Two Travel Stories

by John Mooney

From the writer: By distancing yourself from what you have known your whole life, the people, the culture, and the environment that give substance to your identity; you can gain great perspective. I didn't go abroad to find myself, rather, I went to lose myself. This is a rare opportunity in life to become a blank, to concentrate on your content, instead of your form. Besides, it's just a helluva good time!

From the teacher: Through readings and discussions, the students in Studio III came to realize that a travel essay often has a meaning beyond the surface. Written from the author's singular point of view, it has meandering structure, contains "research," and harbors creative nonfiction devices we had discovered and practiced: vivid detail, scenic construction, dialogue, characterization, and attention to the craft of writing. Importantly, they learned that success rests wholly upon the insight and skill of the writer. I think you will agree that John more than abundantly fulfilled these criteria in his creation of two memorable travel tales.

From the editors: Mooney's use of language, style, and colloquial expressions make the essays a pleasant reading experience. Mooney mixes humor with elegance and just the right amount of drama in his essays, capturing a wide range of emotions and insights. As we see the writer challenge his own system of beliefs, we can not help but challenge our own.

Liffey

Stopped at the center of the Haypenny Bridge, I shiver as the incorrigible Irish wind tries to push icy cold fragments of moisture through me. I crouch down low, as close as I can get to the iron gate, trying to take up as little space as possible, not to be a burden to the flowing stream of pedestrians that bend around me. I reach deeply into my small bag past recently acquired memories, past the old, beat-up sneakers I brought in which to run (though I didn't), past the journal I didn't write in, and the sketch pad I didn't draw in, deep down past my dirty laundry. I reach in and pull out a green polo shirt. The shirt is cotton, faded and fraying at the bottom, covered in stains with a collar that never sat right and white lettering on the left breast that reads "Liffey Van Lines."

I guess it all started this summer when I drove up to Cape Cod with John Moran, my college roommate and high school buddy. The two of us were gonna be landscapers; sweatin' by day as we worked on the land and getting tans (though we deny it every summer - Irish boys burn), then relaxing by the beach at night with margaritas in hand, looking like Love Boat rejects. We would just stroll into town, get a job and a place to stay, then sit back and enjoy the summer of our lives. Simple as that.

On the quiet ride home, I tried to remember where I left the receipt for the five new Hawaiian shirts that hung in my closet. The Cape wasn't happening this summer.

"Well, the best laid . . ."

"Shut up. Just shut up and drive."

The funny thing about plans is that they never seem to work out the way you want them to. Not that things go wrong necessarily, but they tend to have a mind of their own and take you down a path you didn't intend on going down. Unless you want to get lost, you really don't have much choice but to go with it. Life wouldn't be worth living if you could lay it out. It'd be like playing solitaire with a fixed deck.

So I went back to New York and hit the streets of Manhattan thinking that I'd grab a job as a waiter.

"Sorry."

"Nah. Not at the moment."

"Fill this out, we'll let ya' know."

"Love ta' help y' out but . . . "

I couldn't even find a job as a damn waiter. I spent some quality time with the couch that week, cursing out Stefan Cassadine on General Hospital while eating huge bowls of Cocoa Pebbles in my boxers. One day that week someone moved into my building. I'm not sure of the exact date, but it was the day Bobbie Spencer left Stefan and made peace with Carley, her illegitimate daughter who was having a baby of her own with Bobbie's ex-husband, Dr. Jones. So I flipped open the Yellow Pages and there it was, "Liffey Van Lines." I figured if Bobbie could make up with Carley, the least I could do was get a job for the summer.

So I traded the dream of a summer in Cape Cod for the reality of Liffey in Harlem. John Moran was moving cars in a Puerto Rican garage somewhere in Queens. I think we saw each other twice that summer.

I started on a Wednesday. I took the "R" train from Queens to Lexington Avenue and 59th Street where I would catch the uptown "6" to Harlem, get a coffee and be at 121st Street before 7:00. When I got to the back of the warehouse that first morning, two groups were formed in front of the gate: one black, one white. I went over and stood with the whites. No one said boo to me. They were all off-the-boat Irish, and I realized that I would probably be considered an outsider by both groups. The dispatcher strolled out of the drab, brick building and threw me a stiff, new pair of gray Dickeys, a green uniform top, and put me in a truck with Barry, a seriously disturbed man from Northern Ireland. I worked for about a week without saying anything more than what concerned the moves we were on.

It wasn't until I rode in the back of a moving van two hours upstate with James Forde that I actually got to know something about someone, other than how much weight could be put on his back. James was from Dublin; he had dark hair and fair skin and was about 6'2"- an inch taller than me.

Somewhere out of the pitch dark van I heard, "So, where you from?"

"Queens," I said as I adjusted the thick moving blankets that I was using as bedding.

"No, I mean where you from back home?" said James as we hit a bump that knocked some dollies loose.

"I'm not, I was born in Queens." I replied.

"Jaysus, you're American?" he responded, obviously shocked.

It turned out that most of the guys at Liffey thought I was Irish, since they had never really heard me say much. Throughout the summer, James and I hung out a lot together, and he always said that I was more Irish than I was American. I always thought he acted more American than Irish, but I could never really explain how. Now that I look back, I guess we were both just realizing that we weren't so different even though we grew up with an ocean separating us.

The wind picked up a plastic bag and blew it against my leg, where it stayed until I shook it off. We were outside of the Spanish Bodega where we'd go to have a Heineken after work whenever we were on the same job and got off at a reasonable hour. I never felt that I was out of place or in danger, despite the fact that I was on 125th Street in Harlem. We used to joke that it was our green Liffey shields that protected us. Everyone in the neighborhood knew the company and most of our co-workers lived in the area. We sat on the graffiti covered, concrete wall and drank our beers out of the brown paper bags the shop owner supplied us with. We sat, and we bitched about how this customer gypped us on a tip, and how that driver never did shit, and we'd go off on Frank Maloney's horrible Irish-Boston accent. "Put it on the dolly, boys," he'd always say as he smoked a butt and phoned in bets to his bookmaker. He was the owner's brother. Few and far between were the moments where I could sit back, relax, and have a bit of a laugh; but these moments were what made that summer bearable.

James fit right in with my friends, which is no small feat as I've learned from bringing home different kids from college. Any free time we had, we'd spend at concerts or in bars. I don't think James hit one major site in New York, but we had a blast while he was here, and he left with one warped view of America and the word "Yo" added to his vocabulary.

When James found out that I would be studying for a semester in London, he insisted that I spend my break with him in Dublin. Now it was my turn to get a warped view of his world. I say warped view because the whole time I was there the only concern we had was going out and enjoying ourselves. This wasn't what life was really like for him, and if it was, God help him.

I hopped off the bus across from Saint Stephen's Green at about noon, with five hours to kill until I was supposed to meet up with James on Graften Street. After I finished off the last of the black pudding from my long, greasy breakfast at Bewley's, I decided to check out this dirty ol' town and find the address where my mother was born.

"Get one of them throw-away cameras before you go and make sure you get a picture of you in front of my old place. Oh, and make sure you can see the flower boxes in the windows and the bright red door. I really hope they didn't change the color of the door," my mom went on over the phone before I left for Dublin. She was so excited to think that I would see the lovely little neighborhood where she was born.

I did see where she was born: 103 Lower Bleaker Street. I saw the garbage that spilled out into the streets, and the bums that cradled in the faded red doorways where the smell of wino urine reminded me of the subways in New York. The window boxes were still there, but they were in a sorry state. I left the camera in my pocket as I moped away on the stained, gray sidewalk.

My mom would later scold me saying, "What do you mean you couldn't find the place? You probably didn't even look. Right?"

I just didn't have the heart to ruin the picture in her mind.

Well, five o'clock rolled around soon enough and I made my way to Graften Street, outside of Saint Stephen's Mall. James wasn't there yet so I stood under a newsagent's awning to avoid the mist that had just developed. I turned up the collar of my fleece and thought about how my life might have turned out if I was born there in Ireland. What if my parents never went to America? What if they never went to that party they met at (I doubt that my dad was even invited)? What makes anyone do anything? What if?

"Put it on the dolly boys," James mimicked as he approached me from behind.

I laughed and we started to sing, "Franky Maloney, he's skinny and bony. He hasn't the power to flatten a flower!"

"How the hell you been, man?" I said as I punched him in the shoulder.

"Sound. Sound. Come on, we're meetin' some friends for one." He answered as we walked towards the pub.

Once inside I heard from a side table, "Ah, it's the American, in far his holiday, is he?"

Within ten minutes, we were swapping stories and reminiscing about the summer. Everyone was making fun of Dermot because he had given flowers to some girl in his class earlier that day. Next they started in on James because one of the boys had seen him apologizing to Fiona, his girlfriend, when he hadn't a clue what he did wrong. I swear that I could have been having this same exact conversation with my own friends, in Queens. These guys were the same characters that I hung around with, only with different accents.

We got back to his gaff that evening at about ten. I was somewhat surprised to see that James lived in a really nice house; I was half expecting that I'd be brought to a quaint little cottage with an outhouse. Where do I get these preconceived notions? From The Quiet Man probably. I was shown some authentic Irish hospitality, just as my family would have done, and I felt like an important guest after noticing vacuum marks recently left on the carpet. I doubt if anyone had ever vacuumed just for me. It felt good.

Dull moments and conversational lulls were rare while I was in Ireland. I truly felt like I was being welcomed home and it was scary how well I fit in.

"Are you sure your name's really John Patrick Mooney?" asked James' younger brother, John, as we ate a fry at breakfast.

"Yeah, why?" I said, puzzled.

"I don't know, it's just so Irish. That's all," John said through a mouthful of food.

"Well I am 100% Irish," I replied, knowing full well that I was leaving myself open.

"So then I must be 200%," laughed John. "No you're American, even if you don't go walking around with a bunch of people in matching rain slickers."

And you know what? The kid was right. I had the time of my life over there in Ireland, and came away feeling more Irish and at the same time more American than ever before.

Pubs and frys and green fields and jazz and laughs, and then it was Friday before I knew it. James had class until five, and then he would meet me at the same place and give me a lift to the airport. This was my day to be cultural, so I hit The Writer's Museum, an art gallery and the Guinness Brewery. I wanted to go to some shops before I left, so I headed towards the River Liffey as yet another cold mist picked up.

On my way there, I started to think about some of the people I know in Queens and how they hardly ever leave the block. Born, live and die in the same neighborhood, and most of them had all the same opportunities as me. What makes anyone do anything? How the hell did I end up an American in Dublin? It happened when my plans fell through but I kept going.

Now I'm standing at the center of the Haypenny Bridge with my green Liffey shirt blowing in the wind. This is the moment I had talked about all those days in front of that bodega, "I'm tellin' ya James, when I'm done with this crap, I'm coming to see you in Ireland and we're gonna whip these shirts into the river. I'll be on to something new, and Maloney will still be here, and he can kiss my ass."

Someone had taken the Liffey out of Ireland, brought it to America and transformed it into something completely different. Depending on the audience, the word "Liffey" can conjure up two totally different images. I see them both. Today, I'm bringing the Liffey back to Ireland. I can't change what it is, but I have the power to show where it came from.

The wind gladly takes the shirt from my hand as I reach out over the railing. My green polo shirt is no longer mine as it glides through the air taking on a life of its own. I pick up my bag and walk towards the shops without waiting to see it hit the water. I know it will.

Winds of Wales

"Hand me some string. No. The other kind, yeah." I painstakingly try to secure an obnoxious amount of camping gear onto my Jansport with some cheap twine we picked up at Woolworth's. As I add more and more weight to the pack, I feel my back twitch; quickly becoming envious of the comfortable-looking camping packs my roommates are busy stuffing. "Where are we going, again?"

"Wales," Kyle says as he crams a can of Irish Stew into his pack.

"Yeah I know that, but where in Wales?" I say directed at Kyle though I'm concentrating on wrapping a bedroll tightly around a couple of cans of beans, then taping it together with black electrical tape and tying it to the bottom of my backpack.

Kyle loots around the room, diving through piles of clothes, garbage, and God knows what else, that has accumulated in our living room since we first moved into our London flat. He loots around until he pulls a book out from under the box of a pizza I still remember as being extremely disappointing. He opens up the book, puts it in my face, points to a picture and says, "Right here."

"Let me see that," I say, grabbing his copy of Insanely Irrational Mountain Climbing Tours for the Totally Inexperienced Kid with Inadequate Gear. "Snowdon Mountain, huh? Looks pretty big, there, Kyle."

"Yeah, I know," he grins, "biggest thing I could find in Wales. Ahh, it's gonna be great. I can't wait to get going. You guys almost ready?" Matt and Kerry nod their heads as they tighten the final straps on their rugged mountain packs.

I'm ready, after having tied a water bottle to the zipper of the small pouch on my backpack; you know, the pouch that usually contains half a crayon, some gum wrappers, three unused pens, loose candy and six-year-old lip balm. I can't help laughing at what I'm about to get myself into: a kid from New York City spending the weekend in the mountains of God-knows-where with cheaply-rented tents, a camping stove and sleeping bags, 16 cans of beans, 16 cans of ham, 4 cans of Irish Stew, 2 bags of Oatmeal (with the consistency of concrete), a carton of tea (no milk, no sugar), 2 rolls of duct tape, 2 rolls of twine, 1 change of clothing, an Irish sweater, and the wrong backpack.

Despite some original misgivings, I get myself psyched-up for the adventure. I mean how bad could this be? I've got my trusty Swiss Army Knife to deal with any possible situation that may arise. For instance, if Matt gets lost in the wilderness,and his bottle of beer isn't a twist-off, not a problem. I'll just whip out the bottle opener. While trying to escape an avalanche, if Kyle should get a splinter in his hand, I could easily remove it with the tweezers. When Kerry finds himself dangling off a four-thousand foot cliff next to a gorgeous supermodel, and he has canned ham caught between his teeth, all I've got to do is pull out the toothpick, and I save the day.

Well, we're out the door and the adventure begins. "What time's our train at?" I hear from behind me as we descend the stairs.

"Uh, I don't know," Kyle mumbles, "We'll find out when we get there."

"OK. Then where are we going?" asks Matt as the four of us take up an entire pedestrian island as slightly peeved Brits try avoiding our massive American backpacks as we look left and right desperately trying not to get hit by a car.

Kyle is the last to make it across the street and says, "Euston . . . I think."

"You think, or you know?"

"Euston. It's Euston Station. I know."

It turns out that it is Euston Station, but there's no train that goes directly to Snowdon. This trip would be too easy if there was. Instead we are told that we have to take three different trains and then two buses. By the time we are set and loaded onto the first in our series of trains, it is past two o'clock.

Our first train ride is two hours long and I've got a first-class seat on the floor where I read The Canterbury Tales and try not to get hit by the constantly opening door to the toilet. I guess I should be grateful that I'm not riding a donkey with a whole procession chewing my ear off in Middle English.

We have to run to make our switch and the only car with room in it for us is the baggage car, so we jump in. Now this is what I had envisioned whenever I heard the term backpacking through Europe: four guys not knowing where they'd end up, flying on a whim, sitting in a dark boxcar laughing at the Australian who just sat on a lit cigarette (well, not quite that last part, but you get my drift).

The four of us sit, slumped over our packs for the hour-long ride, and talk. I want to bust out some beans and eat 'em cold from the can, just 'cause that seems like the right thing to do at this point. I don't, since I know that if I take anything off of my backpack the whole thing will fall apart and I'll never be able to get it like I had it. We sit, each trying to out-story the other while the Australian is busy spanking the ashes off his white jeans. As our boxcar scrambles after the fleeting sun, I realize that this is one of those moments that I'll never shake, no matter how far I get from it. My memory of this dirty boxcar will be as vivid as my role as J. Crummy Badgerm in the third grade play, as the time I tripped on the sidewalk at the precise moment I worked up the courage to ask Jeanette Garramone out in the sixth grade, as scoring in my last high school home game, but maybe not as vivid as my naked rookie lap during parents' weekend. "Hey, John. Snap out of it. This is us."

We hop the next train and manage to find some seats scattered throughout the car. This is another two-hour ride, but we're in Pen-y-Gwryd by seven-thirty; where we're just in time to catch the bus to Betws-y-Coed. I dig through my pocket for the 1.20 fare and grab a seat after putting my bag in the space by the door reserved for luggage. It's pitch dark now, so I can't see past my own reflection in the window. "How the hell do these people drive at night?" I say to no one in particular, as I rub a recurring leg cramp.

"Yeah, we got roads like this in Michigan," says Kyle, "you get used to it."

The bus comes to a stop where some little old man and three teenagers get off. I catch myself eyeing my backpack and sitting on the edge of my seat ready to chase if it gets nicked. I laugh at the thought of this seventy-year-old man snagging my bag and high-tailing it down a dirt country road, but I still eye the bag. Guess some things never change. I mean who in their right mind would even want the thing with the state it's in? Then again, with these Welsh people, who knows?

"Did you see that? There was absolutely nothing at that stop. What? Were they gonna walk off into the woods or something?" laughs Kerry while cleaning his glasses on the bottom of his shirt.

The bus slows down again and comes to a stop as the driver yells, "Betws-y-Coed!"

We head off and stand in the dust with packs at our feet as the bus pulls away. We're in front of some rinky-dink little train terminal that probably serves as the lifeline to northern Wales. Matt checks the posted bus schedule across the street, using Kyle's headlamp while the rest of us just stand there with the night wrapped tightly around us.

"You've got to be kidding me." Matt turns to us and all we can see is the shining headlamp. "We missed the bus."

"What?"

"We missed the fucking bus."

"No. Couldn't have."

"Take a look, we . . . missed . . . the bus."

"How the hell did that happen?"

"The bus was here; we weren't. WE MISSED THE FUCKING BUS!"

"Alright, everyone, just relax," I say while Kyle takes the headlamp and goes over to look at the schedule again.

"Well what d'ya know? We did miss the bus."

Matt sits down next to Kerry, "Oh, did we?"

Gulping down the last drop from his emergency water supply, Kerry asks, "OK, so now what are we supposed to do?"

Well, we end up doing the only logical thing: we stash all our stuff on a wooded hill behind a garage and hit the nearest pub. As we're walking Through the town Kyle says, "You know . . . we'll just go in there, ask where the nearest campsite is, maybe have one pint, then head outta there."

As the bartender pulls our third round of Guinness, we find out that there's nowhere to camp around here. We're stranded. Actually, with names like Pen-y-Gwryd and Betws-y-Coed, I'm surprised we made it this far. The Welsh seem to have a flagrant disregard for vowels that makes asking for directions extremely frustrating.

After last-call, we make our way back up the hill to our stuff, only now the hill seems much more rugged than I remembered. We decide to spend the night in the first field we come across (not like we really had much choice in the matter). Slowly following a trail that leads up the hill, away from the street, we pause every few minutes to regroup ourselves because Kyle's the only one with a light and the rest of us keep falling down. I can hear flowing water to our left and Kyle shines the light on a shaky-looking wooden bridge that spans a small stream. To our right is a barbed-wire fence covered with thorn bushes, the attractive alternative.

Kyle holds the light on the fence while we climb over. I try to reassure Kerry as he's halfway over, "Don't worry if you slip, man, I've got my travel sewing kit with me."

Over the fence, we find ourselves in a damp, grassy field. Near the shelter of an enormous boulder we roll out a tarp, setting up our bedrolls and sleeping bags on it. We don't put up the tents, so we can book it outta there quicker when a demented farmer charges at us with his shotgun in the middle of the night. That, and we just can't be bothered. Crawling into our sleeping bags, we pray that the skies will hold, and I fall asleep trying to get scenes from Deliverance out of my head.

In the morning, we wake up to a flock of sheep grazing less than twenty yards from us, and we realize that we couldn't have picked a better spot if we tried. We're in a rolling green field next to a cliff overlooking the town with a view of Wales for miles. This is the most beautiful countryside I have ever seen, and I soon forget that I woke up with a ring of slugs around my head.

"That's just gorgeous," says Kyle, responding to the scenery.

"So what's our next move?" Kerry asks, as he rolls up his sleeping bag.

I look out in total amazement of the land around me, "I don't think it matters."


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