The Kerry Camino

The first morning we walked in earnest the bleeding hearts dangled from the bushes, dripping dew and glinting deep fuchsia in the soft light. The one-lane road wound out of the village, serpentine, up a hill and past a paddock. I stopped every few feet snapping photos: a line of blackbirds on a wire over a stone cottage; a spiderweb dotted with orbs of crystalline mist; a gate ajar to an emerald field.

It was the late summer of 2017 and our faithful guides had charted a course along the Dingle Peninsula on the western coast of Ireland. That morning I was thankful my shutter-clicking ways kept me firmly at the rear of our little crew. I wiped the tears that welled up and spilled over and nobody caught me out. It was so damp outside they probably wouldn’t have noticed.

I had just finished a biology degree and a summer job as a lab technician. For three months, I spent ten-hour days hand-feeding baby chickadees, wangling them into eating with ten-inch forceps and well-timed mealworm drops. I ran blood samples through centrifuges and pipetted until my hands were sore and my neck ached.

The lab job was a waypoint. For years I thought I wanted to be a doctor. The only way to give back is to help people heal, right? One small problem: it drained me. I couldn’t find a way to make it appealing, to bring out my light again. My advisor suggested science writing, but I was not convinced.

I heard about the trek while I was deep in the muck of all this indecision. Mostly, I wanted to get back to Ireland, but there was a new-age component—this concept of “gifts”—that I wasn’t thrilled about. Gut it out in all the self-help sessions, I told myself, and you’ll get yourself seven solid days of guided walks.

I have a deep aversion to “self-help.” If I couldn’t get over whatever obstacle was in my way with sheer force of will and a dash of stubbornness, then perhaps it wasn’t worth doing. Happiness? Fulfillment? That comes with success, doesn’t it?

The day before the Core Gift interviews, I asked Bruce: “Is this bullshit?” He laughed at me. Or at least, I think he did. He should have.

It isn’t. I can’t mark that time in Ireland as the exact moment my life “turned around,” or tell you it was the end of my struggles or that it gave me perfect clarity of mind.

I can tell you: walking along those gorgeous hills, past peat bogs, over small mountains dotted with beehive huts like fossilized unfinished igloos, I did find a sense of the numinous. I started to feel the nagging, abrasive points in my life, like pebbles in a shoe. The kind that morph into blisters if you don’t soothe them and get rid of the rocks and rest for a while.

In the gift interview I saw a tiny glint of what could be good about all the things I’d been using against myself. I saw that the stories I told myself weren’t necessarily true. It was as if the trek found something both achingly fundamental and hidden in plain sight—like an old painting you inherited and shoved up in the attic—and held it up to the light.
“See? That’s what it could look like if you dust it off and bring it out in the sun.”

Then the restoration began.

— DJ McCauley, Trekker