"To escape is the greatest of pleasures. Still, as we approach our own doorstep again, it is comforting to feel the old possessions, the old prejudices, fold us round; and the self, which has been blown about at so many street corners, which has battered like a moth at the flame of so many inaccessible lanterns, sheltered and enclosed. Here again is the usual door; here the chair turned as we left it, and the china bowl and the brown ring on the carpet." — Virginia Woolf, The Death of the Moth and Other Essays
Seventy years ago, the art intelligentsia of Scotland got together and founded the Edinburgh International Festival. They'd invite top artists from around the world, they decided, and people would pay lots of money to come see those top artists, and the Festival Director and his colleagues would profit nicely. It was a great plan. And it worked, quite nicely. The top artists came, and the wealthy spectators came, and the aristocracy of the arts reeled with all expected pomp.
But others: they weren't invited. Theater companies, good theater companies, unknown theater companies. They wanted to participate in the arts too! And so eight of them packed up their costumes and their props and their scripts and headed to Edinburgh, were they took advantage of the large crowds to showcase a bit of their own work. And, even though the Festival Director didn't tell them it was any good, the people liked it. They enjoyed the fresh new theater and they strolled about the festival's rim where the uninvited actors set their stages, making up their own minds as to what was and what wasn't worth seeing. And there it was born, in the now-famous words of Scottish journalist Robert Kemp, "'round the fringe of official festival drama": the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
It as since been replicated—oh, has it been replicated—in Hollywood and Washington and New York and Philadelphia, in Cincinnati and New Orleans and some non-American cities, too, but no one does it quite like Edinburgh: indeed, it's the largest arts festival in the entire world, three thousand unique shows in twenty-five days. And I was there for two of them.
I stepped off the bus and headed straight to the Royal Mile, the (now-paradoxical) epicenter of the Fringe. All along it, buskers juggled and tourists strolled, and hundreds of performers passed out bills advertising their art—"Great comedy, 9PM tonight, just down the road!" ... "Hey, can I interest you in a musical?" ... "Excuse me sir; do you like to laugh?" —and others actually acting out little snippets of their stuff, live commercials, on any of the half-dozen mobile stages down the Mile. If all of this felt a bit too chaotic (it was very, very chaotic), one could quickly download the official Fringe application to their phone and see all of the Festival's offerings neatly and filtered by time, type, or price.
Ah, price. Like couchsurfing, much of Fringe operates within a different economy than that of global Hobbesian capitalism; it's an economy based on fairness and trust. It's called Free Fringe, and it works like this: (1) you pay nothing, (2) you watch a performance, (3) the performance concludes and, having now seen it, you pay what it was worth to you. How nice, to be trusted to do the right thing; how nice, to not pay fifteen quid at the door and be terribly disappointed by a subpar showing. I liked the spirit of Free Fringe, and I dove in headfirst, veering off the Royal Mile by early afternoon and navigating through busy streets to my first venue.
Oh, the venues. Those deserve a mention too. There were three hundred of them around the small city; really, any Edinburgher with some brick and mortar (and sometimes not even that) could open up their pub, basement, or patio to performers needing a place to play. Consequently, the fortunate Fringe-goer gets a wonderfully intimate view of town. In my short two days there, I found myself in local bars, community centers, a double-decker bus, an old church-turned-beer hall, a yurt, a double-decker bus yet again.
I saw comics in ones and twos and threes, and a pun-filled lecture on ancient Roman history, and a one-woman play about depression, and some of them were good, and some of them were very good, and some of them were not so good, but that was okay because it was the Free Fringe and at the Free Fringe nobody gets scammed. I saw a beautiful bit of LGBT theater in a basement that seated seven, and a stirring account of a poet-turned-activist in a storytelling attic, and happened upon a magnificent poetry slam featuring a handful of great Scots. On the second night, I thought I'd venture outside of the Free Fringe, maybe see a paid performance. Maybe Jekyll and Hyde. I paid five quid, regretted it ten minutes in. There was dubstep involved.
It works, this donation-based economy. It makes us all try harder, makes us all better. I regretted the five quid I'd spent on Jekyll, and yet I didn't hesitate to toss twenty pounds into the bucket, unsolicited, on my way out of the storytelling attic. If you give them the chance, people will give what's deserved.
I was loving the Fringe, lapping up five or six or seven performances each day. Yet I felt awful, still sick from Inverness, a walking mess of blurry eyes and runny nose and scratchy throat. I'd sit away from the others and I'd hold a tissue to my face and do my best not to sniffle, and sometimes it'd work and sometimes I'd have to rush out in a bout of muffled sneezes. The weather remained as cloudy as my sinuses, as foggy as my head, as rainy as my nose. I'd been in Scotland nearly a week and had yet to see the sun: all was cold, all was grey, all was wet.
Terrible as it was, I can't imagine any better weather by which to see Edinburgh. Fringe aside, the city is still interesting and artsy and beautiful, high spires and weathered brownstone and a great castle up on the hill. Tight alleys, cozy closes, brick to spare ... the place felt like the setting for Harry Potter—which is no surprise given that the start of the series was written there, right in the very cafe I stumbled into for a cup of coffee on the morning of my second day in town.
On the third day my Fringe binge drew to a close; I had a flight to catch. I woke early, caught the sky before she got dressed in her silky silver robes. I admired her blue naked flesh, bright and unblemished, marveled at its beauty—it'd been nearly a week since I'd seen true blue—before she caught me staring and covered up in hurried indignation. Clouds or no clouds, I trekked out from the baroque facades of the city center and climbed the grassy hills of Arthur's Seat; I stood up on its edge and admired its vistas. To my east: all of Edinburgh, pretty and brown, spellbinding and mysterious; to my west: Ireland, the final frontier of my European odyssey.
For nearly three months, I had roamed east of Edinburgh, cutting great lines across the Old World. And now it was August, and I was not east or west but indeed in Edinburgh, and now I was going home, six days left to make it to Dublin.
I decided to take the long way. A short bus ride to the airport and a short flight from there whisked me out of Edinburgh, out and west of it, up, up, and away from the Fringe and right on past Dublin to Ireland's southern shores, over and down to a little city called Cork. Cork was a lovely place, small and scaled and everything one expects Ireland to be, and I arrived in the late afternoon and walked along its calm river to a pretty, bustling park, and read books under blue skies—finally, sun!—until dusk fell. Still feeling ill, I called it an early night.
The next morning I picked up some sinus medicine, found it actually helped, and trekked to Cork's college campus for a leisurely day of more books, more blue skies. I picnicked on the lush quadrangle flanked by old moss-covered stone ramparts, parapets and all, and read for hours. That evening I ran, showered, did some laundry. I was feeling a bit better, so I headed down to the common room of the hostel and met a few friendly travelers, all also going solo: a girl from Alberta, a guy from Switzerland, and another from, of all places, Washington, DC. We were hungry—a few of us at least—so we went for a walk about town, got dinner, and grabbed a round at the bar beneath the hostel. We were joined by a really obnoxious Canadian, and I'd never met an obnoxious Canadian (she was from four miles north of the border, so I suppose that explains it), and around midnight my patience for her and my sinus medicine both wore out. I went to sleep.
After eighty-seven days of quick, rough travel—not all of it, but lots and lots of it—I was ready for a vacation, a little unwinding and reflection before returning home. I'd had a vision of shacking up in a remote Irish cottage and spending a few days with my literature and my thoughts, but after nearly a week of illness-induced introversion (I was doing much better by the time I left Cork), I felt a quiet hostel in a coastal village would be just as good. I did some research; I found a little town on the west coast known as Doolin. It had no banks, no ATMs, no cinema or nightclub or tanning salon. It had a rugged coast, and farms, and a cliffside trail that led straight to the Cliffs of Moher. It had a hostel that opened up right onto a creek. It had horses and ponies and big skies and quiet. It sounded perfect.
A pair of buses carried me from Cork to Ennis and Ennis to Doolin, clean across green, rolling Ireland. In my Irish vision, I'd be spending the next three days alone, and wearing dark flannel, and still sporting a bushy beard, and I think probably doing everything by candlelight, cooking hearty stews in a dark cottage with wooden walls. An iron pot, a creaking rocking chair, musk ... that sort of thing. This, Doolin, was not that vision, but it was something just as good, even better.
It was, for starters, tiny. Sure, it wasn't a shack for one in an empty valley, but it was really nothing more than a few dozen single-story edifices smattered about a hilly kilometer or two. The hostel itself was all stone, maybe three hundred years old—with creek, as promised. I got off the bus at no point in particular, just out on the side of the road, and walked through town in search of a grocery. There wasn't one ... there wasn't one of much. The nearest place to get whole foods was a few kilometers up the road at the petrol station, so I headed that way. I climbed into rain, felt baptized by it, cleansed, rejuvenated. Forty minutes later, I reached the shop and picked up whatever I could find that was simple and vegan: apples, tomatoes, carrots, onions, mushrooms, potatoes, pasta, wine. Heavy shopping bag clutched in my left hand, I set out the way I'd come.
It was a lovely walk, but the bag was heavy. I stuck out my thumb, hopeful for a hitch as I walked, and didn't have it raised for more than five seconds before an automobile materialized to my right. I lumbered in, thanked the old Irishman inside for his kindness, and we chatted for a few minutes until that skinny road brought us back into town. My hostel was right at the center of town—the center of town being nothing more than the intersection of Doolin's two roads—so I walked a few meters back to the creek, entered the old stone hostel, and checked in.
I showered, changed, headed to the kitchen and cooked a colorful stirfry. I sat down to eat and struck up a conversation with a guy at the next table over; he was from Australia, traveling with his partner, cycling around the world. I met his partner, switched tables, learned more about their trip. They'd just begun, maybe six weeks ago, and figured it'd take four years, this wild, daring, incredible journey of theirs, a bike tour de force from Britain to Ireland to Western Europe, to Morocco and Tunisia and back to Europe, to Turkey, to Central Asia, to China. A flight to Alaska, then Canada, then south through the States. South still, all the way down to South America, to the southernmost part of South America at the tip of Argentina, four full years of adventure and education. I was impressed, inspired. Not only did they seem like great travelers; they seemed like great people. They were—are—great people. I spent hours getting to know Sarah and Scott that night, and loved their passion, passion for travel, passion for each other, passion for life. At our table sat a fourth, as well—John, whom Sarah and Scott had befriended since their arrival a day earlier. He was wonderful, too: older, he had a full lifetime of adventure to share, and the four of us passed the whole evening sitting at that old wooden table talking, always intending to make it out, never quite getting there.
Doolin is a natural resting place for travelers headed to or from the monumental Cliffs of Moher, just eight kilometers south of town. I figured I'd head down the next morning, and Sarah and Scott planned to as well, so we hiked over together after a lazy breakfast. The hike was marvelous, two hours there and two hours back along the edge of towering cliffs plunging into the angry waters of the Atlantic. We stopped to feed grass to horses as we went, we skirted crumbling corners, we got sprinkled with beads of water from feeble waterfalls blowing upward from the cliff face. The landscape was nearly pristine, the seascape entirely so, and the sun sparkled against everything: glittering hayfields, twinkling waters, dark shiny cliff.
The cliffs of Moher stretch for miles, but tourists and the buses that ferry them all stop near the congested visitors' center, creating an unpleasant chokepoint on an otherwise calm hike. Already approaching mid-afternoon, we decided to break for coffee and then begin our return, arriving back at the hostel with weary legs and roaring bellies. We made dinner, caught up wit John, and spent another night around that same old table with a bottle of wine, once more too engrossed in conversation to make it out to the pub. Once more, bed.
Sarah and Scott were thinking of taking off the next day, but John and I convinced them to stick around one more night—we still had to make it to the pub! They agreed, and Scott and John headed out to the grocery, and Sarah wrote, and I ventured north for another hike, this time up to the Burren.
Walk five kilometers south of Doolin and it's all Wilder Ranch cliffs, but head just a few clicks north and it's something altogether different. Great heaps of limestone litter the landscape, sheets of shale that crack and stretch and ebb and flow like the waves that lap against them at the water's edge. Persistent grass grows here and there, and the occasional shrub, but otherwise it's a barren Burren, an isolating, desolate place. Yet beautiful, too: a badlands.
I walked along the road to reach the Burren, then ditched the trail and just scrambled atop the rock, way out there at the western edge of Europe. I continued north, walking for hours, tiny villages in the distance. To my right, a long ridge followed the coast; I wondered what it looked like on the other side. I didn't see any roads crossing over, but it was all quiet grass, so I turned east, hopped a fence (apparently someone felt they needed all that land for themselves), landed right in a heap of stinging nettle (apparently someone felt they needed to keep everyone else out), and headed straight toward the ridge with tingling legs.
About three quarters of the way up, the grass got taller and the terrain bumpier; nothing was as smooth as it had looked from way down below. I'd come too far to turn back, so I soldiered on, weeds and thorns and little biting bugs now joining the nettles in the all-out assault on my shins. Things worsened, as they always tend to do in these moments, and as I reached the top of the hill's spine I found that the hill just climbed higher, earlier obscured by the incline. Well, shit.
I debated whether to continue up through chest-high grasses or retreat down through chest-high grasses. I looked up, I looked down. I looked at the sky, growing greyer by the minute. I looked left, nothing but hill; right, nothing but hill and that skinny road—wait, a skinny road! My eyes followed it down, right down the slope from the way I'd come. Well, shit, I thought in an entirely different tone, let me get over there.
It was no easy feat, getting over there. More sharp weeds, more piercing thorns, a tough scramble up a steep slope at the road's edge. I climbed ever so carefully over the barbed wire bordering the road, felt blessed to once more be standing on smooth, solid ground. I followed the road up to the top of the ridge, where it curved south over a series of pleasant mounds, gentle rocky vertebrae. At the end of the curve sat a few acres rimmed with a short stone wall; inside the tract three horses ambled. They were the most beautiful horses I'd ever seen: one white with all the grace of a unicorn, the other like sculpted chestnut—oh, and a baby. The pony was nothing pretty, a rather scrappy-looking fellow, but he was the first to wander over to where I stood. "Hey there," I said, slowly raising a hand and extending it peacefully forward. He eyed me, bowed his head and allowed me to run fingers through his tousled mane.
His parents came over, and they let me pet them too, gentle caresses along their strong jaws. I noticed all the good grass on their side had been well-grazed, so I stooped and yanked some from my side of the wall. I offered the long green stalks to the pony and he chewed them gratefully. Some more for the white horse, some more for the chestnut, and then another round for all three, and another, another. I stayed up on that ridge with the skies darkening ominously overhead for quite some time, there with those gorgeous horses otherwise all alone ... I loved them, and I didn't want to leave them. But eventually, the wind chased me out; I left a fresh pile of grass for them atop the wall and backed away. I turned, followed a calm road back to Doolin for one final night in that wonderful village.
Back at the hostel, Sarah and Scott were starting on dinner, and John was perched in the corner near the kitchen. I cooked some pasta and we all ate around that table for a third night. We did make it out this time. After a bottle of wine and some beers at the hostel, the four of us set out to a tiny, crowded pub on Doolin's north end, then crawled on down to another with some live music, and a few other friends from the hostel, just a few meters away. We stayed up late enough to feel young, late enough to remember that we were old, and then we returned to the little hostel by the creek for some welcome rest.
After ninety-one days of barely hanging on, my phone broke the next morning, its screen victim to a little water that had seeped in through its double-cracked glass. Just a week earlier, my tablet had given up too, its z, f, h, and j keys suddenly quitting on me after three years of loyal service, just as I was about to finally conquer the Sisyphusean task of catching up on my writing once and for all. Go on, the electronics seemed to be saying, you can take it from here.
And I could; after all, I was at the end of my road. The next morning, Sarah, Scott, and I said a sad goodbye to John and boarded a bus to Dublin by way of Galway; it was one of the few shortcuts they'd be taking on their trip. Bikes stowed below deck, the three of us bumped about narrow Irish roads; we transferred in Galway and arrived in Dublin around five. It was, alas, time to part ways with the lovely friends I'd made in Doolin. We wished each other safe travels—me for a safe flight home the next morning and them for a safe long ride home over the next four years. It wouldn't be the last time I'd see them, I knew: before departing, I promised to join them cycling through Utah in, oh, 2017.
There are two ways I could have spent my final night in Europe. The first: meet some others in the hostel, go out on the town, see the inside of Dubln's bars and toilets and come back late and drunk. The second: take a quiet stroll about the city center, grab a simple dinner, sit and read, reflect, turn in early. I chose the second. I did all that, and then I slept, and then I woke, and then ... I went home. I left Dublin and I wrote as I crossed the Atlantic, getting down every last word in a final rushed bid for posterity, for the grandkids, for myself if I make it that long, and then I touched down in New York and leapt up again, and I went back and added all those missing zs and fs and hs and js with a soft keyboard, and then I was done telling my story, for there was no more story to tell. I had spent ninety-two days in Europe, and I'd seen and learned wonderful things, and now, for the first time in what felt like a lifetime, I was stationary, settled.
I was home.