Ireland: What the Water Gave Me by Tyler Karnes

Tyler

Late one winter night during 2013, my senior year of high school, I began writing a short story titled “What I Saw in the Water.” I stayed up until I saw the sun, as long as it took to finish that first draft. The story was intentionally vague; I didn’t specify a setting in order to create a timeless feel. I was pleased with the outcome, but my curiosity wouldn’t let me stop there. I kept going back to the story, long after the “final” draft, to tweak this or that. At some point, that vague element I was so proud of began to vanish — not from the writing itself, but for me. I got to know the characters who were merely mentioned but did not make an appearance. I knew the time period. I knew the characters’ pasts and futures. Perhaps most importantly, I knew the location: Ireland.

I do not remember making that conscious decision. I realized one day that I had been crafting the story as if it were taking place in Ireland, and suddenly no other setting was worthy. I did not know this short story would become part one out of three of a novel-in-progress called What I Gave the Water, or that that novel would become my thesis for the Honors College almost three years later. I certainly never imagined my dedication to this story and to these characters would ever actually take me to Ireland. And yet, earlier this summer, it did.

At the persistent urging of Adam Frank, my Oxford Tutorial professor, I applied for a Travel Abroad Grant (TAG) from the Schedler Honors College in the fall of 2015. I planned to go alone, I had a budget and a timeline, and I had a general idea of the main places I wanted to visit, but that was the extent of my concrete planning. I wanted flexibility and spontaneity, which was part of my reasoning to go alone. I had never been abroad before — admittedly, I had never even flown on a plane — so to do all of this alone without even knowing where I would sleep each night for a month was a bit terrifying.

The first twenty-four hours were exhausting and demanding. I remember thinking an embarrassing number of times that I had made a mistake. I did not think I had it in me. But I continued to surprise myself: I navigated airports, I unraveled the mystery that is Dublin’s public transportation, I found my first hostel without even having to backtrack! Small victories, perhaps, but victories nonetheless. From the outset, I recognized an independence in me — and dare I say it, an “extrovertedness” — that I had not before.

I stayed in hostels, always sharing a room with four, six, or eight beds. I was apprehensive about this, but it proved to be a wonderful decision. I met some of the coolest people I have ever encountered — friends from across the United States, from Canada, Germany, China, Australia, South Africa, Scotland. These people got me. They understood what was driving me. The majority of them were also solo travelers.

I started in Dublin, and then I rented a car (this meant driving on the wrong side of the roads, many of which were narrow and bumpy and quite stressful) to drive west across the country to Galway. From Galway I headed south to Doolin, then Killarney and Cork, before traveling across the southern coast of Ireland and back up to Dublin. While in Galway and again in Doolin, I took boat tours to the largest and smallest Aran Islands, Inishmore and Inisheer respectively. I walked atop the Cliffs of Moher and sailed along their bottom, so far below the top that the visitors above were not visible. I also visited Cape Clear Island and took a ferry to Fastnet Lighthouse, an off-shore lighthouse that is the southernmost point of Ireland. Once back in Dublin, I went on a tour to Northern Ireland to Belfast and certain geographic locations, like the Dark Hedges, the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, and the Giant’s Causeway. Much of my time in cities was spent exploring museums or visiting places relevant to my novel, such as the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin or Gus O’Connor’s Pub in Doolin. I learned much more about the Easter Rising of 1916, the War of Independence, and the Civil War, during which my novel is set.

Near the end of the trip, I was reminded of a passage from my novel. One of the main characters, Atlas, takes a literal and figurative leap:

“Weeks to work up the nerve, weeks of standing on edge with toes in the dirt. Weeks of climbing atop the rocks at the far end of the lake, hidden from the manor-view behind a thicket of trees. Weeks of tossing rocks into the water and watching them plop and sink like dead weight. Weeks, before finally he threw himself in after the rocks. His fingernails dug into his palm around the stone in his pocket.

He had been certain he would drown, unsure if his heart pounding against his ribcage would give out first before the water could claim him. But neither had happened: his head broke the surface, he gulped for air and thrashed…and then stopped, floated with his head above the still water. He took deep, slow breaths and realized, I’m okay.”— from Part Two, What the Water Gave Me

When I thought of this passage, I realized my experience was pretty similar. In the months and weeks leading up to the trip, I was excited and anxious and terrified. Each day in Ireland was a new leap into the water. Each day driving on foreign roads. Each afternoon trying to find a hostel for the night. Each new city, each new person I met. They were all my own moments of throwing myself into the water, and I often thought I would buckle under the pressure. I was challenged in ways I never have been, but Ireland brought out a confidence and independence in me that I did not know I had.

Since returning to the US, I have been trying to hold on to this independence. I continue to push myself in new ways, whether that’s making a hard choice to let go of elements of my past, go after new things, or admit to myself and others what I really want from life. Traveling abroad taught me so much about my writing, Ireland, myself, and others. But most importantly, I think it taught me to take risks. I know now to take a deep breath, throw myself out of my comfort zone, panic momentarily, and then remind myself, I’m okay.

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