If you come to a fork in the road, take it. (Sign in front of a roadside cafe in the Connemara, Ireland West Coast)
I want to make something clear to you from the get go. It wasn’t just that I didn’t want to do it, wasn’t just that I was scared of the narrow lanes and the twists and turns and the tall hedges and the driving on the opposite side of the car on the opposite side of the road and the flocks of sheep that seemed to amble out into the middle of it all when you least expected it. No, it wasn’t just that I didn’t want to; I couldn’t. I wasn’t capable. It was a stick shift that propelled our Ford Fiesta midnight-blue rental forward, and I had no idea how to drive a standard, so, on our two-week adventure exploring the north of Ireland, it was up to my traveling companion Mary O’Donnell to command the driver’s seat. And command it, she did. I also want to make it clear to you that she did a banner job. Mary barely had to glance down at the rubber car rental bracelet she wore on her left wrist reminding her to turn sharp on left, wide on right, and, when the owner of the sweater shop in Clifton told her in a lilting Irish brogue to just put me in the hedge, we laughed because Mary almost always kept the passenger side of the car off the sidewalk and herself on the correct side of the road. So with jovial willingness to plunge right in, Mary drove us northbound, while I, the gal in the passenger seat, held the maps and the guidebooks and the cell phone with the Maps App that almost always helped us in a pinch. My job was to navigate. And I might as well confess to this too. I wasn’t that great a navigator. Storytelling and entertainment were my fortes, and, as far as I was concerned, getting lost was part of the fun.
It had already happened once a few days earlier, as we headed out and around the Connemara Peninsula in western Ireland’s County Galway, the getting lost thing, I mean. And I am not entirely certain it was my fault. It was a cold and misty late afternoon and we had just bought our Donnegal wool sweaters at the boutique in Clifton and were hoping to make it to the National Park for a short jaunt before heading north toward Westport in County Mayo where hotel and dinner were waiting for us. Before starting our rental, Mary had turned on her cell phone’s Maps App and the App-knight-in-shining-armor-man-voice was guiding us through the streets of Clifton and out of town to the longer scenic route that would traverse the shoreline, then take us over to the Park. He was doing an okay job of it, I thought, so I didn’t feel the need to pay close attention, could instead admire my new purchases and the quaint storefronts and pubs we were passing along the way. It was only when I looked up at the road in front of us and realized it had shrunk down to the size of a paved one-laner that I decided Mary’s man-app might not be cut from a perfect cloth after all, and I had better grab the atlas in front of me on the Fiesta’s floor. And I did my best, gave it the college try as I honed in to the map’s depiction of the Connemara and the only line that traced the outer edges of the peninsula, the line that must be the one-track we now were finding ourselves traveling on. “It’s Ireland,” I said to Mary. “The roads are narrow,” I continued. “There’s only one line out here and it’s a loop. We’re fine,” I assured her. “Pretty soon we’ll be seeing the ocean and it will be at our side the whole way.” I continued with this voice of confidence and comfort, repeating it over and over, “It’s a loop, Mary! It’s a loop!” It was a good twenty minutes later, with nary another car in sight, and no ocean at our side, that we knew something was amiss and the line on the map was not the line we were barreling down. We were in the middle of rolling rocky hill and brown grassy bog country, starkly beautiful and wild, with mountains in the distance, and we had taken a wrong turn. This one-laner didn’t even make it onto the map. But this is what I want to tell you. It was fun. It was funny. It was an adventure. We climbed rocky outcroppings, said hello to sheep who might not have seen such excitement in a very long time. We laughed, took photos, and then we turned around and retraced our non-loop route back to Clifton. It was that easy.
So I wasn’t concerned at all three days later when it happened again. This time it was mid-day and the sun was shining and we were north now just leaving Yeat’s country in County Sligo, heading toward Donnegal where we intended to spend the night. And we had a plan, a schedule for the afternoon that included a short hike around a lake and a visit to a castle on some tiny peninsula, and, time, between these two things, buckled into our respective seats, Mary, in the driver’s, me, in the passenger’s. And, if I’m being completely honest, I have to admit that I was feeling a bit antsy, a bit cooped up. I wanted to be outside in the sun, wanted to be moving my body, wanted an adventure. But I hadn’t tried to get us lost. That’s the truth. It had seemed like the correct turn-off to the lake. Granted, our Bed & Breakfast host with that strong Irish accent had spoken so fast that it had been hard to understand what she was talking about, let alone decipher her directions. So, here we were, once again on a one-laner, once again with no body of water in sight, once again needing to turn our Fiesta rental around. Except it wasn’t as easy this time. There was a closed gate in front of us making it impossible to move the car forward, and the bonnie green grass that lined our wee little road wasn’t as friendly for Fiesta-back-up as it was seeming from our car-window-view. It was a warning from the driver in a car that had just turned around in front of us that clued us in on the ground situation. “Be careful! The grass is sopping-wet-peat underneath; we almost got ourselves stuck!” the woman hollered in a serious tone.
Stuck! Not us! We smiled, waved her on her way. And with what seemed like a great degree of calm and confidence, Mary chose her back-up spot, avoiding the bonnie green grass altogether. With brow furrowed in concentration, she put the Fiesta in reverse, backed it up over a small cement entry, stopping within inches of a cattle fence. And I, with hearty enthusiasm, commended Mary on her brilliant turn-around skills. And I sat there, buckled into my passenger seat, continuing my positive affirmations, as she locked in the emergency brake, creeped the car forward across the one-laner, and stopped in a spot that seemed to me just maybe a wee bit too close to the ditch. That’s when I bailed. I’m not sure what was going through my mind when I hopped out of the car. Perhaps I was taking my role of navigator seriously in that moment, wanting to beckon Mary backward from an out-of-the-car vantage point. That might have been the reason for my bail-out, but I suspect it was something more narcissistic, something more like self-preservation. At any rate, I positioned myself on the sidelines trying to sound helpful. “You have plenty of room!” I called out, motioning with my hands and waiting for Mary’s next move. Back, back — my hands beckoned back, my voice sounded chipper, and that’s when it happened, in slow motion it happened, the lurch that lunged the car, not backward at all, but forward instead, and all I could do was stand there, stunned. Mary, the competent driver, the one who had kept us on the Irish side of the road, the one who had mastered the art of sharp left, wide right, had gotten herself in a pickle, had gotten herself in the ditch, actually not quite in the ditch because a rock, a massive rock, had stopped the car fender with a smack.
Mary was looking sheepish when she got herself out of the Fiesta. It had been an honest mistake, a simple case of thinking the car was in reverse when really it was in fourth. Anybody could have gotten the two mixed up. Well, not anybody, because, as you remember, I didn’t know one gear from another, didn’t have any idea how to work the clutch. So, the complete lack of skill, the knowing that I couldn’t have gotten us north to County Sligo in the first place, made my reaction to this incident even more appalling. I found myself gleeful, laughing out loud, chortling and snorting and taking photo after photo, texting them back to family and friends. What was going on?!? Where were my manners?!? Mary, on the other hand, gathered her wits, hauled out her cell phone, and called the host at the Bed & Breakfast we had just left, the host who had given us directions to the lake we never found. That turned out to be a brilliant move because our host hooked us up with the local police, the Garda, and Mary made that call as well, and the Garda, they were on their way. I think that is when Mary started to lighten up. And I think that is when I realized the reason for my glee. I was now in my element, outside in the fresh air, not in the passenger seat at all, but, instead, in the midst of a story, not the story we had planned for our afternoon in Ireland, but something else, something unexpected and exciting, an adventure unfolding before our eyes.
And unfold it did. After locking up our rental-in-a-ditch, Mary and I began walking into the sun, into the glory of the afternoon, out toward the main road, retracing our route from one-laner to one-laner. We waved to the sheep, to the cows, to the bonnie green grass, then squinted our eyes as we focused our gaze forward, figuring we would meet them, we would greet them, the Garda who would unstick what was stuck in the ditch. Except, they didn’t meet us head on; they snuck up from behind, had found some alternative route, had already taken stock of our Fiesta debacle. They knew who we were, no introductions needed. And though they informed us it was a wee bit too stuck for a simple push out with their Garda-strong arms and that a friend’s assistance would be needed, their tone was sunny day chipper. “Hop right in!” they invited, gesturing us into their white-with-yellow-stripe Garda car’s backseat. And Mary, she was sounding sunny day chipper too! “Do you want us to put these on?” she asked with a smile, lifting a pile of police hats and jackets out of her way. I looked over at my cohort, nervous-giggling under my breath as I buckled myself in. Mary O’Donnell, I believe you are flirting! That’s what was going through my mind. And why not?!? These Garda, these younger-than-us fifty-ish-year-old-Garda, they were cute, and friendly, and they seemed to be having a good time of it too. “Where are you gals from?” one of them asked. And Mary responded, with the charm that comes with the name of O’Donnell. She told our Garda guys about the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, how it’s close to Canada, how the color of the hardwoods in October is sublime, how Lake Superior is the largest of lakes, how we live in a place of magnificence, somehow, making all this background explanation sound adorable. I, on the other hand, barely could garble out the words that I lived in Ishpeming, Michigan. I’m not sure if my sudden attack of toungue-tiedness was because I was sitting in the back of a police car on a one-laner in Ireland, definitely a first for me, or whether we somehow, the four of us, had been transported back through time and it was high school again and the day was sunny and there was fun to be had and I was feeling a wee bit nervous.
I think that was it. Although we two lassies are grandmothers in the autumn of our lives, on this particular October day, it was summer break on the back lanes of northern Ireland. And who doesn’t want to feel young again on a day like this? This getting stuck in the ditch, this taking a plunge from our planned-out itinerary, it unstuck something in us, something exciting and fun and bubbly-young, and maybe it unstuck something in these two Garda guys as well because they didn’t hurry off. We didn’t even notice that the breeze was brisk and chilly as the four of us stood there beside the car-in-the-ditch because adolescents don’t notice such things when they are in the midst of an adventure. It was easy to chat with our Garda-guys. They told us stories about the places we had just explored, the places where we were heading to next. And we told them stories about our lives too. I had loosened up, maybe even was flirting a wee bit. “Are you going to arrest us?!?” I asked. “You don’t have to wait,” the two of us teenage sixty-year-olds told our Garda guys. But wait they did, a good hour or so, for the two friends with the pick-up and the car-in-the-ditch rescue plan, and they helped with it all, the attaching Fiesta to pick-up, the pulling it out of the ditch, the puffing up of dented-in fender. It was a jovial end of the story, the hand-shaking, the photo-taking, the paying of sixty euros to the guys with the truck.
Except it didn’t feel like the end for Mary and me — because once you have awakened your inner adolescent lassie or lad, there is no forcing that gal or guy back to sleep again. We hopped back into the almost-like-new Fiesta, and the Garda guys, they hopped back in their Garda-striped car. And I’ll be darned if they didn’t escort us, the Garda guys, as Mary, behind the wheel, tried her hardest to keep up on winding back road leading to winding back road leading to winding back road, a whole hour of northbound, until they, the Garda guys, beckoned us seaward, to a beach, a wide-stretch of white sand and sea, out in the middle of nowhere, and they waved their good-byes and we waved our good-byes, and we, the young-again gals, the lassies who were laughing freely by now, clamored our way down to that beach, to the salty north Atlantic, and our short cropped hair felt long again, and if there were two white horses waiting for us, I believe we might have climbed onto their backs and galloped ourselves down that beach, our adolescent-long hair flying freely in the wind.