Outside the Coloring Book
A funny thing happened when we tried to get a cup of coffee this morning on our way back from San Francisco. We had tossed and turned from midnight on, in our Motel 6 in Rohnert Park, and I had been up and editing the piece I wrote on the plane ride. Our original plan to stay at the same Holiday Inn, at which we had left our Sunbird during our stay in Ireland, went out the window as we found that there were no rooms available.
On a Wednesday night we just hadn’t thought that there was an issue. We were wrong, and the point was reinforced as we stopped at five more overnight establishments, as we left San Francisco, and headed up the 101. We stopped at a Travel Lodge, a Best Western (gulp), an EconoLodge, another Holiday Inn and a Sandman before we finally found a room at a Motel 6 in Rohnert Park.
We had ben willing to spring for more than two hundred bones, for the convenience of staying in San Francisco at the original Holiday Inn, but were happy to settle for sixty something bucks at an old friend’s place.
Around three AM, we decided to give up the idea of sleeping, and make our way back up to Mendocino County. We were three hours ahead of the motel’s six o’clock coffee call, and we weren’t interested in sticking around for it. We were pretty excited, in a twisted sort of way, to see that the the Burger King right next door to us, was lit up brilliantly.
We saw more than one car in the parking lot, and figured this was a good sign. We pulled up, with the intention of buying a Chronicle, and scoring some coffee. Walking up to the door, I gave it a tug, and found that it was locked. Not only that, but this gal emerged from the nether regions, looking both quizzical and somewhat annoyed at us, through the glass door.
Oh, I get it-we needed to go through the drive-thru. Piling back into our little Sunbird, we proceeded to navigate the parking lot around through the drive-by lane.
“Good morning, may I help you?”
“Sure, we’d like two cups of coffee to go, with plenty of cream, please.”
“Coffee? Well. I don’t have any made. Would you like to wait, while I make some?”
Gosh, that sounded so inviting, to be able to hang out in an empty Burger King parking lot, while the nice girl made some coffee. After all, three-thirty in the morning is an unusual time to ask for coffee.
I thought about that girl inside the open restaurant. She was inside a locked facility, and being paid to maintain the home fires. What was not to like about that gig? Maybe just actually having to serve customers anything. She had appeared so surprised to see us at the door, and then again, surprised to hear that we might actually want some coffee. Rohnert Park: ready for action, ready for danger.
We decided there might be another facility in the region, which would offer coffee at this time. Sure enough, Santa Rosa had the facts right at its finger tips, in the form of a Denny’s that Annie spotted off of the freeway, and we jumped at the opportunity. This place had people sitting around at the tables, so we thought, just maybe...
At least we got a cup of hot coffee, and a big pitcher of cream. It seems so hard to get them to bring those little cream containers, and here we had a whole pitcher, right on our table. We quaffed those cups, and waited for the nice waiter to return with the coffee. He did, in a timely way, and filled up the other cups in the restaurant, but he skipped us, so waited patiently for him to return. Eventually Anne took her cup and walked over to the counter, where he spotted her and brought more to us.
Moments later he brought our breakfast to us, putting that plate with the bacon right in front of me, while I looked up in surprise. He said, “I know you didn’t order bacon, but I brought it anyway.” Since Annie hadn’t ordered bacon either, I handed it over to her. I never did figure out where he was coming from.
However, he must have realized that things were a little out of sorts, because he suddenly added that since we weren’t regulars, he was going to give us one of the meals for free. Finally, some sanity in a crazy, early morning sea of confusion. It helped make up for a rocky path, one that began when we found out that we did not have a place to stay.
I thought back to the original plan that we had in place, the one which called for us to stay over night with Eric and Cecilia, before returning north to Mendocino County. The problem had been two-fold: first, we had never been to their house, and were not relishing the thought of exploring on a Wednesday night. Second, we were fried. For me to be out of it, is par for the course, but for Ann, it was not the norm.
We decided not to go adventuring in East Bay, and made the decision to spring for the extra money for the convenience of staying in San Francisco. When the Holiday Inn proved full, we could have returned to the original plan, but still did not realize how challenging it was going to be to get a simple room on a week night. Eric would have known that we needed a reservation, but it seems so preposterous that the Bay Area is so busy, that you can’t find a single room at any price. It’s one reason why some folks never feel comfortable traveling; the rules are so arbitrary and follow no pattern.
We followed no pattern, the last day in Ireland. as we walked around the village. During our two-week stay, we had not always walked together. Annie went off to the battery by herself one day, and I spent an afternoon with Nell, the dog, because it was a little more blustery outside than Annie cared for. This last day we wanted to walk out to the cemetery. The weather did cause a lot of palaver the whole time we were in Ireland, with the locals referring to this summer, as the summer that never took place.
The only thermometer we had was the one installed on Megane, so that was great when we were driving, but otherwise, we stuck our heads out the back slider and assessed the prospects of a walk. I was prepared for cool, wet skies, and that is exactly what we got. All along I maintained that it had to be in the mid-fifties to around sixty, and dressed accordingly and all was grand.
When we arrived back up on Bell Springs Road, that first early morning, we encountered a certain amount of moisture in the air, with a little fog flowing through the dip in the ridge where it always does. After an enthusiastic welcome home from Doser and Clancy, I immediately got a leash for the Doze, and with the Clanster, headed up to the top of the driveway. I had a t-shirt on with an unbuttoned, long-sleeved shirt over it, and I was not cold. I told Annie it was 55 degrees (Fahrenheit) out, but when I checked, it was 45 degrees instead.
Did this mean that my internal thermometer was off the whole time I was over in Ireland? I do remember that on the way to Shannon, that last morning, the car thermometer bottomed out at six degrees, Celsius. That’s 43 degrees Fahrenheit. I was of the opinion that we never saw temperatures lower than fifty, but it now appears I was wrong. With the incessant wind, that meant that there would have been a wind chill factor, and not the breeze factor that I was promoting.
Two points stand out: I was determined to put a positive spin on all things Irish, and I was determined to go on foot where I wanted, when I wanted, with no regard for external circumstances. I walked in shorts the last day, ostensibly because my legs would dry quicker if we got rained on, than they would if my pants legs got soaked. Even at that, it only took twenty minutes to dry them the day I was walking with Nell the dog.
On this last day in Ireland, of course, we did get rained on occasionally, but nothing that caused discomfort. We headed out a little before nine, bound for the local lighthouse that had shut down three months earlier, after a run of three hundred and thirty years. We went out the same road that had taken us past the well-maintained college, that was not in session at this time, and walked until we hit an intersection, of two single lane roads.
Fortunately, there was a farmer within hollering distance, who had just parked his sizable tractor alongside a covered shed which contained subsistence for the eight or ten cows gathered around. Perched on the high seat next to him, was a little tyke with a peaked skull cap, and bulky outfit, who seemed to appreciate us as much as the tractor and cows. Who needs TV?
“Tap o’ the morning, to you. Could you tell us which way it is to the lighthouse?”
“Sure, and you’re right there,” gesturing towards one of the two possible lanes. Then he stopped. “Yer not talkin’ abou’ (something in Gaelic)? Are yer walkin’?”
“Yes, we’re on foot. Not Loophead, that’s too far.”
“Ay, ay. straigh’ t’ere.” Big smiles all around.
“Thank-you, very much. It’s a grand day for a walk.” Big smiles all around.
Though only twenty minutes from the site, we saw plenty along the way to substantiate the fact that the lighthouse had been around for more than three centuries. Again, the lane was lined with stomach-high walls on both sides, varying from the original stonework free of all growth, to walls which were simply mounds of earth, steadily growing outward and upward each year.
We spotted an ancient farmstead a mere stone’s toss off the lane, obviously long abandoned, but not gated in. We approached one of the outbuildings cautiously, noting there were no vehicles, and no evidence of recent traffic. The shed-like structure we were examining had a doorway that not even Ann could go through without bending her head. It was made of stone, and though the roof had patches of blue sky visible through it, the walls were thick and stout, and it was still quite serviceable.
When we moved to the house, it reminded us of Folk Park, the village that encompassed Bunratty Castle. One of the structures, a simple peasant’s home, had been removed from the runway of the then-under-construction Shannon Airport, and had been reassembled in this simulated village. The home we were now examining looked much the same. One wall was dominated by a fireplace, while the rest took on the rustic look of rough-textured walls, and decrepit table and furnishings.
We did not enter the place, but walked around, checking out the other two outbuildings, one containing a cistern made of cement, that looked as though it had been there as long as the soon-to-be-reached lighthouse. We pushed on, and arrived a few minutes later, having watched the light tower grow taller as we approached. Painted brilliant creamy white, with fire-engine red trim, it is aesthetically stunning in its simplicity. I took pictures with my point-and-click strategy, including snaps of the sweeping wall, which died at the edge of the sea.
I would label it as just another exquisite example of the timelessness of Ireland, but it seems to be a frequent refrain. On every single walking excursion, none more than an hour in any direction, we have encountered physical evidence of the people who came before-long before. The ancient sites, whether castles, batteries, towers, peasant homes, lighthouses, Holy Wells, cisterns, walls, lanes, sheds, jetties, churches, the Dolman, or the ruins of any of these, draw the visitor inexorably closer. The closer I get, the clearer I understand Ireland’s history.
How close? Along the main street of the village, innocuously placed on the wall adjacent to Max Bites, the take-away shop, is a plaque no more than eighteen inches by eighteen inches. The message reads: “On this spot Lieutenant Thomas Russel was murdered by English Forces on March 27th, 1918.” I had been walking along with nothing heavier on my mind than keeping track of my survey of homes in the village, when I encountered this plaque. All I could do was stare. I was absolutely incapable of taking a picture, both because of the sanctity of the site, but because I was afraid of incurring the disdain of the locals. Pictures seemed so disrespectful.
Like the castle, with its message of deceit and treachery, so this plaque provided daily reminders of the injustices thrust down the collective craw of the Irish by her domineering neighbor. It’s not my place to judge or denigrate, because I can only see the picture from outside the coloring book. Someone who has studied that plaque from the time he was old enough to tag along with an older sibling to go into the village, has a better perspective on the judgment process than I.
All I could do was continue to pursue my quest to find out all I could about the walls. A little later, as we stopped by the Post Office, to say good-bye to Patrick, we found him out front, in almost the same spot he had been, the first day we had stopped by and I had addressed him by name. He welcomed our approach, as he had already spoken with Eric earlier in the day, and knew that we were coming.
“The tap of the morning to you, Patrick,” I began.
“And the same to you. So you’re off in the morning, huh?”
“Sadly enough, it’s true. We are out taking a last walk around. We were up at the cemetery, and now we’re off to the pub.”
“Oh, you were up to the local one, then?” he asked.
“Yes, we saw the same names coming up: Carmody, Keating, O’Connell, the names we see around the village.”
Annie asked, “So, Patrick, do you know which family has been in this area the longest? Do people keep track of that sort of thing? There were many grave sites which had been worn away with time, so we really couldn’t determine that by looking in the cemetery.” Patrick did not completely understand the question, but his response was nonetheless illuminating.
“Old? I see. Now there’s Mary Keating, who lives right up the end of the street on the left. She’s ninety-two and still going strong. Oh, what am I saying? There’s Bridget Keating, herself 98, and she’ll still be stopping in to get her pension check, occasionally. And I’m forgetting Mrs Bodine, a hundred and two she is.”
“A hundred and two? And she’s still up and about?” I asked.
“Sure, and she is. She celebrated her one hundredth in Carmody’s and I was there. She still makes bread, and she’s always working. She lives down on the sea, and it’s all the fresh air, and all of the work. She just keeps herself active. Says that’s the secret to her age.”
“Keating,” Ann said. That’s one of the names that kept coming up in the cemetery.”
“Ay, it would that. So what did you think of Ireland? Do you like it?”
“We did,” said Annie. “There’s so much to see, and we really liked Dingle, and The Burren.”
“Oh, so you got a chance to see the Dolmen?” The Dolmen was a tomb, one of many found in Ireland represented by two slabs of stone sitting on their edges, with a stone slab crossmember. The structure appears out of place on the limestone ground surface upon which it rests.
“We liked it a lot, we liked the Cliffs of Moher, except that we got rained on.”
“This summer,” he said dejectedly. “We never had one. Rained every day. You must be disappointed.”
“No way,” I said. “We’ve been able to go anywhere we wanted, the whole time we’ve been here. It’s cool, but not cold. We’ve walked around every day, without letting the weather get in the way. Where we come from, it’s very hot, so this has been nice, at least from my point of view.”
“So, what did you like most, now that you’ve had a chance to see a little of the local flavor, and a little of the sights?”
I think the answer was easy for both of us. Annie went first. “The history,” she said simply. “The fact that everywhere I go, I see the history of Ireland staring me in the face. It’s like my father used to tell us about, sitting around the dinner table at home. The castles, the walls, the way the land is divided up into squares. You see the history of Ireland everywhere you look.”
I continued, “The sense of timelessness for me. Every step we take here in the vicinity of the village, we see evidence that Ireland is aware of those who came before. The castle, the Holy Well, the battery, the lighthouse, the cemetery, the walls. If I could ask you to talk about one thing, it would be the walls. What would you tell me about the walls?”
It was one of the three things I had wanted to ask Sean, our neighbor, when I had gone over and rung the front door, the day those guys were gone to the Burren Ring. I had thought to jot my questions down on a slip of paper, and then maybe a little later we could chat. Unfortunately, though the car was there, Sean and his wife were not. Now, as I paused after asking the question, it occurred to me that I had not given Patrick the same opportunity.
“They’re beautiful,” he exclaimed, but I thought he was running the question around in his brain, while he gave the proper response some consideration.
“Sure, and they’re grand,” I agreed. “They’re everywhere, and no two are alike. That’s what I meant about timelessness. Some are nothing but dirt banks, and some are highly maintained, and tended to meticulously. And they are beautiful,” I added.
“Yes, they are as distinctive as the clans who built them.”
“They were built to pen the cattle in?” I asked.
“Or to wall them out,” Patrick suggested. “And the walls did more than divide the pastures; they divided families. They divided clans; it was a way of shaping the landscape.”
Annie was nodding in agreement. “That’s what my father told us about.”
“And they fought about where to put the walls,” he stated simply.
“Many’s the squabble they had over where to put the wall.”
“Well, they would, that,” I added. “It’s the difference between adding to my land or my neighbor’s, if we shift the wall one way or the other. The original dispute could get a lot worse over the placement of the dividing wall.”
“So were the Irish priests who taught us, telling it accurately, when they told us about the farmers having to clear the land of the rocks before they could farm them?”
“Well, yes and no. They had to clear the land of rocks if they were growing potatoes, because they grow in beds, and the soil has to be sandy and loose. But the kind of rocks that came out of the ground were not the same as are used for most of the walls. Those are quarried. Some of those rocks that came out of the ground could be used for different kinds of walls that were not boundary walls, but otherwise, most walls are not made from the rocks removed from the soil.”
A car pulled up in front of the post Office, and Patrick took a step back and nodded, saying, “Well, I’d better be getting back to the shop. Come in when you’re done there,” nodding at my unfinished post cards.
“Oh yeah, we want to take advantage of your postal services to mail these post cards.”
“Sure, and they’ll be in San Francisco tonight, they will. Now what your postal service does with them after that, I have no control over.” He chuckled and turned towards the post office to take care of his customer.
I went back to filling out post cards.
A few minutes later, as we entered the mail house, I looked through the glass of Patrick’s office to the postcards on the opposite wall. He had them displayed on two walls, and he asked me if I was going to send him one.
“Of course. I’ll have to find something unique to California, not that Laytonville is not unique. I’m just not sure that those Egyptian tourists I saw would recognize “Laytonville” as immediately as they might a redwood tree, or an SF Giants hat.” Then Patrick reached up and pulled down what he referred to as a very special rock. The rock was heart-shaped, and had been sent to him from Aruba, in the Caribbean.
“Do you see what one of my friends sent me?” I made a mental note to send Patrick back a little chunk of Bell Springs Road.
“I do, and you’ll soon have something from California.”
We left and drifted down to Carmody’s for one last shot of Black Bush, where we agreed to exchange communiques. Internet use is almost nonexistent, so I promised to print out a copy of one of my pieces, and send it along. It was nice to be asked.
Now that I am back, I have found there are no regrets. I did the things that were most important, except walk part of the Burren Ring, and there will be next time to do that. I wanted to write and did so. I wanted to take pictures of walls, and I did that. I wanted to get the local story by traipsing around the neighborhood, and I did that.
I enjoyed the plane rides immensely, and the experiences at the airport. I am, by no means, a seasoned traveler, but I am not an observer of others any longer. I recorded the impressions that affected me the most, and now I begin reflecting. The image in the window has a green tint to it, and I look forward to the time when I look out my back window and see those goofy rabbits, cavorting on the lush, green turf. I will know that I am back in the land where time moves steadily forward, while seeming to remain in place.