Seagulls and black birds dove over the Irish Sea, so close I could hear the wind whistling between their feathers as they passed. The day was balmy, Howth’s cliffs sloping and covered in tangles of blooming gorse — silver-green spiky branches with bright yellow blooms that smelled of warm vanilla and coconut.
The walk along the cliffs was a welcome change after my battering visit to the Cliffs of Moher on Ireland’s West Coast the day before. There, the wind is so strong that it captures the crashing waves and douses visitors with its salty spray seven hundred feet above. Signs advise onlookers not to wander too close to the edge and offer remembrance of those who didn’t heed their warning.
In contrast, the sea cliffs of Howth, just a 30-minute DART ride north of Dublin, are gentle and kind. The dichotomy of these two coasts, west and east, is a fitting metaphor for Ireland itself. Brooding, troubled, and tempestuous on the one side. Lilting, inviting, and playful on the other.
My senses sharpened as I walked the trail that skirted Howth’s sea cliff’s edge. Nature has a way of bringing human beings out of their heads and back into the world. With her subtle smells and bright flashes of color and shifting shadows and bursts of warm light, she draws us out of the future and the past and fully into the present.
My feet slowed. My body grew sluggish, as if I were being inhabited by the goodness of it all. I found a warm rock to perch on near the edge. The trail continued on, but I couldn’t move forward or backward any more. I could only sit and behold with wonder.
On the point in the distance stood a lighthouse. Beyond it, ships moved in and out of Dublin’s bay under leaking clouds. I wondered if the clouds would move my way, and if I should head back to town for dinner. I wasn’t ready to go yet though. So instead, I continued to sit in the sun and reflect on my trip.
I’d come to Ireland alone, leaving behind a husband, three kids, and an assortment of pets, neighbors, relatives, and clients. A full and rich life. I didn’t fully understand why I was in Ireland and why I needed to come alone. But I had learned to trust that kind of knowing-without-knowing and to follow its instructions. So I came.
As the days passed and I spent more time by myself, the silence peeled back layers I hadn’t realized I was carrying. I’d shed my hat, my gloves, my scarf and the heavy coat I’d worn to withstand the Cliffs of Moher the day before. I was now hiking in only a long-sleeved shirt and a pack. Similarly, my daily life had fallen away and with it all worries about the future, about the value of my work, my roles as mother, wife, friend, daughter.
All that was left was me.
Nature isn’t the only way that life has of bringing us into presence. Looking out on the Irish Sea, I recognized that travel itself, especially solo travel and especially for women, is a spiritual practice. Like meditation or prayer.
Traveling alone requires research, planning, clear thinking, good judgment. But also trust.
I had to start with trusting the worthiness of my own desire to travel alone. Then I had to trust that my family really would be okay without me for a while. I trusted that I was capable of making good decisions, of being alone for long periods of time, of meeting new people along the way. I trusted that within me I would find everything I needed to meet the adventure.
Solo travel also brought me back into familiarity with my own voice and desires. I had a million decisions to make each day without anyone else to steer my choices. Navigating my way through Kilkenny, following my desires to determine the day’s itinerary, choosing restaurants and meals, deciding between the Titanic Museum and a Belfast black taxi tour — all required tuning inward. Whatever I decided, I had only myself to blame or congratulate for the outcome.
Most of all, traveling by myself dissolved the imaginary curtain between me and the rest of the world. At home, I was part of a community, a family. In Dublin I was just another visitor in search of the Ha’penny Bridge or Oscar Wilde statue in Merrion Square.
So I befriended everyone. Students in their twenties, also traveling alone. My single-mom hostess and her clever kindergartener, their family, and their nanny. A retired couple traveling with their granddaughter.
Traveling alone I was reminded that we are all coming from different places but that we are still part of the same journey in the same universe. As Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson said, “We are all travelers in the wilderness of this world.” Or as the Buddah said, “He who experiences the unity of life sees his own Self in all beings.”
Back in Howth, the clouds moved in. The wind off the Irish Sea took on a nip, and my stomach started to rumble. My moment of deep, spiritual realization was dissolving.
So I donned my coat and walked back to Howth’s waterfront and into Crabby Joe’s. Before the hostess could ask me the inevitable question, “Alone?” I held up a finger and said, “One, please.” Then I sat by myself and washed down a dozen raw oysters with a Handsome Jack IPA in peace.
Christa Hogan is a creative fiction and non-fiction writer and veteran freelancer. She also teaches mindfulness meditation. You can find her on Twitter @christachogan and on the newly launched Creative Mercies community Facebook page, where she teaches creatives how to build more productive, sustainable, and resilient creative lives.