Updated: Sep 16, 2020
Thursday 30th July
“If you turn back now it will haunt you for the rest of your days,” my father’s voice resonated through the phone. I grimaced. Those were not words that I particularly wanted to hear right now.
After my night of agony, I had scavenged my valuables from the wreckage of my rucksack. This involved ruthless decision making. In the end, I was limited to what I was able to carry with my two arms and whatever else I was able to shove in my pockets. In the end I settled on carrying the tent in one arm and two bags of clothes in the other. The rest of my gear I simply parted ways with. In a sentimental farewell I laid the rucksack to rest behind a tree that was deep in the forest enough to be hidden from the wandering eye. I said a few words. This may seem over the top, but I was saying goodbye to something of myself in that rucksack. It had been my first bag. My companion on my DofE expeditions and the countless practice trips that had come with them. In a way, I did not resent it for failing me. Like a cruel rider to its steed, I had pushed it past its tether to the point of its capitulation. If this was a funeral then this was it. I suppose I felt like a stranded captain after his beloved ship had been washed ashore on the jagged rocks. It deserved to be burned, but of course I did not want to risk a forest fire.
From this site, I limped towards the natural entrance I had made in the wood yesterday evening. As I descended the mountain, what I carried began to feel relatively light and I found a comfortable grip. My back pain even began to ease. I felt no emotion about turning back, rather my spirits were enlightened. I began to think of home and resolved to view this as a lesson to never undertake solo backpack big trips like this again. I resolved that I had discovered my limits that I had at one point though unreachable. As I looked back, I could see the forest that I had left. From below its higher reaches, I had a wide view and I observed dark angry clouds swirling above it. As if the spirit of Wicklow herself had come to claim my dead rucksack.
Down the steps of Poulanass waterfall I went. The park was quiet being so early in the morning and I only passed a select few people. I’m sure I looked like someone who had been chewed up and spat back out, if not then at least somewhat odd with my tent and two carrier bags. To absolve this impression, I used the park toilets and washed the soil and grime off my face. Roughly rinsing my sweat matted hair. I passed a park ranger upon coming out and he must have noted the tent I was carrying for further down the path another ranger inquired to know if I was intending to camp. Wild camping is forbidden in the Glendalough park. I solemnly shook my head. “I’ve just come down from the mountains,” I said and pointed in the direction I came.
“Ah I see, where you hiking?”
I nodded. “I was intending to do the Wicklow Way,” and I explained my story. “And so here I am, with only the glories of what I could scavenge to show for it,” I finished.
The ranger thought for a moment. “If you want I could retrieve it for you, stuff like this happens all the time. I could get in the jeep and be down with it in a few moments.”
“I thank you for your kindness,” I smiled, “But I’m afraid that that rucksack has seen the end of its days, it’s not going anywhere. Although if you were to find it, perhaps you could donate the belongings in them to somewhere.”
The ranger nodded, “I’ll retrieve it and then leave everything in the lost property box, then that way if you’re ever down this direction again you could pick it up.”
Playing devil’s advocate, I made an effort to tell him the location although I doubted very much that he would find it. I also doubted that I would be down this direction again. At least not any time soon.
“Is there anything else I can do to help?” he looked genuine.
“Actually, yes there is. Am I right in saying that a bus leaves from the park entrance to Dublin?”
He smiled, “Yes there is in fact. There is another ranger who stands at the gates. Talk to him and he’ll let you know the times.”
“Thank-you,” I said.
“I wish I could be more help,” he said earnestly.
“No, no. You’ve been plenty.”
“Where are you from anyway?” As usual my accent had betrayed me.
“I’m going up there soon on holiday in Portrush with the family. I’ve never been there before”
“It’s a good spot, you won’t be disappointed,” I said thinking longingly of the white sands and the soothing rolling sea as well as all the other welcoming features that Portrush had to offer.
When the conversation dried we made leave to go about our days.
“When I get that rucksack, I’ll leave it here. All you’ll have to do is collect it. Could I get your name if you don’t mind?”
“Jake,” I told him, “Shortland.”
“I’m Dave. I should be about the rest of the day should you come back later. Be sure to enjoy the rest of your holiday Jake.”
“Thank-you,” I said again.
Unfortunately, according to the guard at the gate, the next bus was not until 4pm. That left me all day to mill about. I decided to head back into Laragh and get breakfast. This time I made to purchase something a little more filling. Sitting in the Wicklow Heather, I awaited my full English breakfast, whilst sipping tentatively on some hot freshly poured coffee. It was then that I decided to phone my parents and inform them of my unsuspected early return. After pouring my story to my mum she was fully sympathetic and consoled me into believing that I was doing the right thing. However, it wasn’t soon before long that my phone vibrated on the table once more. I lifted it and answered, it was my mum again. “Your dad wants to speak with you.”
“If you go back, you’ll never live it down. It will haunt you until the rest of your days. That I promise you. Unless you can do something about it now.”
I breathed in. Up until now I was dead set on coming home.
“You need to understand that right now you are at a crossroads and you have a choice. You don’t know it; you probably don’t want to hear it but I’m only telling you this to save you from depression.”
I paused and let out a sigh. I wanted to disagree.
“I want nothing more than for you to finish this. After all this planning, all this preparation. You were thorough and committed. In fact, I can’t get over how far you’ve come already. I did not expect you to make it through the front door. To even get on that train in the first place and to stay in a city you have never been to before was admirable. And look at where you are now. It would be a dire shame for you to turn back now.”
“But my rucksack. it’s gone,” I protested but it was a half-hearted attempt. I was beginning to realise the sincerity of this moment. It truly was a pivotal moment and the more I recognised it I could feel the people around me blurring.
“Are there no mountain shops nearby where you can get a new one?” I said nothing for I knew that this was true. Only recently had I seen an outdoor shop on my way to the restaurant claiming to be open.
“If you really cannot continue then come home but if you feel you can then you need to finish it. Your back may be sore now but a hot shower and a night in a Bed and Breakfast would change that. All you need to do is dig deep. Trust me for I’ve been there. Find that little bit of grit. Before you left you talked about finding yourself. Well this is it. This is what finding yourself looks like. Most will never know what that is.”
“I’ll think on it,” I said finally. Although the walls of my previous resolve were collapsing. His words made me feel that my current intentions were those of a coward and that was not me. He was right. I wanted to finish this. I needed to finish this. All the way.
“Ok,” he said, “Ring us back and let us know what you decide on. Just know that no one will think less of you for whatever it is you choose.”
He hung up.
My head was racing wildly and the hot coffee in front of me was suddenly no longer appealing. The outdoor shop was my best bet. Somehow, I doubted that any Bed and Breakfast’s that were local would be available, considering the time of year and how tight it was to book my own accommodation in both Dublin and Bunclody, but it was worth a try. A night of recuperation would not go amiss. Then, providing I obtained a new rucksack, I could head up there again and retrieve my possessions. I checked my watch; it was approaching 11am. Gulping down the last of my now lukewarm coffee I picked up what I had and left the restaurant in haste.
“Yes. This will do.” After a thorough inspection of the rucksack I was satisfied. It was a green Lower Alpine 35 litre bag with a capacity of up to 40 litres. A significant difference from what I had been carrying the past three days but perhaps I needed to shed weight anyway. Clearly, the issue was that I would not be able to fit both my sleeping bag and my tent in the same bag, but I had no other choice- this was their biggest bag. I would simply have to think of a solution. Besides, the rucksack had ample pouches made cavernous by the thin but toughly engineered skin of the bag and the back support was a charm, designed to keep the wearer’s back straight with tunnels of ventilation in the design. Yes, this will have to do. I winced at the 150 euros. If I wasn’t committed before, I was committed now.
Running aside the outdoor shop was a small wood. I vaulted over its protective fence and waded through the brambles and nettles to where I had cached what I had retrieved from the Trespass bag. I had previously scouted the village in search of a bed for the night and had been unsuccessful. Looking up at the misty Vale of Glendalough I knew that from today the only way was up. For a while I played about with my new bag to get familiar with it and when I was content I roughly packed my kit. The bag felt lightweight and swung easily onto my back. What was more was that it was comfortable and snug. Although I knew that, to some extent, this would change when I retrieved the rest of my kit up at Mullacor. Which reminded me- I would have to inform Dave to forget any search for it.
“I’m going back up there,” I grinned boldly. I had come up through the park and was now at the visitor’s centre. He smiled back at me noticing my new rucksack.
“I’m glad to hear it and listen, you won’t regret it. If it’s any consolation the Way gets easier past Mullacor. Get over that saddle and theirs another hut waiting for you a few kilometres forward. How far are you going again?”
“Clonegal,” I said.
“When you get there’s a local taxi firm that deals in local runs. It will get you to Bunclody where a bus runs straight to Dublin. Here is my number,” he said scrawling it on a piece of map, “Be sure to phone me if you run into any more trouble up there.”
“Cheers Dave,” I said.
“No problem, what’s your name again?”
“Jake,” I said, this time with more pride.
“Well good luck Jake, I’m sure you will enjoy it.”
The experience of going up, this time with a lighter bag and with more pleasant weather was a lot more enjoyable. My newfound grit coursed through my blood like golden syrup and I didn’t want to stop. Two hours later, hours which seemed to sail by, and I was up at the clearing and was standing at the spot where my old rucksack had collapsed on me. In my haste to return I had forgotten my thirst and my mouth felt parched. Delving into the woods where I had camped the previous night I sought my campsite from last night. It is strange to think that I considered a place which had offered me sanctuary through a storm to be haunted. Least to say, I just wanted to retrieve the rucksack and get out. Heaving the bag from the woods I dragged it to its protege and began to combine the contents of the two bags. For my troubles, I now had four litres of pure water, I had my food storage again- complete with canned food, energy bars, glucose sweets and porridge, my mess tins, hexi burner and a packet of fuel tablets.
By the time I had finished assorting my belongings my old bag was pretty much empty save for one set of clothes and other unnecessary items which I could easily dismiss. The result did mean that I would have to sling my sleeping bag over my shoulder and carry my other clothing- clothing that I had took with me and didn’t want to lose due to their expense but would not fit in the 40 litre bag- in two plastic carrier bags. I resolved that if it got two laborious to carry these bags then I would ditch them for everything essential that I needed to survive was now in my rucksack. If it rained, I would use a couple of empty plastic bags to shield my exposed sleeping bag. By now, disturbed forest flies were clustering around me aggressively. This old rucksack was now one with nature. Like before, I returned it to is resting place in the woods. Hoisting my new bag onto my shoulders, I set off to finish the climb.
I did it step by step. If I got lethargic, I would pause only for a few moments and continue. Sweat beaded and dripped from my hair but I was determined. It was around 4pm before I reached the saddle. I wanted to cheer. Stopping here to rest, I dug my phone out of my pocket to inform my manager at home that I was a day behind schedule and to allow me Monday morning off if possible. I switched the phone off again. Two girls came over the rise I had ascended. We talked briefly. They were heading towards Mullacor hut but might continue towards Mucklagh Hut and camp somewhere in between. Obviously aiming to walk as much as possible out of the day. We wished each other luck and split. I let them walk ahead of me before continuing.
However, I was spiritually renewed from today and somehow managed to overtake them on the descent towards Miners’ Way. I and the girls past another couple who were also the same age as us, a boy, and a girl. They were headed towards Mullacor Hut. I do not know if the girls and this couple walked it together towards the hut for I wanted to press on as much as possible and walked on. We all, it seemed, rendezvoused at the hut. All of us resting, we basked in the joy of sharing time with people of a similar age. Young, bold, and determined to walk the Way. We exchanged pleasantries and tales of what we had come through so far
“We should press on,” one of the girls said suddenly, “We have another 10k to walk at least before camp.” The other couple exchanged looks. For them 10k was a full days walking and they were fully intent on camping at Mullacor Hut and calling it a day. I laughed inside for the girls told me the story of how one had coached the other into doing the Way and I was vividly reminded of Felix persuading me to do Hadrian’s Wall all that time ago.
Reluctantly, I was the first to leave the hut for I out of all them had the most distance to catch up on. I should have been at Drumgoff last night. Apologising, I took my leave. With the sun above me on the right I walked a distance beside the Glenmalure River. I felt at peace and began to sing aloud the lyrics of my timeless favourites. These included Robbie Williams’s Road to Mandalay a song that I used to fall asleep to when I was an infant. I loved the tale behind the song. About a journey to a destination that takes everything from a man who continues in the hope of salvation. And, The Killers’ Miss Atomic Bomb, the lyrics of which I knew word for word.
Before me where a stack of logs. Easing the rucksack off my back I sat on the lowest one. The sun was beginning to set before me. I pulled out my phone again and phoned my Dad.
“Well...?” he asked.
“I did it. I did the ascent,” I said. A warm glow of pride beamed in my chest as he congratulated me. We then talked for a further five minutes as I talked him through how I was handling my gear and today’s journey.
“I wanted to thank-you,” I said.
“For pushing me on when I was about to give-up. You’re right, I didn’t want to hear it at the time, but it would have haunted me.”
“There’s something else that I have learnt from today that will stick with me for the rest of my life.”
“Wounds heal, but pride does not.”
I reached the crossroads at around 9pm. I passed Drumgoff Barracks, built in 1803 as part of the British effort to control the Wicklow area, but used only briefly. By the 1830s it had been sold to miners. Shortly, after this I turned right to cross Clohernagh Brook by a concrete bridge and headed towards the forest gate where a granite obelisk stood marking the official halfway point of the Wicklow Way at 63.5km. I still had a long way to go. I made camp on a clearing to my right and had a can of cold beans for dinner. Not wishing to cook outside for the midges roamed the area furiously and it was all I could do to escape them in the recess of my tent. With my map unfolded in front of me I planned tomorrows journey. Fortune had once again swung in my favour and it was possible that, if I strived for it, I could be in my hotel bed in Bunclody on Saturday night. The race was on, I thought.