Raynor Winn's life as she knew it turned an abrupt corner in 2013. She and her husband Moth lost the home they raised their children in, a small farm that was also their livelihood. The next day, Moth was diagnosed with corticobasal degeneration, a rare degenerative brain disease with no treatment aside from pain management. The doctor estimated he had only up to two years left.
For the first time in decades, they had nowhere to go and nowhere to be, and they had no idea how much time they had left together. So they started walking.
Billed as "one of the best walks in the world," England's South West Coast Path wraps 630 miles around the lower tip of England, from Somerset to Dorset, winding through Devon and Cornwall. People travel from all over to walk part or all of the Path. As Raynor Winn writes with great humor, reflection and generosity in her book "The Salt Path," many of them do it with much bigger budgets — for high-end gear, for overnight stays at B&Bs — than she and Moth had at their disposal.
They walked through blistering heat and shivered through cold damp nights inside a tiny tent and thin sleeping bags, camping much of the time in the wild — a cow pasture here, a beach there — to avoid campground fees. Some days they had nothing to eat but a packet of noodles to split and some candy; they perfected the art of vicarious eating, in which they appreciated strangers' meals from afar. And they discovered that depending on how much of their living situation they revealed to strangers, they were treated either as an inspiration or a cautionary tale. (Moth is also mistaken several times for a literary celebrity, to their bewilderment.)
A curious thing happened on their trek. The longer Raynor and Moth walked all day, every day, the better Moth began to feel. And so while part of the momentum that propelled them forward through tough terrain and circumstances was not knowing what they would do if they stopped, they were also regaining hope for the future, uncertain as it still was, with every step.
After Skype malfunctions prevented us from speaking on the phone, I exchanged emails with Raynor Winn about her book, the unexpected fragility of a settled life, and why there's no age limit on "finding yourself" after all.
I wouldn't normally start off an interview asking about the author's spouse, but how is Moth doing these days?
That's nice, thanks for asking. He isn't as well as he was when we finished walking the South West Coast Path, but he's in much better health than doctors and the brain scans say he should be.
You walked and camped through severe weather, dealing with hostile authorities, soldiers, wildlife, banking errors, and all kinds of unexpected encounters that made a difficult walk even more challenging. Was there a time when you thought, this is it, we are going to have to stop before we are ready? And what made you keep going?
There were so many times when we nearly gave up, especially in the first few weeks when we found the path so hard. Although it's called a Coast Path, it's really much tougher than it sounds. Not just 630 miles long, but with an ascent equivalent to climbing Everest nearly four times. Added to that every extreme of weather, from heat and drought to roaring Atlantic gales and temperatures dipping near to freezing. And Moth's illness of course made the walk, at times, almost impossible. But we kept going because we had nothing else. But by following that path, that line on the map, we found a reason to keep going, a reason to keep living. When we thought all hope had gone and there was no possible future for us, we found that by simply taking the next step and the next, that strip of wilderness became the reason to go on.
While you were walking the South West Coast Path, did you know you wanted to write about it when you were finished? Did you journal, or keep notes? [This is a spoiler, but I hope people don't think you are still out there walking:] How did you process your journey once you settled into your apartment at the end of the walk?
When we were walking, there couldn't have been anything further from our minds than writing a book. We didn't write a journal, but we did carry a small guidebook to the path and we wrote notes in the margins every night in the tent. Just brief notes about where we'd camped and the people we'd met.
It was about two years after we finished the walk that I began to realize how much the path had given us, that it hadn't been just a physical journey, but a huge emotional one too. At that point I began to write the notes up, so that when Moth's illness began to take his memory, as inevitable it will, I would have something to put in from of him and say 'look at this, look what we did, keep trying." As I was writing, the notes very quickly turned into a narrative form.
After a while in the book it becomes clear that if you had introduced yourself as a writer working on a book project that people would have gone out of their way to be helpful and generous, given how often Moth was mistaken for Simon Armitage. The reactions people had to you and Moth when you would explain your circumstances, though, were so revealing about what people value in others. Did that surprise you?
Initially we didn't think of ourselves as homeless, we were just ourselves, the same people, but without a home. So when we passed others on the path who asked how we had "so much time to walk so far," and we told them the truth; that we had lost our home and had nowhere to go, their reactions did come as a shock. People physically recoiled, gathered their children and drew the dog in on the retractable lead. We hadn't realized that the preconceptions and prejudice that surround homelessness are so strong.
At the time we were unaware that Simon Armitage was only a few days behind us, walking the same stretch of coastline in preparation for writing his book. He was receiving hospitality in return for reading his poetry, or simply for being Simon Armitage. I have to admit that on the occasions that we were offered the opportunity to share a meal or tea and cake by someone who believed Moth to be Simon, we didn't correct them. We knew only too well that those offers didn't appear when people knew who we really were. But there are some great cooks in the south west — it would have been rude to refuse!
Your story shows how precarious a stable life can be, even without a devastating diagnosis. The UK is different from the U.S. as far as bureaucracy and benefits are concerned, but this happens to people every day here, the safety net falls through and there's no back-up. Did your long walk, on top of all of the changes that hit your life at once, change how you think about the present and the future?
Before we lost everything, I didn't really think about homelessness. I certainly didn't consider it as something that could happen to me. I lived without any concern about what would happen if the framework my life fell apart. But when that did happen and we stepped out of our home for the last time, the future felt like a void that contained no hope and no reason to go on.
We reached the blocky granite cliffs of Land's End at the end of an awful day of storm force winds and horizontal rain. As we pitched our tent among the rocks we were completely alone at the very western tip of the country, at the edge of the Atlantic with only a Mars Bar and £2.50 to sustain us, and just a wet tent between us and whatever the weather, or life, could throw our way. It should have been the lowest point in my life. But it was far from that; it was one of the most uplifting experiences I've ever had. The Path had changed me in ways that I wouldn't have thought possible.
I began the walk believing that home was the walls that surround me and that I would never feel that sense of home again. But living in the wild had taught me that home is really what makes us feel safe and secure. For me that would always be my family, whether they were scattered across the country or in the tent next to me. I think I understood then that home is really just a state of mind. We had learnt to live in the moment, to let go of the sense of despair about our current situation, or fear for what the future might hold and simply appreciate this moment, right now, because it's the only one we have.
One thing that seemed to come up a lot from strangers on your walk is your age. People were amazed you were 50 and walking the path. That's not old! It's baffling! OK this isn't a question, I just had to say that.
I know, unbelievable. We certainly didn't feel that old, but maybe they just meant older than the average backpacker — well, that's what I told myself anyway!
But one thing about age that is relevant: Your encounters with the Australian surfers who lived a deliberately vagabond lifestyle were illuminating in contrast to the circumstances around your journey. We expect the "off on an adventure to find out who I am" narrative to be a younger person's story. By the time we are in our 50s we are supposed know who we are and what we are doing next. Which strikes me as preposterous. Were there role models you and Moth looked to for inspiration, or even validation, for your travels?
We may think we know who we are and what comes next, but I think in reality few of us do. Many of us spend our young lives preparing for a secure future, so when we reach our 50s we expect to have it all worked out. But more and more of us find that the security we think we have can't be relied on, and for financial or emotional reasons that life is upturned. Then we're faced with the same questions we were when we were young. If we're honest with ourselves do any of us ever truly know who we are? It's a lifelong question.
I don't think we sought validation for our journey, it was our choice. We barely discussed our reasons for walking between ourselves, let alone sought to find validation. In a way that was like returning to our youth, that sense of being able to go forward with a decision without having to explain ourselves to anyone. That's the unexpected benefit to losing everything. It allows you to rebuild your life from scratch, without any of the constraints of a lifetime of habits and possessions.
I'd like to say our inspiration came from Sal and Dean in "On the Road," but in reality our inspiration was John Muir. The emotional peace and personal harmony that he found in the natural world were feelings that resonated very strongly with us. And of course the very British book that made us choose the South West Coast Path above any of the other British national trails was "500 Mile Walkies" by Mark Wallington.
And so if someone is inspired by your story to face a major life change by taking a very long walk, what do you wish you had known before you started that you would pass on to another aspiring backpacker now?
Don't think too far ahead. Don't worry about what's beyond the next headland, or how you're going to get there. Simply focus on taking the first step, then the next and the next, and by doing so your journey will unfold in the most unexpected ways. And never, ever run out of water!