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.