“The Salt Path” (Penguin) is a book that beautifully illustrates how lemons can be turned into lemonade. The author, Raynor Winn, starts her story in the dark interior of a crowded closet, and ends it in brilliant sunlight on a cliff above the sea. Together, the beginning and ending scenes are symbolic of what this pensive and charming memoir is about: coming out of darkness into light, moving from despair to peace of mind.
Raynor and her husband, Moth Walker (his real name was Ray, his nickname is a hangover from his ecological activism in the 1980s and 1990s) had been together since college in England. They bought a neglected farm in Wales and lovingly repaired it, stone by stone. They raised their children there, had sheep and chickens, and took in vacationers as their livelihood. Suddenly, it was all gone when a toxic investment and a friend’s betrayal caused them to lose everything. They were given five days to move, but they had nowhere to go. They had spent their money on lawyers, and their children were in college and unable to help. When it seemed that things couldn’t get worse, they did. Moth saw a doctor for his shoulder pain and tremors — caused, he presummed, by a lifetime of physical labor — but instead he learned he had a rare incurable brain disease called corticobasal degeneration (CBD). Patients usually die within eight years, and Moth had already been ill for six. On the last day in their home, with evictors pounding on the door, the couple cringed in a closet under some stairs not ready to relinquish their life. There, hiding with them in the darkness, Raynor saw a book she had read in her 20s. Titled “Five Hundred Mile Walkies” it was written by a man who had done the South West Coast Path with his dog. Raynor said, “We could just walk,” and the decision was made. If they were to have no home, they would walk until they had a plan as to what next to do.
In August of 2013, the couple set off to walk the rugged 630-mile path along cliffs and beaches from Minehead, across the northern coast of Devon and Cornwall, down to Land’s End and along the southern coastline ending in Poole, Dorset. She was 50, he was 53. They had a tent bought on eBay, a couple of cheap, thin sleeping bags, some waterproof clothing, $115 in cash and a bank card with which to draw out the $48 a week they were due in tax credits. They were broke and broken, but the walk gave them some sense of purpose and, Raynor says: “We really didn’t have anything better to do.” They slept on sand dunes and among trees. They ate noodles, rice, tea and fudge bars. Occasionally they splurged on a bag of chips to share. Many days they were cold and hungry.
The hike was much more grueling than they had planned, and at first Moth, with a dragging foot, and painful shoulders, often could not get up without help, or manage to leave his sleeping bag until late each morning. He’d been cautioned by the doctor not to exert himself, but as the days passed, he began to feel stronger. Even though they battled blisters, fatigue, hunger, sunburn and torrential rains, they were encouraged by the natural beauty around them. Owls hooted at night, peregrine falcons soared above them, wild goats leaped past, “their long hair blown by the wind as they disappeared below.”
They were amazed, also, by the homeless in this prosperous corner of England. Raynor called them “the hidden homeless,” communities of people who slept in the forest or in abandoned buildings and barns.
Winn’s writes beautifully and with outstanding metaphors. When she hears the judge’s decision to take their farm, she’s terrified, like “a bee against a glass pane.” Losing the house makes her feel “like a balloon cut free in the wind.” It sounds melancholy but this book is not, nor is its writer. It is often humorous and inspirational.
Raynor writes about how they got to Land’s End in terrible weather, drenching rain, and had to decide whether to carry on. “There was just me and Moth on the edge of the Atlantic, with a Mars bar and a few pounds in our pocket, and two wet sheets of nylon between us and Canada. It could have been the most awful, depressing moment in our lives, but it was a moment when we realized we were completely free in a way we’d never allowed ourselves to be before. In that moment, we knew that we could start to reinvent our lives in our way, how we wanted.”
When the offer of some work and an inexpensive flat at the back of an old church eventually arose in the fishing village of Polruan, they took it and were grateful. It wasn’t always an easy transition; for several weeks they put the tent up in the bedroom and slept in it. Raynor missed the natural environment, waking up to the birds and the sea, and the freedom to keep going. But in the end, the long walk did what she had hoped: It gave them time to think, to plan, to find peace of mind.
What happened after Raynor and Moth settled at the end of their journey is what led to the publication of the book. Raynor, since childhood, had wanted to write and she wrote an article about their walk and homelessness for a British magazine called The Big Issue. Then she wrote the book mainly as a gift for Moth: a big love letter, and perhaps a reminder for when his memory began to fade. Their daughter read it and said Raynor should try to publish it. They began by Googling literary agents and in the summer of 2017, “The Salt Path” was published in England. The response was “incredible” says Raynor and it instantly became a bestseller, shortlisted for the prestigious 2018 Costa biography award. “It really seems to resonate with a lot of people, and how their own lives are.”
Raynor plans to keep writing, hopefully with her husband by her side.
Although they might have stopped walking, it seems like Raynor and Moth are still just putting one foot in front of the other, and seeing where life takes them. “The Salt Path” is a motivating and lovely read that champions the human spirit and reminds us of the healing power in nature.