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Grit- Day 3

Updated: Sep 16, 2020

Wednesday 29th July

Much in contrast to the previous day, I did not have the relentless sun beating constantly upon the back of my neck. A dense blanket of cloud rolled across the sky creating an impregnable layer of humidity. This air attracted various flying insects which swarmed lazily in this late July heat as I left Roundwood on the old country roads. Across a bridge known as Oldbridge I went up the steep path towards Brusher Gap Hut. I was pleased to note that the additional weight of my newly gained water was not weighing me down, although I was oblivious to the unexpected toll this was having upon my back. What was more was that I was making good time. Perhaps the most frustrating memory of this morning was the flies. Attracted to the sweat that had crystallised and formed an invisible layer upon my skin, they swept in on any given opportunity. This made stopping for respite uncomfortable. Before reaching Brushers Gap Hut there is a clearing. I remember stopping here for a drink while near fifty of them advanced. Like something from a horror film, I leapt the wooden gate and sprinted further up the trail. At this point I was unaware that the Hut existed, and it was a pleasant surprise.

One of my favourite films is Into the Wild starring Emile Hirsch as famed explorer Christopher McCandless. Based upon a true story, McCandless, in his pursuit of freedom, sacrificed all his personal belongings and career ambition to the mercy of the Alaskan wilderness. Amid this journey he encounters an abandoned bus dubbed the Magic Bus. This bus had become a heaven for backpackers and hikers solely for the shelter it offered against the harshness of the Alaskan wilderness. McCandless spent some time living in this bus before setting out again. Before his death he returned to the bus and unfortunately died in it. Up until June of 2020, when the bus was extracted by a helicopter on the commission of the African authorities after being deemed a danger, many explorers sought this bus out as a pilgrimage to pay their respects and maybe even to live in it as McCandless once did. This story saddens me for McCandless, in some regards, was a hero to me for I admired his wild spirit. Perhaps one day, I would have sought out the bus.

The hut that I stayed in now was something similar. Leaning back against the wooded panelling with my feet extended in front of me, while in front of me basked this extraordinary view of the Wicklow mountains, I felt spiritually akin to all the other nomadic souls who had rested in this hut and I felt at one with the spirit of Christopher McCandless. To my right was a shrine of assorted goods dedicated to campers but from experience I knew that it was bad luck to touch this unless I was in dire need of replenishment, for in the hiking world, there is always someone in worse circumstances than you. Along the walls were pinned poems in tribute to the Way and in a locker box was a diary and pen. In this diary where logs of other hikers who had made an entry. I added my own memoir and a sense of fulfilment washed over me. Had I encountered this hut at night, I would have happily rested in this spiritual sanctuary with the stars glinting above me, but it was still mid-morning and I planned to be at Iron Bridge by the end of the day. Still, I made a note of the grid references for the other huts in my notebook that I would surely encounter along the Way.

After the hut, I descended for about 2.3 km through more forest patches and stunning views over Laragh and the hills around the Vale of Glendalough. Although rather than continuing along the Way that would surely take me straight into Glendalough, I detoured and walked along the old military road that would take me into Laragh. Living up to its reputation of being a military road, huge tanks from the Irish Army rumbled past me as I walked this road, dwarfing me in their enormity.

By mid-day I reached Laragh, a village much smaller than Roundwood comprised of only a few establishments. I bought my lunch here and resupplied on food at the nearest petrol station. By my account, this would be the last chance before reaching Tinahely, hopefully the following evening. However, it is always best to plan for the worst while hoping for the best. Inevitably, this was more weight on my back. Shortly after leaving Laragh I came upon Glendalough and re-joined the Way at the park. By now it was raining and reluctantly I had donned my waterproofs before my walk through Glendalough park.

The park is split by two lakes both aptly named, the Upper and Lower lake. You can also choose to visit the Monastic City which resides near the entrance. Perhaps if I had more time I would have taken the time to visit. However, all I was concerned about was making progress.

After a kilometre or so I took the bridge to my left and before me the steep steps up to Poulanass Waterfall mocked me. Biting back my frustration and wishing to get the burn over with as soon as possible, I took the steps at a run, but my aggression quickly turned to fatigue and halfway up I gave in to rest. Sitting on my rucksack away from the steps I watched with envy as unburdened tourists took to the steps gracefully. With my sweat matted hair and the monster of a bag on my back, I marked a sheer contrast to all these tourists with their designer clothing, styled hair, make-up, and fashionable dogs. Barring my teeth with the effort of the exertion, I eventually reached the top, only to be rounded on by the path once more as it banked uphill to my left.

So began the arduous ascent with the path zig-zagging left and right. The path to Mullacor saddle must have only been about two or three kilometres from where I was but I was going high up. With every step the further I got from civilisation and the views grew more immense as the Vale of Glendalough opened to my right. Later I would think back on this valley as the beating heart of the Wicklow Way. It was then, when I was on this lonely boulevard, mysteriously beautiful in its twisted way, that I stopped to adjust my rucksack. Slinging it off my shoulder, a jarring pain shot through my back. Wincing through grated teeth I tried to pull it back on again, but my back refused to co-operate. So, resting my hand on a nearby damp cliff face, I paused to rest. After an anxious five minutes of waiting, I attempted to wear the rucksack again. It was a short-lived victory. After a further two hundred meters of climbing I felt my shoulder straps tear free. Realising there was something wrong with how I had adjusted my pack, I bent over to try and make amends but failed to wear it again. My back muscles screamed at me for respite, so I crawled into a nearby wood with my rucksack and unpacked my sleeping mat to lie on the forest floor.

In any hiker’s experience, there comes a time when they discover their limits. Pushed to the boundaries of both physical and mental capacity- a sea of hopelessness threatens to engulf you while your emotions crowd in on you like phantoms. Lying there in that wood, with the furious wind howling through the trees, the rain splattering down on the outside while opportunistic insects swarmed around me- I wondered for the first time, “What was I doing?” Truthfully speaking, I could have lay like that for the rest of the day. I wanted to. But I knew I was far off from my destination for the day and I did not want any other hiker to pass by and see me like this. Rousing myself, I manhandled my rucksack onto my back and set off.

It was a daunting procedure. I felt weak and fatigued. I took short footsteps and had to pause every fifty meters for a rest. It was when I reached the sanctuary of another forest that the true tragedy of my trip struck. Emerging out onto a clearing, the path bending and sloping up to my right, my rucksack finally gave in. Only it had to be in the worst fashion possible. I could hear the stitching tearing free as the shoulder straps burst free. Gasping aloud as the torso strap dug into my chest, I hastened to unbuckle it. As it clicked free the rucksack fell backwards and almost pulled me along with it. All the weight I was carrying was now concentrated on an already dodgy waist strap. Wincing aloud I released it and the rucksack crashed to the ground. I stared down at it in disbelief. Was this truly how it was supposed to end? Stooping over to toy with it, I realised that this rucksack was finally gone. The stitching had well and truly torn free. The rain mournfully persisted around me. Would it stop? Instinctively I knew then that this day, and potentially my trip, was over. The only thing I could do was rest for there was no way I could carry this carcass of a bag, with all my belongings in it, down the mountain.

Perhaps it was the additional sudden strain of my bag dragging me down in its last few moments that amplified the already tentative pain in my back, but I was now limping and could not stand fully upright. Dragging the rucksack into a nearby forest I found somewhere to make camp. On an uneven surface, but the best this woodland had to offer, I pitched my tent, and fumbling with my cooking equipment, heated my dinner. All the while being assailed by a legion of persistent midges. At last, with everything I owned in some regard sodden by the rain, I crawled defeated into my tent.

It was the worst night I ever experienced. Never had I felt so weak and vulnerable but those were only minor feelings in contrast to the pain. It burned through my back like I was on a torturer’s rack. I could not move without rivets of pain streaking through me . Unable to comfortably sleep with the pain and the rain hammering consistently outside I even got delusional. In this dark forest, the scuttling of a rat outside was perceived as a wild animal, which was an entirely irrational thought considering that this was a land bereft of the grizzlies. It was a long time before the blackness of sleep smothered me in her arms all the while one question continued to circle relentlessly in my head- How did it end like this?

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