minute to get where I’m standing, but Dam has to take it slower, given the fact that he’s wearing sneakers and not hiking boots like us.

When he reaches Yaro and me, he bemoans the steepness of what’s in front of us with a kind of horse, breathless sound. Getting to the top now calls for rock climbing instead of simple hiking. We’ll have to use our hands, our clothes will get dirty. Limber up your hamstrings, boys; it’s an odd way to the top.

There are several stretches of rock to climb, and each of us take our own routes. I take the path that’s most befitting my short stature, but I still have to swing my legs upward onto placement points to get any footing and pull myself up. I’m grabbing rocks, moving on all fours mammalian style and wondering: should we have helmets for this? As all three of us move upward, we finally break through the fog barrier and see the top in its crumbled glory.

Close to the top, my body teeters and I start falling backward toward the jagged edges below, but I’m able to grab a rock in time to stop myself.

Although grabbing the rock was done so casually, the shifting weight that sent me back was so sudden and minute that I started to feel afraid. Falls from mountains happen from such minuscule adjustments of placement or the changing of physical variables that it’s difficult to register when one is fucked—and falling head-over-ass—until it’s too late. Thank God I caught myself. I resume climbing.

We get to the top surprisingly quickly. The hike took us maybe 45 minutes, which is half as long as we expected. There are still a few people lingering here, taking in the dead planet all around us: fog, fields, and farmland. The rain is still at a drizzle and the wind, thankfully, isn’t too strong up here. However, the front of my jeans is soaked through and an icy pain wells up between my eyes.

All I can think about is hot showers and warm blankets. Is this what it’s like to be part of a platoon, wandering through rainforests, humping their backpacks and feeling soggy, miserable and without a clue of where the end will be or when you’ll get there? No, not quite, not in the slightest. Some perspective will do you good. Forget dry bedrooms and warm clothes; look where you’re standing, look out, grab life by the balls and don’t let go.

Who said all that? Was that me? The rain’s making me quite loopy this afternoon.

The people who were at the top when we got there all descend from the rocks, leaving the three of us alone in the wake of the vast Irish land, which has that rank gangrene look from way up high. The fog hangs low, casting the other mountains that dot the landscape in grey shadows. There’s one mountain that Yaro points to, a few kilometers out, across a highway and a little village over, which is a bit shorter than Sugarloaf.

He says, “Let’s do that one.”

“Let’s do that one?” I ask.

“Yeah. Let’s climb it.”

I check the time: about 1:30. Okay, say it takes roughly half an hour to get back down, then an hour to walk over there, and maybe another half hour to climb up. Not so bad, as long as we can find a place to dry ourselves and maybe get something to drink along the way.

“Okay,” I say, as I start heading toward the rocky path we just climbed up.

“No, not that way,” Yaro says. “That way.”

He nods to the opposite slope of the mountain, the slope that faces the grey mass across the highway. I lean over to see what that side looks like.

“There’s no path,” I say.

“Well, there’s rocks.”

He’s right. There are  rocks, but they look loose, not at all packed into the mountain for gripping. Any weight put on them could cause all those rocks to tumble down, taking us with them. Wet, loose rocks down an unfamiliar slope. “C’mon,” Yara says, heading down. If my blood ran Catholic, I might have whispered a prayer, but instead, I go along silently and obediently, following second behind.

It’s confirmed right away that this was a dumb idea. The rocks give and cascade over the rim of the mountain from the slightest pressure. Every step is a leap to safety.

Although the decline isn’t that steep, it still feels like gravity has become stronger as I can’t seem to stop leap-frogging from rock to rock. My stream of thought is oh shit, oh shit, oh shit  as I ride the line between taking one more leap and cracking my head open. Good thing ankles can roll because I would have broken my ankle about fifty times from just two minutes of descent.

Yaro and I keep close while Dam takes his time, opting to take a sitting position and worm himself down one rock at a time—sort of like how a little kid might come down some stairs on his or her butt, just for the fun of it. A few times, I lose my balance and have to ballet-trot, foot over foot, to a random rock, only landing from petty luck.

I hear a cry, stop and turn around, expecting to see Dam’s body cart-wheeling down the mountain with his head twisted backward; but, instead, I see Dam losing his grip and sliding down a few feet, only to catch himself and give me a thumbs-up. We continue on like nomads, too far down to turn back and too stupid to want to. 

The land down there doesn’t seem like it’s getting any closer, which is the reverse experience from the ascension of the mountain. The climb up was tight and controlled, but this is pure chaos of movement. Anything that’s possible here—and there’s a good chance it could happen—is probably disastrous: slip on a rock and shatter your temple, fold your hand back and snap your leg in half.

So many things can go wrong. The rain keeps coming down in a spittle, soaking the rocks and giving them no grip whatsoever. It’s as if they were just dragged out of the ocean. In fact, the length of the mountain going down looks like waves frozen in a peak-and-trough position, rising and slanting, dropping into valleys and picking up again.

These waves are dragging me down, too far, too far, holy shit, way too far. I am helpless to the descent.

“Yaro, this was, uh…”

“Stupid?”

“That’s the word,” I confirm.

I’m glad we’re on the same frequency, and I’m sure Dam with his sneakers and butt-riding-down-the-mountain tactics would agree with us—this was a plain insane-asylum crazy idea. Yaro and I reach a point where the rocks seem to give way to dead weeds and grass, which also means mud and a greater chance of slippage. We wait a bit for Dam to catch up as neither of us can blame Dam for his pace. If anything, he’s coming down this thing the smart way by not really taking any chances.

My mind’s racing as I look back toward the top of the mountain, thinking Did we really just come down that? This side definitely is not meant for climbing. We’ve made some good distance from the top, though. But even so, the highway below doesn’t look any closer than before.

Once we’re a single unit again, we start through the grassy valleys, where clouds of gnats swarm and the ground underneath the growth drops unexpectedly, making my heart jump whenever my foot meets air—when I expect land— and falls through. We grab onto the weeds for support. I’m waiting for the inevitable mudslide.

“See,” Yaro says, “this part is easy.” Then he slips and falls sideways with comedic timing, his whole body disappearing below the weeds.

I stop and wait for movement. His head appears and looks around, like a guerilla soldier scanning the land from the brush for enemy personnel. He gets up, brushes himself off—his clothes oddly unsullied—and then we both move on with Dam trailing far behind. We have to zig-zag longways across the mountain face toward optimal paths. There’s a patch of forest at the bottom I hadn’t seen before, and I wonder if we’re going to have to cross through it to get to the highway.

Progress is slower than any of us would like. At this point, my jeans can’t absorb any more water, and my socks, as I had feared, have taken a dive into the deep end as well. There’s going to be some chafing and blisters tomorrow, I just know it. I’m begging for some traction, or at least any sign that the highway is getting any closer. Just hold on to the weeds (grab life by the balls!!!) and keep on truckin’.

And then we’re at ground level, standing in front of the forest. Woah, what? How the hell did that happen? For so long it seemed like we weren’t moving relative to the ground below, but coming over what turned out to be the final hump brought us to a sudden stop on even ground, where we are no longer above anything anymore. I feel only a sliver of relief, however, knowing that this is just the end of one phase and the beginning of the next.

There’s the thinnest of paths leading into the forest. We start down it and immediately stop at a fork, with neither direction looking promising. We randomly choose the left path, where we must crouch and waddle our way under downed trees and canopied branches like tiny fox holes. A hollow “Ah, fuck,” drifts into the air behind me.

We come upon a rise of branches with an open plain on the other side. I almost begin climbing but Yaro stops me to say, “You don’t want to do that.”

I look where he’s looking and see three strips of barbed wire strung along the rising just in front of me. The only option is to continue down the narrow path, under all those trees and through all those thorn bushes. It’s damp, jungle like, and I think: Now this is what humping heavy gear in Vietnam is like. I feel like a thief, skulking through these woods. I’m not even moving like a human being anymore. I’m so wet, so cold. The path never seems to end.

Until it does. It just stops, opening wide and welcoming to a concrete driveway. It’s taken us hours to get to this point. Next to me is an ornately rimmed gate, securing a post-modern Floyd Wright kind of house deep within the woods. I turn around and see Yaro’s face glowing with relief. Dam’s expression is a little bleaker, but with a calmness filling in all the same.

“Civilization!” Yaro yells. We come together for a platonic group hug and then promptly set off down the driveway, passing a few more McMansion type houses along the way. There’s a black Lab outside a gate to one of these houses, sniffing flowers along the roadside. When we come close, the Lab picks its nose up and hobbles over to us, following behind, then circling around, then leading us in the direction of the highway.

We all rub its neck solemnly. The Lab has seamlessly become a part of our group. The three of us are wet and miserable, but this Lab has brought some of the warmth back. Then suddenly, the Lab stops, frozen in place. Then it turns back, having come to the edge of that invisible fence it has been taught not to traverse past.

When we finally reach the highway, we look at the mountain, then at each other, and all at once shake our heads. We’re all tuckered out. I, at least, don’t have anything else left within me. There’s a bus stop about a kilometer and a half up the road, so we have to skirt the edge of the highway to get there, as the sounds of cars going 90 km/h can be heard just a few feet from us.

Now it’s a little past four. We have to wait twenty minutes for the bus back to campus. Unfortunately, those twenty minutes pass without our bus showing up. This is turning out to be a repeat of this morning, when our bus never showed up and we had to take a cab to the mountain. There’s desperation in the air, but we hold out another ten minutes. Still no bus.

“Guess who’s walking home tonight,” Dam mutters as he walks back in the direction we came. Yaro and I shrug to each other and follow behind him, covering about 100 meters until—“Shit, shit, hey!” Dam yells past us.

I turn to see a white bus bound for the Dublin airport barreling along. I’m thinking the driver doesn’t see us or consciously ignores us because he shows no sign of pulling over. But when the left blinker starts flashing, my hopes are defibrillated and the bus starts pulling off to the side of the road. We sprint toward it and leap into the clean, dry interior as soon as the doors are open.

We pay for our tickets, and the driver says he’ll take us back to campus. We take some seats a few rows back and start laughing crazily, randomly, nonsensically while semi-formally dressed businessmen eye us from other seats. I’m warm blooded again, if not still soggy and whacked out from the elements. The relief in my chest is so great that I feel like I’m floating.

The trip back should be about an hour long, so I dig into my backpack for my book to pass the time. But when I pull it out, the outer edges are caked in muck and completely saturated. The front cover crumbles into a bluish dust when I hold it.

Oh, awesome. I thought my backpack was waterproof, but I guess not. Seems like I’ll have to finish the book on the ride back, then toss it in the nearest trash bin when I get off. That’s too bad; I was planning on keeping this for my personal library. But there’s something appropriate about this soaking stack of pages, like I’m holding a microcosm of the journey I had just experienced: It’s a good story, just miserably damp to the touch.

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I'm an accounting major, as well as Head Editor of the Ellipsis Literary Magazine, at Binghamton University. Telling captivating stories has always been my passion, and I'm always searching for ways to grow as a writer. I still don't know too much about this thing called "Life," but I have come to find that it is short, yet sweet, and while life may seem like a bitch sometimes, you should kiss her anyway.

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ENGAGE IN THE CONVERSATION

Flirting With Disaster (Hiking Sugarloaf Mountain in Ireland)

“Mother nature sure has a dry sense of humor,” the taxi driver says as the first spouts of rain hit the windshield.

Something within me sinks. Impeccable timing. Whatever or whoever’s turning the dials up there really does have a way of screwing with things sometimes. Yes, please and thank you, on the day we’re going to hike up a half kilometer mountain, bring on the rain and fog. The sun’s overrated, anyway. Just ten minutes ago, you could’ve said the angels were out with how beautiful the day was. But the Irish climate sure is bipolar and partial to static drizzle and bullying winds.

So, I’m not all that surprised.

Within the taxi, which is being driven by a baseball cap wearing man who’s listening to a Rugby game on the radio, Dam, Yaro and I watch the rain fall. Up and over highways, roundabouts, and other roads and buildings, we traverse through a winding route to the base of Sugarloaf Mountain, a half kilometer high pile of rocks right smack dab in the middle of empty, treeless farmland.

The rain comes down harder as we move along; then, for about a minute, it turns into a full downpour before lightening up again. None of us are expecting the hike to be that difficult or long—we’re looking at this like practice for the twice-as-tall Carrauntoohl. But in this kind of weather, going up Sugarloaf will certainly rattle our bones, toughen us up (or something like that), and make Carrauntoohl seem like a skip through a flower garden on a dry day.

It takes about twenty minutes to get to the base of the mountain from the center of town. The driver drops us off and tells us to call him when we want to go back. He then backs out of the lot hastily and peels off into the countryside. I can see up the path as people descend toward their cars, a lot of them in fluorescent vests and rain sacks.

I take stock of what I’m wearing while my friends hydrate and have snacks. In my hoodie and rain jacket, I should be fine in the torso region, but my jeans are going to get soaked—that’s a definite—and my socks might be in for a swim if the weather worsens again. But as of right now, the rain is even and the wind isn’t blowing too badly down here in the parking lot. Half a kilometer up, though? Oh yeah, can’t wait…

We saddle up our things and head out, pushing against the current of people coming back down. The path is wide and pocketed with enough thick patches of grass to walk on so that we don’t have to step ankle deep in the pools of mud that have already formed. For a while, the rise is gradual, and that pile of rocks in front of us keeps coming closer and closer as if it’s the one moving forward and not us. Tricks are being played on my vision. My glasses are splattered with rain, so I pocket them in my jacket and immediately take the brunt of a ghastly shock of wind that seems to shut my lungs down for just a second.

Hey, you up there, I think. I don’t know what games you’re playing, but give us a handicap advantage, will you? “Well,” Yaro says behind me, “at least this is the real Irish experience.”

Fog has completely taken over the Earth now; the top of the mountain is hardly visible through it. Within fifteen minutes of our journey, we come to a section on the path that becomes pure quartzite rock and angles upward at a sharp 45 degrees. Our calves are really pumping now as we hop, skip and jump from rock to rock. I move on autopilot, looking down slightly and letting my feet direct me. No calculating distances, heights, angles or kinematics—my body just moves independent of thought.

I stop where the path angles sharply again, this time at approximately 70-75 degrees, and wait for my friends to catch up. Yaro’s pace is solid, and it only takes him half a minute to get where I’m standing, but Dam has to take it slower, given the fact that he’s wearing sneakers and not hiking boots like us.

When he reaches Yaro and me, he bemoans the steepness of what’s in front of us with a kind of horse, breathless sound. Getting to the top now calls for rock climbing instead of simple hiking. We’ll have to use our hands, our clothes will get dirty. Limber up your hamstrings, boys; it’s an odd way to the top.

There are several stretches of rock to climb, and each of us take our own routes. I take the path that’s most befitting my short stature, but I still have to swing my legs upward onto placement points to get any footing and pull myself up. I’m grabbing rocks, moving on all fours mammalian style and wondering: should we have helmets for this? As all three of us move upward, we finally break through the fog barrier and see the top in its crumbled glory.

Close to the top, my body teeters and I start falling backward toward the jagged edges below, but I’m able to grab a rock in time to stop myself.

Although grabbing the rock was done so casually, the shifting weight that sent me back was so sudden and minute that I started to feel afraid. Falls from mountains happen from such minuscule adjustments of placement or the changing of physical variables that it’s difficult to register when one is fucked—and falling head-over-ass—until it’s too late. Thank God I caught myself. I resume climbing.

We get to the top surprisingly quickly. The hike took us maybe 45 minutes, which is half as long as we expected. There are still a few people lingering here, taking in the dead planet all around us: fog, fields, and farmland. The rain is still at a drizzle and the wind, thankfully, isn’t too strong up here. However, the front of my jeans is soaked through and an icy pain wells up between my eyes.

All I can think about is hot showers and warm blankets. Is this what it’s like to be part of a platoon, wandering through rainforests, humping their backpacks and feeling soggy, miserable and without a clue of where the end will be or when you’ll get there? No, not quite, not in the slightest. Some perspective will do you good. Forget dry bedrooms and warm clothes; look where you’re standing, look out, grab life by the balls and don’t let go.

Who said all that? Was that me? The rain’s making me quite loopy this afternoon.

The people who were at the top when we got there all descend from the rocks, leaving the three of us alone in the wake of the vast Irish land, which has that rank gangrene look from way up high. The fog hangs low, casting the other mountains that dot the landscape in grey shadows. There’s one mountain that Yaro points to, a few kilometers out, across a highway and a little village over, which is a bit shorter than Sugarloaf.

He says, “Let’s do that one.”

“Let’s do that one?” I ask.

“Yeah. Let’s climb it.”

I check the time: about 1:30. Okay, say it takes roughly half an hour to get back down, then an hour to walk over there, and maybe another half hour to climb up. Not so bad, as long as we can find a place to dry ourselves and maybe get something to drink along the way.

“Okay,” I say, as I start heading toward the rocky path we just climbed up.

“No, not that way,” Yaro says. “That way.”

He nods to the opposite slope of the mountain, the slope that faces the grey mass across the highway. I lean over to see what that side looks like.

“There’s no path,” I say.

“Well, there’s rocks.”

He’s right. There are  rocks, but they look loose, not at all packed into the mountain for gripping. Any weight put on them could cause all those rocks to tumble down, taking us with them. Wet, loose rocks down an unfamiliar slope. “C’mon,” Yara says, heading down. If my blood ran Catholic, I might have whispered a prayer, but instead, I go along silently and obediently, following second behind.

It’s confirmed right away that this was a dumb idea. The rocks give and cascade over the rim of the mountain from the slightest pressure. Every step is a leap to safety.

Although the decline isn’t that steep, it still feels like gravity has become stronger as I can’t seem to stop leap-frogging from rock to rock. My stream of thought is oh shit, oh shit, oh shit  as I ride the line between taking one more leap and cracking my head open. Good thing ankles can roll because I would have broken my ankle about fifty times from just two minutes of descent.

Yaro and I keep close while Dam takes his time, opting to take a sitting position and worm himself down one rock at a time—sort of like how a little kid might come down some stairs on his or her butt, just for the fun of it. A few times, I lose my balance and have to ballet-trot, foot over foot, to a random rock, only landing from petty luck.

I hear a cry, stop and turn around, expecting to see Dam’s body cart-wheeling down the mountain with his head twisted backward; but, instead, I see Dam losing his grip and sliding down a few feet, only to catch himself and give me a thumbs-up. We continue on like nomads, too far down to turn back and too stupid to want to. 

The land down there doesn’t seem like it’s getting any closer, which is the reverse experience from the ascension of the mountain. The climb up was tight and controlled, but this is pure chaos of movement. Anything that’s possible here—and there’s a good chance it could happen—is probably disastrous: slip on a rock and shatter your temple, fold your hand back and snap your leg in half.

So many things can go wrong. The rain keeps coming down in a spittle, soaking the rocks and giving them no grip whatsoever. It’s as if they were just dragged out of the ocean. In fact, the length of the mountain going down looks like waves frozen in a peak-and-trough position, rising and slanting, dropping into valleys and picking up again.

These waves are dragging me down, too far, too far, holy shit, way too far. I am helpless to the descent.

“Yaro, this was, uh…”

“Stupid?”

“That’s the word,” I confirm.

I’m glad we’re on the same frequency, and I’m sure Dam with his sneakers and butt-riding-down-the-mountain tactics would agree with us—this was a plain insane-asylum crazy idea. Yaro and I reach a point where the rocks seem to give way to dead weeds and grass, which also means mud and a greater chance of slippage. We wait a bit for Dam to catch up as neither of us can blame Dam for his pace. If anything, he’s coming down this thing the smart way by not really taking any chances.

My mind’s racing as I look back toward the top of the mountain, thinking Did we really just come down that? This side definitely is not meant for climbing. We’ve made some good distance from the top, though. But even so, the highway below doesn’t look any closer than before.

Once we’re a single unit again, we start through the grassy valleys, where clouds of gnats swarm and the ground underneath the growth drops unexpectedly, making my heart jump whenever my foot meets air—when I expect land— and falls through. We grab onto the weeds for support. I’m waiting for the inevitable mudslide.

“See,” Yaro says, “this part is easy.” Then he slips and falls sideways with comedic timing, his whole body disappearing below the weeds.

I stop and wait for movement. His head appears and looks around, like a guerilla soldier scanning the land from the brush for enemy personnel. He gets up, brushes himself off—his clothes oddly unsullied—and then we both move on with Dam trailing far behind. We have to zig-zag longways across the mountain face toward optimal paths. There’s a patch of forest at the bottom I hadn’t seen before, and I wonder if we’re going to have to cross through it to get to the highway.

Progress is slower than any of us would like. At this point, my jeans can’t absorb any more water, and my socks, as I had feared, have taken a dive into the deep end as well. There’s going to be some chafing and blisters tomorrow, I just know it. I’m begging for some traction, or at least any sign that the highway is getting any closer. Just hold on to the weeds (grab life by the balls!!!) and keep on truckin’.

And then we’re at ground level, standing in front of the forest. Woah, what? How the hell did that happen? For so long it seemed like we weren’t moving relative to the ground below, but coming over what turned out to be the final hump brought us to a sudden stop on even ground, where we are no longer above anything anymore. I feel only a sliver of relief, however, knowing that this is just the end of one phase and the beginning of the next.

There’s the thinnest of paths leading into the forest. We start down it and immediately stop at a fork, with neither direction looking promising. We randomly choose the left path, where we must crouch and waddle our way under downed trees and canopied branches like tiny fox holes. A hollow “Ah, fuck,” drifts into the air behind me.

We come upon a rise of branches with an open plain on the other side. I almost begin climbing but Yaro stops me to say, “You don’t want to do that.”

I look where he’s looking and see three strips of barbed wire strung along the rising just in front of me. The only option is to continue down the narrow path, under all those trees and through all those thorn bushes. It’s damp, jungle like, and I think: Now this is what humping heavy gear in Vietnam is like. I feel like a thief, skulking through these woods. I’m not even moving like a human being anymore. I’m so wet, so cold. The path never seems to end.

Until it does. It just stops, opening wide and welcoming to a concrete driveway. It’s taken us hours to get to this point. Next to me is an ornately rimmed gate, securing a post-modern Floyd Wright kind of house deep within the woods. I turn around and see Yaro’s face glowing with relief. Dam’s expression is a little bleaker, but with a calmness filling in all the same.

“Civilization!” Yaro yells. We come together for a platonic group hug and then promptly set off down the driveway, passing a few more McMansion type houses along the way. There’s a black Lab outside a gate to one of these houses, sniffing flowers along the roadside. When we come close, the Lab picks its nose up and hobbles over to us, following behind, then circling around, then leading us in the direction of the highway.

We all rub its neck solemnly. The Lab has seamlessly become a part of our group. The three of us are wet and miserable, but this Lab has brought some of the warmth back. Then suddenly, the Lab stops, frozen in place. Then it turns back, having come to the edge of that invisible fence it has been taught not to traverse past.

When we finally reach the highway, we look at the mountain, then at each other, and all at once shake our heads. We’re all tuckered out. I, at least, don’t have anything else left within me. There’s a bus stop about a kilometer and a half up the road, so we have to skirt the edge of the highway to get there, as the sounds of cars going 90 km/h can be heard just a few feet from us.

Now it’s a little past four. We have to wait twenty minutes for the bus back to campus. Unfortunately, those twenty minutes pass without our bus showing up. This is turning out to be a repeat of this morning, when our bus never showed up and we had to take a cab to the mountain. There’s desperation in the air, but we hold out another ten minutes. Still no bus.

“Guess who’s walking home tonight,” Dam mutters as he walks back in the direction we came. Yaro and I shrug to each other and follow behind him, covering about 100 meters until—“Shit, shit, hey!” Dam yells past us.

I turn to see a white bus bound for the Dublin airport barreling along. I’m thinking the driver doesn’t see us or consciously ignores us because he shows no sign of pulling over. But when the left blinker starts flashing, my hopes are defibrillated and the bus starts pulling off to the side of the road. We sprint toward it and leap into the clean, dry interior as soon as the doors are open.

We pay for our tickets, and the driver says he’ll take us back to campus. We take some seats a few rows back and start laughing crazily, randomly, nonsensically while semi-formally dressed businessmen eye us from other seats. I’m warm blooded again, if not still soggy and whacked out from the elements. The relief in my chest is so great that I feel like I’m floating.

The trip back should be about an hour long, so I dig into my backpack for my book to pass the time. But when I pull it out, the outer edges are caked in muck and completely saturated. The front cover crumbles into a bluish dust when I hold it.

Oh, awesome. I thought my backpack was waterproof, but I guess not. Seems like I’ll have to finish the book on the ride back, then toss it in the nearest trash bin when I get off. That’s too bad; I was planning on keeping this for my personal library. But there’s something appropriate about this soaking stack of pages, like I’m holding a microcosm of the journey I had just experienced: It’s a good story, just miserably damp to the touch.

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