To Know a Mountain
snake that ate the elephant drawing from the Little Prince). From other vantage points, a jagged edge protrudes. Steep on all sides, it is topped with a large lumpy plateau, covered with forests and meadows.
For some time, the sheep were my only company. Until, out of nowhere, a man in blue pulled up next to me. Even as I spotted him in my peripheral vision, I knew he was a Cyclist. Slender and agile, he moved so fluidly, it looked like liquid pouring uphill. Riding next to me, he matched my pace effortlessly as we talked. He lived nearby and loved to train on this mountain. He was an endurance cyclist, and rode in the Race Across America last year. Before we parted ways at the top, he introduced himself: Joe Barr.
The top of Binevenagh... The plateau covers a large area, and the highest point is somewhat uneventful. A painted bridge over a stream, a scraggly meadow with Queen Anne's Lace and buttercups, a forest in the background, and lots of sky with very distant views of water. From here on, there are several options for descending. One starts right away and is fairly steep and twisty, consistently throughout. Another is further down the plateau. It is longer and gentler most of the way, until it ends in a sudden, sharply winding vertical drop to the sea at the very end.
To start with I chose the first descent. The steep, narrow, winding road pushed my comfort zone. I was in control around the bends, but had to work on myself to keep calm. I did breathing exercises to keep from shaking and destabilising the bike. Descending on the left side of the road felt intuitive; my brain had already switched over.
But after every bend, a view opened up, each more beautiful than the next. If it is possible to feel both cautious and relaxed at the same time, that is how descending this road felt.
Cars passed me up the road occasionally, the drivers waving, friendly - something I am still getting used to here. Toward the bottom, one driver was trying to communicate something urgently, which I did not understand - until I saw a row of pointy brown ears up ahead. Quickly I stopped, dismounted and clambered up the side of the road to let the herd of cows pass.
The final winding stretch dumped me onto the coastal road unceremoniously. Feeling sad it was over, I repeated the loop, then crawled home, spent and drunk on mountain air.
Several days later, I climbed Binevenagh again to try one of the other descents. The road along the plateau offered wide open views of both the Lough Foyle and the North Atlantic.
I rode through a dreamscape of hot-pink sheep grazing upon neon green grass, as the sun came out over the hills of Donegal.
At the far end of the plateau stood "the boat man," as the locals refer to him. He is Manannán mac Lir, a god of the sea - a new statue the local council has erected just in the past week. Facing Magilligan Point (entrance to the Lough Foyle on the Northern Ireland side) - the mythical wood-carved figure spreads his arms over land and water of the bordering nations.
Standing there, I remembered being at Magilligan Point, at the ground level, and looking up at the mountain from there. Some form of symmetry had been achieved.
The descent was long, tame and idyllic, rolling through farmlands. But at the end came the stretch I had been warned about: This section winds tightly, down a steep grade. I was advised to either walk or ride the brakes once I saw the crumbling rocks sign. Over the course of two loops, I tried both methods. Riding slowly with good brakes is actually a bit easier than walking the bike.
Mussenden Temple - a round structure at the edge of a cliff, which a nobleman had built for his niece... with whom he may or may not have had an affair with. The niece died before the temple was finished, infusing the story with an extra air of tragic poeticism.
I looked back at the road I had come down. I was not as shaken as I thought I'd be by the descent. But with the rush and the beauty of it over, I felt lost - so much emotion can build up along these stretches, and it has nowhere to go. Maybe that is why the cliffs looked especially beautiful in the evening light. And maybe that is why I put all my remaining energy into the 10 miles home along the flat coastal road. Big ring, small cog, setting sun, burning legs, cold air, sprays of water, and Binevenagh towering over it all. Turning the pedals madly as I raced home, I already longed to be up there again.