Updated: Sep 16, 2020
Saturday 1st August
The new month was heralded in by clear skies and an eager sun. The early morning due blanketed the nearby fields in a swirly, hazy mist. I awoke swiftly and excitedly packed my rucksack. This time I was careful to apply ample blister patches. I am fond of the outdoors and often hark back to the times I have spent camping, but it never dispels the urge that inevitably dawns on the final day of any expedition, to get back to comforts.
I backtracked to Tinahely along the quiet main road. To my relief, rest had numbed the pain in my previously aching feet and my stride was once more confident and powerful. Tinahely was still sleeping. Nearly all the shops were still closed. But then again, it was only 7am. On a bench in the town square, I tentatively thumbed open my ordnance survey map, now brittle from its exposure to the elements and constant wear and tear, and using my compass, set a bearing for West North West out of the town and along the main road to re-join the Way after two kilometres. I grinned ruefully, the map and compass are one of the most traditional and reliant methods of navigation ever devised. It did not bother me in the slightest that my phone was broke. Give me a map and compass any day. Of course, like any art, it is a practice. More than once, as I learnt to get to grips with the method in my Bronze and Silver DofE I had misread the map. To me this emphasised the importance of paying attention to every detail that formulates navigation. It wasn’t until my Gold that I had become sharp, yet it is important to never get complacent.
After walking along the R747, I reached a crossroads and took the country road to my right uphill which, after my second left, would take me back to the Way. Once I was back on the Way, it wasn’t long before I was at the Stranakelly Crossroads which harboured the infamous Dying Cow pub. Here was a noticeboard that mapped the journey from Tinahely to Clonegal and I marvelled at the distance I had covered already. Stripping a layer, I pressed on and walked along a secluded lane for another four kilometres which passed through a small forest further on. Proceeding more country road walking, I soon was walking a lane uphill towards Raheenakit forest. Along one of these roads a trio of women passed me and asked if I had come from Dublin. I nodded and said that I was doing the Wicklow Way and heading towards Clonegal. The spokeswoman for this group then asked if the Way was well signposted for they were considering walking the Way sometime but where just out completing a small section today. I gave them my affirmation that it was. As I walked on, the image of the lone backpacker I had encountered on my first day returned to me. The weary traveller with the smaller rucksack who was on his last leg of the journey. I startlingly realised that I now mirrored him.
For some reason, as I walked through Raheenakit- a forest which has seen its fair share of deforestation- the women returned and overtook me. They marched on and were soon ahead of me. Atop a hill, I watched them surmount to the next hoping they would turn left and not right, for I could see that it was steeper to the right and I dreaded to think about yet more hill walking. Fortuitously they turned left and descended out of sight. Encouraged, I followed in their footpaths to the next summit. Suddenly, a girlish voice rang out behind me.
“Jake!” I turned and to my surprise saw the two girls that I had met on Thursday behind me. Relieved to see them again I stopped in my tracks and waited for them to catch up.
“We were not sure if it was you, but then we saw your two white bags and the blue sleeping bag on your shoulder,” said the brunette when she had caught up.
“What’s in them bags anyway?”
“Clothes. Unessential items,”
She laughed. “How did you get ahead of us? Last I remember you were behind us.”
“I’ve had a few early mornings,” I said.
“What about you? How has your last two days been?” I asked.
“Not bad. We camped near Raheenakit last night and and we ordered pizza.”
We then walked on together and suddenly, the distance that I had left to walk didn’t seem so daunting . In their company, the kilometres trickled gently by. We talked for the most of it and I got to know them better. My regret, I suppose, was not getting their contact information at the time for they seemed like people who I would want to get to know better. Yet, despite my social intentions, I found that I was physically unable to keep up with them for I had not rested or eaten officially since waking up that morning and they were marching to a pace that I could not keep up with. But there was something else- a more conflicted feeling that sub-consciously slowed me down.
Purely, and this could be down to irrational reasoning, but in some manner, I felt like I was traipsing behind. This made me feel weak. Maybe it was me being selfish, maybe it was the sin of pride, but I had started the Way alone. It had become my journey, and in some way, a part of me wanted to finish it alone. To be spiritually fulfilled I had to do this alone. I resolved that I’d meet the girls again in Clonegal later and get a drink with them then. So, after another hour of walking together, I didn't mind that they got ahead. The distance widened and once more I was by myself. Free to walk at my own pace and break when I wanted to again.
By 3pm, I had hit a road sign that indicated that Clonegal was only 3km away. It was an emotional stretch. I was swamped with lament for the week that had passed yet joy at the prospect of at last finishing. To me, emotion at the end of an expedition seemed outlandish and not something I had experienced. But when you achieve something such as the Wicklow Way, you cannot help but feel somewhat proud and mournful at the same time. It is an inevitable feeling. I stopped to look behind me at Wicklow and I remembered my first sight of her mountains from Dublin. Back when I was oblivious and innocent as to what would transpire. There were times when I hated these mountains, but the truth was they had made me feel like more of a man at nineteen years of age than a boy. I think that the transition to adulthood is a moment we all recognise in different ways. This week had been mine.
Half an hour later I entered the small village of Clonegal. To my surprise, it was a lot smaller than what I had expected it to be- considering it was the destination of the Wicklow Way. On this Saturday afternoon it was quiet. As I walked through, I could feel the golden adrenaline that had carried me through since I had hurt my back dissipate to be replaced by the relief and satisfaction of finishing. I felt human again and was craving a meal, a pint, and my hotel room. Which was in Bunclody of course. Having a broken phone made reaching this town more difficult, but I remembered Dave mentioning a taxi that ran from Bunclody and at Huntington Castle, a generous waitress booked me this taxi. As I sipped on a hard-won coffee, I was approached by one of the staff of the Castle and given a certificate that congratulated me on my completion of the Wicklow Way.
At 4pm, when the taxi at last swerved through the castle gates with a crunch of gravel. I threw my gear in the back and hopped in front.
“Where to?” he asked.
“Clody Lodge in Bunclody. I have a hotel room waiting.”
I probably stank like a dead sheep.