And [Samwise Gamgee] went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor on his lap.

He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.

–Chapter the last (The Grey Havens), Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien

No fire, and no evening meal laid out (sadly enough), but there was yellow light, and fresh pajamas, and sushi delivery, and my own home waiting for me when I arrived last night, and glad I was to see it (though if Rosie Cotton had been there with some nice stew and a little hobbit child, I’d have been glad enough for their company as well). I was thinking of this snippet quite a lot my last day or so; in fact, Middle Earth didn’t seem so far away in Ireland, and anyway it’s getting to be about the time of year where I feel an urge to re-read – Lord of the Rings is a winter story to me, a good tale for long nights and warm clothes and foul weather outside; and its ending fits in well with Christmas for me.

So here I am, There and Back Again, and I’m glad I went, and I’m glad to be home. Today, I’ll tell you the tale of my tyre and the puncture (an Irish car and an Irish mishap deserve their native words, I deem).

On Monday, I got up and packed the car and took off for points west and north. After about a half-hour of roundabouts and neat little housing developments in the suburbs, the road narrowed (of course!) and the country changed pretty quickly. First, more pines and a greater sense of what I can only describe as wildness. Then, mountains in the distance, fewer trees and great wide fields of rolling hills and long grass, all brown and ochre, many rivers and lakes, with blue-black waters rushing fast. And the sheep! Sheep everywhere, just rambling around and eating; scattered across the hills, climbing craggy hillsides, popping up in the bushes along the edge of the road. I missed what would have been the best sheep photo ever because I was too slow – a group of three, one of which stood with back legs all akimbo and looking over its shoulder as if it had been interrupted doing something about which it was slightly ashamed. It was so funny.

I don’t know if it was the time of year, the road itself, maybe just a blessing … but there was nearly no traffic going my way which was a huge relief, as I could drive like a holiday-maker – that is to say, slowly, and pulling over when there was a place to pull off onto, and take photos. I came along through Clifden which was a cute little down worthy of a stop in future, I’d say, though I didn’t (one disadvantage of a driving trip in winter, the early dark; and I believe I’ve already covered how I feel about driving after dark). The roads were full of hairpin curves, and as I was pointed eastward, back along the coastline and past the Twelve Bens, rains began to roll through again. In a clear patch, I stopped briefly at Connemara National Park, to which I’d dearly love to return with others (the other disadvantage of traveling alone: some things seem a bit imprudent for a woman, alone, in a place she doesn’t know; hiking back along a deserted trail seems one of them). Simply gorgeous. Shortly after I passed Kylemore Abbey, which sits picture perfect on Lough Kylemore … and about which the guidebooks say, skip the interior, nothing to see there. Being that it was too late for their gardens as well, I did take the advice though I sheltered from a bit of a pour in the gift shop, which was having a sale, so that worked out well. They had some nice items which some of you will be seeing presently.

After that, the road goes east in earnest and along to the village of Leenane (emphasis on nane), where I had a lovely bowl of vegetable soup and brown bread in a little pub, near the fireplace. I never liked what they called Irish soda bread here in the states, it was always rather hard and unpleasant; but I believe it’s striving for the brown bread I experienced while there, and that is just so good. Kind of a crunchy crust, and a nice medium between soft bread and having a bit of body … tastes like real food, like it came from the earth, and just lovely with butter. I miss it already.

It was after that, in my possibly too-complacent state brought on by a full stomach and a warm car, that my troubles struck. Coming along the Westport road, the number of curves increased a bit, if that was even possible, and rain blew in again, but in earnest this time. I was taken a bit by surprise by a sharpish turn – there may have been someone coming the other way, I don’t recall, but that would explain me getting a bit too close on the left side – and in any case, we had a bit of slippage on the back passenger side, followed by a loud and distinct thumping. Yeah. Shit. Remember, I’m still on a longish curve on an extremely narrow road which is, to me, essentially in the middle of nowhere. No village, no people, just fields and mountains and sheep and a lot of rain. And absolutely no manuals at all in the car despite the fact that the jack directed one to look for instructions. Well, my dad showed me how to change a tire when I started driving, but that was about 15 years ago, and not in a foreign country on the other side of the road all by myself. After a moment or two I pulled myself together and pulled round to a driveway – dark house, closed gate. No joy there. Ignoring the ominous thumping, and trying not to think about the effect on the sporty, low profile rims of my Fiesta (yes, that’s right – does a Fiesta need to be sporty? is it even possible?! why bother then? especially in a country which is mostly two lane tracks with no shoulder to speak of?), I pulled up and along a bit of a hill to another cottage I saw, which had a car in front of it. Hope cautiously revived.

Bless them, they answered the door. Middle aged Patsy was there to check on her very elderly mother (who certainly wouldn’t have been able to get up to answer my knock, nor to be of help with a punctured tyre) and had been just about to leave. Thank God I caught her. She too felt useless with a jack and tyre change, so she got out her mother’s black address book and took to calling the neighbors: first Pat (not at home), then Michael. Ten minutes later, here came Michael along the road on his (bi-)cycle, in knee high wellies, a picture-perfect Irish farmer. We diagnosed the problem and he changed my tyre for me. He was a man of few words but we had a laugh over silly American girls who drive about in the country and then can’t change their own tyres – I did do a bit of thinking about how independence is all relative. I thanked him profusely, and he waved me off, and went in to have a bit of tea and a visit with the old lady while I went on my way.

Happily the rental company provided the car with an actual tire as a spare, and not one of those temporary, ‘donut’ spares. Another 45 minutes saw me into Westport and the nicest hotel of this trip – actually, perhaps of a good many of my trips. I’ve never been so pleased to see a jacuzzi bath and king size bed.

Thank you Michael, and thank you Patsy, for your kindness to a stranger; I don’t know your last names, or your addresses, so this thank you card is the best I can do. God bless you! I can only hope to be in the right place at the right time, with a willing heart to help someone else in future.