I’m sure I’m not the first person in the world to have noticed how holidays never seem to last long enough. Whilst the weeks leading up to them have a tendency to drag on forever, once they’ve started they seem to be over almost as soon as they begin.
And, almost to prove the point, another one was fast drawing to a close. Another summer fortnight spent doing what we enjoyed most. Climbing mountains.
I don’t know just what it was, but there seemed to be something almost magnetic in the very nature of mountains that attracted us to them. I used to half-jokingly say that we were engaged in a love affair with them. Maybe it was their majesty. Or perhaps their splendid isolation. Certainly we always enjoyed the feeling of escape that we got when we stood on top of one of them; particularly if we could look down from it, with a feeling almost of disdain, at the signs of civilisation far below. The smoke haze of a distant town or city perhaps. Or maybe just the sight of the traffic crawling slowly along a highway, so far below us that it looked like a child’s collection of toy vehicles.
But it was quite possible that we had simply become addicted to the mountains; and that it was no more than a case of needing the satisfaction of rolling their names off our tongues as we boasted to our bemused friends and colleagues that we had actually climbed them. Perhaps that’s what drove us ever onwards and upwards. I think it was Edmund Hillary who, when asked why he had felt the need to climb Mount Everest, had simply replied: “Because it was there”.
We’d decided to spend two weeks in Ireland that summer. I suppose it was Ireland’s turn in a way. Over the previous few years we’d spent almost every weekend that we could getting to know Snowdonia and other Welsh mountain ranges. We’d climbed in the Cairngorms, Ben Nevis, Glencoe, and numerous other areas of Scotland. Many a long holiday had been spent exploring the Pennines, the English Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales. In other words, we’d seen much of the mountainous regions of three of the countries that make up the British Isles. It was time to find out what the fourth had to offer.
We had briefly considered mainland Europe. The Alps looked interesting; as, indeed, did the Pyrenees. And an account that we’d read in one of the many mountaineering magazines we were subscribed to had made the Apennines in Northern Italy seem attractive. But I’d only had my driving licence for a few years and didn’t yet feel ready to try driving on the wrong side of the road like the Continentals do.
Truth be told, I suppose the fact that we both had a drop of Irish blood probably helped draw us there as well. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the fact that at least a form of English was spoken in Ireland was also a major factor in our decision. After all, just about the only other country in the rest of Europe where you could expect a fair proportion of the people to speak English seemed to be Holland. And there just didn’t seem to be all that many mountains worth climbing there, no matter what other attractions it might have been able to offer.
The trip over passed off without any real incident. It wasn’t actually the first time that I’d used a car ferry. The previous Easter we’d spent a week on the Isle of Skye off Scotland’s west coast. That at the time had also necessitated a ferry crossing, although I hear they’ve built a bridge across to it since. Apart from the inordinately long queue we were forced to endure in an attempt to buy duty free on the ferry itself, just about the only other abiding memory of the trip over to Ireland is the two of us sitting in a pub in Holyhead drinking a pint of Youngers Scotch beer each whilst waiting for the ferry to arrive. We had commented on the fact that there we were, two Englishmen, in Wales, drinking Scotch beer, whilst waiting for a ferry to take us to Ireland.
But, as I say, holidays always seem to end too soon. We’d spent the first day acting like proper tourists and wandered round Dublin taking in the sights. But as quickly as we could we’d headed off and climbed Lugnaquilla, the Galtees and the neighbouring Knockmealdowns. We spent more than a few days in Kerry exploring Brandon Mountain and the McGillycuddies, with the ascent of Carrantouhill being something of a milestone for us, as we could now boast that we had climbed the highest mountain in every one of the four countries in the British Isles. We’d bathed nude in the Atlantic off Banna Strand. I’d even taken time out to visit my cousins in Roscommon. And the last couple of days we’d backpacked through the majestic isolation of the Twelve Bens in Connemara.
The weather had been surprisingly settled, and we’d enjoyed every minute of our holiday. Indeed I almost wished it could never end. But tomorrow we would have to face the drive back across the breadth of Ireland to Dublin and the ferry home. I had to admit that I wasn’t really looking forward to being back at work again. But that could be forgotten about for one more day at least.
We didn’t really feel like climbing any major mountains on this final day. So, when the inevitable question of how we actually would spend the day came up, I tossed the map across to Sam and suggested that he choose a mountain for us to climb. That was unusual for me in a way. I was the one who usually made the decisions. I suppose that today I was just feeling lazy.
He spent a long time studying the map and cross-referencing details in the guidebook. That was so typical of him. He always had to do things so painstakingly. People used to call him anally retentive because of his constant attention to detail. That became sort of a private joke just between the two of us, partly due to the fact that many of our acquaintances considered the relationship between Sam and myself a bit too close for (their) comfort at times - not that we ever consciously did anything (in public at least) that might have given them such an idea. So, whenever anyone might call him anally retentive (which did tend to be quite often, I have to admit), he’d usually just grin, nod his head in my direction, and say something along the lines of: "And who could blame me? With him around!"
Eventually he looked up, pointed on the map to an insignificant peak close to the coast, and suggested we make that our final ascent of the holiday. Checking it out I almost disagreed with him. It was scarcely fifteen hundred feet high to begin with. But looking more closely at the map I decided to go along with the idea. The mountain looked interesting at least. Also the fact that it was close to the coast meant that we’d be starting the climb from sea level, so it would actually involve more climbing than might be supposed. And a last view of the Atlantic would possibly be as good a way as any to round off our holiday.
So we took down the tent, packed our stuff into the Sam’s old battered Volksvagen Beetle, and headed off. The day turned overcast and drizzly on the drive down. A foretaste, perhaps, of the wicked day’s rain we were to experience on the drive back to Dublin the next day. We eventually found somewhere to park the car and started our climb.
About a third of the way up, as I was carefully picking my way through the jumble of boulders under my feet, I suddenly became aware of the abundance of life all around me. Not only were moss and grass growing in the shelter between the boulders, but the very rocks over which I was scrambling were covered with living lichen. Indeed it seemed that there were very few portions of the earth’s surface beneath my feet that didn’t support some form of life.
Suddenly I was filled with a sense of awe and wonder. Because, as well as the drizzle, there was a stiff breeze blowing across the mountainside. ‘What,’ I wondered, ‘makes life want to exist in such hostile conditions? What makes it do it? Why does it bother?’
I stood there with a sudden new outlook on life. Those lichens on the surface of the boulders beneath my feet were alive; and yet they were living in what seemed an almost impossible situation - clinging to the bare rock; exposed to the full force of the wind; the full force of the rain; the full force of the sun. Why did they carry on? Why didn’t they just give up?
For a fleeting moment I almost believed in a Creator. ‘God makes them do it,’ a voice inside me proclaimed. And suddenly I felt uplifted. I almost thought I could hear a choir of angels singing.
But just as quickly the old doubts returned. I realised that I was only feeling uplifted because of a need to believe in something. To have a belief was a comfort in a way. But I sensed that to believe just to feel comfortable was the wrong way of approaching things.
No, I told myself, all that I could say for certain was that there must be some force inside the lichens that was causing them to continue their struggle for existence. This could well be similar to the instinct for self-preservation that exists inside a human being. Indeed, a similar force possibly exists inside all living things. That much I could accept. But, and this seemed the important point to me at the time, the force existed inside the lichens. I had no evidence that it acted from outside.
But, perhaps, I went on to consider, there is a single force - a life force - that acts inside all living things. Mind you, that couldn’t be called God. Not in the Judaeo-Christian sense of the word at least.
My thoughts moved on to Eastern philosophy. ‘A single life force that exists inside all living things.’ Could this be the samadhi that Buddhists aspire to? The Enlightenment? The Supreme Level of Consciousness? The At-one-ment? The Integration? The Union?
I suspected that it possibly could. And I was uplifted again.
In the few seconds that I had stood gazing at the lichens on the rocks Sam had caught up with me.
“You’re not wanting a rest already, are you?” he asked, with a hint of amusement in his voice, if only because he was usually the one who would be demanding a rest.
I lifted my head to look at him. He was perspiring slightly from the effort of the climb, and his blond hair glistened from the droplets of water that the fine drizzle had left in it.
“No,” I started. “It’s just that…”
I stopped, not sure how to phrase things.
“Just that what?”
I paused a moment longer, wondering whether to even bother trying to explain. I didn’t really think that he would understand what I wanted to say. I’m not really suggesting that I considered him slow. It was just that he tended to take a very practical view of life. I suspected that me trying to get philosophical with him might have been a bit of a waste of time. I half expected that he wouldn’t really grasp what I was trying to get across. And it would be difficult to actually put it all into mere words anyway.
“Come on,” he continued. “Something’s bothering you. Spit it out.”
“I was just thinking about all these lichens…” I almost reluctantly began.
And I went on to expound about hostile environments, life forces, the unity of all living things, new insights into the meaning of life, and other related matters. And all the time I felt sure that he either wouldn’t understand just what I was driving at, or more than likely simply laugh at me and call me a hopeless romantic. But he just stood there saying nothing, and let me babble away for a minute or so. Eventually I ran out of words and stopped and looked at him, feeling almost embarrassed.
Maybe it was the fact that the passion was still burning so brightly in my mind. Or perhaps I had just misjudged his capacity to grasp metaphysical concepts. But he didn’t laugh. Instead, he took off his spectacles, wiped the mist off the lenses with his handkerchief, replaced them on his nose, looked closely at the lichens that were the reason for my present state of excitement, and simply said “Deep.”
I was still wondering if he’d really grasped what I was going on about, when he took me by surprise.
“Of course, you can’t have full unity,” he commented. “Not unless you can feel at one with the actual rocks that the lichens are growing on.”
“Well I was really just thinking of unity amongst living things,” I countered, surprised all the same that he actually seemed to be understanding what I had been driving at. “The rocks aren’t actually alive.”
“Okay. So what about that sheep we came across yesterday?”
I thought back to the dead ewe we had seen. It had smelled so badly that we had found it necessary to stand upwind of it. Indeed the stink had actually informed us of its presence well before we got to it. Mind you, although it was definitely dead, it had almost looked at first sight as though it was still alive; for it seemed to be moving. A closer inspection had shown the movement to have been caused by what appeared to be literally millions of maggots feeding on the rotting flesh.
“No,” I replied. “I don’t think I could feel any unity with that thing. But it was dead anyway.”
“True. But the maggots were far from dead.”
“Okay...” I said slowly, resisting the temptation to use the term anally retentive. “If I have to feel a unity with a bunch of maggots, you’ll have to feel unity with the midges that made your life hell the other night when we were trying to put up the tent.”
“Fuck off!” he retorted. “It’s you who’s having the spiritual awakening, not me. Anyway there’s union and there’s union. The only good midge is a dead one.”
I knew my mention of midges would get a response from him. They’d been the only real annoyance during the whole holiday. I have to admit that I didn’t really like them any more than he did. But in my case they were only really a nuisance whilst they were actually biting me - and maybe for a few hours afterwards until the swellings went down. Sam, unfortunately, would develop little red spots marking every single bite. Spots that would be so itchy that he’d be scratching for days afterwards.
“I’m sure they serve a purpose in the overall scheme of things,” I countered.
“Yea? Well I’ll tell you what. You go away and find me that purpose, and maybe then I’ll agree to feel a unity with them. Until then I’ll just keep right on hating the little bastards. Indeed I’d probably still hate them if you could convince me they serve a purpose.”
I decided not to suggest that the sensual pleasure that I got rubbing the anti-histamine cream on those parts of his body that he wasn’t able to reach for himself, to help stop the itching, might be reason enough for me to consider that they could indeed be considered to serve some useful purpose.
Our interlude over we started on our way again and reached the summit some forty minutes or so later. Unfortunately the mist and drizzle prevented us from getting a clear view of the surrounding mountains and islands.
Descending by a different route we stopped near the base of the mountain beside a small lake, not much more than twenty yards or so across, to brew tea and eat our sandwiches. I was pleasantly surprised to notice large numbers of sundew growing beside the lake. I’d never seen these insect-eating plants in real life before, only in pictures. I made some comment about them being more in union with their source of food than the average human being is nowadays. Sam got down on his hands and knees to inspect them more closely. My suspicion was that he was hoping to find out that they had actually trapped any midges on their sticky leaves.
As there was no one about, and, more importantly, as the midges didn’t seem to be about this early in the evening, we decided to strip naked and go for a swim in the lake to try and clean some of the inevitable dirt and sweat that had accumulated over the past few days. We did briefly consider driving down to the beach and having a final swim in the Atlantic, but decided that we didn’t want the taste of salt on our skin for the our final night together in the tent.
And so, as we finally reached the car, our holiday effectively came to an end. All that remained now was to find somewhere to camp for the night, and then drive back to Dublin the next day and catch the ferry home.
What I didn’t realise at the time was that this was going to be the last long holiday that Sam and myself would spend together. He was destined to finish university the following year, and move away to work. In the meantime we’d have a few weekends away exploring Snowdonia and the English Lake District, and we’d spend the odd Saturday or Sunday rock-climbing in a disused quarry a dozen or so miles from home. But, in the way that so many of them do, the friendship was coming to an end. Not a falling out or anything. Just a gradual drifting apart.
I’d find another companion to share my love of the mountains for a few more years. But, less than ten years after this first visit, I’d actually sell my house and move over to Ireland. And that move would more or less spell the end of my mountain climbing days. For I’d have bought myself a smallholding, and would find that the daily tie of having to look after livestock would mean that I wouldn’t have the same freedom to just throw the tent in the back of the car and head off into the mountains, like I used to be able to do when I considered myself to be trapped in a teaching job in a Manchester.
But every now and then I like to climb the small mountain near my holding and look southwards and westwards across the Roscommon plain towards the mountains of Nephin Beg and Croagh Patrick in County Mayo. When I do, I attempt to convince myself that I can see the mountains of Connemara beyond them. And on those occasions I find myself reminiscing on that blissful summer holiday now so many long years in the past. And I always find myself wondering just what Sam is doing with himself these days. It’s more than twenty years since I last saw him, and I don’t even know where he lives any more. The last letter I sent to him was returned with ‘Gone away - No forwarding address’ scribbled on it in pencil. I called round to that address when I was back in England on holiday a number of years ago. But the present occupier hadn’t even heard of him, let alone know where he might currently be living. I always send his mother a Christmas card, and ask her to pass my regards onto him and to tell him to get in touch. But he never does. I don’t even know if she passes the message on. Whenever I am back in Manchester I check the phone book and see that she is still listed at the same number. But I never get an answer when I try ringing. And if I call round to the house there just never seems to be anyone at home.