To the Edge of the Earth
A Love Story
As the tour bus carried my group northwest from Limerick along European Route 20 and N85, I was awestruck by the natural landscape of County Clare in Ireland.
The countryside is layered in a patchwork of low stone walls and emerald meadows. It seemed to be made of the stuff of poetry, and it was no wonder to me that this country had produced such great writers as William Butler Yeats and James Joyce. I remember spotting a distant series of immense rock formations from my window on the tour bus, most likely part of a rocky landscape called the Burren in the north. The rocks, more like mountains, jutted forth at odd angles as if they’d been sculpted by some primordial god who stretched his arm down from the sky and molded the earth. I was on a study abroad program with a group of fellow undergraduate students in the summer of 2004. I was 19 years old and had just spent the better part of a month in London studying English dramas and enjoying the fact that the legal drinking age was 3 years less than that of the United States.
I knew little about our destination aside from its name, “the Cliffs of Moher”, but I was excited nonetheless. I was sure the cliffs would be worth my time because Ireland had offered me nothing but constant beauty since I’d arrived. I had also become emotionally invested in a fellow student named Tessa, and she was going to the cliffs of Moher that day. Tessa was the reason I was in Ireland. She wasn’t acquainted with any of the other students who were going and, being shy, she was afraid of enduring the entire adventure without the company of someone familiar. I had already fallen for her over the course of our spring semester at Lynchburg College. Her roommate had befriended me and wanted to introduce us. I had no experience with girls, so just being in their room was infinitely exciting. Tessa was smart and funny. She had an outlook that was more suited to the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco than to Lynchburg, Virginia. She wore Birkenstock sandals, ripped jeans, and hemp necklaces. She had a passion for experimental rock and spiced rum, and I had never met anyone like her in my life.
I signed up for the England/ Ireland trip immediately, having no misgivings about abandoning my plan to go home and find a summer job. Since our initial flight over the Atlantic, Tessa and I were inseparable. Or rather, I was inseparable from Tessa. She had dated in high school and was no stranger to the attention of young men, but I had never had a girlfriend, nor had I ever been in love. Sometimes I found her confidence intimidating, but I was so ecstatic that she chose to spend her time with me that it didn’t matter. I had never known what it felt like to receive a woman’s affection. It made me feel invincible. I always wanted to be around her. When I wasn’t, I was constantly thinking about her. After the summer, my incessant need for her would develop into an unhealthy infatuation. I’d start to push her farther and farther away. Eventually, despite my pleading, Tessa would tell me that our relationship was over. I would fall into a deep depression and find myself in the student health center staring at the section of a mental health questionnaire that asked me if I wanted “to hurt myself or others”. Of course, I didn’t know all of that while I was sitting next to her on that bus ride to the Cliffs of Moher. That day, everything was perfect. I thought I had found my soul mate. I pointed out the rock formations to her and tightly held her hand.
When I stepped off the bus, I felt as if I’d been dropped off on a different continent. I had just spent several weeks in the bustling metropolis of London and had grown accustomed to being around tall buildings and bustling marketplaces. In 2004, there was nothing to mark the destination but a parking lot and a small information booth. Behind the booth was dirt path that climbed up a hill and seemed to end at the sky. A tour guide led us up the hill and started describing the cliffs and their history. The cliffs took their name from an old fort that once stood at Hag’s Head in the south. They are coastal cliffs, the highest of which is more than 700 feet above sea level. Because of their majestic presence, the Cliffs of Moher had been featured in films and television shows and were sometimes used by the locals for romantic walks or suicides. We reached the crest of the hill and our dirt path split to the right and left in a T. Before us was nothing but air, below us the Atlantic Ocean. We had taken a bus ride to the edge of the earth.
Tessa and I walked along the dirt paths that snaked along the edges of the cliffs, admiring the view of the Aran Islands resting out in the sea. She was wearing a wool sweater the color of vanilla ice cream that was several sizes too big for her and had tied her long blonde hair back because the cool wind whipping off of the Atlantic sent it flying around her face. We held hands and she pretended to push me off the edge, causing me to jump back in a panic. We carved out a place to sit in the tall grass and she mused over what it would be like to jump off.
“If you wanted to end it all, why not do it here?” She said. “At least you’d get to see something pretty before you died.”
The group decided to have lunch underneath a stone tower that had been erected at the highest point on the cliffs because it provided shelter from the wind. Our tour guide informed us that it was called “O’Brian’s Tower”. It was built in the Victorian era by a local landowner named Sir Cornellius O’Brian to impress the women he courted. Visitors could climb to the top of the tower and take in the view if they desired, but I chose to stay with Tessa as she finished eating. After she finished, we heard a scream from nearby and were alarmed to see some boys in their late teens lying on their stomachs with their faces looking over the edge. The scream was quickly followed by laughter and we realized that nobody was in any immediate danger from falling. Curious, we walked over to get a better look.
There was an older man with the boys. One of the tour guides was acting as a spotter as the boys peered over the cliffs. There was no safety equipment, you could walk right up to edge if you wanted. In fact, in 2004, there were only a few parts of the cliffs that were blocked off by guardrails and fences. Most of these were made of flimsy wood or chicken wire and you could easily climb over or walk around them if you wanted to get closer to the edge. The man asked us if we wanted to try. Tessa immediately refused but I convinced her to do it with me anyway. I told her I’d hold on to her, that even if we fell, we’d do it together and at least we’d get to see something pretty before we died. Moments later we were lying on our stomachs clinging to one another. We watched as the waves of the Atlantic crashed into the rocks directly blow us and we laughed hysterically, feeling immortal and in love.