Fate, magic, and Skellig Michael

The last few vacations I’ve taken have taught me a little something about travel experiences: They aren’t all created equal. I’m grateful for every single moment of every single trip I’ve ever taken, of course, and I’ve done some pretty swoon-worthy things over the years: a helicopter ride in Hawaii, tea at Kensington Palace, climbing to the top of the Eiffel Tower.

But the secret is this: There’s an upper echelon of travel experiences that goes beyond “I did a really cool thing in a really cool place once.” These are the travel experiences that I would never casually toss into a list like the one above. These are the travel experiences that are so exclusive, so unreal, so moving that they deserve the story treatment.

I can count on one hand the life-altering travel experiences that I’ve had so far: The first was exploring haunted Dresden on my own and getting a big hug from a German woman at the end. The second was camping in the Serengeti in Tanzania and almost sharing a tent with a Cape buffalo (another story for another time). The third was visiting Skellig Michael in Ireland.


Skellig Michael is a tiny island seven miles off the coast of the Ring of Kerry. About 1,500 years ago, monks built an enclave at the top of the island—and a precarious set of stairs leading up to it—and they lived there for hundreds of years. Today, the island’s only inhabitants are a rotating team of researchers (three are on the island at one time) and an enormous colony of seabirds. It’s a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site—so much so that only 180 people are allowed to visit each day in order to limit human impact.

To say Skellig is rugged would be an understatement. There’s no certainly no gift shop, and no bathroom either, not even a guardrail on the homemade stairs. You keep to the left on your way up and you go slowly, or you risk plummeting into the angry white waves of the North Atlantic.

Sean and I made a reservation to visit three months before our trip to Ireland. (And even then it was tough to find a boat with space available, since only 13 are licensed to go.) But that didn’t mean our visit was guaranteed—the one “dock” on the island is a small set of stone steps that the sea can easily swallow up, so conditions have to be just right for boats to go out. What’s more, because the island isn’t designed for visitors, too much wind or too much rain means you’re staying on the mainland where it’s safe. What I’m saying is, visiting Skellig was the thing we were most looking forward to, and also the thing we were quite sure would not happen.

When we arrived at our B&B the Wednesday before our scheduled visit, the owner told us that the boats hadn’t been able to go out the past two days. When we called our captain to confirm our trip, he didn’t say one way or the other if we’d get to go—he just insisted that we be on his boat by 9:00 the next morning, and not a minute later.

We woke up on Thursday to pouring rain and a sinking feeling about our chances. But as soon as we stepped aboard, the captain thrust life jackets and water resistant gear into our arms, warned the 12 of us onboard that a few people had died on the island “recently,” and then headed out to sea before anyone (or Mother Nature) could change their minds.

boats to skellig michael from portmagee

The ride out was a nightmarish roller coaster: For two hours, waves pitched us, rocked us, and crashed all over us. And if that weren’t torture enough, the sky would occasionally open up for good, soaking measure. We spent the majority of the journey convinced we’d made a huge mistake.

Finally, we docked (by which I mean we each took turns standing on the side of the boat, waiting for it to heave up so we could be yanked and shoved onto dry land). And then—after a lengthy briefing about how dangerous the climb would be if we didn’t concentrate and take our time—we began our silent ascent.

skellig michael stairs

Even though the rain had stopped, the stairs were still wet and slick, and the promise of my imminent demise echoed with every footfall. But soon, the echos were drowned out by eerie serenity of crashing waves and the clownish honks of the Atlantic puffins that gawked at us as we tiptoed past.

skellig michael puffins

As we climbed, I was nervous to take my eyes off the road (so to speak), but it was impossible to focus on my footwork when I was surrounded by what seemed like an entirely other world.

skellig michael christs saddle star wars

Eventually, the treacherous stairs opened up to Christ’s Saddle—a wide and welcoming green space (where a certain Jedi may have been hiding). And just beyond that, up one more flight of stairs, was the monastery and a cramped collection of beehive huts that the monks once shared.


While it’s a tiny area (tucked into a corner of the summit that’s more or less protected from the vicious wind and rain that Skellig Michael is prone to), the monks’ enclave made an enormous impact. I’d never felt more isolated or more vulnerable than I did on that island—and the thought of living there, without access to a motorboat for a quick getaway, made me panic.

skellig isolation

But I’d also never seen anyplace so unspoiled. The stairs that I’d come up on, the sheer cliff faces that had awed and terrified me on my hike, the huts that I was standing inside—everything on the island was more or less in its original state. Nothing had been cordoned off by modern metal railings or marred by tourists’ ugly graffiti. It was raw and it was pure and it was perfect.

little skellig from skellig michael

Before we left, one of the researchers mentioned that he was supposed to be going back to the mainland the next day (a Friday), but that sea conditions would likely be too rough. He was eager to leave, and hopeful that a boat would finally be able to pick him up on Sunday. That means that in a five-day window, the only one suitable for visiting Skellig Michael was the one Sean and I happened to book.

In total, the excursion took around five hours (more than half of which were spent on the boat), but it colored the rest of our trip. From then on, whenever anyone would mention Skellig, I’d proudly boast that we’d been there (to the surprise of many of our Irish hosts). And when we were on the coast, I’d strain my eyes for a glimpse of the island. I behaved like someone newly in love—because I was.

The night my hometown was attacked

The first major mass shooting I can remember (as an adult, anyway) was Aurora. I’d been at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises, too, and after watching the gory, heartbreaking details come out of Colorado all day, I went home and cried. It could’ve just as easily been me.

The first Black Lives Matter-adjacent moment I can remember was Trayvon Martin’s murder. I read every horrifying detail. I watched the trial. I wanted George Zimmerman to rot in prison forever. And when he didn’t, I felt sick to my stomach.

Over time, both events—mass shootings and senseless black slayings—stopped being surprising. They happened so frequently that they started to feel like the fabric of life in this country. The murder of innocent people was as American as watching the Super Bowl or eating too much at Chili’s.

The first Black Lives Matter moment to shock me back to reality was Michael Brown’s murder. That’s when the marches started. There was one just down the street from my apartment, and—as a civil rights supporter and curious historian—I stopped by for a look.

The first major mass shooting to shock me back to reality was Orlando. I’d been at Boston’s Pride Parade earlier that day, surrounded by love and acceptance and a general sense that humans can be pretty great. The next morning, I found out that 49 of those same lovely humans had been callously murdered at a gay club, and I cried. It could’ve just as easily been me.

Last week, my hometown became the hot zone. A peaceful protest for Black Lives Matter—where black, brown, and white were standing together harmoniously, as people—turned deadly when a psycho showed up with a vendetta and a gun.

I have been crying for Dallas since I first heard the news. I could’ve been there, caught in the crossfire. Protected by one of the cops who was eventually killed. It could’ve just as easily been me.

I don’t know what to think anymore. I don’t want to feel unsafe in large crowds, in my workplace, in my grocery store…but sometimes I do. And I don’t want anyone to become desensitized to the murder of innocent people. America is one of the most progressive countries in the world‍‍‍. Why are we continuing to live and die like this?

I want the hate and the racism and the violence to stop. I want black Americans to feel the same comfort I do when a law enforcement officer approaches. I want to hear about issues that matter—like healthcare and national security—not ugly generalizations about Muslims and Mexicans. I want common sense gun laws that keep weapons for hunting animals with law-abiding citizens and weapons for hunting people with the police and the military. But most of all, I want to remove myself from this offensive and dangerous moment in history. I want to hit the reset button.

Brain dump on Thursday

I sat down to write a “five things on Friday” post tonight as a way of saying “hey.” Of letting you know that I’m still around. Of giving my creative muscles a much-needed stretch. But I only made it through one thing before I got winded and had to go back inside. Nothing seemed interesting enough—or, if it was interesting, I couldn’t come up with a clever way to talk about it.

That creative apathy has been my reality lately. I write a tweet, stare at it for a minute or two, and then delete it for being dull or cynical. I mull over a blog post for weeks, draft it in a 20-minute flourish, and then condemn it to the drafts folder because it’s too twee or too whiny or too much information.

I’m not going to say that it’s because I’m OMGSOBUSY because c’mon. We all are. I’ll just say that by the time I walk in the door every night, I have exactly enough mental stamina left to press the buttons on my microwave. And then……. A Facebook feed full of “likes” is too much noise. A day’s worth of tweets is too overwhelming. A social engagement is too stressful. A book or a blog post is too much work. Give me Fixer Upper or give me bed.

Today was very much the same, but with a very unexpected bright spot smack dab in the middle. So here I am, feeling just inspired enough to spend the evening writing a few words worth sharing. It may not be a finely crafted list of five thoughtfully curated things, but it’s a way of saying “hey.” Of letting you (and me) know that real events—interesting events—are taking place, in spite of my occasional unwillingness to notice:

Texas pasture

  • I went to Texas two weeks ago, and it was absolutely glorious. I always forget how strong the sun is down there. How I can feel the prickly scorch on my skin after just five minutes outside. That’s what really struck me this time. I might not like overwhelming heat, but I don’t like wearing winter sweaters in May, either. What I do like is eating brisket tacos on a quiet patio as a warm wind rustles the leaves overhead. That is the Texas moment that I carry with me as I trudge through the freezing rain on my way to work in the morning.
  • Sean and I are going to Ireland in June. We didn’t have a vacation planned for this year and we didn’t have a vacation planned for this year and then all of a sudden we did. Nine days driving around the Emerald Isle, drinking Guinness and eating cheese and sleeping in B&Bs (unless we’re sleeping in a castle instead).
  • Every single neighbor in our townhouse owns at least one dog now. When the front door opens, it sounds like we live in the local animal shelter. It’s too much noise for two quiet cat people. We gots to go, y’all.
  • I have a new obsession, and it’s called Tiny House Hunters. As someone who feels like she’s bursting out of her 750 sq. ft. apartment, do I understand why otherwise normal-seeming parents would move their two teenage girls and twin babies into a 600 sq. ft. house? No. No, I do not. But I absolutely celebrate their willingness to pursue their tiny dreams in front of cameras for the world to see.
  • As an avid consumer of podcasts, it’s important that I share two of my newest favorites: FiveThirtyEight Elections, which is co-hosted by Nate Silver (the statistician who’s been predicting state-by-state election outcomes with startling accuracy since 2008) and will help you make sense (or probably not, because it defies logic) of our country’s slow and painful devolution into Trumpland. And The Popcast, which is all about pop culture and is hosted by two hilarious Southerners who will help you forget (at least momentarily) about our country’s slow and painful devolution into Trumpland—when they’re not comparing Herr Donald to the Smoke Monster on LOST, that is.
  • As of 10:30 tonight, I am no longer a grad school widow. (At least until June when the summer semester starts.) Just like last May, we have a full schedule of events planned—from a celebratory weekend in the White Mountains to Red Sox games to a quick jaunt to Philadelphia. It’s nice having my buddy back full time—however brief it may be.