180-degree Panorama at the Giant's Causeway, County Antrim. Please click on any image -- but especially this one -- to see it in a larger size.
No matter how pleasant a town is otherwise, the sight of razor wire with six-inch blades atop a six-foot high stone wall around your hotel's parking lot will tend to put a damper on your enthusiasm. So will shuttered storefronts and grim, gray faces, but that was Armagh, and that was two days in the past and forgotten when we woke up on Thursday, August 12th. We were to spend most of this day among happy people and inspiring natural grandeur.
We had arrived at the Seaview bed and breakfast near the Giant's Causeway on the north coast of County Antrim the previous evening after a glorious afternoon's drive north from Armagh. Our plan for the twelfth was to be as tourist-y as we could and visit the area's three big draws: the Causeway, the ruins of Dunluce Castle, and the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. (And they are big draws: a little Googling shows that together they attract more than a million visitors per year, and the busiest month is August.)
I was a little anxious that morning, concerned about how my back would hold up with all the walking we had planned. For several months before we started our trip, I had been suffering from increasingly severe back pain and sciatica. About a month before we embarked, though, I had started wearing a pair of MBT shoes, and they had a dramatic effect on my back pain, almost completely eliminating it. There's a little problem with them, though: the reverse curvature of the soles puts a thick amount of material between one's arch and the ground, making them a little wobbly left-right and seem to increase the potential of twisting an ankle. Some of the terrain we planned to walk on this day would be particularly rough -- the head nurse in the emergency room would later tell us that they see a large number of badly sprained or broken ankles during tourist season because of it -- but I decided to wear them anyway, thinking that I needed to prevent the return of the back pain, which would put a damper on the rest of our vacation.
We tackled the Giant's Causeway, the most heavily-visited of the three, first. Our strategy was to arrive early, before the shuttle vans started running from the visitors' centre down to the otherworldly hexagonal stone pillars. It worked; there were a few people there when we arrived, but nothing like the massive crowds that would be there later on in the day. The walk down was only about a kilometer, and my wobbly shoes carried me down easily. The Causeway itself presented a challenge, slippery and uneven, but I was very careful and negotiated its unevenness easily.
We spent a good couple of hours at the Causeway, marveling not only at the geology but also the sheer beauty of the north Antrim coast, and by the time we were ready to leave, the shuttle vans had begun their day and we were able to ride back up the hill to the visitors' centre. From there we drove westward along the coast to Dunluce Castle, where we arrived at about midday when the August throng of tourists (including us, of course) was starting to make itself evident.
The castle's ruins are impressive, the coast it perches on is astonishing, and the surrounding terrain, while steep in places, presented no problems to my MBTs. By the time we had finished touring and exploring the old rockpile, it was going on two o'clock, though, and my legs were a little wobbly from the day's unaccustomed amount of walking.
We doubled back along the coast, past the Causeway and our B&B, to the parking lot for the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. By that time, the full onslaught of tourism was under way, though, and the lot was jammed. We decided to postpone an amble across the famous rope suspension bridge until the next morning, Friday the 13th, and spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the great stretches of dramatic coastline instead, away from the crowds.
One place off a narrow side road looked especially promising for photography, a bluff at the far side of a sheep pasture which I figured would present a great view of surf pounding against rocks at the base of the cliff. We parked near a stile across the fence to the pasture. I gathered my camera stuff, but Diane decided to wait in the car. She was a bit tired, and was happy to listen to music on her iPod and watch the view from the comfort of the passenger seat, so I set out over the stile on my own.
The last step down into the meadow was a very high one, but I managed it just fine. The fifty yards across the meadow to the cliff top was rough, as any soft surface trod by ungulates will be, but carefully watching my step brought me to the cliff top without problem. The view was every bit as spectacular as I had hoped. I looked around, planning the individual frames that would later go together in a Photoshopped panorama. When I had twisted around to my far left, though, rapid motion at vision's periphery caught my attention. I turned quickly to look back the way I had come from and saw two people at the stile, waving energetically at me. I started to wave back, but then saw that they weren't waving a greeting, they were gesturing for me to come back.
And then I saw Diane's head between them, just above the top of the knee-high grass.
She had decided to follow me to the cliff after all, but, distracted by the beauty of the scene and her music, she hadn't noticed the stile's last deep step. She had fallen badly, hitting the ground forcefully and awkwardly on her right ankle and knee, and could not get up. She was in excruciating pain.
(To be continued.)