What would you do if you lost your home – the home where you raised your children, the source of your livelihood, and where you had lain roots for over twenty years? And in the same week you found yourself homeless and simultaneously without income, what if you also learned that the love of your life had a degenerative, incurable neurological disease that would slowly, but surely, kill him? This was the situation faced by Raynor Winn in 2013. What she and Moth, her husband of 32 years, chose to do is walk the South West Coast Path (SWCP) National Trail, England’s longest footpath stretching 630 miles along the coasts of Devon and Cornwall. It’s important to note that the SWCP is not the gentle meandering path that its name implies, but an extremely challenging trail to complete. The total height climbed if one were to hike the trail in its entirety is calculated to be four times the height of Mount Everest. Winn wrote about their journey in her memoir The Salt Path.
The thing with all books, though, is that they end. Unlike novels in which we can imagine whatever ending we choose for the characters, memoirs are about the lives of real people; their actual lives go on beyond the pages of the memoirs they’ve written. Winn and her husband’s decision to hike and camp along the SWCP after losing their home was impulsive and they were wildly unprepared, but the hardships they faced gave them a goal and a purpose. Also, contrary to logic, Moth’s health began to improve. On the path, they learned to hope again. But after the journey, what happened when reality – no money, Moth’s devastating disease – set in? Since reading The Salt Path, I’ve often wondered what became of Ray and Moth. Lucky for me and anyone else who read her first book, Raynor Winn’s recently published follow-up memoir, The Wild Silence, picks up exactly where The Salt Path ended.
Through a fortuitous meeting with a woman at the end of their journey, Ray and Moth are no longer homeless, but Winn found adjusting to apartment life difficult. Moth’s health also began to deteriorate. The dementia-like symptoms associated with his disease occur more and more frequently. He forgot the things that happened on their journey and it was this that prompted Winn to write a memoir of their time on the South West Coast Path as a birthday gift to Moth. These pages eventually turned into Winn’s first memoir, and through a random connection with a fan of The Salt Path (on Twitter of all places) Winn and Moth were offered an opportunity to live on a farm similar to the one that they had lost and bring it back to its original glory.
I don’t know if I’ve ever read a memoir quite like either The Salt Path or The Wild Silence. Although homelessness is a topic that I’ve read about, rural homelessness is not. Rural homelessness after decades owning, working, and living on your own farm is very different still. How do you start over in your fifties when this deep connection with the land is all that you’ve known? Winn’s love for the land and her belief that the natural world is necessary and healing is evident in her writing. With all of the reports of the National Parks being overrun with tourists this summer, it does make me wonder if there is something primal in the human spirit that drives even the most citified of us to want to reconnect with nature after a year-plus mostly cooped up at home.
If you are a nature lover, a traveler (armchair or otherwise), a romantic or even a cynic wanting to feel hopeful again, I encourage you to give these books a try. I walked away feeling both comforted and inspired.