Penguin Books, 2019. $17, 270 pages.
Since Exodus and certainly in Homer’s telling of The Odyssey, the epic journey, the leaving home in search of one’s self, has been a literary paradigm worthy of its timeless roots. Somewhere deep in the echo of our footfalls, the protagonist begins to hear the whisper of Truth. Clarity comes with each surmounted trial. Knowledge, the true destination. Adventure—be it in the form of plague or Cyclops, gale-force wind or pelting rain—propels the narrative pulse.
So it is in The Salt Path’s true story of almost unbearable loss that propels the author and her husband, Moth, to strap on their rucksacks and fling themselves onto the 630-mile South West Coast Path that clings to the hard edge of England as it juts into the North Atlantic.
We begin Salt Path with Winn and her husband cowering in the dark under the stairs, “whispering like scared mice” as “men in black” hammer away at their farmhouse door. The bailiffs are there to take the house, the farm, and every shred of self-respect, the whole lot lost after a bitter court battle, an investment gone sour.
The next day, after slinking out from under the stairs, the worst gets worse: Moth is diagnosed with a rare degenerative brain disease, one “that would take the beautiful man” Winn had loved since she was a teenager “and destroy his body and then his mind as he fell into confusion and dementia, and end with him unable to swallow and probably choking to death on his own saliva.”
And there begins the unspooling of this oftentimes excruciating circumnavigation of life’s harsh edge, a narrative that swiftly signals it has no intent to gloss over jagged truths, flinch from soul-baring exposure.
Like a needle gliding under the skin, Winn punctures pretense, gets at gut-level self-examination. She does so, in part, by wielding wry British humor, precision pacing, and fine-grained attention to sensory detail. In one account, for instance, Winn wakes to the sound of a torrential rain. But—puzzlingly—only on the south wall of their flysheet. Turns out, ten suspense-building sentences later, to be a dog relieving itself against their flimsy tent, then “trotting away east with a smug look on his wiry muzzle.”
Winn traces earth, sea, and sky as finely as she does the human spirit in shimmering passages that capture the ineffable. But it’s her capacity to hew so close to the sharpness of truth, to bring to life scene after harrowing scene, that builds her reliability as narrator. Like Odysseus, she had to venture far from home to find what she’d been seeking: “I knew then that I was one with everything, the worms in the soil, clouds in the sky. . . . The wild was never something to fear or hide from. It was my safe place, the thing I ran to.”
With more than 250 miles of pain, exhaustion, hunger, wild nights, and wild weather behind the peripatetic pair, Winn comes to this epiphany: “On a basic level, maybe all of us on the path were the same; perhaps we were all looking for something. Looking back, looking forward, or just looking for something that was missing. Drawn to the edge, a strip of wilderness where we could be free to let the answers come, or not, to find a way of accepting life, our life, whatever that was.”
Hers are questions and answers that make you run to strap on your walking shoes. Might we all be wise to beat a path toward that edge, where, with its over-exposures and unsparing trials, we too might stumble on our own epiphanies.
Barbara Mahany is a longtime Chicago-based journalist, author, and former pediatric oncology nurse.