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Friday, August 30, 2019

Review: The Salt Path

The Salt Path is Raynor Winn's memoir of her backpacking trip on the South West Coast Path in England. It differs from "incompetence literature" in several ways:

  • The author and her husband are not photogenic young people searching for themselves. They know who they are (being in their 50s), her husband (named Moth in the narrative) is dying from CBD, a neurological disease that the doctors say will kill him. And they've lost all their possessions in a court case, including their home, and all the wealth and equity they've had. They are literally homeless at the start of the narrative.
  • The budget for their trip essentially came from welfare: 48 pounds a week, everything they sold to buy their backpacking equipment, and time left from having lost all their other worldly possessions
  • Unlike other conventional narratives of redemption through journey, the protagonists are not looking for love. They've already found love. This is the story of a woman's love for her husband, undiminished despite years of marriage, loss, and faced with the loss of her beloved.
The start of the narrative certainly read like "incompetence literature." Winn has never done a long backpacking and camping trip, and they lost their home by being incompetent at both investments and legal procedure. But over time, the narrative delivers redemption: Moth gets better and recovers from his pain through daily backpacking and hiking:

We should add “don’t get cold” to the already extensive list of things to do to counteract CBD. What had the consultant said just three months ago? “Don’t tire yourself, or walk too far, and be careful on the stairs. Don’t carry heavy weights, or plan too far ahead.” But how could I not look too far ahead, when my whole “ahead” contained him? (Kindle Loc 2397)
 Was this possible? From the point of not being able to get out of bed, back to strong and in control of his limbs in just under two weeks. This shouldn’t be possible. But it was. I should have noticed that I was no longer seeing the drag in his footprints, but it hadn’t registered. “Maybe it’s because we had a rest in Weymouth. Maybe my body’s adjusted quicker, like acclimatizing to altitude.” (Kindle Loc 3197)
 At the end of the first year of such travel, they were forced to find lodging for the winter, and of course the symptoms returned. They also had thoughts such as these, when a daughter calls them for help:
The phone rang as rain began to drop, heavy and determined. We sheltered under a rock overhang. It was Rowan, on her way to a late-summer job in Croatia but stuck in Venice. She thinks she’s missed the connecting bus. Before, when I was a parent, we’d have sent money to put her on a flight, make her safe. But now, just a helpless friend, I sheltered in a rock crevice, useless, hopeless, pointless, and talked to my daughter, stranded in a foreign country, alone. She talked and talked, panicking; the warning for a failed battery sounded . . . (Kindle Loc 1510)
The story ends in an ambiguous note, but obviously the book has done well, so obviously Winn is no longer in poverty. I enjoyed the book: it wasn't all moaning and groaning, and the moments when Moth is mistaken for Simon Armitage by others on the trail are truly funny.

I can recommend this book, even if you've never been on a long walk. And if you have, maybe the walk will persuade you to do the South West Coast Path.

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