The Salt Path: A Memoir

Finding the strength to move on (from Wales to the South West Coast Path, England; 2012-2013): You “can never have enough memories,” says Raynor Winn, after her world fell apart at fifty. That’s after: thirty-two years married to her beloved Moth; raising two children now away at college; spending twenty years making their Welsh farm home their own, the land and animals precious to them; losing the source of their income; wiping out their bank account after an investment went sour, fighting a three-year legal battle that failed on a technicality, losing it all.

Catastrophic loss, yet not as earth-shattering as being told the very next day Moth’s shoulder pain and stiffness was due to a rare, progressive neurological disease – corticobasal degeneration, symptoms Parkinson’s-like. If he was lucky and took it easy, maybe he had two years left to live.

After all that gut-punching, would you still be able to say, like the author does, “I chose hope”? 

The couple’s response, coupled with soul-searching prose and vivid nature writing, turned into this moving debut, The Salt Path: A Memoir.

Be prepared to like this devastated couple a lot. For the author’s piercing voice pleading “don’t take him, you can’t take him. He’s everything, he’s all of it, all of me.” For Moth’s generosity, the kind of person who’d take the shirt off his back, because he did. (Gave away their last piece of fudge and coins to someone he felt worse off than he.) For this couple’s “passion that didn’t die,” a gift that together gave them the strength to do something wild and inconceivable. The “wild was never something to fear or hide from. It was my safe place, the thing I ran to, says the “farmer and farmer’s daughter” writer.

If only she was writing fiction. Too cruel to make up. So you’ll read wishing the book doesn’t end. We don’t want to know Moth’s final verdict. 

Raynor Winn “desperately needed a map, something to show me the way,” so in an act of desperation she came up with an audacious idea, inspired by another British nature writer’s guidebook – Paddy Dillon’s Five Hundred Mile Walkies – to trek 630 miles along one of the most spectacular nature walks in all of walkable England, a top ten walking path in the world: the South West Coast Path.

It traverses the windswept, rocky North Devon and North Cornwall coasts along the westerly Atlantic Ocean side of Britain headed south, until landing at Land’s End, the furthest point west, where the trail turns eastward, gets physically less strenuous and more populated, this being the southern English Channel side.

Dillon made it sound so much easier than it was; his pace far outpaced theirs. In fact, this extreme endurance journey is said to equal climbing Mount Everest four times! As long as the Winns could keep moving, they’d escape what-to-do-next realities. Motivation the author needed more, it seems, than Moth. 

Putting themselves in Mother Nature’s hands without creature comforts and enough money called for enormous stamina, positivity, coping skills. “Wild camping” where the weather is often brutal and suddenly, dramatically changes is a formidable undertaking. The winds roared even when it wasn’t raining or pouring so hard it hurt. Backpacks, clothes, tent, sleeping bags all soaked, damp, or misted wet, the worst conditions for Moth whose body didn’t take kindly to the cold and overexertion. Add in funds drained so low they couldn’t afford top-of-the-line outdoor equipment, and having to lug around seventeen pounds of whittled-down essentials on Moth’s already aching back.

The two set off on the path with 50 pounds (roughly 65 dollars exchanged today) to their name, which had to stretch until Moth’s monthly disability check came due, amounting to just 30 pounds. Imagine sustaining yourself through “extreme physio” on noodles, rice, candy (“fudge for breakfast, fudge for lunch, and it was looking like fudge for dinner”), occasionally a little tuna. Starving or when the funds finally came through, splurging on Britain’s famous chips, pasties, ice cream when the temperature was unexpectedly scorching, sheltering in cafes for hours on end, sharing a free cup of hot water and a lonely tea bag. But first they had to reach a village, come out of the remoteness, find a bank. For months and months.

Once, the coveted pasty was free too. Normally tossed out at day’s end but a disgruntled restaurant employee they bumped into treated them to a much- appreciated meal not out kindness but anger at a boss. No food banks to help others also having hard times? Restaurants in America alone waste 63 million tons of food a year by some accounts. 

Another social issue, another cloud that hung over them, making a larger statement about what it means to be homeless, in rural areas. A phenomenon not well-known even to researchers. Difficult to quantify, difficult to identify, not just in England but here at home. 

They call them the “hidden homeless”. Homelessness is typically associated with cities as it’s out in the open on streets, benches, under overpasses. Yet in Britain alone, data show a 40% increase in rural homelessness over a recent six-year period. A US report confirms homelessness in rural America is also rising. A problem, apparently, not on our radar like the urban plight.

One might assume a less judgmental attitude toward those homeless communing in Nature. The truth is no matter where you are people look down on the homeless – as they did toward the Winns. Not everyone, but considering how few encounters over hundreds of miles (mostly dog walkers) too many did. Strangers labeled them “tramps,” stereotyping one or both as afflicted with addiction and/or mental illness, rather than a series of unfortunate events or a single crushing defeat. 

Calling themselves “edgelanders,” this is a story of literally walking and living on the edge. Even finding a flat, comfortable place to pitch a tent (the western coast covered with coarse heather and gorse) was challenging, plus they had to stay out of sight of a possible passerby since wild camping is “technically illegal in England and Wales.” 

By now you’re wondering what the South West Coast Path is like. Narrow, it runs up and down sweeping cliffs that plunge hundreds of feet to beaches, coves, fishing villages. Breathtaking landscapes, diverse ecosystems, marshes, wetlands, “salt-burned” trees, sand dunes, ancient geology. Touristy Cornish villages disorienting. Here are some images to give you a sense:

Geof Sheppard via Wikimedia Commons
Raimond Spekking via Wikimedia Commons

Roger Cornfoot via Geograph

neiljs via Flickr

The author brought a journal, the only way she could have captured the scenery, obstacles, details, emotions as rawly and clearly.

The most poignant moment happens at the beginning, when the author has to say goodbye to her nineteen-year-old sheep, Smotyn. No one would want this aged sheep; somehow she sensed that. The author discovered her “in her favorite spot under the beech trees, her head laid out on the grass as if she were sleeping. She knew. She knew she couldn’t leave her field, her place, and had simply died.” That’s when Winn breaks down, when we first feel the enormity of her loss. Animals have a unique way of communicating what we cannot bear to.

Soon after, the author saw a way to give them a purpose. Follow the path, see how far they could get, how far it would take them. This “wasn’t just about being homeless; it was about achieving something.”

Which they did, expressed in a beautiful message inscribed on a bench in Cornwall: “Meet me there, where the sea meets the sky. Lost but finally free.”

That tells you all you really need to know about the ending.

Lorraine

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