A Journey Across Ireland: Speaking with Dr. Joel Rookwood
One of the most popular, and most affordable, ways to wander the world is by simply opening the door and following your feet. To quote Tolkien, “It’s a dangerous business.. going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” One of my dreams has always been to embark on a long walk, with a friend or two perhaps, and see where my feet will take me.
Dr. Joel Rookwood, a Senior Lecturer at Liverpool Hope University, did just that when he took three of his good friends and walked with them across Ireland, from Dublin to Galaway, in an effort to raise money for an organization called Oasis. Although this is a trail not recommended on the “top walking trail” lists, he recommends it to anyone committed and fit enough to make the hike. Dr. Rookwood recently agreed to participate in an interview about his experiences on the trip. Here’s what he had to say:
When did you start traveling? Did you find it a difficult experience at first? Why, or why not?
I was raised by hardworking parents who valued rest and a change of scene, but did not prioritise travel. In my younger days, a holiday to me was the Lake District or the Isle of Man. However, I developed a keen sense of adventure and a desire to explore the world. Four days after leaving school, I went to America to work as a football coach.
This was an underdeveloped but growing industry, which meant lots of travel and the experience of different cultures. I spent three summers coaching across 25 states. As a university lecturer, I now arrange employment placements in North America for my students. Working in a different continent, especially one with a blend of the strange and the familiar, can help foster independence and understanding, and reduce naiveté and immaturity. Alongside the pursuit of an academic career, I went on to work on sports-based social development projects in thirty countries across six continents during the course of a decade. For a dozen consecutive years I spent 3-6 months outside of the UK, and my journeys took me to over 120 countries in various contexts. I've experienced a full spectrum of travelling experiences, from life-threatening situations to absolute exhilaration. I found engaging with other cultures more rewarding than challenging. Difficulties were commonplace, but I've learned to live my life outside of a comfort zone. Consequently, the last day I experienced boredom was in 1998.
Dr. Joel Rookwood, Arizona
What inspired your walk across Ireland?
The day I began my PhD in 2003, I wondered if such a detailed and focused study would restrict my character - so I wrote a list of ‘things to do before I’m 30’. What began as a dozen ambitions of a 23 year-old evolved into a random catalogue of things I’ve done, and apparently still want to do in life. One of them was 'walk across England', which I completed in 2010 with no training and minimal preparation, along with three friends - Paul, Kev, and James. It was a spare of the moment decision, which involved walking 110 miles from Tynemouth to Bowness. A few days later I did a half marathon, and I had not trained for that either. The decision to walk across Ireland was taken a bit more seriously. I was joined by the same group, and the walk doubled as my stag do (for a man who hates them). I knew most of my mates would decline the opportunity to go walking for an entire week, and having it in Ireland meant I avoided getting chained upside down and naked to a lamp post in northern Finland, which was a bonus.
Was there any particular reason you chose to start your adventure in Dublin and end in Galway?
This seemed to be the shortest coast-to-coast route. We didn't go in a straight line, as we had to take a few detours in order find places to stay, but it was a fairly direct route from Dublin, which is easily accessible from the UK. I bought a book on Irish walks and the Dublin-Galway route or any part thereof did not feature among the 80 suggested hikes - so we didn't exactly choose a well-trodden path. We spent nights in guesthouses and hotels in Maynooth, Edenderry, Tullamore, Banagher, Loughrea, and Oranmore - none of which would usually be considered among Ireland's typical tourist hotspots. I was personally far better prepared this time, having trained by walking around a few of the Lake District's larger bodies of water. I was also in the midst of a year-long Men's Health magazine body transformation, for which I was training eight times a week. The walk across Ireland was still the toughest physical challenge of my life.
Did you walk the entire way, or did you also use other forms of transportation?
We walked all the way, but Paul and I got increasingly slower than Kev and James as the days went on. We finished three hours behind them on the last day, but always met up each evening. Reaching the day's final destination offered a daily feeling of relief that is hard to describe.
What was the most difficult aspect of your trip that you had to deal with?
Without question, blisters. Our feet really suffered on the trip. I had a collection of fourteen blisters at one point, and the pain was excruciating. Our muscles were in agony too. You don't feel like walking 25 miles when you can barely get out of bed. Unlike the England walk however, we had decided to get sponsored for this excursion, so the pressure to complete the hike drove us on. It was a real bonding experience.
What was the highlight of your journey?
As much as I enjoyed parts of the walk, seeing my fiancée in Galway was undoubtedly the highlight. Eva is from Monaghan in central Ireland, and although we didn't pass through her county en route, we travelled through the heart of Ireland, and walking across her country was a symbolic voyage for me. She met us in Galway, and drove us to her family farm to recuperate. The only time I was more relieved to see her was when she travelled to America to pick me up after I had been hospitalised with pneumonia on my 31st birthday. We had been together only a few months at the time. I managed to delay a proposal until we were stood at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa three months later - one of the most stunning locations on the planet.
How long did it take you and your friends to finish the hike?
We walked for 7-10 hours a day for a week. It would have been an ordeal for many experienced hikers, and yet none of us had really done any walking before, apart from a few hikes in England. It was a grueling test of endurance. I doubt any of us will take up hiking in the future.
Did you have a support team, ready with tents and food, or did you carry your supplies yourself?
We certainly did not have a support team. Having travelled the world overland, I enjoyed watching Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman's Long Way Round/Down adventures, but couldn't help but think that having a support team and 'fixers' denied them much of the unpredictable essence of travel. Of course, Ireland was never going to be dangerous or complicated, but it was a challenging route on foot, yet we remained determined to cross the country unaided. We had decided to camp on our English coast-to-coast walk, but our tent proved to be no match for the harsh Northumberland weather. After a wet and cold first night sleeping on the banks of the Tyne, we abandoned our tent and stayed in B&Bs for the remaining nights. Having learned from the experience, we agreed in preparation for Ireland, to carry only what we had to. So we left the tents at home, and purchased supplies as we went. One day we overestimated the facilities of a couple of villages, and consequently ended up walking 15 miles in relatively hot weather without food or drink. Looking back however, that was probably our most memorable day, and included drinking water from a stream to keep the dehydration at bay.
Can you tell us a bit about Oasis? How did you get connected with the organization, and why did you feel led to raise money for their cause?
Oasis is a Christian non-profit organization, that seeks to meet the needs of local disadvantaged people, focusing on anti-trafficking, community regeneration, youth work and family support around the globe. They are fantastic at recognizing and responding to need. I had volunteered on some of their programs in Asia, Africa and Europe, and my Fiancée and I agreed we wanted to support their work through our wedding. Gifts have traditionally been given to newlyweds to help them set up a new marital home from scratch, with a list helping avoid unsuitable or duplicated presents. However God had blessed us with a near perfect furnished home, so rather than ask for presents we did not need, we had the unorthodox idea of setting up a gift list that would support specific developing communities. So I contacted Oasis to see if they could compile a list of items urgently required by some of their international offices, which our guests could contribute towards, as a gift to us. To our delight and their credit, they agreed. The gifts ranged from bricks for a girl's shelter in Kyrgyzstan to HIV testing in South Africa. We also raised funds for Oasis through the walk. Stag parties typically cost rather than generate money, and it was a privilege to offer a small contribution to the valuable work Oasis engage in. We raised around £2500, which can stretch along way when organizations like Oasis are involved.
Do you intend to keep traveling? What is your dream adventure?
I will be 33 this summer, so my days of six-month summers are probably behind me. On my twitter profile I describe myself as a 'Christian, husband, Kopite, academic, and explorer' - which gives you an idea of where my priorities lie. Like many Liverpudlians, exploration has been a key part of my adult life, but I am not defined by where I have been. The expenditure of time and money has to be justified, however either are spent, and whilst I have no regrets about my experiences and adventures, life is subject to seasons, and I suspect my future may be characterized more by stability and structure, rather than the spontaneous freedom of the last decade. That said, our honeymoon will involve a seven-week trip across North America this summer. Close friends of ours were married a week after us, meaning we could not go away for long after our wedding. We had an incredible few days in Iceland, as a 'minimoon' - which was the only country in Europe I was yet to visit. More importantly, my mum's cancer returned with ferocity just before we were married, and she died in June. Her funeral was six days before our wedding day. Her illness and the uncertainty of the situation meant we did not want to book a honeymoon last summer. Instead we spent some time in Eastern Europe, before returning to Port St Mary on the Isle of Man as a family to spread her ashes. Our family and the Matheson family (who help run Oasis) have been involved in a Christian mission on the island for over a century, and it was a fitting place to scatter her remains, on the beach that represented the happiest of family gatherings and childhood holidays spanning five generations. In June we will celebrate our first wedding anniversary (and my wife's birthday the following day) in Amsterdam, and then embark on an incredible honeymoon: a fortnight's road trip in north-east America, followed by a three-week journey through the west of the continent, then a Caribbean Cruise.
This trip represents my current idea of a 'dream adventure'. However, if I was to step outside the present romanticism, and reflect on a dozen years of exploring distant lands, I would say that my ideal adventure would involve awe-inspiring landscapes, cultural complexities, engaging with and trying to understand warm, creative people, and taking risks. It would also involve unpredictability and movement. Peter Theroux said that "a traveler doesn't know where he is going and a tourist doesn't know where he's been." I would like to think I am more an example of the former than the latter, however I frame my experiences of the unfamiliar as 'exploration.' Today's explorers should not be confined to reaching the fast receding number of territories where man is yet to visit, but we should be preoccupied in this context by meaningful experiences in places we are yet to visit. These adventures should inspire us, surprise us and change us - otherwise, what is the point?
Dr. Joel Rookwood, El Alto, Bolivia
You can read more about Dr. Rookwood’s travels and personal experiences at www.joelrookwood.com
Hannah Miller is a member of the Youth Travel Blogging Mentorship Program
All photos courtesy and copyright Joel Rookwood