They will see us waving from such great heights,
'Come down now', they'll say,
But everything looks perfect from far away,
'Come down now' but we'll stay ...
The Postal Service, 'Such Great Heights', 2003
While in Ireland I stayed for a couple of weeks in Doolin, a small town in County Clare, along the western coast. As happened on many mornings in the hostel I was having breakfast in the common room and talking to the other guests about what we were going to do that day. A few ideas were tossed around the table and in the end I agreed to go with two others to climb the Cliffs of Moher. The group was Jens, a Dutchman who spoke only Dutch; Silvie, a French woman who spoke only French; and myself who spoke English and a little German. We laughed at our situation when we realized that without a common language we were not going to be doing much talking during the day, so we packed a little lunch and headed off down the road toward the Doolin Beach in silence, each taking in the morning in his or her own language.
The Cliffs of Moher are a popular tourist attraction, with a road that winds out of Doolin leading to a lookout point on the top of the cliffs. There is another way to go though, which the owner of the hostel had recommended to us. From the beach at the end of the road that looks out toward the Aran Islands, start walking up through the cow pastures along the shore. The cliffs rise up slowly over the course of a couple of miles while you pick your way through numerous farmer's pasture land (just remember to close any gates you open and repair any walls you topple so the sheep and cows don't get out). Seeing anything from a vantage point that was off the beaten track was generally better, so we chose that option.
At the beach we turned left and started walking along the sand under a beautiful blue sky. After about a hundred yards a rock ledge emerged, only about 12 inches high. We walked along the miniature cliff and it gradually rose upward, each new level taking us a few feet higher above the Atlantic Ocean spreading off to the horizon on our right. It was easy going and we walked in silence, pointing out the interesting birds and rocks that we saw to each other. It wasn't long before we were confronted with a wall of stacked rock that rose perpendicular to our path, running right up to the edge of the cliff on our right and away up over the hill to our left. We walked along the wall away from the cliff until we came to the gate that the hostel warden had mentioned which let us through. And so we passed through multiple walls along the way. We were careful to close and latch the gates and repair any of the loose stones that fell. We didn't see any other people, but occasionally we would run across cows, chewing grass as they stood around. They didn't seem all that surprised to see us, but they kept their distance and we kept moving.
Since we couldn't actually talk with each other we mostly pointed and nodded at the sights and sounds before us. The only word that seemed to translate directly across all three languages was "Hey" (or "Hej" in Dutch). This was the word we used most often to point out something or get each other's attention. The lack of speaking gave the day a feeling of religious silence. The gradual rising of the land beneath our feet and the increasingly beautiful and distant views around each corner gave the impression of rising above the earth to a place of higher perspective.
About halfway to the top we were crossing one of the pastures that ended at the cliff's edge when we came upon one of the many abandoned cottages which litter the Irish countryside; it's stucco coating washed completely away from the stacked stone walls; it's thatched roof long since fallen to the ground and rotted to nothing, it's privy hole hidden somewhere in the tall grass nearby. The cottage was a wreck, but it had a million dollar view as it stood near the edge of the cliff looking out across the broad Atlantic Ocean. Standing in the roofless front room of that cottage in the warm sun by the cold hearth I tried to imagine the family who had once lived there. Why did they leave? Where did they go? Were they still in Ireland? Had they foregone the view to move closer to town? I knew that more than likely their descendants were alive somewhere in America, Canada or Australia. As the grandchild of Irish immigrants I had heard stories of the old country all my life, and it made me sad to think that those people might have no knowledge of how beautiful a place their ancestral home was. Perhaps they remembered a grandmother or Aunt who used to go on about the surreal beauty her childhood home in Clare, but they may have dismissed it as the weepy reminiscence of the elderly. Standing in the living room of that former home I wondered who those people were and where they were now.
As the morning turned to afternoon we hiked higher still. The higher we climbed the nearer we seemed to walk to the abrupt edge of the cliff, and each step revealed a view more sweeping and breathtaking than the last. Coming over a small rise we found ourselves on the edge of a small bowl that was hollowed out of the earth. It was about 12 feet across and almost perfectly semi-spherical, as if a giant ball had been pulled from the dirt where we stood. One third of the bowl was missing though, and dropped several hundred feet down to the breakers below. Without needing to ask each other we sat down in the hollow and ate the lunches we had brought from the hostel and, laying with our backs against the tall, billowy grasses, soaked in the sunshine while looking out across the infinite ocean before us. One by one we dropped off to sleep and I don't know how long it was before I woke up again and looked to see my cohorts also rubbing the sleep from their eyes and yawning. Held within the warm embrace of both the earth and sky we languished for a long time before rising in the afternoon sun to complete our journey.
Rested and feeling as if we had lunched with the gods, we climbed the last few hundred yards to the highest point of the cliffs. As we reached the top we marveled at the strength of the constant wind that blew in from the Atlantic and straight up the sheer wall of stone. We took turns holding each other by the belt from behind while we stood at the edge of the cliff, 800 feet above the surf crashing on the rocks below, and let our bodies fall slowly forward off the cliff only to have that roaring wall of wind push us firmly back to the land. I shudder that I could have done something so foolish as to lean my 200+ pound frame out over certain death for the wind to hold up, but on that day and in that place it made perfect sense.
By this time the sun was well past the top of the sky, which meant that climbing down the way we came was not a good idea as we had no flashlights and we would not make it back before it was pitch dark. We had tempted fate at the cliff's edge, but I think we all instinctively knew that fumbling about in the dark next to an 800 foot drop was a bad idea. We continued along the edge of the cliff to the paved and fenced viewing area where the Tourists drove up to take holiday snaps. As we came walking along the cliffs toward the parking lot the people looked at us strangely, as if we had just climbed up the face of the cliff itself. They seemed apprehensive about going anywhere near the edge of the cliffs and seemed happy to stay within in the paved area as if held in by a fence. We, meanwhile, had walked the length of Cliffs a few feet from the edge all day and were very comfortable walking inches from the lip.
Having just completed a walk with the Gods these people looked strange to me as well, and part of me wanted to tell them what they were missing by following the paved trails. Standing with their cameras in the designated overlook they were taking the same picture that went home with a thousand tourists that Summer and every other Summer. They were taken near enough to peer in, then whisked away to the next destination. They ticked The Cliffs off the list with the snapshot to prove it and pointed the car toward Bunratty Castle or whatever the next official stop was according to The Fast Track Tour of Ireland. I knew they had missed something incredible, but I couldn't find a way to even begin to tell them.
Myself and my two companions walked away from the viewing area and positioned ourselves partway down the paved drive and soon hitched a ride from a half-full tour van to the cross road a mile or so from Doolin. In the gathering darkness we walked the rest of the way to the hostel in weary silence, arriving as the first stars were coming out over the spot where our journey had begun only that morning. The rest of the hostel guests had already had dinner and had apparently noticed that we were still not back, because as we came into the hostel kitchen looking for food we were asked (in multiple languages) the same question: "Where have you three been?".
We stopped and looked at each other, uncertain of how to communicate what had happened. Out of habit we each held up our hands in front of us, preparing to make hand signals or gestures to communicate the feeling, but then we all froze in that position because none of us knew how to start. Finally, Jens burst out laughing at our predicament and Silvie and I joined him there was no way to describe that day when you had a full language at your disposal, so it was even more fruitless when you had none. The day had happened without words, and so it was all about the things that don't translate well into speech; the feeling of a place, the beauty of nature, the intense loneliness that a giant landscape can inspire, and the deep bond you can feel with people with whom you have shared a transcendent experience.
I'm sure the rest of the people in the room just thought that we were crazy.