Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Unintended Road



It was the kind of road that I had seen test tempers and strain friendships. And as we pedaled - upward, endlessly upward, past outstandingly bland scenery - I would sneak sheepish glances at my companion’s face to check for signs of seething. Miraculously, there was none. Only a stunned, almost amused exertion.

“Horrible wee road, this!”

My computer's gradient reading appeared to be stuck at 16%.



It was the end of our mini cycling tour. We had pedaled for four days around the scenic roads of County Kerry, an eventful and memorable trip. Now this last leg was purely for transport, just a short final stretch to where we’d left the car in Tralee. We were well tired by now. And I had mapped the morning’s route aiming for the shortest distance between two points while avoiding the busy main road. When I checked the elevation gain, it did not look too bad. But I must have misread - or misinterpreted. Because this was ugly. And not just the endless climbing - which, under the right circumstances, is quite forgivable. But the utterly featureless backroad along which the climbing took place.

Understand that it takes talent to find such a road in rural Kerry - a county teeming with glens, breathtaking coastal views, and serpentine mountain passes. The road I’d managed to put us on was grayish and scraggly, lined with tall thorny hedges and weathered fencing that blocked whatever hilltop vistas there might have been. It was an upsloping tunnel, with nothing but insect noises and drizzle and the lashings of stinging nettles to reward our efforts.

It was in the midst of this slog that we came to a crossroads. What a relief it was to see it up ahead. It was clearly a village centre - a brightly coloured cluster of buildings, including a pub and provisions shop. Our pedal strokes quickened in anticipation of a happy break.

It was not till we arrived and plopped our bikes against the pub wall that we realised the place was empty. Not empty as in closed, but empty as in deserted. The pub, the shop, and all of the other buildings - of which there were six or seven in total - stood boarded up and disused. We had arrived in a ghost village.



I have mentioned ghost villages before. You can find them all over the backroads of Ireland: clusters of derelict old structures that were once settlements but have since been abandoned, left to slowly decay and crumble. Why is that? Well, the usual. Settlement patterns change. Shopping patterns change. Entertainment patterns change. Ireland today is not the same as it was 50, or even 20 years ago. Scattered rural cottages are giving way to clustered housing developments; country shops to stripmall-style shopping plazas; pub culture to nights in front of the television with bottles of supermarket-bought wine. It is not the image of Ireland most visitors want to have. But in many parts, North and South, it is reality.

In that sense, coming across a ghost village can feel like a form of time travel - offering a glimpse of what life used to be like before these socio-cultural changes took place. And the specific one we now found ourselves in was amazing in how well-preserved it was, and at the same time how dated.



Standing across from the pub, the most prominent building was the Dance Hall. The phenomenon of the (now-extinct) dance halls is something I hear about constantly. Every village used to have one. And every weekend dances were held at them. You could go to your local one, or, if on the lookout for a new "dance partner," head out to one further afield. Most of my friends' parents seem to have met this way, and the stories about the good times once had in these institutions are endless.

It is clear that folks knew how to party back in the day. And looking now at the lace-curtained green structure, I can nearly picture it: Dusk. Summer. 1976. A crowd of bell-bottomed youths smoking and laughing on those concrete steps. Music through the open door. The scent of surrounding rose bushes. Bicycles leaning against the wall.



One interesting detail I had noticed, was this free-standing plinth in front of one of the houses.

"For the milk canisters," my companion explained. "That's an old house that someone has left undisturbed. I can remember these plinths when I was a boy, but they have all been removed now..."

We did not hang about for long in the place. We were low on water, and needed to either finish the trip already, or else find a shop that was actually open. Plus the longer we stayed, the more disconcerting being there began to feel. There was a strange energy - a sort of ringing quiet, combined with a fuzzy, milky light, that made everything feel extra-ghostly. And as my tired brain fired up the imagination, I began to get the district feeling that we were not supposed to be there; that perhaps no one was. Among the tangle of backroads that led to Tralee I had selected this one at random. Now somehow we had slipped through the cracks into this parallel universe.



We can seek out experiences. But we cannot control what parts of those experiences end up being most memorable, and in what order they pop up into our mind's eye. So if you wonder why I am describing some dusty abandoned buildings glimpsed on a dreary day, instead of gushing about the hairpin bends of the Connor Pass or the glorious sweep of Inch Beach, that is the best I can do as far as an explanation.

Day after day we had explored scenic Kerry. So lovely and green and tidily dramatic it was, that at times, truth be told, it had felt nearly like a themepark version of itself. To know that undercurrents of "this" - whatever this was - existed, created a contextual texture that, had we followed the traditional cyclo-tourist routes only, we would have certainly missed.

If I tell you what happened next on this ride, I am sure you will roll your eyes and think it a cheap way to end a story. But truth is stranger than fiction, and so I'll tell you anyway.

As we pushed off and continued uphill, the steep gradient made us giddy with exasperation. Feeling a playful slap on my right hip, I turned toward my companion and said "Hey!" in mock disapproval. And as I looked his way, I saw right away that he was too far from me to have executed the slap. On the opposite side of the road, he was staring firmly ahead, both hands on the handlebars, doing his best to manage his breathing.

"What the..." I started to say, as I looked back over my shoulder. The village had all but faded from view in the hazy drizzle.

Those unintended roads. They can confuse, surprise, and frustrate. And if we let them, they can also, nearly always, enrich us. Even when the climbing is "gratuitous." Later we'd learn that the much flatter main road I had taken pains to avoid featured a wide, bike-pathlike shoulder, all the way to our destination!... But hey, I'll not dwell on the details.



34 comments:

  1. Slapped by a randy(sp) ghost?
    It reminds me of the places/routes we would go on trips when we would set our GPS to Shortest route and No toll roads! I remember traveling between Sequoia National Park & Bakersfield on a gravel country road for miles! It was so much more interesting then the freeway and while it might have taken a bit longer you certainly wouldn't fall asleep from boredom!
    Something tells me you might be researching this little town some? - mas

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  2. Back from holiday, great! Can't wait to read of your tour.


    Weird how the buildings/area seem empty, but nothing is derelict-looking. As if they are maintained.



    Wolf.

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  3. I am really liking the look of your Seven, by the way. What is the seat bag you are using? I don't recognize it, and it looks like a good size.


    Wolf.

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    1. The rear bag (Apidura 14L) was actually not my usual setup for the tour; we had switched for the day so that I could try it.

      You can see how our bikes were normally set up here: https://www.instagram.com/p/BHuu8ndDvSH/ (Apidura for him + Dill Pickle for me). But I'll have better pictures soon.

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  4. About deserted villages. Next time you are in Burtonport in west Donegal see if you can charm a boatman into dropping you off on Ruthland island for an hour or two. It's got two streets of terraced houses an 18th century pier and fish-curing building. A friend was looking into a deserted house when a soft, warm muzzle touched her from behind. Her piercing scream scared away the friendly island donkey who had just come over for a chat and an ear-scratch!

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    1. Not to be confused with Rathlin Island!
      And I am definitely overdue a visit to both.

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  5. It's also quite easy to find clusters of deserted buildings here in the western states once one leaves the main roads. It's eerie.

    I noticed your bike set-up is changing yet again. Bars getting even lower in relation to the saddle and now the saddle is pointing down a bit as well.

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    1. The setup is identical to my usual, but this bike's (a prototype for a project I'm working on) sloping top tube makes it look more aggressive.

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    2. is this a 'stack and reach' thing? different bike but same set-up? still looks like if a level were put on the saddle the bubble would not be centered.

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    3. The saddle does point (slightly) down, but that is how I set it up on any roadbike. I can see that the sloped TT makes this much more noticeable though and exaggerates the effect.

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    4. no, i don't look at the top tube as a reference, there are too many other indicators of level in your photos. that said, i'm just curious as to how people set up their bikes and why. i have an active eye and it leads me to many questions about so many things….apologies.

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    5. No apologies necessary. It's just interesting, because nearly everyone who sees this bike comments on how aggressively it is set up, whereas my position has not actually changed.

      The nose-(slightly!)down thing, for me, is mainly for ladypart comfort. I stumbled upon the perfect balance of "just down-pointed enough to relieve pressure down there, but no so down-pointed as to cause sliding/pressure on the hands" some time in 2012 and have not looked back. I know it really gets on some people's nerves to see a saddle that isn't level (in either direction), but what can I do. It works for me.

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    6. like i said, it's fun and interesting to look at bikes (both in photos and in person) and the ways in which they're set up. fair to say that your bike is aggressive, and now i know it's also comfortable and works well….lovely ;)

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    7. this looks more level and slightly less aggressive. https://www.flickr.com/photos/lovely_bicycle/20217635710/in/dateposted/

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  6. Great story, and I'd say well worth the extra effort (easy for me to say) for the opportunity to explore this magical, abandoned village. Nice photos, too!

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  7. In the US, the preserved ghost towns are kept up by either the National Park Service or the local equivalent in whichever state they are based. How is it done there? That black paint is fairly fresh, and I would think the street light on the power pole in the background lights up at night...
    It'd be fascinating to get a tour of such a place, though of course the inherent mystery would lessen.
    (Though not the mystery of the invisible hand. Hmmm, though that only applied to economies.)

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    1. Oh no. Here they are either tumbled to make way for housing developments, or left to slowly fall apart by the roadside. Even truly fine and rare examples of vernacular architecture that have been featured in books suffer this fate. No one seems interested in preserving traditional Irish architecture - something I have no doubted will be regretted in years to come.

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    2. From the photos anyway several of those structures appear prime candidates for a rehab. Agree it is regrettable.

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  8. I love the photo of old post box with VR showing it dates back to Queen Victoria and of course they were originally painted Royal Mail red and then painted An Post green sometime after Irish independence. I wonder when the last collection was...?

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    1. The "Last Collection" notice inside the box actually looked pretty recent; a few years old maybe but not decades old. The pub also looked like it had been active until fairly recently. My theory is that the place was abandoned in stages. And that while the pub/shop remained functional, whoever ran it must have also maintained the other buildings even thought they were disused, just to keep it all looking nice.

      You can't see it in the photo, but the stone wall containing the QV postbox looks like it was once part of a large building or structure. But it's obvious the postbox remained active long after the structure had crumbled. It must have been strange, depositing letters into a jagged chunk of wall.

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  9. On water: With all the precipitation Ireland gets it stands to reason there are plenty of ponds, lakes, creeks etc. where one arguably could use a filter to fill drinking bottles.

    Or does agricultural and industrial pollution make that a less than desireable option?

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    1. There is water everywhere. But definitely the latter. I am particularly familiar with the agricultural aspect of things, and let's just say what I've seen some farmers do ain't pretty. I would not drink water here if the stream/pond was in any way connected to farm land.

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  10. You were lucky to get out of there. It seems very Twilight Zone-ish. You follow a road leading out, through some fog, then see, to your relief, in the distance, a brightly coloured cluster of buildings...

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  11. Pictures are great. I cannot understand why you are dissing that road. Looks good to me. Also, now that you have had your tour, maybe you can focus on the Clementine. I really like the blog a lot. Thanks for making the effort.

    Jim D Massachusetts

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  12. Ah! The rural metropolis that is Croughmore West...

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  13. Sounds like the makings of a Broadway musical. A pair of cyclotourists pedal into a seemingly abandoned Irish village after a grueling uphill pull. As they turn to leave, one of the riders feels a playful slap on her thigh. She turns and encounters a rider clad head to toe in wool. His cleated shoes ply the cottered cranks of Lenton Sports Reg Harris. The travelers suddenly realize that they’ve stumbled upon the mythical village of Retrogrouch. The mysterious rider, they discover, is the ghost of a famous six-day racer who spends eternity pedaling he back roads searching for his beloved. He becomes visible to the outside world once a year during the Tour de France.

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  14. Those romantic villages and drafty cottages were incubators for tuberculosis, pneumonia, alcoholism, and depression. The social costs of maintaining isolated hamlets were enormous. Then came mechanized agriculture. Then motor cars. Then through the 80s and 90s massive EU subsidies for decent housing, which the Irish seized on.

    They pull at your heartstrings. None who lived there regret their passing.

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    1. They don't pull at my own heartstrings so much. It is not my culture or my heritage; I just describe what I see and hear. And when I listen to stories of locals, there is an overwhelming amount of nostalgia for those drafty, tuberculosis-ridden, impoverished times. Which of course doesn't make your description of things any less accurate.

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    2. As opposed to the social deprivation of tower blocks and massive soulless council estates. Replace tuberculosis and pneumonia with antisocial behaviour or drug addiction , and society will never be perfect. As for massive EU subsidies in the 80's and 90's not accurate . Most of the new or modern housing stock was built in the 60's and 70's . Now shall we look at the benefits of mechanised agriculture or indeed the increased levels of pollution created by the "motor car". Not all that glitters is gold ".

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    3. I know Rathcoole well enough. 'TIs not the New Jerusalem. And it would be '50s. Walk it back to the Corn Laws if you like. Walk it back to the Stuarts at least, James the First was a rascal.

      Mechanized agriculture meant it was not absolutely necessary a large rural population should till the soil that city dwellers might eat. When once commoners rode in motors it was only time before it were a one way trip. I dinna say 'twas all roses now. I said things happen for reasons and proceed step by step. You can look at the reasons and see how things happened. Or you can have fits of absent-mindedness for decades and act all surprised that the furniture was rearranged in your absence.

      Uttering words like 'social costs' is thoughtcrime in the Anglophone world. Some of us remember the nights listening to the coughing and watching the blood. Some of us are reflexively thoughtcriminals.

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    4. Vaccinations for TB, pneumonia, etc. work just as well in rural areas as in modern cities. Frankly it is nice to see nature get a chance to work its way back in abandoned places. but infectious disease were not so much a problem of place but of science lacking.

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  15. Wow, reading this I'm thinking bike adventures with loved ones in the mid 70's and reminded of our lack of information at our fingertips. Times have changed, or have they? It's always about the journey…anything else is bullshit.

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  16. How do you get that pump attached to the bike?

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