Social Climber: Ilsa Carter Explores The Benefits Of Hill Walking

ILSA CARTER’s attitude to altitude changed when she discovered the joy of a GENTLE WEEKEND CLIMB with friends …

Picture a penny-pinching Protestant, living with a writer, who wouldn’t pay the pittance for posh pilates professors, spending weeks of lashing rain cooped up inside watching her waistband expand. I justified my title as literary concubine, rising in time to make lunch after a catatonic hour spent solo over coffee. I had few friends, and eked out an existence, reading and writing, with weak attempts at domesticity, on the bleating edge of the bog. When that rare someone did ring the rickety landline, the old cottage was so long that by the time I pitter-pattered the length of it and panted into an ancient apparatus, Hello? the caller, sceptical of the crackling connection, had hung up, leaving the device dead and dangling from my fist, like strange fruit. I filled the silence intently studying tattered paperback books about yoga in front of a glowing turf fire, then balanced on my head ruminating that my spindly neck might snap. I would cash in my chips and be carried out on hazel rods. They would lay me to rest in savasana, the corpse pose, beside Cashel Man’s bog body in the National Museum of Dublin. Just because I’m dead doesn’t mean I’ll start sleeping beneath my station.

My body was surely a temple, but my ardour was for the cooldown, which had built up to a bottle of vodka a day. I was earnest about the importance of Martinis. Normally not so inclined to socialise sober, it seemed the more I drank, the more interesting other people got. Hemmed in by my ways, I did get cabin fever. On the odd occasion I felt compelled to wallow with fellow mammals, I would hang over my hair of the dog all day in a dark pub. I wondered if hill walking made you old or gay, while satisfied that yoga made me stout.

Born below sea level, I get anxious about alligators – I’ve seen moccasins in Louisiana swamps. I writhed when a learned publican enlightened me that no snakes slither hither, but he’s glimpsed eels wriggle at will from river to rill over bone dry land, a veritable mass migration of vertebrates under a moon. I looked into his eyes and believed every word when he ended by recommending them grilled.

Could I possibly consider taking the same route as char and trout, wading the arctic waters left over from the last ice age? Glacial lakes come in a couple of categories. There are intimidating tarns like Lough Tay with its foamy shore, reminiscent of a Guinness pint and there’s a man who dares and is able to water-ski perched on a chair and table, in a prized ribbon lake known as Lough Dan. Hidden high in the hills is a lovely little Loch Ness, a romantic corrie lake in the shape of a heart. If I escort a coterie of kindred spirits up, overcome with desire, they tear off their togs and leap in, leaving me to keep pondering if deep is not the opposite of dumb.

More bold than buoyant, I sometimes breeze by a 250-year-old bathing institution James Joyce christened the Scrotumtightening Forty Foot, on my way to “thank God it’s Friday” at Finnegan’s pub where I drink in the smiles and smell the see and be scene. Sandycove swimmers are the salt of the earth, pillars of society and like Lot’s wife, I avert my eyes when they drop their disguise. Declan, an octogenarian in Speedos, paddled over the impressive swell to persuade me to take the plunge. Taking my hand, he enticed me to the water’s edge. I stonewalled, my eyes darting to Martello Tower. I cowered, looking back at him like a reluctant rubber ducky while he bent down, performing a biblical ablution followed by a bellyflop. Repeating his solumn ritual, he trilled, “Try my solution then come clean out of the water, you’ll be so chilled and thrilled to dive in again! It’s all on the net, I put it there myself!”  My doddering pedagogue threw in the towel and petered out just in time for me to catch Caviston’s fish of the day. I was the one that got away for a late lunch date with a film director on whom I dote.

I’m more likely to tread in a tight troupe right up Tonalagee. It’s probably the peak that changed my attitude toward altitude, when I learnt it meant, “Arse to the wind”. Mingling with like-minded individuals at the cairn can feel like a cocktail party minus the malingering side effects. Native of a town that took turns with Detroit as America’s crime capital, I’d never have walked on my own but I bonded with a diplomat’s wife at a dinner party. Sometime between dessert and the cheese she entreated me into an alpine excursion the following day. Of course, I awoke with a sense of dread and a tiny tartaric sweater of tequila scum on every tooth. In an oversized Aran island guernsey and ripped pantyhose, I scrambled to scrape last night’s mascara off my face while skoaling an espresso.

Underestimating the danger unleashed in the hills, the brave soul dragged her dachshund down for our trudge. Her harebrained dog nosedived into a bog hole, barking from the abyss. While I dangled my elfin friend by the ankle into the nether regions to retrieve her fretting pet, we agreed my buddy needed to buy a bigger breed. She purchased a puppy pedigreed back to the Battle of Hastings. The soon colossal canine was bred for carnage and, immune to noblesse oblige, endangered every species on four legs. When untethered terriers worry sheep, they trigger frontier justice, often a posse in hot pursuit, aiming for a shot at Spot. Too big to flail, she set sail with a microchip on her shoulder for another port of call.

Nettle is the Viet Cong of the plant world, which is why Wicklow is no walk in the park. It’s not New York, where a designer dress gets you a decent table in a restaurant. It’s not anything like Los Angeles, where you drive so far and you are the car you arrive in. Here, sustainable saplings are the ultimate status symbol, and if you aren’t indigenous you can at least be erudite. Dorothy Parker said, “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think,” so that’s why I tramp with twin Trinity-trained botanists, who each teach an entire taxonomy of flora from sphagnum moss to carnivorous bladderwort to body parts buried in the bog cotton. The mushrooms are more magic when we walk off-piste on The Wicklow Way, these wet windy days.

As for me, there’ll be no more carte Blanche Dubois, a gargoyle gargling grape juice at noon, just a prodigal raisin in the sun finding her raison d’être on higher ground.

Ilsa Carter

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