Mood Swings

I woke to beautiful weather, blue skies and warm sunlight, of which Ireland routinely deprives you. I think so you can properly appreciate it when it does come. The trail continued down a paved road with an easy downward slope and a view of the ocean. I was in the best of moods until two miles later when a deflating realization wiped the stupid grin from my face.

“Wait, ocean!? No, I should be walking south, away from the ocean! What am I doing?!" I turned around to redo the two miles, but this time uphill. That warm cheerful sunlight became my enemy.

It would be a day full of mood swings. 

I got back to the point where I made my wrong turn, so was finally making progress again, when I frightened a herd of piglets. They scattered around me, squealing and frantically searching for safety. It was quite possibly the cutest thing I've seen. My stupid grin returned. Once again, I basked in the sunlight under vivid blue skies. When I returned to the forest, the sun dappled the lush green moss that covered the ground and trees.

Then I took another wrong turn, or more accurately, I went straight when I should have turned. I found myself in a bog, my feet soaked. I wasn't lost exactly. I knew if I just went west through the forest, I’d cross over the trail at some point. What I didn’t know, however, was how dense the forest would be, how many branches would be in my way, how saturated the boggy ground would be, and how many times thick mud would try to suck off my shoes. 

If I were in a Charlie Brown comic, there would be one of those balls of fury scribbled above my head. My frustration came from feeling ignorant, for missing another turn, and for having to backtrack and expel energy that could have otherwise been used to propel me in the right direction. 

Eventually I got back on the trail and my mood improved. It was quiet but for the gurgle of brown peat-tinted streams and wind whipping past pine branches. I stopped to listen. A feeling of bliss seemed to ride in on the breeze and carry away my frustration with the sweat on my brow. I laughed. Not insanely like a mad man laughing at the rain, but for some reason when I'm blissfully happy, I just have to laugh. It's a feeling closely related to having to make an eeeeeeeee sound.

People often tell me things like, "I couldn't do what you do. I love having a roof over my head. I love daily showers, indoor plumbing, clean dry clothes, food that tastes good, a big comfy bed at night, and a body that occasionally doesn't ache." I usually reply, "I love those things too, but in sacrificing those things to live in the wilderness, I'm gaining so much more. And when I get back to roofs, and beds, and hot showers, I love them more than ever."

That's how it is to live in the woods. You have a constant exchange of good for misery. I was frustrated for being off my path, but simultaneously loved comparing the terrain with the curving lines on a topographical map. I got dirty and scratched for being off the path and pushing forward anyway, but when I found my trail I wore that caked-on dirt and dried blood with pride. Then the frustration evaporates and I'm left standing in the woods listening to the gurgle of streams, the whoosh of the wind, and so blissfully happy that I just have to laugh.

Then discomfort comes again, then bliss, repeat.

After the sun set that night, I decided to get up and over one more mountain top, the highest point in County Antrim, before making camp. What I didn’t know was that the next few kilometers would be soggy wet bog unsuitable for a tent. Figuring it would be better on top, I kept hiking well after dark.

True, my feet were getting soaked and the wind grew stronger the higher I climbed, but I was also given a full moon to light my way and a view for miles of hills silhouetted against the day's last bit a deep blue skylight. 

When I got to the top, the wind was too strong to setup my tent and it was uncomfortably cold, so I had to continue down the other side, back into bog.

I lost the trail again. I knew from my map that it would pass through some trees south-southwest of me, but enough fog had moved in by then to conceal them. I continued in that direction, zig-zagging around obstacles and climbing fences that were in my way.

I admit, I was frustrated once again, but I'm learning that it's okay to just let myself be frustrated. As long as I understand that it's temporary and maybe even necessary if I'm ever to experience that laugh-inducing blissful happiness again.

Eventually, the trees came into view, I zig-zagged back and forth through trees and more thick brush and sponge-like bog. I finally found the trail again at midnight. 

I love the forest, but not because it loves me back. I'm fully aware that the forest thinks nothing of me. It's not there to do anything for me, anymore than I'm there to improve it. It's just part of a formula that I have accidentally discovered works for me. When a kid runs around barefoot in the woods he is not thinking about how nature is supposed to cure or inspire him. He just likes the trees whizzing by and the feel of dried leaves under his feet. It unintentionally provides me with the means to live in the moment, to feel exhilaration, and to connect myself to the universe around me.

That night, I camped on soft moss next to a stream. I missed these real forests. So many of Ireland's forests are tree farms with rows of pine trees planted and harvested like corn. It's interesting to me that I don't feel any of these positive things I've written here when I'm in those forests farms. I need real forests, real wilderness, places that nature created in its slow unthinking way. Maybe someday I'll figure out why that is, maybe not, but if someday an epiphany does come, I'll probably be walking through a forest when it does.

This day of mood swings made me realize what I needed to do next on this trip. When I get to Scotland, I need to head north, leave the roads to the cars, and spend a few weeks in the most remote and wild place in all of Britain.