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Thursday, July 04, 2019

“Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you'll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you'll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.”  Cheryl Strayed, American memoirist, novelist, essayist and podcast host.

   Life right now for me consists of large sections of time filled with uncertainty, fear, anxiety, and trepidation, punctuated by lovely floating moments of grace, laughter and good conversation while spending time with loved ones. It is about taking one's own measure repeatedly and realizing the internal voice we each have is chirping like a cricket inside me repeating "Time is short, time is short, time is short." Life is still not sleeping well and feeling that two years, five months and nine days after Les' heart stopped beating, I am more weary and threadbare around my edges than I have ever been and that is okay. Life is accepting that for me, there no real home on this beautiful planet I love because my home here ceased to exist with the death of  Les. So I've become expert at parsing segments of time.
   Life at present is about catching up with friends and family near and far, some of whom I have not seen in twenty five or thirty years. It is video calling my British loved ones and seeing their lovely faces, hearing their voices, catching up with their lives and crying when I say goodbye. 
It's about making sense of my life and this screwed up country, desecrated environment and uncertain world. It is also about honoring the process of grief and self discovery, continuing to excavate through the ruins in my life with a therapist to keep me from stalling out of the process. 
   I remember my paternal grandfather after my grandmother Helen Russell, his wife of 53 years, died. He used to tell me that he had lived too long and seen too much. He was ready to go. I have reached that point in life when I feel the same. Papa lived another twenty five years into the very midnight of his life at age ninety nine, making the best of it for as long as he could while marking time until he was reunited with Gran. 
   I am looking for work, attending interviews and considering future possibilities because I continue to wake up each morning and needs must. I'm dealing with Crohns flare-ups and making myself indulge in self care, and And I am ready to write again. So, this is really just to let those who follow the blog know where I am at and to say hi. I'm back now. Thank you for your patience.

Monday, April 15, 2019

The Les Biggs Memorial Daffodil Trail

Do not stand at my grave and weep 
I am not there. I do not sleep. 
I am a thousand winds that blow. 
I am the diamond glints on snow. 
I am the sunlight on ripened grain. 
I am the gentle autumn rain. 
When you awaken in the morning's hush 
I am the swift uplifting rush 
Of quiet birds in circled flight. 
I am the soft stars that shine at night. 
Do not stand at my grave and cry; 
I am not there. I did not die. ~ Mary Elizabeth  Frye, American poet and florist, 1905-2004

   Many who follow this blog know that in the year after Les' death I cruised slowly northward to the narrow canals Les loved best, stopping at his favorite places along the way to dig a hole, scatter some of Les' ashes inside, and plant Daffodils on top so that Les would bloom in all his favorite places along the cut and be adored by everyone who came upon his spring flowers every year. Here then are pictures and descriptions of each place, should you wish to stop and say hello. His spirit would love that and so would my heart.

   Finally I am calling out to any boaters who are willing to plant Daffodils and Forget-Me-Knots in remembrance of Les. There were several places I wanted to plant them but for various reasons--mainly bad weather and ill health, I wasn't able to do so.  The spots noted on the list below as VACANT are the ones I missed. If you come across one of Les' Daffodils and wish to send me a picture I would be deeply touched. xxx

Marsworth Reservoirs, Gran Union Canal. My deepest thanks to Dave Winter who follows our blog and has stopped to chat with us whenever he walked along and found us. Dave has been kind enough to send me pictures of Les' Daffodil blooming at Marsworth two springs running now. 
   Startops End Reservoir is a a magical place for me and Les. We moored there for eleven days in October 2011 while we waited for my worldly goods to be unloaded from the huge cargo ship that brought them from America. All 640 pounds arrived and were delivered to us at this spot by family members. We spent four days unpacking and putting books into the new book cases Les had built aboard NB Valerie for me. I hung art on the walls, and stained glass dragonflies and crystals in front of the windows. We put all of my kitchen goods in the new cupboards and cabinets Les built our of Billy bookcases. He sat back on his side of the dinette, his head resting against the wall one sunny morning with a look of utter satisfaction and happiness on his face. I asked Les what he was thinking. "Jaq you've made our boat a lovely home. Yes I lived on it before I met you, but it wasn't really a home like this. You make it a lovely place to be." And so did he. Les filled NB Valerie with his presence and his happiness. There was no place else on this earth either of us would rather have wished to be but right there together, cruising through our life.  

VACANT: By the bench at the top of Slapton Lock, Grand Union Canal.  Les died before the marinas were scheduled to be built nearby.  He loved mooring just below this lock especially in March and September when boat traffic died down and we had it to ourselves. We had the rare privilege (for us anyway) of watching a family of Mink diving and playing in the water there. 

VACANT: Linford Park, Grand Union Canal, by the stone wall near the two day moorings. Les also loved to moor here and walk through the grounds of the park, looking back at NBV waiting for us to return. Les gave his huge old leather chair away (to make room for two new chairs--one for each of us) at Linford Park in May of 2011, to a 12 year old who took it away in two pieces, balancing them on his bicycle!
My eternal thanks to our very dear friend Robert Rogers who borrowed this picture from our blog when we were last moored at Great Linford. Les is looking back towards NB Valerie through the trees. Robert added the words to offer me comfort in the months after Les' death. 
Stanton Low, Grand Union Canal: We first moored here near the ruins of the 12th century chapel and the wildlife refuge in 2012. We had the entire section to ourselves. The area was wild and overgrown.  I wrote a blog post after doing some in-depth research about the area going back to just before 1066. 
   It turns out Lord Charles Spencer, Lady Diana's brother owned this section of land adjacent to the cut with the chapel ruins. A group of locals who were working to save the chapel read my post, asked to use it for their fund raising purposes, and they worked with Milton Keynes County Council to contact Lord Spencer about the land. He agreed to donate it to the MKCC for a park to support the adjacent wildlife refuge and protect the chapel ruins if the land developers who had bought the farm on the off-side of this stretch of canal agreed not to build on all of the land but to keep a large swath along the canal as green space. The developers agreed and now one of the best planned housing estates in England sits at the top of the hill. A lovely green space filled with paths and walkways connect to the canal bridge and the park leads down from the houses to the cut. Les and I adored mooring here and watching the barn owls quarter the fields at dawn and dusk, hunting for food. This is one of those magical places for us like Marsworth. 
Les' daffodil plant (no flowers-just four leaves) in the foreground left. I planted it near the bridge on the towpath side. there are five large rocks to the right which block the bridge from automobile traffic.
Grafton Regis, past bridge 57 , around the bend from the weir. There are moorings there which overlook open fields filled with sheep stretching out to the distance. Les loved the view and every time he wanted to stop here, the moorings were full so I stopped there in May of 2017, dug a hole by the fence, scattered some of his ashes and planted a Daffodil for him. 

Gayton, Grand Union canal. Just across from a horse farm through Bridge 45 (Wrights Lane Bridge) there are lovely moorings in the countryside. Les and I loved it here. We walked up to the village of Gayton and went scrumping. We started working on sanding down NB Valerie here in 2014, getting her ready to paint. We had been through so much but Les' health appeared to be returning at the time and he felt wonderful. We felt as though we owned the world and were sitting on top of it once more. Les' Daffodil is planted in between the large Oak tree and the short post declaring the hazard of overhead power lines with Bridge 44 in the distance. 
Directly across from the horse farm. 
VACANT. Down the Atherstone Flight on the Coventry Canal in the long pound between the ninth lock and the final two locks in the flight. There is a white foot bridge half way through this pound and Les loved to stop there at a low gap in the hedge. It is quiet countryside with a lovely view of the surrounding rolling fields. I would be eternally grateful if someone would plant some Daffodils for Les, near the white footbridge. 
The White foot bridge in the distance on the Atherstone Flight was a favorite place of Les' to stop.  I wanted to plant Daffs there for him but too much traffic behind me kept me moving onward. 
Bridge 70, Wolseley Bridge, Trent & Mersey Canal.  There are lovely moorings just past this bridge and Les loved to fetch up here on our way to and from the northern canals. Wolsey Nature Reserve is a short way away, there is a pub just up from the moorings on the road, and bus service into Rugeley if needed. I planted Les' ashes and a Daffodil near the middle of the spaces which can accommodate as many as five boats on these fourteen day moorings.

VACANT. Great Haywood, the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal. This too is a magical place for us as it is for so many boaters. I was up to my armpits in painting the boat when I moored there and I didn't get a chance to spread some of Les' ashes and plant Daffs for him. Could someone please plant some Daffodils along the cut just where it opens out to the wide bit??

Over Bridge 71, The Macclesfield Canal. The foot bridge takes one to a muddy path into a leafy bower where a giant Beech tree gave up its life in a fierce storm many years ago now. Les and I found it blocking the pathway and we spent a day in August of 2012 moored up on the offside just through this bridge, cutting most of the tree into rounds and hauling them out and up onto the roof of the boat. It was hard and satisfying work but we were doing it together and that makes all the difference.
The spot between two large logs of downed Beech where I spread some of Les' ashes and planted Daffodils, on the path from Footbridge 70 on the Macclesfield canal. 
Footbridge No. 65 on the Macclesfield Canal. Very dear friends Ken and Sue Deveson on NB Cleddau keep keep their boat on the Maccie and they know it well. Sue writes, "In March 2017 I bought a Daffodil in a pot at Atherstone as we were cruising towards the Ashby Canal. It kept in flower on the top of the boat for quite a few weeks. I couldn't bring myself to get rid of it--and then I planted it in the Autumn near Bridge 65 on the Macclesfield Canal. I had once shown a picture of the mooring there, on our blog. Les commented that it was just the sort of "out in the country mooring" he loved. There are open fields on the offside overlooked by the dominant shape of The Cloud. Whenever I pass that spot and see the view. Les will be with me. xxx "
Bridge No. 65 on the Macclesfield Canal where Sue Deveson planted Daffodils in honor of Les' memory.  Picture taken from Boatwif's blog. © S. Deveson, 2017

Just before Bridge 103 N. Oxford Canal
coming from Braunston and heading to Napton. There is a lovely spot just after a bend with room for two boats before the bridge. There is also a large tree back from the towpath just there and I scattered some of Les' ashes and planted a Daffodil for him. He brought me here for the first time in September 2011 to recover from our wedding, packing up my things and shipping them, applying for my spouse visa, saying goodbye to friends and family, etc. We were both exhausted and this spot is the perfect place to fetch up for a quiet relaxing bit of rest and recovery. It is also splendidly scenic especially on a full moon evening in summer. Now a part of Les will always be there enjoying that wonderful view.

VACANT. N. Coventry Canal just past Springwood Haven Marina.  There are 14 day moorings just around the curve, out of site of the marina with woods all around but a break in the trees to allow all day sunshine for the solar panels. Les and I met Paul and Jennie Howland on NB Panda Julienne here in 2012 when we all stopped to cut up wood from trees that had been taken down on the canal side of the cut. It is a lovely, peaceful, rural slice of countryside and Les loved to moor up here. If someone could stop and plant some Daffodils for Les just off the towpath, I would be eternally grateful. xxx

VACANT. The Flashes, The Middlewich Arm of the Shropshire Union. We loved mooring here. Of course when we were last there together in 2012 there were no mooring regulations moving folks on after 48 hours. We stayed a week, enjoying the view and the peace and quiet. Hardly any other boats came to moor up nearby. This another fabulous beauty spot on Britain's canals.

Hurleston Junction, The Shropshire Union Canal. The final time I moored there in December of 2018, I dug a hole through the bridge right next to the bench which looks out on the junction and across to the bottom lock. A young man was sitting on the bench watching me.
   We had met previously on the Arriva number 84 bus from Chester to Crewe. He was off work for a long term medical condition that was slowly improving. To keep from losing his mind and feeling stuck in the house, he walks slowly down the lock flight each day and sits on the bench for several hours watching the boats, the locks, and the local wildlife. This bearded young chap knows all the lock keepers on the flight. On my final cruise before handing NB Valerie over to her new owner, I turned around at the Junction and this young man was watching me from the bench. I explained that I had to sell the boat and it was my final cruise. I asked him to please look after my husband's Daffodil and he promised to do so.
Les' Daffodils are planted just to the right of the junction signpost, next to the bench at the bottom of Hurleston Locks. 
VACANT. The top of the LLangollen canal with a view of Dinas Bran from the cut. We moored in several places there in 2012. Les went up on the LLangollen canal every year in March and April before the insanity of summer cruising and school holidays brought the unbearable crush of boat traffic that makes cruising this very narrow canal a bit difficult sometimes. We kept trying to get back up there to winter over but cancer kept us tethered to the Grand Union. I would love it if someone could plants some Daffs for Les as he loved the LLangollen canal best of all and I never did make it up there.
Les as the Bluebird of Happiness as we walk from our moorings at Llangollen to Valle Crucis Abbey ruins in 2012. 
VACANT. Near Bridge 80 outside of Whittington on the North Coventry canal. Les and I first moored here in 2012 where we met up with Jo and Keith on NB Hadar.  I loved they way we cruised through our days and then Les would say, "Here's a good spot. we'll moor up here." He was sharing his favorite special mooring spots with me, knowing I would enjoy the beauty of the countryside, the peace of nature, and most of all sharing each moment with my Best Beloved. This is one of our favorite spots with Cannock Chase not far away.

VACANT. The Wendover Arm, Grand Union Canal. We adored mooring on the Wendover through Tring Bridge no. 3 which is the current terminus of the arm. A charity organization is in the process of rebuilding it. I so wanted to get down there and moor up one more time to scatter Les' ashes there and plant Daffs for him by the bench just through that last bridge. We had some lovely days and romantic nights moored there.
   When we had Les' initial cancer diagnosis and we were waiting for his surgery,  we fetched up here. It is an incredibly healing place for us. We had permission to overstay and we spent a month here as son Kevin delivered our Greenstar juice extractor and I set about keeping Les alive and as healthy as possible before his first cancer staging surgery.
   Cruising this arm on a sunny summer day with dragonflies flitting all around us and Kingfishers dipping and diving all along the way was nothing short of magical and incredibly soul healing.
Les walks towards Bridge No. 3 on the Wendover arm, the last time we moored there in 2014.
Our lovely home in the summer evening sunshine on the Wendover Arm,  2014.
 VACANT.  The Leicester Arm with a view of Crack hill by Yelvertoft Marina. There are lovely moorings just past the entrance to Yelvertoft Marina and Bridge 17. This was our truly final carefree mooring in the summer of 2014 when Les was feeling fighting fit and we had no idea cancer was traveling through his system and setting up shop in his liver all the while. The blackberries were everywhere that summer and we walked up Crack Hill, picking and freezing fourteen pounds in three days! They made healthy smoothies for Les in the months to come.
Les single handedly holds up the Jubilee Bacon n the top of Crack Hill!
The Forget-Me-Nots (Myosotis) and Tattoos
   At Les' memorial service in March of 2017 family member Adele Howard kindly made up small gift bags filled with plant bulbs or seeds and other little bits and bobs in memory of Les.  Our very dear friends Tina and Andy Elford's mom took one home and planted the Forget-Me-Knots in her garden. They bloom now each year and remind Sandra of past memories when Les, Tina and Andy cruised together. Sandra would travel down to visit laden with freshly baked cheese scones for her son-in-law Andy. Inevitably Les would winkle a few from Sandra, much to Andy's consternation!! Much laughter and good fun was had and those memories are very precious.
Image result for forget me nots
   Forget-Me-Nots are the Alaska State flower. The day before Les and I married my daughters and I got matching Forget-Me-Not tattoos; the same tattoo but in different places. I did it as a remembrance of my life before Les, in honor of my children, and I chose a place that only Les and I would likely see. As Les' life dwindled down he would peek at my tattoo, knowing that all too soon my Forget-Me-Nots would also remind me of him.
Les doing a little Tattoo peeking in the moments after we were declared husband and wife. 
Tina Elford's Forget-Me-Not tattoo design in honor of Les and other loved ones who have died.
I got this tattoo of entwined hearts and the infinity symbol in remembrance of our undying love and the nature of our relationship as soul mates. 
Our daughter Sparky designed this tattoo because Les said this to her once. The bluebirds are in honor of her Da' and his playful dances as the Bluebird of Happiness as he walked down the towpath of our life. 

Death, the last sleep? No, it's the final awakening." ~ Walter Scott

Monday, February 04, 2019

Final Cruise

"What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness." ~ John Steinbeck, Nobel prize winning American author, 1902-1968.

   The December morning dawned icy cold and bright with the promise of winter sun. After a day of rest and recovery from work, I wanted to cruise to the Nantwich service point, fill up with water and dump my rubbish. I only use half a tank of water in a week but I am loathe to leave the tank half empty in winter with uncertain weather. The Magpies have learned over the years that boats storing black rubbish bags on their roof or decks are in fact sources of food. In years past Les and I would wake up to find the bags had been savaged and plundered, bits of food, pieces of shredded paper towel, and anything else spread all over the bow deck. Once Les even had a fox come aboard the bow and get into the rubbish bag during a bitter cold winter when the boat was frozen in for weeks.
   I have discovered a clever means of foiling the wildlife in winter: I save my empty coal bags and put my kitchen and bathroom rubbish bags inside them, then secure the coal bag shut with a plastic kitchen clippy and store it tucked out of the way under the gunnel of the bow. Job done and the wild folk are none the wiser about what is actually stored in the coal bags!
   I flipped the switch on the inverter, watching it come to life with flashing lights that gave me a reading on the electrics. Back in the galley I turned the washing machine on, and used an empty detergent bottle filled with water to help fill the washing machine. The Eco Egg I use in place of laundry detergent traveled in an arc around with my clothes, and I knew the load would be nearly finished by the time I reached the service point and moored up. 
   As I stepped up out of the stern of NB Valerie, my breath made warm clouds of steam in the air. Slipping off a glove, I  used my nails to break the skin-thin layer of ice on the stern seats Les built for me before he died, wiping them down with a rag as the engine caught and warmed in the icy air. I reached down into the stern hatch and pulled out the brass tiller and slipped it onto the swan neck; dropping the tiller pin in place, I remembered the thousand of times Les' lovely hands did the very same thing. The tiller pin is smooth with the years of his hands on it. I warmed the glow plugs and turned the engine over, letting it warm up while I cast off. 
   I walked down the towpath, stepped onto the bow and lowered the TV antenna, tucking it down between bags of coal on the roof, securing it for the trip; I loosened the bow rope, stepped off and pulled the fender up, tucking it down in the bow under the gunnel. Gathering the bow rope into loose coils, I set it by the T-Stud where I could reach across to nab it when I reached the water point.
   Walking the length of NB Valerie, I gently pushed her bow out towards the center of the canal, pulling the stern fender and tossing it on the roof, loosening the rear mooring rope, coiling it and tucking is out of my way. I climbed on my stool, settled into the stern seat, grabbed the tiller, put the boat in gear and we were off in the early morning light. It was 7:30 am and the sun was just about to clear the horizon, burnishing the sky with a golden morning glow.
   I bundled up warm in my Duluth Trading Company trousers made from fire hose canvas, a long sleeved fleece sweatshirt, thick socks, my LL Bean winter boots, Les' green LL Bean down jacket, my black knitted cruising hat, and a pair of old gloves. The superb boater's scarf my favorite oldest daughter Jesse knitted for Les from green marled Llama yarn so exquisitely soft and warm, was snuggled around my neck and crossed on my chest, a hug from my Best Beloved who wore it with this same jacket. 
   I had a long line of moored boats to pass as I cruised on tick-over, barely making a ripple on the water. Boats were hunkered down in the cold cut, most folks still in their warm beds. A few had smoke billowing from their chimneys as someone inside stirred the coals, dumped the ash and revived the fire.
   As I cruised, I noticed the boat names: Arwen Evenstar, Bessie Surtees, Time Out, Whitsunday Pie, The Thief of Time, Magic Window, Caramia, Magpie's Nest...a boater out walking his dog waved hello and called out, "You're on the move early!" With a wave and a smile I replied, "The early boater gets the water point!" We laughed as we gave each a thumb's up and headed in opposite directions. 
   The sun cleared the horizon behind me, painting the water in ripples of peach and gold. I slowed the boat as I approached the dock of the service point, avoiding the line of pointed bows on boats moored horizontally on Nantwich Marina moorings. NB Val's bow touched the dockside gently. I pulled the tiller all the way to port and gave her a nudge with the engine, bringing the stern in, then reversed again to slow her right down, stepping off with the bow rope, reaching over the side to put the engine in neutral, wrapping the mid-line around the bollard to slow the boat right down and gently pull her into the side of the dock.  
   After securing her fore and aft, I unloaded the rubbish bags, pulled the hose out of the large bow locker, used my Yale key to unlock the water point, connected the hose, turned on the tap and watched as the cobalt blue, wrinkled water pipe filled and expanded, snaking across the paving stones towards the boat. Quickly I stepped down inside the bow, reached into one of the interior bow closets for the plastic key to unscrew the brass water cap, and dropped an Aqua Tab down the neck of the tank to purify the water. I turned the hose on and let the water spray over the bow, making sure there was no debris or spiders in it, before I turned it off again, dropped the nozzle down the hole in the bow deck, turned it on again and listened with satisfaction as the stainless steel water tank echoed with the sound of filling water. 
   I gathered the rubbish bags and strolled to the bins to toss them inside, pausing to share a few words with another boater out walking her dog. Her boat was in Nantwich Marina for work. She had just returned from visiting her children in Texas. An American who lived and worked in both the U.S. and the U.K. for years, she was excited to collect the British State Pension and U.S. Social Security, allowing her to afford to live aboard her boat. "Oh your the Alaskan lady they mentioned in the chandlers. They said there was another American on a boat nearby."
   Back aboard NB Valerie I grabbed the bottle of dish washing liquid and stepped out to dribble some along the top of the gunnel, the entire length of the boat, and a dot here and there on the roof.  I pulled the telescoping brush from the closet by the bow doors, and in the brisk and frosty cold, I scrubbed the dirt and debris from the roof and side of our boat. Once the water tank was full I hosed away the suds, shut off the water, put the hose away, and prepared to take our boat into Nantwich marina to moor up for replacement of the glow plugs.
     At the end of the week, I am facing my last full day aboard the boat that has been my home for eight years. Ive lived aboard NB Valerie longer than I have lived anywhere else since I left my parent's house at age sixteen. I moved twenty-seven times in forty years. I thought I would live the rest of my life aboard our boat, cruising the cut with Les. When he died I resolved to do everything I could to make life without him work out so I could continue to live the life we both loved dearly; a life of small simplicity which suited us both to a T and which was manageable for me. Sadly life has not worked out as I wished, wanted, and worked towards. Here I am moving yet again, back across the world, leaving a huge part of my heart and soul behind on Britain's canals.
   After a frenzied week of sorting and packing, I am living among a tower of boxes and black rubbish bags. Before I started packing I looked around the boat, thinking to myself, " 58 feet by seven feet wide; remove the outside bow and stern bits and that leaves approximately 240 square feet of living space. There really can't be more than ten or eleven boxes of stuff here for me to pack." Ha, ha, ha, Pffft...I finished up with thirty one boxes of belongings although I left all the bedroom and bathroom linens, rugs, towels, blankets, down comforters, all of the galley equipment (pots, pans, dishes, glass and silverware), and all of Les' tools with the boat.
   It was time for one final cruise before loading all my worldly goods into a van and handing the boat over to her new owner in the morning. First I wanted to fill up with water and dump six huge, black bags of rubbish after a week of emptying drawers and cupboards, and packing up our belongings. I chose to do all this at the Nantwich service point which required a very tricky three point turn where the marina entrance met the Shroppie canal. The confluence forms a Y, with a bridge hole at the intersection of the two arms and to make things even more complicated, a stop lock just at the bridge.
   I turned over the boat engine with her new glow plugs and she started bright and true on a dime--no more smoke and coughing. I un-moored and cruised slowly out to the Y where I stopped, made the very tight three point turn, and cruised through the stop lock and bridge to moor up on the service point, my heart swelling with joy. Job done and Les would have been so proud of me! Of course there were no gongoozlers on this occasion to witness my prowess.
The bridge at the Y with the stop lock gate.
Nantwich marina water is just the other side of
that umbrella over the picnic table. 
Looking through the same bridge hole to a
boat moored on the service point.
  Ruth and Richard Chamberlain came along to the service point and tied up in front of me. We chatted and I explained NB Valerie had been sold and I was leaving the cut. After saying goodbye to them and several other local boaters coming along for water, I screwed the cap tight on our water tank one last time and slowly pulled NB Val away from the bollards. Through Nantwich, over the aqueduct, past the permanent moorings, past the children's playground with their voices ringing in the cold morning air, through bridge 90 to turn at the winding hole and head back through Nantwich one final time, waving goodbye to old Bob on NB Leopard who was concerned about the state of my chimney a year ago when I first turned up to moor in Nantwich. Bob gifted me with an extra chimney he had stowed away. Goodbyes were called out along my route: from townie Jim who walked his border collie every morning along the towpath and stopped to chat with me. Over the past year we had become friends who looked forward to seeing one another whenever I cruised into town and moored up; from local dog walkers who frequented Nantwich Book Shop and Cafe where I had worked and who knew to look for me along the cut; from other locally moored boaters who had grown used to spotting NB Valerie as I plied the cut from the top of the Bunbury staircase locks to the bottom of the Audlem locks. Just before the aqueduct, Chamberlain Carrying Company had returned from filling with water and their working boats Mountbatten and Jellicoe were moored up. Ruth stepped out on the stern and waved goodbye to me and tears began to roll down my face. I would miss her and Richard, and the others who plied the cut on fuel boats: Jason on NB Bargus, and Lee and Roberta on NB Halsall--all of whom have delivered fuel, coal and kindling to me over the past year, checking in with me to make sure I was still alive and kicking.
   I cruised over the Nantwich aqueduct one last time, looking down on Chester Road, then made the gentle curve to port, passed the long line of moored boats once more. Folks were up and out, checking their mooring lines, walking dogs, and emptying ash pans with a grin, a nod, and a wave hello. How I mill miss these folks--my people. While I haven't made direct acquaintance of any of these particular boaters, I am hailed, thanked for passing on tick over, and given the nod of recognition that says, "Hiya fellow boater..." and my heart constricts with a pain so sharp it takes my breath away. I know in my bones that any one of the boaters I am passing would come to my aid if I needed them, if I asked. I felt safe and protected among them, despite not actually knowing any of them beyond a friendly nod and wave. I know of no other community of its like anywhere else in the world.
   Past the water point, through the bridge hole and the stop lock and onward slowly, NB Valerie's bow cutting through the winter dark water as Swans, ducks and a pair of Moor hens glide out of the way. I pass through a hump backed bridge near Acton and slow down to tick over as the overgrowth on the offside is reaching to the  middle of the canal at a curve and I cannot see beyond it.
   My breath curls out of my mouth in white puffs of steaming warmth. I move through the curve and spot the derelict narrow boat tilting slightly toward the towpath, loosely moored with her bow pulling slowly away from the side as I pass. The boat's pea green paint is scuffed and peeling, providing no inkling of its name. Plastic carrier bags stuffed with junk protrude from the stern deck which is completely filled with flotsam and jetsam. Large black rubbish bags are piled on the roof with other bit and bobs, some hanging over the side. The bow too is filled with similar items. The small jalousie windows are filthy and the curtains are ragged and water stained. This boat has been moored here between two curves with over-arching growth needing trimming, for the past year.
   Scuttlebutt from other local boaters says the woman on board has lived on the cut for forty years. She has aged now and reached a point where she is no longer able to move her boat and so CRT allows her to stay put where she is happiest, with a short walk over the hump backed bridge, across the farmer's fallow fields and on to the roadside bus stop across from Acton church. I cannot say much for her choice of mooring spots from the point of view of a continuous cruiser.  Between the overhanging tree limbs on the offside and her loosely moored craft it is nigh impossible to see other boats coming in either direction and I've seen near collisions several times over the last year as marina boaters in a bleeding  hurry churn around the curve, failing to grant her the courtesy of slowing down, only to find themselves quickly back peddling in reverse as an oncoming boat's bow slices perilously close. A plastic cruiser moored near here for eight months, leaving just enough room for a 58 foot boat to slot itself in between them and I had to slow to a stop and move over on one occasion last summer when some stupid toff on a shiny, new boat came hurtling round the curve, failing to give a warning toot of his horn or slow down at all. He missed slamming in to NBV by mere inches and I missed hitting her boat by a tight eight inches. 
   I've actually seen this woman get on the bus on three different occasions. She doesn't appear to be any older than me. Her hair is dyed bright orange with dark gray roots. Her face is corrugated with years of cigarette smoking. She dresses in men's clothes: black cargo pants, pockets bulging with stuff; a man's brown coat, and fingerless gloves which show yellowed, hard working hands sporting a thick black crust underneath all ten fingernails. Hobnailed leather boots covered in mud complete her ensemble, as she boards the bus with a trolley overflowing with fat, black rubbish bags and other assorted items. She casts a gimlet eye upon us, making the other occupants of the bus uncomfortable. The bus driver waits impatiently for Madam to find a seat. Her eyes meet mine and skitter away, coming back to my smile and nod. No matter what she looks like, we are both boaters and I will welcome her to sit beside me. I realize that she is likely dealing with a learning disability or some other issue that makes reading social cues difficult. Other bus passengers tsk-tsk at her sideways leaning, overflowing trolley and lack of refined cleanliness. She refuses to look at anyone, and the bus driver continues on towards Nantwich.
   After passing by her craft and the S turns, I come out to a pleasant spot overlooking a field sloping down to the cut on the offside. Horses and their year old foals are grazing and the sky clears suddenly as the winter sun pierces my gaze, lighting everything with a lovely warmth that still astounds me. How can a star 92.96 million miles away from earth manage to warm my cheek and cause steam to rise from the cold ground? I can hear Les' voice asking me this very question, wonder in his lovely brown eyes.
   Onward I cruise, through a small bridge hole where the bridge itself is long gone. A blue tent is pitched on a rise above the towpath, rippling in the light winter breeze. A man and woman in the latest winter gear stand watching me as I slow through the gap, turn the bow towards the towpath to avoid the overhanging branches on the offside, and bring the stern around after passing by them. I smile and nod as they wave. My heart is filled with defiant joy at our forward movement, me and NB Valerie--the only things moving on this cold December morning. Les should be here with me; Les is here with me, and my hand clutches the tiller tighter.
   Onward I travel through the large concrete bridge of the A51 motorway, slowing as I come through the other side to Henhull. The Shroppie widens out here, with reed beds to the left, continuous cruisers NB Magic Window moored up on 14 day moorings on the towpath side and a line of boats moored on the permanent offside moorings. I cruise slowly past, noting the chimney smoke on various boats, spotting the lovely bloke on NB Galadriel. I have no idea how old he is; roughly late forties to early fifties I guess. He sports long black and silver dreads that snake to his waist; dark, intelligent eyes, dimpled cheeks and a gorgeous smile showing bright, white teeth. Our boats have passed dozens of times as he has cruised into Nantwich for services from his permanent mooring, passing me on his way to the winding hole to turn, cruise back through Nantwich and out to Henhull to moor up again. Several times we've spoken to one another as our boats have passed each other, and once he slowed to allow me to pull in and moor up, complimenting me on my manners (I had signaled him my intentions in plenty of time), and the smooth, easy way I brought NBV into the side and stepped off her. It was quiet praise from an experienced boater who expected a woman of my stature might have had trouble pulling in an 18 ton boat on her own.
   On past the large winding hole and on to the open countryside where Les would surely have moored up had he been cruising together in the flesh, following the wide, meandering cut. Through the next bridge hole and onto the last section of the Shroppie approaching Hurleston Junction--the confluence of the Shropshire Union with the beginning of the LLangollen canal.
   I slowed to pass four boats moored before the bridge as Valerie sliced along the cut gently, gently, the bow clearing the bridge hole; still no other boats on the move, breaking the quiet morning. On the towpath side of this wide intersection of water is a bench where a bearded bloke sits quietly with ear buds in, listening to an audio book. He is another local whose acquaintance I've made on the bus into Nantwich. Riffed from his position over eight months previously after suffering a health crisis, he spends most days on the bench watching narrow boats coming and going in and out of Hurleston locks, through the bridge hole and on to either Nantwich or Chester, or up the fight towards LLangollen, Wales. We never exchanged names, only life stories. He sat in quiet reverence months previously while I squatted next to his seat on the bench and dug a hole with a hand trowel. I scattered a handful of Les' ashes in the hole and planted a Daffodil bulb on top, covering over both with dark, wet earth, patted down firmly to await spring.
   I waved to him as I started to turn the bow of NB Valerie to the port side, beginning to turn her around for the cruise back to Nantwich marina. I hailed him over the sound of the engine revs:
   "I have had to sell the boat. I am returning to the States in a few weeks. This is my final cruise. Will you look after my husband's ashes and his Daffodil for me?"
   He waves his mittened right hand and nods his bearded head in the affirmative, watching me as I turn our boat one final time and begin to glide towards the bridge hole.
   "Goodbye. Take care of yourself." His voice rings across the water.
   "I will; you too." And I am gone with a final wave, remembering me and Les mooring up nearby, waiting for good weather to make our cruise up Hurleston lock flight back in April 2012, stopping in Burland for the best fresh, homemade chicken and mushroom pies I've ever had before heading onward toward Wrenbury, Marbury, and the Grindley Staircase locks, meeting dear friends Elsie and Eric fletcher on NB Bendigedig  and writing a blog to answer a multitude of questions by Canadian blog follower (and now a very dear, dear friend), Bryce Lee, concerning my settling into Britain as an ex-pat and how Les and I managed life on the cut.
   Clouds pass over the sun as I head back; they pass over my aching heart acknowledging this is my last cruise aboard our lovely home. Tears spring from my eyes, and my sobbing chest clutches as I cruise past so many well loved places, memories flooding through me. Too soon and I am making my approach to the Y at the bridge hole, turning right into Nantwich Basin instead of cruising straight on to moor up somewhere along the towpath as I've done for eight fast flying years; my cruising life comes to a gentle, quiet end.      

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs