HitchhikingtoWestportBMW

A hitch-hikers guide to Ireland

 

GalwayTourBus

County Clare, Ireland – Wednesday, September 2010 

“I won’t be giving you a ride deary, but I’m happy to give you a lift!”  I blushed, immediately realizing what I had just said to the older gentleman bus driver. He was about 5’5 with sparkling blue eyes and wirey gray hair. He had a sharp twinkle in his eye. The passengers of the Galway Tours bus made their way back onto the bus we stood before, the wind was just picking up around the famous Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, Ireland.

Just 15 minutes prior, panic had begun to sink in on our optimistic adventure when my travel buddy Rob and I noticed the clouds moving in again. We were in the middle of nowhere, with no shelter. It had been a long day, we’d already hitch-hiked the 227km (141 miles) from Dingle, Ireland. Our goal was to get to Gort. There we planned to meet with Trevor, our Couchsurfing host that evening.

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The Cliffs of Moher

We were mid way through our journey across the West of Ireland and our day had begun in Dingle, a small town once described by the National Geographic Traveler as “the most beautiful place on earth.” We hadn’t been able to explore much,  we only had a week to get back to Belfast and still had lots in Ireland to see. We picked a route we hoped to be able to hitch from Dingle up towards Gort, and make our way by the Cliffs on the way. In Dingle that morning we’d created a sign that read; “2 tummin’ tinkers to Trá Lí.

Translated, that means two thumbing (aka hitch-hikers) tinkers (wanderers or travelers) to Tralee. Trá Lí is the actual Irish spelling of the town. Rob convinced me it was a great idea to write it that way. He was right, within minutes of holding up our white-board that morning at a round-a-bout at the edge of town, a man on his way to Tralee lurched to a halt in a little car.   I was excited to find that the man spoke fluent Irish himself, and that is exactly why he stopped for us. He was amused at our board.  I learned that the ability to speak Irish wasn’t terribly uncommon in that part of Ireland. Dingle is one of Ireland’s government-protected Irish (Gaelic)-speaking areas, called “Gaeltachts.” Dingle’s Irish name is Daingean Uí Chúis, which, to fit on signposts, is generally abbreviated to An Daingean (which sounds like ‘dangen’).

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Our sign to Tralee

Both Dingle and Tralee are within the County Kerry. The county is nestled deep in the Western corner of Ireland and has been less affected by outside influences, therefore able to preserve its rich culture of Irish language, traditional music, song and dance.

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Our driver dropped us off on a major street on the outskirts of the Tralee, just as we’d hoped. We found that if we wrote our final destination on our white board, we had far less of a chance of getting picked up. We then began to write destinations that were shorter distances away, along people’s daily routes.

Our goal that day was to get to the Cliffs of Moher and then later to Gort. Our stop in Tralee was probably the longest we’d have to wait throughout the trip. We waited with our thumbs out for at least a half an hour, eventually getting snapped up by a car that took us off to Talbert, where our ferry was. Some people picked us up casually on their way about their daily business. Some people were very excited to chat with a few young travelers for a few minutes, as if we were,”bringing the spirit of travel alive” again, and re-living their past adventures through us.

From Talbert we planned to take the Killimer ferry across the river Shannon.

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The Killimer Ferry

The Killimer ferry is primarily a commuter-car ferry. Ferries charge a flat rate per car, regardless of the amount of passengers, but each foot passenger is required to pay €4.50.  As we walked towards the ferry loading area, a couple about to drive on board saw our hitch-hiking sign and offered to let us ride with them, saving us the foot passenger fee. We had to chuckle at a pair of less fortunate, rough looking female travlers who we had also seen hitch-hiking earlier, they walked on board the ferry and again had to search for a hitch immediately after stepping off the ferry. Showering, looking and smelling clean is of the utmost importance while hitch-hiking.

The couple who picked us up was amused with our hitch-hiking travels and they themselves were just returning from holidays, and they offered to give us a lift to the Cliffs. They also asked if we had heard about, “a man who hitch-hiked Ireland with a refrigerator” a few years prior. The fact was, we’d heard about “the man who hitch-hiked Ireland with a refrigerator,” by nearly every person that had picked us up on the trip. Nobody seemed to know his name, but everyone knew who he was. We hadn’t, but we vowed to look up his travels after our own were over.

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They dropped us off at the entrance to the famous Cliffs. You may remember the Cliffs of Moher as they were featured in the movie The Princess Bride (in the scene where Westley, Buttercup, Inigo Montoya, Fezzik and Wallace Shawn scale a huge Cliffside) as the Cliffs of Insanity. They were also seen in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009), among other movies.

After about an hour or so, we noticed the tourists dissipating back into their vehicles and tour buses. We were far from a major travel route, and decided we should pick up the pace to find our way back towards Gort. We began our jig, all smiles, with our marker board as the tourists walked by, in hopes of finding a lift. The onlookers smiled at us. They looked at us and thought of their own kids. Apparently some of the guests on a Galway Tours bus had asked their bus driver if we might be able to tag along on their tour for a short while.

The driver asked for a vote on the bus, and laughing and clapping they all agreed and welcomed us onto their bus for 45 minutes of their tour, for free. They had been visiting all the major sites of the area since early that morning. This is where the bus driver finally corrected my misuse of the world “ride”, for “lift.”

A phrase I am still careful about using.

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Our Couchsurfing host Trevor was expecting us before dark. Out of common courtesy we tried not to arrive at any of our scheduled hosts’ homes after 6 PM but that proved more tricky on a trip where hitch-hiking was the main form of transportation. We were never in complete control of our arrival times. My request to stay with Trevor had been very last minute, but he’d happily accepted. Last minute hostels weren’t even an option on our budget so on the off-chance that we lost our Couch-surfing stay, we would have been quite out of luck. That is the risk that sometimes goes along with Couchsurfing, although I’ve not yet met a host that backed out on plans at the last minute. Rob was originally hesitant to the idea. I addressed the initial,“You mean … you stay in the homes of people you’ve never met?”

Rob has had his fair share of travels though too, living in Middle Eastern countries, he has always had a good sense of wanderlust. Coincidentally Rob and I met in a chat room at the beginning of internet chatroom craze. We both used the ever popular MSN messenger, eventually becoming pen pals. As a kid from a small town on the border of Mexico, where “foreign country” to me was Mexico, chatting with Rob had opened up the world outside of the United States. We began to send each other letters and small trinkets like four leaf clovers, of worlds we had only heard about at school, or in movies. Through him and his friend Julie who I later met, Ireland and Europe became real, tangible things to me.

Before graduating high school Rob had made me promise that if I ever did make it over to Ireland I had to stay at the Highway’s Hotel, near the small town of Larne, Northern Ireland. My interest in Europe grew as I got older and befriended the exchange students at my high school. Eventually my family was able to host an exchange student during my senior year of high school. In 2005, from money saved up from livestock sales in FFA, I was able to book my own first trip abroad. I visited my exchange student from Germany and her family. From there I flew over to England and then traveled to Scotland and finally Ireland and Larne in Northern Ireland with my Mom and Stepdad. Rob and I have been friends ever since. Doing “crazy things” on a whim isn’t uncommon for either of us.

The Galway Tours bus let out at a main intersection near Gort. We kicked off our packs by a small lake by the road, we called up Trevor and waited for him to arrive. His house was a bit far for us to walk to, he’d said.  My pack was getting heavy anyway; I hadn’t originally planned on hitch-hiking when I left for Ireland. It was a spontaneous adventure I was more than happy to begin, but before my infatuation with lightweight backpacking, and before investing in good hiking shoes.

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Our Galway Tour bus from the cliffs

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Waiting for Trevor in Gort

Eventually we saw a little van bopping down the road, slowing as it neared us. Trevor was happy to meet us, and helped us pile into his little van.

Trevor had obtained his little farm through Squatter’s Rights. He’d lived on the land for many years, sleeping originally in old ruins and eventually transforming the old ruins into the hand-built, comfortable and elaborate straw bale home he lives in today. The house’s only water source is the rain water it collects, and as a vegan, Trevor survives on his own green house produce, occasionally buying treats like fair-trade coffee, oats and beans from the local market. He uses a generator in the evenings to check his email and answer Couchsurfing requests. Staying there sparked my curiosity and research in the vegan lifestyle and diet, fair-trade purchases and the concept of living “off the grid.”

His house was also a WWOOF’ing (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) farm. He and his other guests, including workers who had stayed there for months prepared an elaborate vegan feast that night, unlike anything I’d ever tasted. Rob and I were offered  the entire upstairs of the house, the “game and wine making room.” We slept on extra mattresses that were stored upstairs. The next morning, I learned how to use my very first French Press.

Exhausted mentally and physically, we decided to take a rest day at the straw house and not leave until the following morning. Trevor and one of the WWOOFing guests needed to go into town, and we were left to enjoy the day on the farm. I relaxed in the best bath of my life, in the rain water bathtub. A large window lit up the room and the green bathtub, adorned with bottles of soaps left by travelers. Travelers have a way of leaving unnecessary items during their travels behind and I wished I’d brought something I could leave behind.  I made use of some Australian guests’ left-behind bottles of tea tree soaps and soaked for at least a half an hour. Later, WWOOFing guest Diana from Columbia showed us her favorite path through the berries and fields surrounding the property, she’d been there for most of the summer. We dawned some spare wellies from the mud room and set out, sloshing through the local paths and indulging in the juicy wild berries that sprouted out from bushes between the sheep lined hills.

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Trevor’s hand-built straw bale home

Well-rested, clean and refreshed after two nights at the straw bale home, Trevor dropped us off in a parking lot in town. “You two are welcome back any time your travels bring you my way again,” he said, handing over my over-sized backpack from the back of the van. We parted with a hug.

With thumbs out we were on our way towards Westport and the famous Croagh Patrick mountain. The hike and the historical mountain had always intrigued Rob. He wasn’t a bit tired setting out along the roads that morning. Our last hitch on the two hour, 108km (67 mile) drive from Gort to Westport was in a brand new BMW 5 series. We were lucky, the driver, John, lived near Croagh Patrick and hiked it often. He dropped us off right at the entrance of the mountain in the early afternoon, he wished us luck.

“Look, if you need anything, you two don’t hesitate to give me ring, alright?” He left us with his phone number.

Trevor's beloved straw bale, rain-water run home in Gort

Trevor’s beloved straw bale, rain-water run home in Gort

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John and the BMW to Westport

My pack was much too heavy for me to carry to the 762 meter (2500 ft) summit of Croagh Patrick. I wasn’t in hiking shape at the time, and we were getting a late start. In the parking lot was a small building run by a woman selling hiking sticks, boots, guidebooks, rosary beads and water bottles to tourists. Rob found out she’d lived in Northern Ireland right near his hometown, what a small world it was! She was originally from Austria.

“Oh you won’t be making it to the top with that there!” she said, pointing to my pack. Her Irish accent was intermingled with an Austrian one. “You could leave it here if you like,” she offered.  She saw my obvious hesitation. “I give you my word it’ll be down here waiting for you when you’re done.”

How smart would be it be to leave my valuable positions with a complete stranger while I spent four hours hiking to the top of a mountain? I asked myself. About as smart as it is to put my life in the hands of a stranger driving a car. Wasn’t that the basis of the entire trip anyway? To trust strangers?

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Croagh Patrick from a distance.

“I give you my word, traveler’s honor,” she said again. “And if you two aren’t back by the time I close up at 4, I’ll have your pack waiting at the Campbell’s, the pub at the bottom of the trail. Just tell them the name of yer friend’s town.”

Rob put a few heavy things in my bag, but decided to carry his 40 some pound pack up the mountain, he was already very fit and could probably have run up the mountain, without a pack. I didn’t have much of a choice. I picked out my lighter valuables; inhaler, passports, money etc. and handed over the pack. We bought bottles of water and went on our way.

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Robh eading up Croagh Patrick, backpack and all.

At the start of the trail stands a statue of Saint Patrick, erected in 1928 by Reverend Father Patterson with money he collected in America towards the rebuilding of Saint Mary’s Church in Westport. The mountain is iconical to the religious experience of the Irish – be it Christian or pagan. It is said that Saint Patrick (a saint from England) came to the mountain to fast for forty days, as a token of his covenant with God so that he would be allowed to judge the Irish people at the Last Judgment. The story goes, that he also ventured, barefoot, to the top to “drive the snakes out of Ireland.” Ireland doesn’t have any snakes, but the saying was referring to the pagans which he “converted” to Christianity from the top.

Still today pilgrims will hike to the top barefoot, to feel the pain and suffering of Saint Patrick. We saw one pilgrim on the way up, skillfully and quickly picking his way over sharp rocks. There had been lots of glass on the trail, carelessly strewn along the trail. The top is the hardest, though. The steep and slippery slope will test the pilgrim or hiker (even more so in great wind or rain) after an already very strenuous ascent. At the top we rested at the church, said our blessings, enjoyed a snack and made our way back down with the last of the hikers. Absolutely knackered (as they say), we headed towards Campbell’s Pub. The little shop where I left my backpack was already closed. It had taken longer than expected to make it to the top.

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“ I’d like to pick up a backpack… a woman said she’d leave it here if we came back from the mountain after she’d closed,” I said to the bartender inside Campbell’s.

“Password?” he asked, with cheeky grin.

I looked at Rob, he laughed. He told the man the name of something that he and the woman had discussed. The bartender nodded and produced my backpack from behind the bar, just as I’d left it.

We decided it prudent to indulge in the post-hike Guinness and got a table in the pub, it was apparently tradition. The bar’s walls were covered in old pictures from the area, pictures of people who had hiked the mountain and stashed with other dive bar memorabilia. A few local older men could tell we had just hiked the mountain and inquired as to how our first time up “The Reek” had gone.

“Well!” we answered.

“It had actually been easier than I had thought, and the weather was perfect.”

“It really was the perfect day for a hike,” one said.

They offered to buy us drinks, and ordered a round of Guinness. I watched as the bartender pushed the tap down and filled the mug to to perfection, letting the frothy brew settle for some four minutes before handing it over.

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“For the Guinness you seek after the Reek” at Campbell’s pub

The men were curious about our adventures. “You know there was a man a few years back who hitch-hiked Ireland with a refrigerator,” one of the men began. We smiled and nodded, “so we heard…”.  They began to inquire about the USA and the latest news, and they told us stories about visiting America or relatives they had there. They told us stories of love and women. I promised to send them postcards from the US when I returned home.

When it was time to begin making our way towards our Couchsurfing house for the evening, they paid our bill and offered to give us a quick lift back to the heart of Westport.

Rob remembered that he had left his marker board pens in the BMW from earlier. Luckily, John had left us with his number and Rob called to see if we might be able to get them from him.

“He said he can meet us back at this payphone tomorrow morning.” Coincidentally the payphone we were at was a well-known one, right in the middle of Westport.

Following our map, and not wanting to pay for a cab, we headed towards Partry. It began to sprinkle along the walk and my converse shoes soaked through, the sun was already gone for the day. We found Zizzey’s house eventually, but wished we hadn’t had to walk the long, wet road. Our wheel-chair bound Couchsurfing host welcomed us into his tiny wheelchair-access friendly home with hot teas. He asked us about our journey and shared stories of other surfers who he’d shared his home with.  We were cold, wet, and tired and his constant smoking filled the room like a blocked chimney. He wouldn’t ever say much about himself, simply explaining that he was from some other planet (partly joking, with a hint of seriousness in his voice).

CouchsurfingWithZizzey

Couchsurfing with Zizzey

“Think of the most outrageous kind of music you can think of and I’ll bet you I’ve got it on my computer,” he told us.

Zizzey prided himself on having every kind of music imaginable on his computer. He explained that he enjoyed exchanging music with his traveling couch-surfers. He’d gathered quite a collection over the years, too. Rob and I both looked at each other, and shrugged, unable to immediately think of anything.

“Didgeridoo music,” I said, remembering my strange love for the instrument.

Zizzey’s eyes lit up.

“You’re in luck! Not only do I have didgeridoo….,” he thumbed through folders of CDs and produced this:

We listened to didgeridoo and more absurd music long into the night, happy just to be sitting down, but eager to sleep. That night we crammed ourselves into a single twin sized bed, neither of us wanting to spare a night on a mattress after such a long and strenuous day.

The next morning we thanked Zizzey for the wonderful evening and rang a cab for the trip back into Wesport. Some comforts just had to be afforded. We nibbled on small bags of oats we’d brought along in case of emergencies. We found that carrying our own little bag of oats was the best way to curb hunger, and could become a meal if needed. Sometimes we were offered elaborate breakfasts by our hosts, and some hosts have so many guests on an ongoing basis that it would be impossible to afford to feed them all!

Back at the telephone booth, John arrived right on time. Along with the markers, he brought us each a set of Saint Patrick rosary beads.

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Westport, Ireland

“Have you two had breakfast yet? Take this €20 and have yourself breakfast at Ring For Coffee, just up that road there, my treat.”

We tried not to accept, but he insisted and we thanked him graciously, in fact still quite hungry. At Ring for Coffee I ordered the full, proper Irish breakfast feast, as did Rob. The meal came complete with two sausage links, fresh Irish bacon strips, eggs, a buttered slice of bread, Irish black pudding and soda bread. Our servers were wonderful and friendly.

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Breakfast at Ring for Coffee

We savored the breakfast; it was about the last stop on our adventure across the West of Ireland. From Westport our goal was to head back up towards the north of Ireland and back to Belfast, where our journey had begun. While the tensions between Northern Ireland (a part of the United Kingdom since it was separated from the South in 1921 by the British Parliament) still exist, I always felt generally safe when traveling between the two, even though my first visit to Northern Ireland in 2005 was met with two bomb scares while using public transportation going between Belfast (in N. Ireland) and Dublin (the capital of Ireland.)

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Belfast, Northern Ireland – Monday, September 2010

When we set out on our hitch-hiking adventure about 5 days prior, early on a Monday morning, we took a bus from Belfast to Dublin, about a 2 hour and 20 minute bus ride south. Our goal was to meet amazing people, have an epic adventure and see as much of the gorgeous West coast of Ireland as possible. I was out to prove a point. We hopped on another bus from Dublin straight down to Cork. Rob slept, and I didn’t want to miss any of the castle remains. My nose left imprints in the foggy bus windows from looking so hard for castle remains on the long drive. We arrived early in Cork, the sun had come out and we hopped on another bus towards the center of the city.

The name “Cork” comes from the Irish word corcach meaning “swamp.” It is the second largest city in the Republic of Ireland and the island’s third most populous city, with a population of some 274,000.

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We wandered through the city, through fish markets and town squares. Hunger eventually got the better of us, and I really wanted to stop at an authentic pub. Cork felt much less touristy than Dublin. We found one, and inside also found a 80+ year old authentic Cork native, who spoke with such a thick accent, I was unable to decipher the words in his stories. Rob was so enchanted with the bright old man that he wanted to talk with him, and went and sat with him. I followed suit. The old man was happy to have someone listen to his stories. He chattered on at least a half an hour. I really only understood about 7 words and every once in awhile he’d look towards me expectantly and I’d nod and smile and he’d chuckle and continue on with his story. Rob confessed afterwards to only understanding about 50% of what he’d said. The accents from county to county in Ireland can be vastly different.

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Fish for sale in Cork

Tommy Tiernan gives a good example of the Cork accent struggle here:

Back at the bus station in Cork we met a traveler from Germany. She spoke English well, but nothing could have prepared her for the Cork accent. She couldn’t understand a word at the train station and was standing at a counter, asking anyone around if they spoke German. I offered to help and translated what the travel agent was trying to say. Coincidentally, she had stayed at the Couchsurfing house we were headed to that evening. She found her way, and we found our bus. We took the city’s local bus from one end of Cork to the other and stopped off near a round-a-bout on the road towards Bantry. It was our first hitch-hiking experience. At first we just stuck our thumbs out, standing side by side and smiling with “BANTRY” written in large letters on the marker board. Nobody stopped.

We began to hop and dance around, smiling and waving at people, pointing out our sign. Our act turned into a sort of Irish jig as cars zipped by and laughed and smiled. Some shrugged their shoulders apologetically, apparently not going where we wanted to go.

We were clean, “normal looking” young people and remained confident. Apparently we tugged at the heartstrings of a woman who had kids our age and we got our first lift. “Why not,” she said. From then on, we always danced with our sign when trying to find a lift.

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Couchsurfing in Bantry

A traveler's night out in Bantry.

New friends – travelers’ night out in Bantry.

In Bantry we called our first host of the trip who lived just outside the little town, in Ahakista.  It would be Rob’s first Couchsurfing experience. Jan (said like “yawn”) picked us up in town and drove us some 10 minutes towards the ocean. He was from Germany. He was beginning an organic farm at his house by the sea and had plenty of room for WWOOFers, welcoming the occasional Couchsurfers as well.  He offered us a shared upstairs room with large skylights overlooking the ocean. Neatly folded and freshly washed sheets and blankets had been prepared for us, and sat atop two twin beds. The other guests were cooking dinner for everyone that night and invited us to join. Afterwards we all piled into Jan’s little van/truck and went out to listen to music at the nearby pub.

That morning I awoke early and watched the sun rise over the ocean and the field of sheep just below the property. The clouds hovered above, and Jan offered us coffee and a lift towards the Ring of Kerry (a scenic touristy detour we were hoping to take) on his way to work. We were dropped off on a quiet road in the middle of nowhere that connected with part of the the 179 km (111 mile)  Ring of Kerry.

We walked a long way that day. Rob wrote “MYTH AND LEGEND – Kerry Ring” on our white board and danced along the roadside,  squished between large bushes and the tiny road with little shoulder room.

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Eventually, as always, one little car’s brake lights appeared, slowed and pulled over. We skipped up to the little black rental car and met Jet and Annabelle, two gals from California taking their own scenic tour of the Ring of Kerry.

“Why not?” they said.

We squished ourselves and our big packs into their tiny rental car and joined in for a short bit of their vacation. As promised, Rob told tales of the area and of the things he knew about Ireland as we rode along, stopping for photos and lastly a beer at pub at the end of the route. Being from Northern Ireland, his accent provided an extra treat for the California girls’ Irish adventure. They wished us luck on our travels and went on their way. We still had a long way to go before we arrived at our stopping point that day, eventually finding one crazy driver from Prague who was our only concern on the trip. With blood shot eyes, he sped and twisted around the tiny Irish roads towards the sea.

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Annabelle, Rob and Jet

Jet and Annabelle weren’t the only generous Americans to offer us a lift that week. Back up on the final leg of the trip from Westport to Belfast, we rode with at least five different drivers, it was a full day of hitch-hiking. We’d met a couple from the US on their way to visit their Irish relatives. They happily picked us up for a short distance. One woman picked us up with her 9-year-old daughter, just coming back from a dentist appointment. Rob sat in the back seat with the little girl who was elated to be sitting next to a real hitch-hiker. When we arrived at the girl’s school, she burst out the car, excited to tell her class that her Mom had picked up real hitch-hikers, and one of them was an American! The woman later told us that when she was younger, she  hitch-hiked all the time.

“It was much more common back then, I don’t know what happened. You just never see it anymore.”

I believe we made a positive impact on the generous and kind people we met along our trip; the kind souls who opened their hearts for conversation, a quick lift, a hearty breakfast, a warm bed, a beer, or a lookout for my backpack. Some of them had never gotten along with American tourists and I was happy to dispel their stereotypes. Others were happy to be able to chat with a young person from Northern Ireland for the first time.  We are all only human and I believe that we all have an inherent goodness that begs to reach out and help a fellow human. Perhaps we paved the way for a few other hopeful hitch-hikers in Ireland by setting our own kind and courteous example. Either way, it made a tremendous impact on my trust and faith in humanity and its simple tendency to lean towards the good. I think that we are all we have, and we are the first step in making change. If we can’t band together as humans, what more can we do?

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