With one arm outstretched for balance and the other hovering in front of my face in a futile attempt to brush aside a relentless tangle of hawthorn and bramble, I pick my way carefully along the spine of a crumbling, moss-covered drystone wall, crushed here-and-there into gravel by the occasional rotted tree trunk, having grown, died, and fallen many years after the wall itself was long-forgotten. The haphazard pile of stones is an island in a sea of bracken, thistle and thorn, five-feet-deep and impenetrable, and every broken gap takes time and blood to cross. Baldric follows along close at my heels, sitting patiently whilst I clear the worst of the jungle, avoiding eye contact but exhaling pointedly to voice his disapproval of the decision that brought us here. He knows what I’ve done.
It could have been so much simpler: another five hundred metres of trotting along a quiet road would bring us to the start of an established trail winding its way through the forest then over the moor to the summit of Knocknarea, but suddenly, there’s a gap in the hedge to my right, and I can see an easily-recognisable stand of tall trees about fifty metres above us, marking a prominent junction on one of the very few paths up this hill. If the shortcut works, I can save us at least ten minutes. Through the hedge we go.
One of the supposed hallmarks of an intelligent species is the ability to modify your behaviour as a result of your interactions with the environment around you, that is, to learn from your mistakes. This is a mistake that I’ve made many times before, and I still haven’t learned, so I mentally move the peg with the name of my species written on it down a couple of notches on the scale (sorry, everyone), past orangutans and dolphins, below octopuses and crows, to somewhere around the level of slugs, lobsters, and Daily Mail readers. This time, I mutter to myself as I peel another string of tiny barbed hooks from my stinging legs, I’ll learn: there are no shortcuts on Knocknarea. I know that it would be quicker and easier to turn around and head back to the road, but something at the back of my simple mind won’t let me… the path is now a short distance above us, we can make it if we just knuckle on.
I’m distracted from my toils by the merest hint of a familiar but unexpected smell and, nostrils flaring, I glance around the hidden forest floor, my brain switched instantly to mushroom-hunting mode by the whiff of rotting woodland fungus. There, fifteen feet away in a tiny clearing, a scattered handful of creamy-white caps, and I pick my way gingerly across to them whilst Baldric stays firmly on the wall, tutting loudly. I am greeted by a cluster of Hydnum repandum, the hedgehog mushroom, absolutely delicious when young and tender and springy, but these ones are too old and their flesh would be spongy and bitter, so I leave them alone. They will continue to scatter their spores, and the next time I’m here, whenever that may be, there could quite well be a sizeable crop of these tasty little morsels.
I claw my way back to the wall and we press on up the hill, but I feel somehow vindicated for my ridiculous choice of route – if we didn’t endure the trial-by-undergrowth to get here, I would never have discovered this patch of one of the forager’s finest prizes, fairly common back home in the Alps but the first time I’ve found them here in Ireland. The terms obstinate, stubborn, and pig-headed are washed from my thoughts and replaced with the more-favourable synonyms of steadfast and tenacious, and I move the peg with our name on it back up a few places, to somewhere near ferrets and rats. Once more enthusiastic and optimistic about the day, we are soon at the gigantic 5000 year old cairn at the summit of Knocknarea, a thick mist obscuring the incredible view. Broken snow crystals tear past on the howling wind, the thin needles trying desperately to form drifts behind the scant cover of heather and bog moss.
A couple of hours later and with 20 of today’s 25km behind us, we are about to reach the summit of Knocknarea for the second time, on our way back home. We’ve yomped over every inch of beach that the area has to offer, around Killaspugbrone and across the end of the runway, up and down every available sand dune past the Strandhill waterfront, through the sucking mud of a receding tide at Culleenamore Strand, and finally over the seaweed and slick rock of Oyster Lane towards the Glen road.
There is a sudden whiff of coal smoke in the wind as we pass the last cottage before the final climb back up Knocknarea, and the fine but persistent rain turns to flurries of hail, collecting on top of the thin drifts from the earlier attempt at snow. At the summit, I notice that Baldric looks much colder than I’ve ever seen him back home, and I realise with a start that I am, too – I’ve dressed, through habit, for the more familiar environment of the French Alps, and a dry cold, which, as long as you keep moving, isn’t really cold at all. But here on the Atlantic coast, today, it’s a savage wet cold, and we are chilled through to the bone. If we were planning to be out overnight, or even for just a few more hours, I would start getting worried, but as it is, we are only a few kilometres from a roaring log fire, a steaming bath, and a hot whisky, through a couple of fields and on the other side of the forest… that forest.
I know where the best place to cross into the trees is, I’ve used it before. But I have an idea forming in the back of my head, just an inkling of a notion, of a coloured line drawn on the map in my head, of a quicker way through the forest, back down to the road, and straight into the bathtub. I look at my dog shivering beside me as we trot along, and I decide that anything we can do to shave a few minutes off our travel time is a good idea, so I take a sharp left turn and plunge into the forest.
Minutes later, I am stranded in a roiling ocean of winter-hardened gorse, with huge thorny waves towering over my head. I’ve been hooked across the chest by a hanging snare of newly-grown bramble, a spindly green vine looking for something to latch onto and choke the life out of. The tiny razor-sharp barbs slice through my soaked thermal top, but my frozen, unresponsive fingers couldn’t unhook them if I tried. I pirouette slowly, clumsily backwards in an effort to disentangle myself, my useless arms held high above my head as a pathetic mewl dribbles out from between twisted lips.
“You fucking idiot,” Baldric hisses as he squeezes past me, rolling his eyes. “This way…”
The path out of our own private hell grows wider, and we are soon back on the established trail. I move the intelligence peg for the human race back down the scale, to somewhere far below dogs.