I had a good sit down in the pier cafe, consumed a fantastic bacon sandwich and walked with the effervescent Arry across the barrage and into Cardiff centre, absorbing her incredible stories. She doesn't talk about how hard her run must have been, simply stating a series of casual facts about her journey, leaving you to realise the impact of her statements and the absolute incredible achievement she made.
I met an old friend for a few drinks and then went to another friend for a bed. Nice catch ups in a week of meeting person after person. I'd pushed hard to get to the city, walking almost twenty miles a day for over a week.
Leaving Cardiff was more difficult. I headed to the shops to buy my maps, aiming to head up the river Taff and down the Usk, no easy guidebooks so I'd require maps for my navigation. I stopped in at a cafe on my way to the river and unfortunately I chose a really good one. Soft leather chair in a quiet corner of a room full of mismatched tiling, irregularly placed mirrors, table lamps, large windows and iced coffee served in pint sized glass jars. I did some writing, a couple of hours passed and suddenly I found myself greatly desirous of a day off, the urge to walk was completely absent, my body felt heavy and tired. So I had one. Night in a hostel, bag of crisps and Netflix and I set off the following morning.
Well, I walked towards the river, stopped in at Wales Online to meet a journalist and then found myself in the castle tearooms ordering a Welsh breakfast (laverbread scone, nice touch). I finished my writing, published it and set off, finally at about midday.
Something had changed, my energy had gone. I'm not sure what keeps driving me forward but it had gone. I just didn't want to walk. All my energy, all my focus has gone into one thing, pushing my body forward to walk for thousands of miles. But it's all an illusion, this pushing forward. I can stop at any time, I just don't give myself the option to do it.
Now, as the end is so close I can almost touch it, the temptation, the thinking ahead to the finish when I will be able to stop walking, to stop putting my body through all this effort is bleeding into the present and I am simply running out of steam.
I made the finish date public that Monday, told everyone that I was aiming for the clocktower in Machynlleth on the 22nd August. It's not a random date, I need to get there by that time in order to go away and work the following week, see some good friends at a festival. If I didn't have this arrangement I'd probably finish a week or two later. Something happened when I named the date; I let my guard down and let the finish, the thought of no longer walking come flooding into my mind.
My body felt heavy, no impulse to move, no energy. The Taff trail was no help either; hard tarmac under my feet, making them hurt much sooner in the day, constant noise of traffic following me as the path wound beside the A470. Time seemed to pass incredibly slowly. There was no joy in my walking, I felt close to tears.
I wondered where I was going to sleep, the Merthyr valley seeming to be a long conjunction of town after town, bleeding into one another with industrial areas at the edges.
It was a couple on bikes who saved me from urban camping that night. The guy slowed alongside me, asking me what I was doing. "I'm going to talk for a bit" he shouted ahead to his partner. After a few cursory questions he asked where I was going to sleep and, on hearing I was going to walk a bit further and find something, offered me a camping spot in his garden. I took a sideways glance at this open faced, lycra clad valleys man and said yes. An offer made so quickly and so openly can be trusted, I decided. So I found myself walking a few extra miles that day, feet burning, as I talked to the well travelled Dai about his many experiences on the way home. It's just up this hill he'd say, it's just next to that pylon. I made it and had a meal, shower and camped in their garden; David dropped me back into Pontypridd early the next morning.
I had a pretty rubbish day, on my way to Merthyr, nestled at the head of the valley. All tarmac and worry about where I would sleep that night. I skirted the town really, too wary of all the negative things I'd heard about the place. "Merthyr", people say, and give a knowing smile as if we all know without saying it what a terrible place it is. "They're all a bunch of headers up there love", a man in Abercanaid warned me, beer swinging in his carrier bag, the smell of more coming off him. I stopped for half an hour of phone charging in the ex-servciemans club. People spoke to me, asked me what I was doing, gave small donations. All as normal really, my pre judgements clouding a real experience of the town.
I walked to the very edge of the town and beyond, not wanting to be caught by the people who came to the underpasses and bridges at night to smash glass and drop their empty cans.
I walked until the sun was almost setting, out to the first few farms beyond the town, out to the edge of the forestry where I found a tall tree growing beside a stony track and behind it a patch of smooth grass, edged with mossy stones and foxgloves where I could lie down and feel safe. The full moon rose behind me and I pulled my sleeping bag around me against the cold night. I woke a few hours later to the sound of an animal near me, so close that I could see the shape of it moving and snuffling around my flags. I flicked the light from my phone onto it and saw a hedgehog, biting and sucking at my welsh flag, undeterred by the flash of light. I moved the flags closer to me and it scuttled away, leaving me to the peace of the night.
The next morning found me rested but no more motivated. I spread my kit out to dry in the warm morning sun to dry off the overnight dew. I ate breakfast and read a book, no urge to move at all. It was hard, so hard to get going. Without a reason pushing me forward, there is very little impetus to shoulder my bag yet again and take the steps that lead me to throbbing feet and exhaustion yet again. I knew that there was a hostel about 12 miles ahead and the temptation to give up early and pay some money in exchange for a hot meal, shower and warm bed was just far too tempting. My target is always there, hovering in the background and in order to meet it I must always be fixed on forward movement but sometimes the need to stop is overwhelming. I walked to the hostel, slowly, pausing often.
Something changed on the way there though, as I walked out from the confining, narrow valley into the more open hills of the Brecon Beacons. My mood lifted as the horizon widened. I found myself walking on sheep-cropped turf instead of tarmac, the path ahead went winding up and over a hill instead of twisting through housing estates or under roads, the roar of traffic noise faded, the signs fell away and it was just me, a map and the wild, living land again. I felt at home, realising that this is the kind of walking I love.
I slept at the hostel, filled my belly with as much food as I could, extra toast at breakfast, cramming yoghurts into my rucksack and set off to find the source of the river Usk.
It helped a lot, walking through the open land. Somehow I felt better. All the problems are still there - a finish date looming, a few hundred miles for me to walk before then, rain, wet tents, painful feet, empty bank account. But most of them have been there all along, there's no reason why they should overwhelm me in the final month of this odessey.
I can do this, it's not an impossible target. I just need to, as ever, keep walking.
So that's what I've done, coming down the river Usk to, today, the town of Usk. It's been a pretty mechanical few days, I'm up at 6am, walking as much as I can for the day and collapsing into sleep wherever I can camp. I still feel like crying lots but I'm not sure exactly why. I'm not worried about what will come next, I'll worry about that when I've had some proper rest.
Once I reach and leave Bristol I'll be able to relax somehow, there'll just be one route left, the Wye Valley Walk. A finite number of miles and a finite number of days. Simple. I just need to make the calculation and do the miles. No problem. Right?