From the bus stop at the end of each school day, my older sister, Renee, would run down our gravel driveway yelling “keep up!” over her shoulder as she sped away from me. Inevitably, I would fall down, my metal Raggedy Ann lunchbox skittering across the gravel, my knees red and raw. In my mind, she was running away from me, but in hers, she was blazing the trail ahead of me.
In 2013, I’d finally stopped saying “no, I can’t” when Renee asked me to join her on an adventure. We lost our father the year before, and we decided to give ourselves the birthday gift of attending Crescent Dragonwagon’s Fearless Writing Retreat. Renee asked me early in the Spring and my initial response was “no, I don’t know where I’ll be living in November.” We were waiting for my wife to match to a medical residency. A few minutes later, I back-pedaled: “You know what, it doesn’t matter where I am, I’ll work it out.”
During the retreat, Crescent paired us up to walk arm-in-arm in a clearing and tell stories. One person started a story with Crescent’s prompt and walked until we reached the turn-around point. When we turned, the other person who picked up the thread, playing off the last thing said by their partner. As we made long ovals with our fellow retreat-goers, we told stories about insignificant things like the time in my turbulent 20s when we were going to the lake and I needed a t-shirt. Renee suggested I wear one of Dad’s. Thinking she was insinuating I was fat, I had a meltdown. She explained she had been worried I would be self-conscious about my top-heavy shape once the shirt was wet. By the end of the exercise, we’d aired out a lot of old issues. After lunch, we had some free time and Renee suggested we take another walk. As we made our way around the grounds, we talked about how she had finally come to terms with my coming out and knew I was happy with my wife. I realized how unhappy she had been in her recently ended second marriage. And we talked about how much we missed Dad.
A year or so later, we made plans to do a nine-day walk around Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula in July of 2015. On our first day of walking, we left Tralee and headed to Camp. The first half of our walk wound along empty paved roads lined with bright fuchsia and plenty of green. About four or five miles in, we met a man running his greyhounds on his property. “What are you doin’?” he asked. “Walking the Dingle Way!” we responded in unison. “Ah, you’re feckin’ crazy.” We shook our heads and laughed as we kept going.
We’d purchased huge packs for the trip, and I was carrying my laptop, not wanting to risk it being damaged or lost in the taxi transport from one lodging to the next. I was teaching online, and the laptop was my livelihood and how I was paying for the trip. I loaded it in my military surplus rucksack along with my lunch and variety of other things for our first day of walking. Renee had three liters of water in addition to her lunch and other items in a pack that was lightweight but that had a frame, making it unwieldy.
By lunchtime, we were on unpaved section of the trail and found the first stamping station located on the side of a hill. We sat and ate our lunch, the section the Way we covered earlier below us. We could see the windmill in Tralee that we’d passed and make out the canal and other landmarks. After eating, we started again, still enthusiastic and amazed we’d made it so far.
Then the falling started. A lot of my coping and compensating methods for my poor depth perception don’t work on uneven ground thick with grass, stones, and mud. When I took up jogging years before I discovered minimalist shoes, which helped by providing feedback from my feet. Unfortunately, I had chosen to wear hiking shoes on the first day and hadn’t brought more flexible shoes with me. Not only was I dealing with too much shoe leather, but also with my heavy pack on muddy ground where it was either risk stepping in a wet hole left by rambling sheep or try to hop from one rounded stone to the next.
Walking ahead, Renee stopped on occasion to ask if I wanted a break. I fell behind her in a mud hole and bounced back up, cursing under my breath. Unaware I’d fallen, she asked in her Mimi voice—the one often reserved for her grandsons—if I wanted a break. “No,” I said. “Are you sure? You’re getting frustrated” she replied, again in her Mimi voice. “I was frustrated when I fell down just now. The more breaks we take, the longer we’re out here.” We trudged on in silence, her ahead as I tried to pick my way safely over the uneven terrain.
After the equivalent of a half marathon, we arrived at our first guesthouse. Our hostess, Joanne, greeted us with relief we’d made it, a request to take our shoes off on the deck, an offer to launder our fragrant and muddy clothes, and assurance she had tea and carrot cake waiting for us. “Most people, you know, start here—they skip the bit between Tralee and Camp.”
Once we were cleaned up, we headed out on foot to the pub up the hill. As we ordered, we noticed a couple, Barbara and Fulke. we’d seen earlier in the day seated at a nearby table. They’d passed us as we sat on the bench at the stamping station eating our lunch—before things got wonky. As Renee and I sat enjoying our hard earned beverages, Fulke asked, “Are you carrying all of your luggage?”
We laughed, but the next morning, I sent my laptop and the heavy rucksack with the luggage to the next stop. My sack lunch, rain jacket, and passport fit in my collapsible daypack. I wore my minimalist shoes, with my hikers tied on my much lighter pack. Renee trudged back up the hill with her pack loaded with water. Before we made it to the pub, she drained the camelback bladder, lightening her load.
On tamer ground, I walked ahead, taking the hills easier than Renee could. My photos are of the trail and Renee behind me, all of hers look ahead to where I walked. We took the rest of the Way as easily as we could, carrying only what we needed and spending evenings together, looking at the day’s pictures and talking. On our last day of walking, I stopped to offer to carry her pack, noticing her struggling to keep up, her knee sore and swollen. “I’m going to finish on my own terms, carrying my load.” I nodded and kept going, knowing she was right.