Well, at least it isn’t raining, I think as my ankle once again cranks in what I’m sure is an unhealthy direction in the depression of another wormlike scour on the giant gray brain that is Mullaghmore — one of the highest and certainly the most striking of the rolling hills of bare limestone in Burren National Park in County Clare. I’m here with my younger — and much more fit — brother and his friends, over in Ireland on an ambitious, young-people-only kind of trip, the daily itinerary of which includes miles of hiking and hours of partying. They are outpacing me in both.
But I’m glad to be along, once again glomming onto an American visitor’s tourist privilege of driving on a foreign license. In the final months of my Irish residence, hiking the stony heart of the Burren is one of my final boxes to tick before I ship out to Colorado.
As we continue up the steep, lunar terrain, I pause to catch my breath and survey the surroundings. The gray land-coral stretches out as far as I can see in the hazy early summer heat. In the valleys between the bare hills, small lakes have collected, stained an impossible shade of sick, whitish green from the highly alkaline runoff of the soft, porous limestone. One narrow road winds through the park, and a few tourists’ cars are cruising slowly around the rolling terrain below, likely taking lousy photos through the windows. (Missing out, I think.) A few small herds of sheep graze on the meager pasturage that creeps up through cracks in the rock.
These bare hills — “Burren” comes from an Irish-language word meaning “rocky place” — were formed, like all limestone, at the bottom of an ancient sea as a coral reef. Looking closely at the treacherous rocks below my boots, I can see the fossil shapes of snails, nautili, sea worms, and other prehistoric marine beasties impressed in a dense mosaic. This calcium-rich limestone is highly susceptible to erosion from slightly acidic rainwater, thus the brainlike ridges crisscrossing the landscape and wreaking havoc on my lower limbs as we walk. (The Burren is also home to some of the most extensive cave systems in Ireland, for the same reason.)
The stony landscape — known as “karst” by geology nerds and Scrabble players — is a unique ecosystem, with a strange mix of flora and fauna found nowhere else in Ireland. Appreciating this sensitive ecology, I make every effort to stay on the trail — which is little more than a series of connected markers crossing bare rock — stepping over the strange yellow lichens and the delicate few flowers catching the hazy sunshine.
Our route eases as we reach the next level of striated rock near the summit of Mullaghmore; the face of the mountain shows its many layers in slight shades of gray, forced up at a steep angle by long-ago seismic pressure. The young lads ahead of me are pushing my pace, and I need it. Too long have elderly Irish walkers with dogs beaten me to the tops of the rolling hills of Ireland.
At the summit of this modest mountain, one such pair, pensioner and pooch, greet us with what I’ve come to recognize instantly as that classic reserved Irish enthusiasm, often missed by fresh, naively sincere American visitors. “Howiye, lovely day,” he says with a curt nod, but his nonverbals suggest we not linger overlong on his mountain with our GoPro selfies and loud American voices.
We proceed down the back side of the mountain, losing the trail a few times as we go. Grazing sheep give us a wide berth, cutting a nervous arc as the four of us walk single-file down the tricky slope, turning a few more ankles in the process. The presence of livestock on this land — national park though it is — serves as a stark reminder that very little land in Ireland could rightly be called “wilderness,” or not influenced by the hands of humans; this island has been too densely populated for too long by clear-cutting, stone-building Europeans. I would later read in an old issue of Walking World Ireland some speculation that we may indeed have ancient farmers and unsustainable farming practices to thank for the soil loss that exposed the unique landscape of the Burren — and the vast boglands, another endangered Irish ecosystem — after the last ice age.
Back at the rented car at the foot of the mountain, the four of us plop down to scarf down our salami sandwiches in the sunshine. I can’t quite tell if the slight headache I’m feeling is from exertion, minor dehydration, or leftovers from trying to keep pace with the boys at the pub the night before. I decide it’s a little bit of each as we take out our Irish road atlas and plan our next adventure. I just hope I can keep up.