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Even when you're lost, Ireland's Wicklow Way surrounds you in beauty

By KELLY SMITH | STAR TRIBUNE (MINNEAPOLIS) Published: September 14, 2016

I trudged up the pine tree-lined trail, pulled out my map and pressed my finger onto the red-dotted line zigzagging across the page. I willed it to tell me where I was.

Just two hours into a hike in the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland, I was already lost.

It seemed a dubious start. My four-day trip was supposed to be a find-myself-in-the-wilderness solo hike to cope with turning 30.

This escape for my self-perceived life crisis was also a return to the country I had fallen in love with while studying abroad in Cork. Then, I was a broke college student focused on pubs and sightseeing. Now, nearly 10 years later, I wanted to immerse myself in the countryside — with a few pints along the way. What better place to find inner peace than in the scenic Irish mountains with their picturesque ocean vistas, bog-topped hills and lush green fields?

I crossed the land on the Wicklow Way, Ireland’s first and oldest “way-marked” trail. Established in the early 1980s, the trail skirts between parts of Wicklow Mountains National Park, crosses private farm fields, winds along curvy narrow roads and becomes one with old gravel logging roads. Hikers meet an obstacle course of sorts: climbs over wooden stiles, or fences. Only 40 miles south of Dublin, it’s one of Ireland’s most popular trails.

I would hike only half of its roughly 80 miles — the pastoral northern section — and stop overnight at B&Bs.

After spending time on the crowded streets of Dublin and the iconic Cliffs of Moher on Ireland’s west coast, my first walking tour would be a quiet escape from the masses. I’d booked through a self-guided walking tour company; its driver dropped me off at an ascent up the Irish mountains, which are sweat-inducing.

With a backpack crammed with essentials and a mission to trek back to Dublin, I inhaled deeply and began.

My confidence quickly waned. The trail seemed to split at an old logging road. As I glanced between my map and a guide sheet, I began to doubt my navigational skills. With no one to consult, I had to trust my own choice: the trail that wound its way across the hilltops.

I was rewarded with the sweet scent of pine needles filling the cool air, and an abrupt crack of thunder.

Raindrops sprinkled as I descended to the misty valley below, passing towering pines, gurgling creeks and bubbling waterfalls.

Suddenly, the remote trail put me smack in Glendalough, Irish for the “valley of two lakes.” So much for escaping the crowds. Conversations in Spanish, French and German filled the air as droves of tourists marveled at a monastic site founded in the sixth century. I dropped my backpack with a thump at the first of the peak-framed lakes and took in the scene myself. Water lapped at the conifer-covered shoreline as a yellow Labrador darted into the water to chase ducks.

Beyond the tour buses, I climbed over a wood stile into a dense forest and was alone once again.

At the top of a steep hill, I caught my breath at the impressive 360-degree view of the lakes below and rolling hills. Gorse — yellow-flowered prickly bushes that stood as tall as cornstalks — filled the air with its coconut-like scent and brightened the path.

I clutched my map and laminated guide sheets that had simple instructions such as “Take a left when you reach the forest” or “Pass a stone wall.”

Next: “Look for Scots Pines.” I puzzled over the trail that wound through a forest and regretted not googling an image of a Scots Pine. Finally, I stumbled onto a narrow road and held my breath as cars zoomed by on their way to the village of Laragh.

“Lovely day for a walk,” a bicyclist yelled as he passed me on the road.

But this was no walk in the park. Sheep grazing on the green fields cried out and I became awash in self-doubt again. I didn’t know where I was, but I continued on my way.

Eventually I spotted one of the trail’s markers with a yellow hiker symbol and arrow partly hidden amid the brush.

When I reached my destination — Roundwood, one of the country’s highest villages in elevation — I filled the remaining afternoon hours with a walk around a reservoir that supplies water to Dublin. Then I plopped down at a pub below my six-room B&B.

“Maw maw maw, you know what I mean?” an 80-something-year-old man on his second pint of Guinness said to me. Between his lack of teeth and thick accent, I could barely make out a word. I smiled and ordered fish and chips.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“America,” I said.

“And your boyfriend isn’t with you?” he asked.

“No, I’m hiking, er, walking alone,” I answered.

The small village of Roundwood has several pubs. Inside one that claimed to be Ireland’s highest village pub, a poster called for extras for the “Vikings” TV show that is filmed in the region. Across the street, a traditional band played next to a fireplace in a dimly lit pub that felt like a living room.

I sidled up to the bar, mesmerized by the bartender pouring pint after pint of Guinness, the nitrogen bubbles cascading before he topped it off.

I ordered a local beer called the Wicklow Wolf.

“Can I ask you a stupid question?” I said to the bartender, who looked like Bing Crosby: “There are no wolves in Ireland, right?”

He smiled. “Never seen one in all my years.”

I took that to be an Irish “no.” Then the hum of the pub chatter hushed as a man sang in Gaelic. It’s a special traditional song, the bartender whispered to me.

As the song ended, a young woman edged up to order a round of Guinness. “You’re not alone, are you?” she asked, adding, “Oh, you’re coming with me.”

She ushered me to her table and introduced me to her friends.

The bartender patiently waited past closing time as pints emptied. My newfound friend beckoned me by a nickname, shouting “America!” Together, we all stumbled into the cool, pitch-black country night, the group singing “American Pie” as I waved goodbye.

Alone again in the brisk morning, I set out on an 11-mile hike.

“Retrace your steps,” the guide said. Easy enough, I thought, stashing the map. I passed an old bridge, a forest and sheep.

But after 45 minutes, worry set in. The map confirmed it: I had strayed far from the route. Irritated with myself for missing the turn, I panicked into a hurried jog down a steep hill.

In the story “P.S., I Love You,” a handsome Irish man emerges to help the lost protagonist. But real life isn’t so poetic. No cars or people were in sight. I was on my own.

Again, I passed the old bridge, then the forest, then the sheep. The morning had slipped by.

But it’s hard to stay sour on the Wicklow Way, where every turn of the trail offers surprising scenery and breathtaking beauty.

I stumbled across a Viking encampment — or a modern version of one — with vans and RVs marked for extras or crew for the TV show. I gawked at Lough Tay, a narrow lake on the Guinness estate that looked like a pint of the famous stout, topped with white sand. And I squinted at Powerscourt Waterfall, Ireland’s tallest, as it streamed down a hill.

“Are you waiting for someone?” asked the woman at my B&B the next day.

“Nope, it’s just me,” I said as she cleared away a second place setting and set down coffee, toast and poached eggs.

After breakfast, I hobbled on, wincing as blisters festered on my toes. At the top of a peak, I refueled with trail mix and took in the stunning view: I had traded the mountains for the sea, the emerald Wicklow hills behind me and the blue Irish Sea ahead, sparkling under a cloudless day.

Up ahead was my finish line: Dublin. I swelled with pride, about to finish my first solo hike, leaving me empowered to do more.

At Marlay Park, a suburban park, mothers pushed strollers while families lined up at a red ice cream truck. I interrupted a couple and asked them to take a photograph of me by the trail sign.

“Did you do it by yourself?” the woman asked.

Yep, I said, pointing out my route.

They offered me a ride to their house for tea and water, then directed me to a bus.

“Cheers,” they called out as I swung my backpack over my shoulders and waved, disappearing into the city.

A runner jogs by on the Wicklow Way near Glenmalure. The trail is the oldest marked trail in Ireland and stretches about 130 kilometers, or 80 miles, south of Dublin. (Kelly Smith/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

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