Drive Left, Eat Right

Souzz and I just took a quick trip to Ireland, and we crammed a lot of touring into four days—including visits to Connemara National Park, Galway, Aillwee Cave, the Cliffs of Moher, Dingle, and Dublin. Our itinerary required a fair amount of driving on the “wrong” (left) side of the road, but that was about the only thing that seemed wrong about our visit. We hiked, went horseback riding on the beach, visited a lot of historic spots, and enjoyed some fantastic food (of course). It’s hard not to have a good time in a beautiful country filled with friendly people.

Ireland isn’t generally known as a foodie destination, but the overall scene has expanded in recent years. Fresh seafood is everywhere, chefs are bringing in flavors from all over the world, and there are a bunch of new craft breweries and distilleries. We ate and drank very well on our trip.

Our best meal was at a restaurant on the west coast in Dingle (population 2000) called Idás. Chef Kevin Murphy brings a strong emphasis on local and seasonal ingredients, many of which he forages himself. Idás opened in 2014 and gets rave reviews, including a recommendation in the 2017 Michelin Guide. They fill up their intimate dining room most every night, and it was easy to see (and taste) why.

Our meal at Idás was five courses spanning land and sea, with some dishes a work of art and others plated in stark simplicity. Chef Murphy is trained as an artist, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the presentation is very important to him. And the smallish portions with intensely contrasting flavors conjured up loose comparisons to molecular gastronomy–which was not what we were expecting to find in Dingle.

Chef Murphy clearly has a passion for his work, telling us at one point in a serious tone that “you must respect the radish,” and later joking that “foraging through the local fields brings us free ingredients, and then our customers willingly pay for them.”

Of course, we didn’t spend all of of our trip at fancy restaurants, as enjoying a pint of Guinness at one of the local pubs is de rigueur in Ireland (oh, wait, that’s mixing French and Irish, something that the Napoleon tried in 1798 that didn’t go so well, never mind).

The pub scene is memorable not so much for the Guinness or the music, but because of the habit of locals to strike up conversations. We literally made new friends every night.

In Galway, we met a cheery guy named Colm at a pub called Tig Coili (“Coili House” in Gaelic, after a family name). Colm insisted on buying each of us a pint before sharing a lot of friendly advice for our trip. Soon the conversation expanded to include Dessie, an older guy in a ball cap who clearly came for the music. I confess that I don’t even really like Irish music, but I found myself captivated by Dessie’s enthusiasm and knowledge. He is a musician himself, and we guessed that he must play regularly at Tig Coili.

Later, we saw a poster in town with a familiar face and realized it was our new friend Dessie O’Halloran. The poster was of his 2001 album called The Pound Road, and it turns out that Dessie is a very well known musician that has played with the likes of Sharon Shannon and Willie Nelson.

Seeing that poster was almost enough to make me want to buy some Irish music…but impulse buys after visiting a pub are almost never a good idea. So I had another Guinness instead.

Time Travel

My buddy Rick and I just got back to Virginia after spending a week touring the Yukon by dog team. Friends of ours, Wayne and Scarlett Hall, run a dogsledding business out of Eagle, Alaska, called Bush Alaska Expeditions, and they hooked us up with a great tour. Even getting to Eagle is a bit of an adventure, requiring a ride on the mail plane out of Fairbanks. Once in Eagle, we met up with another friend and guide, expert musher Nate Becker, before heading for the hills.

The country around Eagle has a long and interesting history, including a number of different Athabaskan tribes, fur trading dating back to the 1700s, and the 1896 Klondike Gold Rush that started near Dawson City (150 miles upriver). During the gold rush, people came north with big dreams, and some made (and lost) fortunes. Place names like Last Chance Creek, Bonanza Creek, and Hard Luck Creek tell a part of the story.

Our trip felt like a moving tribute to the hardy souls that lived and thrived up there a hundred or more years ago, almost like time travel. Back in the day, the frozen Yukon River was traveled by legends like Percy DeWolfe, who carried the mail back and forth between Dawson and Eagle from 1910 to 1949….when it costs 3 cents to send a first class letter. Another notable resident was Harry Karstens, nicknamed the Seventymile Kid, who came from Chicago to prospect for gold before becoming a “packer” hauling mining supplies for other prospectors. Karstens went on to lead the first ascent of Mount McKinley (now Denali) in 1912 and later became the superintendent of Mount McKinley National Park.

During the course of our week, the rich history of the Yukon revealed some of itself to us through the cabins along the river. A few of the cabins were historic, a few were relatively new, and a few were somewhere in between–but all were remarkable in their own way. The one constant is that they were generally spaced about a day’s mushing apart–which was good forethought by the folks that built these places.  Cabins along the Tatonduk River, the Nation River, and the Seventymile River were a welcome sight after a long day on the trail, just as they would have been in the early 1900s.

I’m sometimes asked why I am so captivated by Alaska, and I answer that it’s because it’s the way the world used to be. During the course of the week, it was easy to wonder what it must have been like back in the day–and each time that I stopped to warm my fingers, I was reminded that I probably wouldn’t have had what it took. I have no idea how people thrived in this land before fancy down jackets, goretex gloves, and bunny boots. That said, it was also inspiring to spend time with some of the people that are thriving there now, like Wayne, Scarlett, Nate, and Nate’s wife Ruby.

Our wonderful hosts obviously made this trip possible–but it’s also important to call out the true stars of the the week: those incredible canine athletes. One thing that I’m pretty sure hasn’t changed in the last 100 years is that Alaskan huskies are phenomenally fit, loyal, and eager to run. They are also incredibly reliable, as a dog team never breaks down on the trail (unlike a snowmachine…or snowmobile, in case you don’t speak Alaskan). Each morning, those huskies were ready to take us anywhere that we had the skills to go, and they also seemed completely impervious to the cold. As I adjusted layers a thousand times on the back of the sled, I remembered that my dog team was wearing exactly the same thing that it had on last summer.

After an amazing week, Rick and I came back from the Yukon with a new appreciation for the way the world used to be, and the way that it still is…at least up there.