I sit for a moment in the car, huddled against the blast from the heater. Peering out through the misty windscreen I can see cloud shrouding the top of the mountain. I don’t normally need encouragement to get out into the hills, but this morning I feel that I need a cattle prod to get me moving. It’s the beginning of May and the start of the summer but the weather looks more like mid-November. It’s cloudy, misty and quite cold and I grimace as I open the door and climb out, reaching for boots and waterproofs.
The car-park here in Glendalough is virtually empty. That’s unusual for this time of year and a clear sign of how gloomy the day is looking. I sigh and surprise myself by considering a retreat, but I’ve driven an hour from the city to get here and it would be silly to turn back now. Adjusting my walking poles, I start to stroll towards the upper lake, and turning left, head to the bridge that leads towards the Poulanass Waterfall.
The plan is to stroll along the ‘white’ loop-walk; up over Spinc Mountain, across the bridge over the Glenealo River and down through the Miners’ Village to the Upper Lake. I warm up quickly as step out towards the wooded trail. Birds are singing everywhere in the rain dampened trees and the crackle and splash of the waterfall gets louder as I approach. It drowns out the patter of raindrops but the birds still pipe loudly through the cascade. Pausing for a moment I wonder about the power of the water dropping here to pools carved out of rock, from a hanging valley formed in the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago. I wonder what the water feels like, how cold? I always promise to stop here during the summer when I’m warm and sticky after a long hike, take off my boots and plunge my feet into the white froth. Somehow I always forget. This year I’ll do it; definitely.
I reach the junction where I need to swing right for Spinc or left for the Derrybawn Ridge. I hesitate, with no sense of urgency in my mind. I meant to train hard today, to set a pace and work on my fitness, but I’m reluctant to push up into the cloud. Instead I potter around the river and take some photos of the water tumbling over the rocks. I’m familiar with the terrain around here and I have a map and compass; and so on a whim, I veer off the trail and into the woodland pushing ahead on an adventure and leaving the high trails behind.
Within moments, the roar of the waterfall is behind me, along with the brash, glare of the multi-hued, green riverbank. I’m entering into a carpeted, hushed arena beneath the bared bark of conifers stretching so high and thick above my head that the rain and cloud are banished. The change of atmosphere is dramatic, like stepping from the light and noise of a busy street into the sombre chambers of a cathedral. The light is amber, shaded by the canopy above and tinted by the russet carpet of fallen pine-needles and cones beneath my feet. Invisible birds make sounds all around me. I think I’m treading softly, but they hear the fine snap of twigs beneath my feet and clearly keep their distance.
I follow a gentle incline, moving steadily upward through the forest. I know Derrybawn is on my left and Mullacor is on my right and slightly ahead; but I don’t intend to push ahead that far. Reaching a fire-wall, I veer left, to meet a small stream rushing down from the ridge. I come back out into the light. There is no trail here and I have the river to myself. I potter around taking photos; and find I’m smiling and grinning at the sight of saplings and ferns unfolding, and clover in flower. This little glen has infrequent visitors and it’s showing no hesitation in sharing its secrets with me. I can almost imagine fairies dancing here in early morning sunbeams. Briefly I remember how it felt to lie beneath the yellow gorse in Roscommon as a kid fresh arrived from London; smelling the vanilla-scented pods of the furze, trying to whistle through stands of grass, watching fluffy clouds against a blue sky and dreaming of fantasy and wonder.
Eventually, I drag myself away from the magic glen and follow the river back towards the trails. I swing up left towards Spinc and climb the 600 wooden steps to the observation post high above the valley. Taking in the stunning views, I catch my breath. That will do for training for today! I swing down past Kevin’s Bed; the now inaccessible cave believed to have been used as a retreat by St Kevin and later for St. Laurence O’Toole; and down to the Upper Lake, past the 11th Century Reefert Church, the burial ground for the Clan O’Toole – the local kings or rulers.
Walking back towards the car to dump my damp gear in the boot, I glance at a teenage girl, dragging herself reluctantly from her dad’s jeep with a gloomy sigh. I smile as we pass each other, and I comment that I didn’t feel like going up myself this morning, but it was worth it when I got out there. “Really?” she replied. Not a bored ‘teenage’ reply, more hopeful and pleasant. Encouraged, I laughed and explained how I nearly drove back to Dublin without getting my boots wet, but ended up being thrilled by flowering clover, clever birds and silver spider webs caught in herbs and heather.
She smiled and said OK and headed for the hill. She may have been inspired, or maybe she thought I was ‘off with the fairies’. Although, I suppose, that could be inspiring too. Who can ever know what lies under a mountain of cloud and gloom? Like life itself, it’s often worth pushing on and giving things a chance. I may not have covered many kilometres of incline today, but I had fun and fed my soul. Sometimes it’s good to put the training regime aside and just enjoy the outdoors for its beauty and timeless simplicity. I’ve learned already, you can move mountains, just by ‘walking your way to fitness’.