Most vacations begin with expectations. We expect to see certain sights, eat certain foods, and do certain things. A lot of the time these expectations are met, but not always. When we write about travel we usually talk about the exciting adventures where our expectations are met, but that’s only part of the story. Expectations may allow us to prepare for our trip, but sometimes these expectations undercut what might be an otherwise fulfilling journey. We might miss the forest we are wandering through for the tree we expected to see but never found. In literature the quest is rarely about the object sought, but about how the characters change and grow while searching for that object. It is useful to think of our real-world travels in the same way.
Last summer my wife and I went to Ireland. We traveled all around the island and it was, for the most part, a fantastic trip. I will get to other parts of our trip in time, but today I’m going to focus on a day when things didn’t go entirely to plan. It was a small disappointment, a silly disappointment, but a disappointment nonetheless.
After spending a few days in Dublin, we rented a car and began our road trip across the island. We both enjoy hiking, so we decided to spend a day in the Wicklow Mountains, just south of Dublin. The mountains were breathtaking. Our goal for the day was to hike in the Glendalough Valley, a glacial valley with stunning scenery and numerous trails.
We had decided to take a couple of easier trails, since we had already spent part of the day touring a thousand-year-old monastic site in the valley. The first trail wound around the smaller Lower Lake, and the second trail ran the length of the longer Upper Lake. Part of the reason we selected our particular trails was the promise of running across a herd of feral goats.
A little goat aside. These goats were not native to the valley and were not even wild. This valley had been settled by monks since the 6th century. The site was originally chosen by St. Kevin for its isolation, and the promise of bringing him closer to nature. In the 19th century the forces of the industrial revolution, in their infinite wisdom, had found a more profitable use for it. After a deposit of lead was found, a group of miners established a small settlement at the far end of the valley. With them, the miners brought goats to provide food and milk. One-hundred years later, the lead is gone. The miners are gone. Their buildings are rubble. But the goats remain.
I’m not sure why seeing these goats mattered to us. We are both animal lovers, but we have, of course, seen goats before. Many times, in fact; we’ve seen them up close, from a distance, on a farm, in a petting zoo, and so on. I suppose neither of us had ever seen a goat in the wild before, and perhaps there is a degree of seeking the authentic here in seeing a goat in its natural environment. But, of course, this was not these goats’ natural environment. They are the descendants of domesticated goats, no more natural to the area than we are. Still, we wanted to see the goats. The goats were our grail, and we had undertaken the quest.
After a brief tour of the monastic village, we set out along the nature trail. The journey began along a beautiful wooded path wrapping around the lower lake of the valley. At the first lake, we spent some time enjoying the scenery and had a light lunch of sandwiches and chips. The lake had a number of people swimming and fishing, kids and families spending a quiet Saturday away from the stress of work and school. But after a brief lunch, we were back on our way up the path; no lazy day at the watering hole for us; we were on a Goat Quest.
It was here that we picked up the second trail, which ran its way up beside the Upper Lake. The hike was up hill and a bit strenuous, but nothing out of hand. About halfway along the trail, we could spot the small cave that St. Kevin had made his home fifteen hundred years ago. He, of course, could be forgiven for stopping so early. There were no goats to look forward to in his time. For our part, we walked past the cave without much of a look. We started to have second thoughts after about an hour with no goats. Where exactly were these goats? When would we see them? Were we even on the right trail?
An older man passed us and we asked, “Have you seen any goats here?” He replied that yes, there were several goats, about ten minutes’ walk up the trail. We continued our journey. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. Twenty. Still no goats. At this point we had reached the ruins of the mining settlement, but we didn’t really take much time to explore.
A pair of men approached us from the other end of the trail, so we asked again, “Have you seen any goats?” This pair responded that, Yes! There were goats, just ten minutes up the trail.
Ten minutes. Right.
So, we set off again. Again we walked ten minutes. Again nothing. We reached the end of the valley and looked up at the rockier, much more difficult hike ahead of us if we were to continue onward.
The day was getting late. We had walked around for two hours and would need to go about the same distance coming back. This wouldn’t be a bad day’s hike, but we also needed to get to our accommodations in Kilkenny, and wanted to be able to spend some time touring the city before the end of the day. So, we decided to turn back.
Resigned to missing our goats, we enjoyed the walk back a bit more. We toured the ruins of the mining site and found some really beautiful rocks scattered around the quarry. We appreciated the Bed of St. Kevin more when we passed it again on our way down; thinking about what it must have been like to have made that your home in the 6th century, when crowds of tourists weren’t wandering up and down the forest, laughing with one another and blasting their music. We got more pictures of the natural beauty of the forest, and we were, on the whole, in a better mood. The quest had taken us up the trail, but letting go of our expectations helped us to slow down a bit and enjoy it.
I know I promised that there would be no goats at the end of this trail, but that is only partially true. Driving out of the valley, we did spot some off the side of the road. We pulled off and looked at them for a while. They were in the distance, very difficult to see, and we didn’t get any good pictures of them, but we did catch a glimpse.
So, yeah, our Goat Quest, somewhat silly to begin with, ended anticlimactically. Did it ruin the day? No, but it must be said that we had a bit more fun when we let go of our mission and just enjoyed what we were seeing rather than what we were trying to find.
On our way out of the valley we did have a close encounter with some sheep though, so there is that.