When Raynor Winn and her husband, Moth found themselves homeless after a bad investment, they took the road less traveled – they set off on a 630-mile hike along the South West Coast Path. It may sound like a romantic notion, but without the benefit of a steady source of income and armed with inadequate equipment, it was an excursion that tested not only their physical endurance, but their psychological endurance as well. The Salt Path is Raynor Winn’s memoir chronicling their journey.
Raynor and Moth had been married thirty-two years, raised two children (now in college), rebuilt their farm and home and run a business out of it, when they were asked by one of Moth’s lifelong friends to invest in one of his companies. They put in a substantial sum and when the company failed, they lost their home and their livelihood. They stalled for three years until finally, the bailiffs were at their door, banging on the windows, trying all the latches for a way in. Hiding in the basement, Raynor spotted a book that she’d read in her twenties, Five Hundred Mile Walkies about a man and his dog who walked the South West Coast Path.
“We could just walk.”
It sounded easy enough, like an escape, an adventure walking the whole coastline from Minehead in Somerset through north Devon, Cornwall and south Devon to Poole in Dorset. It seemed an idyllic prospect – not realizing then that the South West Coast Path was relentless, that it would mean climbing the equivalent of Mount Everest four times on a path often no wider than a foot, sleeping in a tent, living off of rice and noodles and the occasional pasty or more often mixing seaweed and limpets into their meager rations to make the forty eight pounds per week of government assistance last until the next. And then there was Moth’s illness – a chronically sore shoulder, a slight hand tremor, and numbness in his face that was finally diagnosed as CBD, corticobasal degeneration, a rare progressive neurological disorder that typically leads to death within seven years of diagnosis.
The Coast Path was established by the coast guard who needed a view into each and every cove as they patrolled for smugglers – primarily funded by England. Now, it is a popular walking trail for locals and visitors. Ray and Moth encountered many of these recreational hikers along the way – initially these fellow hikers were convivial, happy to share stories of the trail and their timelines – until they found out Moth and Ray were homeless and hiking and living out of their tent not by choice, but by necessity. They were often hungry, sore, and dirty. The weather could be fierce – driving rain and wind that threatened to blow them off the steep cliffs one day and scorchingly hot the next.
Something unexpected happens . . . something good. Moth stops taking his medication because it makes him feel foggy headed. His aches lesson as he walks. As they traverse up the steep inclines, their muscles become more defined, and Moth feels stronger, clearer . . . his symptoms seem to subside. Whether it was the intense physical exercise or the increased oxygen intake from the daily aerobic activity, Moth felt better.
In the fall, a friend offered them shelter – a shed on her farm. In exchange for staying there, Moth was asked to renovate it, and he set to work plastering the walls. Ray got a job on a shearing team – wrapping for a team of three competition-standard shearers who could each shear an ewe in under four minutes. It was physically demanding work, a different physicality than the walking had been, but worse than that was watching Moth starting a steady decline. Without walking, his stiffness and neurological pain returned.
“Sometimes,” Moth told Ray, “I wake up and I can’t remember what I’m supposed to do. It’s as if my body’s forgetting how to function. I have to tell myself I should eat or drink or go to the bathroom, because I should, not because I want to. Is this it, am I dying now?”
Moth and Ray had been together since they were eighteen and neither of them could imagine a life without the other. When things seemed the most dire, Moth told Ray, “When it does come, the end, I want you to have me cremated . . . Because I want you to keep me in a box somewhere, then when you die the kids can put you in, give us a shake and send us on our way. Together. It’s bothered me more than anything else, the thought of us being apart. They can let us go on the coast, in the wind, and we’ll find the horizon together.”
When the shed’s renovation was complete in the Spring, their friend informed them that she had found a renter and they would have to move on. Rather than feeling bitter, Moth and Ray were relieved. They would finish their walk on the coastal path, taking up where they’d left off in the fall. As they began walking, Moth’s health improved, his head cleared, and he felt the strength return to his limbs.
Raynor Winn’s memoir is both heart wrenching and inspiring. In their fifties, having lost everything, they began walking the path out of necessity, but found strength and courage and renewed health along the way.
I recommend The Salt Path for fans of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.
This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to all my reviews and author interviews on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais, Minnesota http://www.wtip.org.