“The Salt Path” begins in the dark interior of a cramped closet, and ends in bright sunlight on a cliff above the sea.
Taken together, the opening and closing scenes are symbolic of what this thoughtful memoir is about: coming out of darkness into light, moving from despair to serenity.
Raynor Winn and her husband, Moth Walker, have been together since college. They bought a falling-down farm in Wales and built it back up, stone by stone. They reared their children there, raised sheep and chickens, took in vacationers to make money.
And then in one fell swoop, it was gone. A bad investment and a friend’s treachery caused them to lose house, farm and livelihood. A judge gave them five days to move, but they had nowhere to go, their savings spent on lawyers.
The next day brought even more dire news. Moth consulted a doctor for his shoulder pain and tremors — caused, he assumed, by a lifetime of physical labor. But instead he learned he had an incurable degenerative disease. Patients usually die within eight years, and Moth had already been ill for six.
On their last day in the home — bailiffs pounding on the door, the couple cowering in a closet, not ready to relinquish their life — Raynor suddenly said, “We could just walk.”
It was a suggestion built of despair. Rather than couch-surfing with friends or joining a wait-list for dreary public housing, why not “put one foot in front of the other and just follow the map”? she writes. “I desperately needed a map, something to show me the way.”
They loaded up their backpacks and headed out on the rugged South West Coast Path, which winds for 630 miles along the cliffs and beaches of Devon and Cornwall in southwest England. They slept in a tent they pitched on sand dunes and in groves of trees. Their only income was a weekly 48-pound allotment from the government, which they spent on noodles, rice, tea and fudge bars.
The hike was more arduous than they had expected, and at first Moth — one foot dragging, shoulders screaming in pain — often could not stand without help, could not manage to get out of his sleeping bag until late each morning.
He’d been warned by the doctor not to exert himself, but as the days passed, he began to feel stronger. And even as they struggled with blisters and fatigue, hunger, sunburn and drenching rains, they were buoyed by the natural beauty around them.
Owls hooted at night, peregrine falcons soared on thermals, wild goats leaped past, “their long hair blown by the wind as they disappeared below.”
They noticed, too, the homeless, even in this wealthy corner of England. The hidden homeless, Raynor says — communities of people who slept in the forest or in abandoned buildings and barns.
The book is laced with gentle humor as the pair try to match their pace, with no success, to the author of their trail guide. People they encounter along the way often mistake Moth, with his tall frame and white hair, for the famous hiking poet Simon Armitage. (The two actually look nothing alike.)
Winn’s prose is powerful. She excels at description, and her apt metaphors are rooted in nature. When she hears the judge’s decision to seize their farm, she panics, like “a bee against a glass pane.” Losing the house makes her feel “like a balloon cut free in the wind.”
In the end, the long walk does what she had hoped: It gives them time to think, to plan, to find peace of mind.
“We lay homeless and penniless under the stars. We had lost everything except our children and each other, but we had the wet grass and the rhythm of the sea.”
Shortlisted for the Costa Prize in biography, “The Salt Path” is an inspiring read, reminding us that there is salvation in nature, movement and the out-of-doors.
The Salt Path
By: Raynor Winn.
Publisher: Penguin, 270 pages, $17.