Somewhere over the Atlantic in the dead of night, I begin making bargains with God.
Let us endure this turbulence, I pray as the tray tables rattle around me. Return me to solid ground and I’ll never leave home again.
I am en route to Ireland, where, for the next six days — plane permitting — I’ll serve as the writer-in-residence for a high school-aged student travel group. Together, 23 American students and I —under the guidance of three trip leaders — will traverse the Irish countryside, our eyes wide and hearts full as we soak up the landscape, then try to spill it back onto the page.
But from my current position 35,000 feet above sea level, the only landscape that matters to me is the one where the wheels hit the ground. The plane buckles as we drift between air pockets, our bodies turning ragdoll limp as we’re jostled in perfect sync. The shifting items in the overhead bin serve as the soundtrack for our shared terror. The woman behind me gasps; the man behind her whispers, “It’s like a roller coaster we can’t get off of.” Eyes closed, I see flashes of the faces of the people I’ll miss should my worst fear come to fruition.
I breathe deep, grip the arm rests tight and steady the parts of me that I can.
Hours later, upon returning to solid ground, I am both relieved and a little afraid.
Did I really promise to give up all future travel? Perhaps I over spoke.
Which certainly seems to be the case once the students, the trip leaders and I board the bus toward Inishbofin, an all-but-off-the-grid island (population 180), five miles off the country’s western Connemara coast. The beauty beyond the bus window is startling in its contrast to the Wisconsin world I know. I marvel at the shamrock green hills near the town of Clifton, and the bog lands just beyond. Throughout every mile of our scenic drive, Arthur — our brogue speaking, flora-loving Irish bus driver — identifies every last plant by name, jabbing his finger toward the bus windows with the same enthusiasm I reserve for spotting rare birds.
That’s bog myrtle! That’s moormat grass! Oh, and off to the left, those are alders!
My heart, once soaring, suddenly sinks:
Had I never left home I’d never have known any of it.
Throughout our two-day stay on the island, the students, leaders and I refuse to waste a minute sitting down. Rather, we begin a near-constant roam along the island’s six miles of flower-sprung heathland, our notebooks in hand as we take inventory of the flocks of sheep, the congregations of cows, and take turns imitating the braying of the loudest donkey this side of the Atlantic. The students can’t write fast enough: for them, every patch of earth is a poem.
One afternoon, in an effort to further hone our observational skills, I lead us on a “no talking” walk to the ocean. I want to minimize distractions so that they might see the things they might otherwise miss. Upon reaching the shoreline, I ask them to take their observations inward.
“Write a letter,” I say, “to your future self.”
Obedient as they are, they hop to it, cracking their notebooks wide and envisioning their lives 10 years down the road. They make it look easy, words burbling from their pens faster than the rising tides. Meanwhile, I find myself incapable of completing the exercise.
At my age, what’s left to tell my future self?
Half a lifetime ago, when I was the students’ ages, I’d written that letter with ease. But in the time between that first letter and my beach-side crack at a second, something had shifted: the journey ahead had lost its mystery, and the possibilities of “what comes next” had narrowed into what felt like an unalterable path.
Throughout our last day on the island, I spend every spare moment searching for the contents of my letter. I wander about like a 21st century Robinson Crusoe in the throes of an existential crisis. I cover as much ground as I can, knowing full well that I’ll likely never cover this ground again.
It seems a tragedy to wave a final farewell to a piece of the world I just met. And yet, if I planned to honor my turbulence-inspired bargain with God, I didn’t have much of a choice. Of course, there were plenty more worldly reasons why I’d likely never make it back to Inishbofin: the time, the cost, and most of all, my current role in life.
When I was 17 and scribbling my first letter to my future self, I’d dreamed of a jet-setting, free-spirited, go-where-you-please version of myself that never fully materialized. Instead, I’d veered toward a different life — one with fewer island strolls, and several more tons of diapers.
I don’t begrudge my path — I’ll take babies over beaches any day. But my time on Inishbofin granted me a clear-eyed glimpse of what might’ve been. Wandering among the island’s sheep, it occurred to me that my 17-year-old take on my “future self” had, at some point, become my ghost. The me who might’ve been were circumstances different. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t yearn to know that guy a bit better. But I’d be lying, too, if I said I wanted to trade places with him.
During my last lap around the island, I spot what I’d somehow missed during all the previous laps: a cemetery tucked into the knee-high weeds alongside a decaying abbey.
I unlatch the cemetery gate, preparing to enter as unobtrusively as possible. But my cover’s blown the moment I push the gate wide — the silence interrupted by the gate’s sharp metallic ring, followed by its dirge-like bass note. It sounds like eternity, which, in the aftermath of that turbulence, no longer seems so impossibly far away. Standing on that borderland between the living and the dead, I search for the clues to my own future in the names of those who are now past: Nancy Darcy, Baby Eamon, John Burke, Coleman Tierney, Pamela O’Halloran.
Did these people ever leave the island? I wonder. And if not, what all might they have missed?
The following morning, we hit the road right on schedule: returning to the mainland to meet Arthur, who, while driving us back to Dublin, continues his unsolicited tour of the entirety of Ireland’s native flora.
Creeping thistle! Cowslip! Bell heather!
We arrive at our hostel a few hundred species later, and as the students heft their luggage toward their rooms, Arthur shakes my hand and wishes me well in my future travels.
“‘May the road rise to meet you,’” he tells me. “It’s an old Irish blessing.”
“Thanks, Arthur,” I say. “May it rise to meet you too.”
Perhaps it’s the blessing I most need to hear in that moment. An absolution of sorts for the promise to God I know I’m destined to break. But it’s a promise I must break, I reason, to take full advantage of the time I’ve got.
Travel, like life, doesn’t always follow our directions down to our letters. But the uncertainty is where the beauty lives: revealing another path, another us, by widening our apertures so that we might better know the world beyond the world we already know.
This is my letter to my future self: you must board the plane, endure the turbulence and swing the squeaky gate wide.
If the road doesn’t rise to meet you along the way, then rise to meet the road.
Next Saturday: Patti See introduces the Eagle Man of Eau Claire.