By Rick Cleveringa
Back in Annascaul, we exit the South Pole Inn.
Brian and I are planning to go back to our rooms, so I bid farewell to the pub and one of Tom Crean’s famous photograph. This captivating black and white portrait shows one rugged man. His stocking cap rests rakishly on his head. It touches the back of his collar, going up to covering his ears and exposing a tuft of hair over his stony forehead. His features are cut in
granite. Rough, manly and confidently symmetric. His pipe is locked in his teeth and runs to his left hand side. He has been unshaven for about two weeks. He wears a woolen sweater. Its collar, disheveled, turned up in the back. His shoulders are pitched on an angle away from the camera. His face meets you square on. Just as he would in life. If you manage to see this photo you will not soon forget it.
The excellent photographer Frank Hurley had captured some deep distress in the eyes. They look right back at you. They meet yours and tell you something is gravely wrong. Tom’s eyes are forceful and hard, but there is worry in there. For by the time this was taken in February of 1915, Tom had been to Antarctica twice before. He had made an unprecedented 35-mile solo trek to save two of his companions, both of them tent bound and near death. This was on Sir Robert Falcon Scott’s journey to the pole. At midpoint Scott had told Crean and two others that they would not go to the pole with his team. It was said the Irish giant wept at this news. So Tom, Teddy and William had to return to base camp. He was fully aware of the danger that lay in wait. He understood suffering like no other man. His eyes tell you that he survived what you could not. There is fear in his eyes. Fear of what he had seen and what was to come. How could he know that in a year he, Sir Ernest Shackleton, Chippy McNish, John Vincent, Timothy McCarthy and Capt. Frank Worsley would do the unimaginable? In the James Caird they would cross the dangerous Drake's Passage, land on South Georgia island, climb uncharted mountains and face hardships very few men could withstand. All to save the crew of the Endurance. All 22 hands stranded on Elephant Island 800 miles away.
When I first read these tales in the book The Endurance by Caroline Alexander back in 1999, this photo grabbed me. The story instilled in me admiration for the men who could withstand such environment and harsh condition. All in the name of exploration.
The door of the pub closed behind us, leaving Brian and I in a blinding rain. We pulled on our rain hoods and buttoned up our jackets. The River Annascaul which hours ago was trickling calmly and flowing brown and friendly, the color of root beer with foam, now it's running like a heard of buffalo, wild and deadly. It's two feet higher. The pebbly edges are gone now. The water is high up into the grass, getting closer to the Pub. It is so fierce you do not wish to even cross the old stone bridge, for fear the whole of it will be swept away—along with the two Yanks that foolishly tread upon it in a storm like this. We pulled on the strings in our hoods. Drawing them close over our faces. Our backpacks were getting sodden. I ask Brian if we should try to make it to Tom’s grave? All we know is it's a half hour walk up one of these roads. Brian’s glasses are covered in drops of rain and says “Yeah, I am game.”
Off we go, crossing the bridge over the angry river up the road. With our heads down against the rain and wind, we hope we are on the correct street. This is nothing like the Pole, but it's our mini adventure. We walk down the narrow Irish road past farm houses and the smell of livestock. The mountains are cloaked in clouds. It was the greatest time to go. Night is falling as we move through the rain and fog. The roads are narrow strips of asphalt. When cars pass we have to get off. With no sidewalk or shoulder, you stand in ditches or lean up in brambles on the stone walls.
Heads down, we walk about a mile to a crossroad. A small arrow points to Tom Crean’s grave. Good, we are on the right road. We talked about our company at the Inn. I thanked Brian for indulging me, for taking this hike in the rain and dusk. How it's adding a touch of danger to our trip. Damp is penetrating my shoulders. The rain that is dripping off my hood before my left eye is now a steady stream. The precipitation has saturated the legs of my
pants. To our good fortune, the sheets of rain have slacked off and it turns to a drizzle. We take down our hoods and walk another half mile to the next sign. It points us left and we head down hill on a single lane road with grass growing up out of the center. Our boots walk through puddles of two-inch deep mud and water in the lane. We cross a smaller bridge made once more of field stones. The road curves back up hill past a lonely old farm house. To our left we see the gate of Ballynacourty Cemetery.
A concrete wall surrounds this small graveyard. I pull back the slide of the iron gate and we
enter at our own risk. It is fantastically neglected. Not even Dracula would enter this place. Short iron fences guard some of these 100-year-old graves. There are above ground crypts and moss covered mounds with indiscernible tombstones. We walk downhill on a paved path past more spooky graves. The rain has about stopped.
Due to lack of daylight I am in a hurry to photo Tom Crean’s resting place, so I am off to find it. It was located in the opposite corner from the gate. On the side of a crypt I spy CREAN.
Wow I go to the front and read the names on the plaque. TOM CREAN ANTARCTIC EXPLORER, HIS WIFE ELLEN, KATIE DAUGHTER. I felt my excitement turn to solemnity. Flushing through me are the powerful mixed feelings of success and sadness. Together Brian and I are here in this special place. We take off our hats and read the names and the words on the tomb. We stand in awe, in silence and respect. Thinking about what drove us here. How many books, films, late night discussions and handwritten letters have there been over the years? We are moved. How has this man's life come to mean so much to two strangers born 30 years after his death? How could Tom have comprehended that? How two friends traveled 4000 miles, walked the last mile and a half in the soaking rain and dark, just to stand before this concrete box with his name on it? How can I put proper words to paper to describe how road trip excitement turns into a sacred event? This was that moment. It was sad and pure.
On top of the crypt I leave a small stone with the hundreds of others. It was a smooth brown pebble the size of a quail egg. I had found it at the edge of the Annascaul River near his Irish pub and dropped it into my pocket. I carried this small stone along the same route that Tom Crean’s body took 78 years earlier. This great explorer's final trek was said to be the largest procession the town had ever seen. Brian placed a coin at the base in a pile of tokens. People are moved to leave stones or offerings of many kinds here. The two handles on the front of the crypt have several faded ribbons tied to each of them. There is a small plastic penguin standing inside one of the round handles. I love the little penguin. Brian said “Leave your card". ““No I am not worthy” I say. “You are, we are. We are here because of him. You deserve it.” Brian insisted. Trusting his words, I place my GAC card behind the handle.
I hold my camera out in my right hand. We snap the last two photographs daylight allowed. Night was creeping in and it was time to go. I lay my hand on the cold damp wall and say a word or two of thanks and respect.
We walk back in silence up the path, past the vampire graves and out through the old black gate. Back on the tiny road we cross the small bridge and it is dark now. It’s bloody fucking spooky walking back. We are heading down the long road to town. Doing “bit” Voices in deep Irish Brogues. It was funny as hell.
I say “We should be filming, this is a movie” Brian said “If this was a movie a werewolf would jump out and kills one of us right now.” He stopped to take a pee in the hedge. I say “Well you're pissing, so I guess you get it first.”
We talk about the spirits in this place, leprechauns, and fairies. Brian mentions the "Wee Folk." We burst out in laughter, not in disrespect, but from a reverence to this place and its culture. The stories and tales which have been passed down.
Now we are looking for the Wee Folk in the hedges as we dodge speeding cars leaving us in the thorns and wet brush. Avoiding being run down, I step into a deep ditch that gets my one wet muddy foot. We joke, talk like men, and carry on like lifelong friends. He believes the next topic is morbid. Brian talks about not wanting a grave. Cremation is what he prefers, I agree. He expresses his deeper desires, his plans for leaving a legacy. He let me into his private thoughts. We tour his personal sculpture garden. With statuary for his dad, his son and the family. The grounds and building he has worked out in his mind. Perhaps I am the first to visit his garden with him? That was an honor. Tonight we miss our loved ones that have passed. We talk about all of them. I guess we cannot avoid this after the night we are in. “It is not morbid at all” I say, now over 50, the years will fly by for us. That is why we were here after all, to celebrate our lives and to celebrate those no longer walking with us. It was touching conversation, one I could not have shared with many men.
We cross back over the Annascaul river and it’s still raging. Passing the South pole Inn we head off to our rooms 4 and 5 at the Old Anchor. I hang up my wet coat, pants and hat in the shower, put on dry clothes and lay down in the bed.
After all that excitement, we agree to meet at 8:00 am for breakfast. I slept well, the window open. The little room was clean and well appointed. I feel good at 6:00 am. I started by repacking my rucksack, showering, and then made my way downstairs to the sitting room to write. I see my boots and pants legs are full of mud from last night's trek. You have the feeling of being in someone's house. So I went upstairs to wash them out. When I came back down, Brian was sitting on the other couch writing. We write in quiet until the door opens for chow. Breakfast is wonderful—eggs, bacon (slashers) fruit, coffee, and fermented orange juice. I am not sure how or why they all do this to the OJ. We ate and talked to a couple from Oregon next to us. Then we made our plans to head back to Dublin and leave this beautiful country and our adventures behind, return to the states and our normal lives. We did return better men for the company and the travel, glad to see our dogs and loved ones. We have written several letters to one another about the trip. In time our souls will desire travel again. Life will have pressured us for the need to. explore. Where to next?