The Kennet and Avon Canal, Day Five: The last day

Last night it got cold, too cold for me with my two lightweight sleeping bags. Mark in his Rab 750 was toasty, but I shivered all night long and barely slept. We were planning to end our walk tomorrow in order to return to Mark’s house in Devon with a couple of days to spare before the next phase of our journey together, but decide to make today our last day instead. Mark wants to service the bike, visit his father, and cut the grass among other things, so he doesn’t mind the extra day. 

My step is noticeably lighter as we start walking and grows increasingly more so, due in part to the psychological advantage of knowing this will soon all be over, and in part to the fact that I haven’t managed to time my body’s clock with our arrival at the precious few toilets we’ve encountered for two days now. I’m walking with purpose to the first toilet we come to. 

As it turns out, this ends up being the first town we land in, called Hungerford, and it’s almost noon when we get there. I am practically running down the street toward The Tutti Pole, located directly off the canal on the High Street. When we step inside we’re greeted immediately and asked where we’d like to sit. It takes all my self control not to scream “Never mind that! Where’s the toilet?!” We ask for a table outside, where we can shed our backpacks and not worry about them being in the way of other patrons. As we walk towards the patio a young man approaches us and asks if we’ve been greeted yet. I wave him aside and make a beeline for the first picnic table I can see. No sooner have I slipped my pack off than a third staff member appears, this time to hand us menus and tell us about the daily specials. Clearly this place prides itself on its customer service. I leave her in mid-sentence, unable to sit, or even stand, and wait. I dash back inside and through the door marked “Toilets” where I find not one, not two, not even three, but four whole toilets. It has been so long since I’ve gone that my body freezes up momentarily. I force myself to relax and breathe deeply, almost screaming then crying with relief when at last I am able to go.

Unburdened, I return to our table by way of the dessert counter, where I size up the possibilities. Outside, Mark is drinking a cup of coffee and pondering the menu. He decides to go with just a dessert. I tell him I’m having lunch followed by dessert. In the end, we eat the same things only in reverse. I’m eating cake while he has a sandwich. 

After lunch we find the train station and check the schedule of trains going to Bristol, thinking we’ll walk to the next town and catch the train there. But it isn’t as straightforward as we thought it would be. Perhaps because it’s the weekend, perhaps they are doing work on the track at some point, but the only way to get to Bristol is to go in the opposite direction, toward Reading, and catch a direct train from there. If we catch the next train to Reading, we’ll get to Bristol by around 4, which will get us back to Mark’s place just before dark. Our walk is over.

Two trains and a bus ride later, we are back in Bristol retrieving the bike from Mark’s friends’ garage. Karen greets us at the door with Jax like last time, only this time Jax is wearing a blue puffy collar like a life vest, a newer and more comfortable (so she says) version of the cone that dogs wear after surgery to keep them from licking or biting their stitches. He doesn’t look bothered, so she may be right. “Paul’s just out in the garden planting some roses” she tells us. Soon he comes inside and we make polite conversation, then we load up the bike and leave.

The next morning, back at Mark’s house, I like to think I’m just a little bit tougher, stronger, both physically and emotionally than I was when we began our canal walk. This may be an illusion, I don’t know, but now that I’ve stopped walking for hours on end, I have the sense that I could have kept going because I’d passed the tipping point. That is the plight of a softie like myself, a “poof” Mark would say: when we test ourselves, throw ourselves into something difficult and painful, the temptation to quit because it feels overwhelming, it feels like too much, is great, and depending on your situation – how much you’ve bitten off, what motivates you, how great the disparity is between how you are and how you want or need to be – you will turn back too soon, just in time, or too late. When I walked the Camino de Santiago five years ago, I willingly tolerated the physical pain, even craved it as an antidote, a distraction from my emotional pain. Unfortunately it didn’t work that way. There was no relief from the pain, there was only compounded pain. I ignored what I could until it would be ignored no longer, though ignore isn’t the best word. I was aware every minute of all of it, but parts of me, body and mind, took turns being numb, which is not to say pain free; it was simply a matter of degree. When I finally stopped walking I was not stronger; on the contrary, I was weaker, more damaged, further broken. On that occasion, I turned back too late.

The knot in my shoulder has dissipated and my feet feel almost normal. By stopping to rest and stretch every so often and concentrate on keeping my core as tight as possible as often as possible, I was able to avoid a recurrence of the lower back pain that escalated into crippling muscle spasms along the Camino. While I’m tired and desperate for a long sleep in a soft bed, I feel better overall for our several days’ walk along the canal. 

Now if you’ll excuse me, dear reader, I must go. It’s a lovely day here in southwest England, and Indian Summer is short lived in this part of the world. Now that I’ve put this all down on (metaphorical) paper, I feel inclined to get out there, into the fresh air and sunshine, and go for a walk.

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