I was fortunate enough to spend a semester abroad my sophomore year of college, studying at our campus in Rome. I was more fortunate still to be able to hop the pond before the semester started and spend a week “doing” Ireland. Dublin, Galway, Cork, Blarney, Killarney, Waterford, Dublin, in a neat little circle around the ass-end of the Emerald Isle.
I stood dangerously close to the edge of the Cliffs of Moher, I kissed the Blarney Stone, I got hammered in Temple Bar. But let me tell you, the most memorable time of my trip, without a doubt, was our time in Killarney.
The bus from Limerick was a little bit late—we got into Killarney around 1 pm (that’s myself plus my friends Jake and James), and spent an hour or so walking from one hostel to another, hoping to make reservations.
The town is breathtaking—think even cobbled streets, ALL one- or two-story buildings, all painted bright white with trim in various bright colors: red, green, blue, orange. I swear every building in the entire town looked like it had been painted that week. Behind the rows of even buildings the mountains of Killarney National Forest rose wide and green against the sharp August blue sky. The sun was bright, there were flowers in front of every building, and kids (including some who had to be at least sixteen-seventeen) were playing, shouting and dancing in the square. I swear, no exaggeration, there were people just dancing and singing in the streets on a random (as far as I know) afternoon.
We didn’t find any hostel with room, but we didn’t get too down. How could we? And then Jake had the idea.
“Let’s go camp in the forest! We can rent horses, ride up into the mountains, pitch a tent, and sit around a fire watching the stars,” he said. James and I immediately latched onto the idea like newborns to a nipple. It was the best plan ever; nothing else mattered. This would be something we could always remember, something we could tell our grandchildren.
As we talked it over, and moved from shop to shop, the plan expanded to include renting fishing gear for the wide blue lakes, and downgraded from horses to bikes (horses are damn expensive to rent, and we were poor as hell). We picked up fishing rods and bikes at one store, a small two-man tent (60 euros) at another, and made a last stop at a grocery store before heading out of town to pick up bread, cheese and a few sausages to go with the fresh fish we’d be nabbing. And each of us grabbed a bottle of wine.
Then? We were off. First along the long paved road to the park’s entrance, and then in, with a rush, swooping below the long branches along surprisingly-well manicured trails, up and up and in. Five miles passed, then ten. The air was so clean you felt like you were a better person just for breathing it. At twelve miles we passed the most British-Irish man I have ever seen, riding the opposite direction with his son. Both were wearing long gray pants, a tie and a tweed jacket with elbow pads. Both had the perfect Irish caps, brim forward. And both rode with backs perfectly straight. As the man approached, I noticed a heavy five o’clock shadow, but I was distracted by the sound of his little squeeze-horn, which he solemnly tooted twice as he passed. I was pretty sure at this point that I had left reality and entered the dream-world.
Some way up the mountain, we reached a zenith of the path, the very furthest curve around a two-mile wide lake. We slung the bikes aside, baited the hooks with some of our cheese, crawled out on little bouldered peninsulas, and cast. Afternoon stretched, yawned.
Half an hour in, Jake had a bite. Immediately, he stood up on his island-rock and leaned back against the pull. “It’s a big one!” he cried, reeling furiously. He reeled and pulled, pulled and reeled. It wasn’t moving at all. “It’s not moving at all,” I whispered from where I sat on a big fallen tree that stretched into the water.
“It’s not moving at all,” Jake yelled, and gave it a mighty heave. Pop! came the line from the water. Jake stumbled, didn’t fall, pulled in the end, and found no hook. Did it get away? No. “The hook was caught on a rock,” Jake said. We were disappointed. Over the next hour, we caught several more rocks, but didn’t lose any more hooks, thankfully.
And then, at five minute intervals, the “we should get going” impulse coursed through our group, each time a little more strongly than the time before. The “we haven’t caught anything yet, come on” feeling put up a fight, though. Too good a fight. By the time we had resigned ourselves to failure at fishing and decided to go, the sun was sitting on the very brink of the horizon. We had to hurry.
Back to the bikes, pack up the rods, ride a couple hundred yards up the trail with the lake on our right and a ridge to our left. We lifted the bikes and made off through the woods, up the ridge… which spilled down in front of us on the other side to another lake, and no more than thirty yards out, an island, steep and forested, eighty yards by twenty. We scrambled down the hill toward what we were sure would be the perfect campsite. And wonder of wonders! a canoe lay tethered to the shore in front of us.
The “can we borrow it?” attacks of conscience yielded to “we’ll bring it right back” as soon as the first fat raindrops smacked against our necks. Our fingers flew at the knots, and we almost had her in the water when the clouds opened and it started really, really raining. We left the boat half in the water, following the new inexorable impulse that James voiced with his voice cracking: “get the fuck out of here!”
Back up the ridge we scrambled, slipping. It was full-fledged twilight now, and full-fledged downpour. By the time we found a place flat enough for the tent and out of sight of the trail (we had to be out of sight, because, oh, didn’t I tell you? it’s illegal to camp in the national park), it was dark. It was nighttime, it was getting colder. The rain hadn’t lessened.
I’m sure you know how complicated it is to put together a tent, all the pegs and rods and sheets and pieces in the right order. It’s even harder when you know ahead of time that you have thirty seconds to look at the instructions in the dark before they disintegrate in the rain. Still, we were desperate, and we worked like it. Within ten minutes, the tent was up. It was black outside now. We couldn’t see where we had left the bikes, but that could be left for tomorrow.
Jake, always the Nazi (fortunately in this case), insisted that we take our boots off before we come inside, so we each stepped in one foot at a time—take off a boot, put that foot in, balance on that foot to take the other boot off—kind of a perverse hokey-pokey. Soon enough, the three of us? In. The idea of a fire? Out. And we were cold and all of our clothes were wet.
Jackets came off first, they were damp and restricting, but pants followed soon after. We broke into the food, arranging little sausage and cheese sandwiches that really weren’t bad. James sighed. “Too bad we couldn’t catch any-”
“Shut up,” Jake and I chorused. “I need a drink,” Jake said, and pulled a bottle of wine from his backpack.
“Mmm,” I said.
“Good idea,” said James.
“Do you guys have a corkscrew?” said Jake.
“Fuckin shit,” we all said together.
We ate some more, but no one finished his share. We were suddenly concerned with saving our resources, conserving what we had, keeping some for more desperate times. I looked around at the other guys and wondered if Donner party hallucinations were dancing in their heads, too. This was getting bad. “Guys, we need to figure out how to open that wine,” I said.
“I heard you can bang it against a tree, and if it’s the right angle, it’ll just snap off clean,” said Jake. James said he didn’t feel like drinking slivers of glass that night, though, so the idea was out. Each of us sat with our bottle, staring at it, turning it back and forth like so many dumb animals. Then Jake started pushing his cork in with his thumb.
“Oh yeah!” I said, “that’ll totally work.” The three of us heaved to, pushing and turning and bracing and pushing. The corks moved in an eighth of an inch, and then a quarter inch. That was all. Thumbs are wider than wine bottle necks, did you know that? I will never forget that. We needed a stick.
We drew straws (actually, we drew pieces of cheese that Jake held). I got the biggest, which I was happy about, because I was still hungry. (I knew the first one to starve to death would be the first one devoured by his tent-mates.) But drawing the biggest also meant I was the one who had to get a stick. Of course I was only wearing underpants, socks, a t-shirt and a vest, so my plan was just to reach out into the rain and look for a stick right outside the door.
“Good thing the rain let up,” I said, and it had. But it wasn’t a good thing. The zipper purred open and I stuck my arm out into the drizzle. There! I could see a stick. And ow! OW!
I grabbed the stick, yanked it back into the tent, and slapped, waved, slapped hard at my arm. The little bugs fell left and right. From my elbow down, I had about forty little red bites. In five seconds. And they hurt like hell. But we had the stick. Sure, it was a little rotten, sure it was muddy. But within a minute, three bottles were open, and that was good news.
After a spill or two, we discovered that you can only get a smooth pour by flipping the bottle totally upside down so the cork floats to the top—otherwise the cork will block the wine. So there we sat for the next hour, watching each other chug huge swallows of wine, giggling, and shivering.
More clothes had to come off, and I was past embarrassment at that point. I stripped off my wet socks, my wet shirt, and was left with only my tighty-whities. It was better. Not good, but better. Jake and James followed suit soon after, and we bundled all of our clothes at one end of the tent. It was getting colder.
The wine was gone all too soon, and we lay down on our backs, shoulder to shoulder, each wishing we had broken the budget and bought a second bottle. I was on the left, with Jake in the middle to my right and James on the other side. It was getting colder.
When Jake turned onto his side to face James, I knew what I had to do. I was nervous, but I knew I had to do it. I slowly turned to face him, tucked my knees a little bit, and started inching closer to him. Soon my knees hit the back of his thighs. Then my left hand found his top shoulder.
I felt him tense. “Dude,” he said. I paused, waited. We shivered in unison. Or maybe it was a shudder. “All right,” he said. I felt like a lecherous duke in a Victorian novel, but shame has no place in survival situations. Soon my chest was against his back, my shins on his calves, my pelvis grating slowly towards his on the wet floor.
When my hip bones touched his butt-cheeks, I swear he groaned a little bit, equal parts comfort and horror. This woke up James, who looked over, sat up a little bit, and gave me a look to say “I’m glad I wasn’t the one who had to suggest it.” I pretended my eyes were closed and I couldn’t see him. He turned away, but only so he could back it on up into Jake’s front. We lay there, gradually relaxing our bodies, which had been completely tensed, and realized that we could feel each other breathe.
There were awkward seconds while we wordlessly tried out synchronizing our breathing, but soon enough these were abandoned. We could sleep.
I wish that were all. I wish the sun had come out just then, that it could have been morning. But there are a lot of things I wish about that night.
It got colder. We got colder. One by one we woke up, less than halfway through the night. Awkwardness was gone. We were grinding into each other trying to get warm.
I sat up, pushed Jake and James close together, lifted Jake’s arm from around James’s chest, and lay on top of the two of them, draping Jake’s arm up over my back. There were no complaints.
Every half-hour or so, we changed positions, top-man dropping to inner spoon, inner spoon to outer spoon, and outer spoon to top-man. We squeezed ourselves together as closely as three people possibly can. Was the red wine breath we all shared pleasant? No. Did it annoy me that James seemed slippery sometimes when I was on top (what the fuck, is he sweating?!)? Yes. Was there a hole in the ass of my underpants that made my playing the inner spoon even more suggestive? Yes. Were there awkward arousal moments? If so, I have completely blocked them from my memory. No, really completely. Did our feet smell? Did we smell? Yes, yes.
But would I have traded my two little hot-water-bottles for anything in the world? Maybe a space heater, but other than that? No.
So we cycled and turned, trying equally to absorb the others’ body heat and bestow our own. At one point, I think I suggested removing our underpants to use them for blankets, but skimpy underpants would have been too insubstantial.
When the first gray light of dawn tickled the tent-top, we rolled apart. I felt for a split second like I ought to give them a good morning kiss. Jake tried a joke or two, but we were too bitter, too tired and too frightened to laugh. We dressed in silence, like we were all doing the walk of shame, but from each other.
James told us the story of a nightmare he had had, about a murderer who had left a body in the boat. Jake then noticed his knife was missing. We were mostly delirious as we opened the tent, half-expecting a crazy-eyed murderer. That would have been better than what we got. The bugs from the night before were still there, and with a vengeance.
We slapped and cursed, screaming at each other to “fucking pack that faster!” When we had found the bikes, packed the tent and all our things, and made it halfway around the lake on the way back down, Jake stopped to take a picture of the sunset. I wished I could cry, but the trauma was still too close to me. All I could manage was a broken cough.
The bites from the bugs were the worst that any of us had gotten—they took more than a week to stop hurting—and each of us had hundreds. The rashes and chafing from riding fifteen miles in soaking pants were none too pleasant either. But they were physical wounds, and physical wounds? They would heal.
I knew it was going to be an experience I could remember forever.
I thought it was going to be a story I could tell my grandchildren. Maybe when they’re grown up.