Well, the walk is over, the blisters have hardened, and I’ve fully readjusted to the home comforts. Officially 1,047 miles covered by foot over 75 days, averaging 14 miles daily, and all whilst carrying a monstrous pack that must have weighed close to 15kg at times. But those aren’t the impressive statistics. Thanks to the incredible number of donations from friends, family, and strangers alike, we’ve been able to raise an amazing £1,994 for Bloodwise so far. This is money that will go towards helping the charity’s vital work to fund world-class research; provide practical and emotional support to patients and their loved ones; and raise awareness of blood cancer in the UK. For my part I couldn’t be gladder, or more humbled, that my own journey will in some way reach out and tangibly help others going through the most difficult of times. So thanks, guys. I should probably add that the JustGiving page is still floating around here, so if you feel like you want to donate, you still can.
Right now I’m working on writing up something from the notes I made whilst on the trail, still a little bit unsure just what it’s going to turn out to be; something good, hopefully? I’m grappling with it at least, but as you can tell from my previous posts there’s a lot of baggage attached to it. For now I’ll just say that it was an utterly incredible and ridiculous experience, and I can’t wait to go into the full details. What I will talk about here, though, is the specific moment when the thought, “Hey, I should walk around the whole of Wales,” popped into my head, and actually seemed like a good idea.
It must have been November 2014. I was still at Durham University, having returned after deferring my studies on account of dad’s death. It was a very odd time of my life, superficially at least nothing had really changed. I was still there, working towards the goals that I set myself from a young age. I just had to keep the past behind me, and keep up with everybody else. It was a simple enough request, but now the stakes felt so much higher: my degree, by extension my career, and by extension once more my entire future rested on this critical time. I know that it was an unhealthy amount of pressure I was piling upon myself, but that was just how I felt at the time.
The issue was that, for me at least, everything had changed. I felt as though I had been railroaded onto a path I was no longer prepared to take, and I was miserably angry at how the terms and conditions of my life had been surreptitiously rewritten against my favour. For the past few years things had just happened ‘to’ me, I was feeling beat down, and going through an absolute upheaval in my considerations. By all means, finishing my degree was absolutely the logical thing to do, but in my warped mind, the well-meaning recommendations of those around me felt mortally constricting. I was exhausted.
For a long time this was all being expertly suppressed beneath a veneer of quiet carelessness. I was slipping by undetected, and that suited me just fine. Maybe I’d be able to get by, even enjoy the experience once more, eventually. But then I had this one day:
It started with a meeting with one of my tutors. He was one of my favourites actually, a real eccentric – not that that really narrows it down – with an office that was absolutely crammed full of ancient tomes. He was bumbling and awkward, but always warm and approachable. Anyway, we were going over an essay of mine (to my blatant surprise it had scored well) when he began:
“N…Now Mark, I noticed you haven’t been to any of my tutorials this term.” This had caught me off guard, no one had noticed my wraith-like disappearances before, and I was still on a high from the essay.
“No, Sir, I’ve just been working in my own time.” This was partially true, I was only keeping up through clandestine trips to the library, but the reality was that I just couldn’t stand being trapped in a room full of strangers. Too many times I had had to excuse myself under some pretence and go calm down in the loo. The open spaces and solitude afforded by the library felt much more peaceful.
“And, you’ve asked for an extension on your summative?” He eyed me over, “And you missed my language translation class?” In my defence, I had fully intended to go to the language thing, but as I approached the building my stomach started to somersault and I broke out in a nervous sweat. I ended up wandering along the river until my hands stopped shaking.
“Hmm.” He adjusted his glasses; I knew where the conversation was leading, and I wondered how many other students had been in this exact situation. “I know you’ve had a tough time, Mark, but you’re a good student. I’m worried that you’re going to miss so much that,” he motioned with his hands as though he were crushing something, “There’ll be a concertina, and you won’t keep up.” What he was saying made sense, of course, but I couldn’t focus on anything other than how good a word ‘concertina’ was. I’d have to drop that in a conversation sometime. Maybe my blank stare was antagonising, he could tell he wasn’t breaking through, because with a fleeting show of authority he started, “Look, your father’s dead. I’m sorry, but there’s only so much we can do…” No one else had been so direct before. I guess he was trying to instil a little ‘can-do’ attitude to motivate me, but the words had dropped dead on the floor between us, like a ball and chain, and there was an expectant silence, as though I was meant to take up the mantle and haul the weight around with me from then on. As my attitude hardened he began to fidget awkwardly, there was an evident disconnect that had opened up, and hopelessness began to flood in to the fill the space. The priority on both sides now was to end the conversation quickly.
From that meeting I had to make my way to a hospital appointment; I have arthritis, and needed to pick up my medication – a vile vial of drugs that I have to self-inject into my legs each week – lest I want the mobility of somebody triple my age. Unfortunately all of my medical documentation was registered back home in South Wales, hundreds of miles away, and due to the unknowable, unexplainable force that is NHS administration, I had to make the trip to the hospital each week to take my medication, before returning home feeling more than a little nauseated. This was my first time making the journey under this arrangement.
I had packed a book ready for the waiting room, and sure enough I was taken to a raft of chairs occupied solely by the elderly, waiting patiently and expectantly for their ticket to be called. There was a whiteboard on the wall ahead of us, scribbled upon it were the inevitable delays we could expect: ‘40 minutes, sorry.’ Periodically a nurse would wander over and add some more time, to the collective groan of us castaways. I wondered if the others waiting were too led here when they were young, long ago, and simply forgotten. Batting the thought away, I continued to read. A nurse appeared through the double-doors down the corridor; whenever one did so everybody’s attention would be laser-focussed on her, she was our only hope.
“Mark Freeman? Through here, please.” Thank God.
I had originally noted when I arrived that I had been taken to a different wing of the hospital than usual – this wasn’t the rheumatology department – but I hadn’t thought anything of it at the time. I was only here for an injection, after all, no more than five minutes and I’d be going home. As I went through the doors I remembered an old pamphlet I had been given years back, when I had been initially prescribed my medication: ‘Methotrexate was first used, in high doses, to treat cancer…’ I had wandered obliviously into the chemotherapy ward.
When I realised where I was I immediately stared down at the floor; it felt wrong to look at anyone undergoing treatment. I was a pretender, and I didn’t want to obtusely gaze at somebody else’s ongoing tragedy. Still though, I could feel everybody’s eyes upon me, somebody whispered, “Oh no, pet,” underneath their breath as I was shown to my armchair. I had never visited my dad during his chemotherapy sessions; his cancer had been arranged to be as unobtrusive as possible in the hopes it would lessen the impact on the family. It meant that I was caught in a strange battle between a morbid curiosity to look around, study the machinery, note the colour of the fluids being pumped into people, discover what magazines were messily strewn about the room, to generally get a feel of what the man sat through by himself all those times; and the need to avert anyone else’s eyes.
From across the room a man asked reassuringly, “You alright, lad?” He looked worn, but it’s hard to gauge the age of somebody going through such gruelling treatment; the medical tubing looked like extensions of his veins.
“Oh, yes, thank you,” I replied, “I’m just here to take my medication.”
“Hmm, yes,” he chuckled, before motioning around the room, “Aren’t we all?” His call was taken up by a chorus of fellow patients, all smiling expressively. I reflected on my poor choice of words.
One of the nurses came back over to me, injection at the ready, “Oh, leave ‘im alone, you lot!” Before turning to me, “Don’t mind ‘em, pet. I’ll just pull the curtain to give you’s a little privacy while you take this.” I couldn’t have been in the room for more than fifteen minutes, but it felt like an absolute lifetime. The funny thing was that I still found it an easier experience than those tutorials.
As I went to leave the man gave me knowing nod, “You take care now.”
“You too,” I responded with real feeling.
It was a forty minute walk back to where I lived, but I chose to take a lengthy detour on the way back to college, making sure to meander about the town centre before following the river towards the surrounding wooded hillsides. It had been a rough day, and I needed to just get away and reflect for a little bit. I had found a nice viewpoint just as the sun gave its final hurrah, and resolved to stop underneath the trees and weather the biting cold. I was rewarded with a fantastic gradient of colours that streaked across the skyline; from the navy blue of the encroaching night, through to a tinge of purple, then pink, and a final receding strip of deep tangerine. Silhouetted before me were the towering cathedral and castle, sitting atop an embankment of rooftops, with the river undulating through the landscape, weaving its way below the bridges towards me. The headlights of the cars stringing along silently in the distance reminded me of an endless cord of Christmas lights continually being wrapped around the scene – it was November, after all.
I breathed in the panorama greedily, never before had it felt so welcoming, but I felt no urge to go back. Too many bad memories were now associated with this place, and I was convinced that only more waited behind the façade. I wondered aloud how exactly I had come to this crossroads; the same impenetrable questions shoving their way to the forefront of my mind, demanding answers. As the sun retreated from view completely, I knew it was time to acknowledge that my time here was over. I’d like to able to say that it was now the inspiration for my walk hit – as a type of redeeming adventure that would slot into some well-thought out, overarching plan to haul myself out of the hole I was in. Unfortunately, the reality was that all I could think about for quite some time was fleeing; to hop on a train to Edinburgh, get myself to the airport, and fly to wherever I could at short notice. It wasn’t until I realised that I’d left my passport back home in South Wales that I began to consider the next best thing. So there you have it, the seed of my journey was entirely based around running away. It was only as more time passed that I gradually realised it could be a more positive experience.
Anyway, I’m aware that the past couple of posts now have been more or less re-treading the same topic, which is odd considering that my life wasn’t intended to be primary focus of this blog. But as I said before, notes from the trail will be coming soon, and I’ll probably cover some less intense subjects in the meantime. Once again, a massive thanks to everybody who donated or sent messages of encouragement while I was walking, it was truly a big help.