Raynor Winn, The Salt Path (2019)
After The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, I read another book about catastrophic loss that calls into question what we truly need, what is most essential. In Bauby’s memoir of being almost completely paralyzed, he lost his power of movement and normal modes of communication. In Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path the author and her husband have lost their home, their livelihood, and in his case, his health, as a frightening diagnosis of chronic degenerative disease looms. Physical movement is almost the only thing left to them, and so move they do, setting off to walk the Coastal Path of southwestern England.
What remains standing, when the human being is challenged in such a way, stripped of everything that we normally consider necessary for life? I chose both of these books for my Spiritual Memoir challenge, even though they don’t explicitly engage with spiritual practices in any conventional way, and certainly not with any conventional view of religion. Raynor Winn says early on that she is an unbeliever in terms of the supernatural, that she doesn’t think anything remains of us when we die. But throughout her journey there quietly grows a sense of what I would call “spirit,” meaning that which inwardly raises us and keeps us upright, during life, and perhaps beyond. Our physical uprightness is a picture of this, but moral uprightness is its inner counterpart, and the fruit of a life well lived.
Though their walk starts in desperation, as they go, Raynor and Moth learn about what really matters, what they need for existence, and what can be thrown or given away. The attitude of people they meet on the path is instructive; if they say or imply that they’ve sold their house they are met with interest and enthusiasm for their walking project; if they say they are homeless the conversation comes to a halt. People are repelled by tramps, but inspired by intrepid adventurers. What’s the difference, really? Only a few people along the way seem to see through to the real person and not be misled by appearances. (A recurring joke is that Moth is constantly being mistaken for a writer who is also roaming around the same area and giving readings. He insists he is not this person but nobody will believe him, and eventually he just lets them think what they want to think.)
The couple’s bond with each other is the most touching element. Raynor recalls some of their past together, and faces a future without her beloved companion with terror. Her instinct to protect herself through denial is gradually chipped away, and acceptance grows, along with appreciation for the present moment. She gains the ability to grieve without succumbing to despair. This, too, is a spiritual process, an essential part of the path toward wholeness and truth. Our modern refusal to mourn our losses, turning away from death and illness, is debilitating for inner growth, for if we can’t let go, we also can’t open up to receive what the world wants to give us.
The intense life in the elements, walking through sun and rain, heat and cold, wind, storm, and calm, seems to bring both of the walkers a form of necessary healing. The cycle of life and death and renewal takes them into its embrace, and supports them in surprising ways. Moth finds his painful and debilitating condition mitigated, against all the predictions of his doctors, who had told him not to move too much. Raynor comes to feel a part of the natural world, recording her observations in beautiful, poignant prose, her material losses becoming less painful as she gains something intangible but indelibly real and precious. It’s a natural world in danger from the depredations of human beings, polluted and altered by our selfishness, but when we are brave enough to let down our defenses and walk into the storm, we might find ourselves enlarged, strengthened, restored.
There are many moments of humor and occasionally a bit of danger; there are sociological conclusions to be drawn from the treatment of the homeless; there is much to wonder at in the beauty and healing power of nature. I loved every minute of reading The Salt Path, and I can’t wait to continue the story, which has so far been extended into two sequels. I am so grateful for this journey, and although long-distance walking intimidates me, and wild camping has never been my choice for recreation, even I am tempted to give it a try. Would you?
One of my 10 books of summer