When I decided to walk I didn’t consider the difficulties involved in walking the longest national train in England. Or that covering the 630 miles of the South West Coast Path carrying a rucksack on my back containing only the bare minimum for survival, might be the hardest thing I had ever done. I hadn’t thought about how I could afford to do it, or what I’d do afterwards. I didn’t realize then that the path involved ascent equivalent to climbing Mount Everest nearly four times, or that I’d be wild camping for nearly 100 nights. It just seemed like the best response to the hammering of the bailiffs at the door.
It was the end of one of those weeks that you believe happen to someone else, not you. A financial dispute with a lifetime friend had led to a court case that culminated in us being served with an eviction notice from the house we owned—our home and business of 20 years. Just days later my husband, Moth, was diagnosed with a rare neurodegenerative disease, CBD. A terminal disease that has no cure, or treatment. My world and all that kept me stable slipped from beneath my feet.
As the whole framework of our lives disintegrated, we seized the idea of following a route on a map like a lifeline. Packing rucksacks with the very basics for survival, we headed south to walk the longest national trail in England. The path follows a strip of wilderness, caught between the ordinary world of urban and agricultural life on one side and the endless horizon of the sea on the other. It is a world apart. Leaving the lives we had known behind and with very little money for food or shelter, we followed the trail into deep wooded valleys and out on to windswept cliffs where gulls soared up from beneath us on bright ozone filled air. Moth found the early days of the walk almost unbearably hard, but we walked slowly on, sleeping on moorlands, beaches and weather beaten headlands. We were so unprepared for the physical journey that it seemed almost impossibly hard, but the emotional burden we carried made it far harder.
Yet slowly with time and hundreds of miles we found that the focus of our thoughts changed. Hunger and exhaustion were our constant companions as we survived for weeks on dried noodles. But with time each step we took became a small success that led to the next and the next, until we fell into a rhythm, a walking meditation in which the wild landscape became the reason to go, and hunger and exhaustion slipped into the background.
Camped on the beach at Portheras Cove, we were caught out by a fast rising tide. Scrambling from the tent at three in the morning, we picked it up still fully erected and raced up the beach carrying it above our heads. As we dropped it down at the foot of the cliffs we realized what Moth had done. He began the walk barely able to put his coat on without help, but his health had improved in ways we had been told could never happen. We were alone, penniless at the edge of the Atlantic, with only two sheets of often wet nylon between us and whatever weather and life brought our way. But a tiny slither of hope was lighting the horizon.
Only 250 miles left to complete; an infinity of steps that might never be taken.
As autumn came so the nights grew darker, storms raced in on roaring winds and the ultra-lightweight sleeping bags that had seemed perfect in July became completely ineffective. So when a friend phoned on one of the rare moments that the mobile phone has some charge and offered a shed that we could stay in for the winter in return for helping with its conversion, we took it.
Stranded inland, away from the sea and the raw power of nature that we’d found at the edge of the land, the sense of hope and self-belief that had been so hard won began to slip away. The conversion work took a huge physical toll on Moth, work that in a previous life had been second nature was now insurmountably difficult. As the project came to an end Moth’s health had declined so far that he appeared to be approaching the stage of needing constant care. And we were still homeless. But it was summer again, so in desperation and hope we returned to the South West Coat Path.
We stood on the sand with the salt in our hair, as the wind licked warm air in from the Channel. Blue water lapped against our feet, the water of life rising on unstoppable tides, climbing, irresistible. But not yet, for now we were above it, breathing, alive.
As we got off the ferry from Poole we took a photograph of the marker post with its familiar white acorn: 630 miles from South Haven Point to Minehead. In a different life, one in which we’d miraculously survived a winter of wild camping, this could have been our finish line. Instead, we were starting at the end point, and heading back west to Polruan, walking toward the point where our path had abruptly ended in the previous year. Only 250 miles left to complete; an infinity of steps that might never be taken. The steel sculpture of a compass and sails marked the end of the Coast Path, blue against a blue sky, a beginning at the end.
Moth hunched under the weight of his pack, muscles receding against the incoming CBD. Confusion washing over him in waves, falling quietly like a sandcastle in the water running before the tide. The start of the mental decline that accompanies his illness. Saltwater washed against my legs, rising, syrup-warm, clinging. Drawn here by the sweat and tears of the previous year, markers of the salt path we had followed, pulling us back to the sea where we could feel each grain of sand as it ebbed away. So quickly, the parapets becoming tide-rippled seabed.
Beyond the stifling dunes, we stepped onto the path of trodden sea grasses and heather. Our eyes focused on the sea, waves of relief bringing salt streams dripping from the overhang of my face. After months of inland confinement, drowning in a place that didn’t hold us, returning to the cocoon of an untouchable horizon gripped me with a spasm of joy. Swallows dived in the hot air, snatching insects as they hovered over low, scrubby gorse, rich in yellow flowers. Breathing deeply and turning away from the beach, we faced into the wind, toward the path as it unfurled west along the white chalk band of the Jurassic Coast.
We reached the top of Golden Cap, in a cloud so thick there was no sign of why it was called Golden, but as the highest point on the south coast it had to be celebrated.
My feet refound the short, wind-cropped grass, the sun, the wind, the salt on my lips, the familiarity of the unknown soothing the way, the magnetic pull of the path drawing me onward. Whatever the outcome, this felt right. But Moth’s health had deteriorated so far that our progress along the start of the Jurassic Coast was painstakingly slow. A landscape of rocky cliff faces that expose millennia of geological history stretched ahead of us, but if we walked any slower the day would come when someone would discover the remains of fossilized hikers in the mudstone. Last known meal: noodles. The creeping shadow of our future was taking shape, but I hung on to the memory of Portheras Cove, the tent aloft above Moth’s head, and hoped.
Weeks passed and the white-cliffed roller-coaster slipped behind, leading us to the edge of the lagoon behind Chesil Beach. The sun was setting, lighting the sky in late July tones, as the land ahead turned blue in the growing shadows. The lagoon fell silent, birdlife fading away as the water receded without wave or motion, leaving only channeled streams in the muddy sand. A small boat made its way back to shore, a black shadow weaving quietly along rivulets of molten sky, disappearing as mud and stone blended together in the low rays of the last reflected light. A mist began to lift as the air turned silver and night blue, the reeds becoming dark silhouettes against the line of the pebble bank and dimming sky. We pitched the tent among the marsh grasses, hearing only the evening calls of the wading birds and the rustle of seed heads in the breeze.
First light brought rain squalling in on a strong wind, pushing us downhill and onward, onward, roaring through a maize field, clattering the tall stems before it blew past, agitated and eager to be gone as quickly as it came, leaving behind a dense cloying mist. We reached the top of Golden Cap, in a cloud so thick there was no sign of why it was called Golden, but as the highest point on the south coast it had to be celebrated.
The trig point stood among clumps of broom, with other paths leading off in every direction—it was impossible to say where to. Our home in Wales had been deep in mountainous countryside and when we had time we walked in the hills. The children were pre-school when they climbed their first mountain, but as they became older it often took some imagination to encourage them to be out in the cold on an arduous walk. Whenever we reached a trig point, Moth would jump on and plank for a photo, lying on his stomach on the column and pretending to fly, anything to cheer up kids who were ready to give in. It became a family tradition so the sight of Golden Cap trig point was too appealing, CBD or not.
Living with a death sentence, having no idea when it will be enacted, is to straddle a void.
He dropped his pack down and putting his hands over the top of the column, hoisted himself on. I waited for the cry of pain, the inevitable self-rebuke for having been so silly. It didn’t come. He spread his arms and flew into the clouds, free and floating, for all the world as if he would live forever. I ran around taking photos as if it were the first time he’d flown, or the last. His face was clear, he wasn’t even hiding pain. In the fogbound heather we hugged and jumped, laughing, kissing, shouting. From the point of not being able to get out of bed, back to strong and in control of his limbs in just weeks. We knew this shouldn’t be possible, but it was, as we jumped and danced in the fog of Golden Cap.
Living with a death sentence, having no idea when it will be enacted, is to straddle a void. Every word or gesture, every breath of wind or drop of rain matters to a painful degree. For now we had moved outside of that. We knew CBD hadn’t miraculously disappeared, but somehow, for a while it was held at bay. While he had space to think clearly, when death wasn’t hanging around the tent like a malevolent stalker, a thing to fear, Moth felt he had to say it.
“When it does come, the end, I want you to have me cremated.” There had been a spot in the back field of our farm where we said we’d be buried, in the days when we thought it would be our home forever. But now there was no field, no religion, no place where he felt he could be safely left.
“Because I want you to keep me in a box somewhere, then when you die the kids can put you in, give us a shake and send us on our way. Together. It’s bothered me more than anything else, the thought of us being apart. Then they can let us go on the coast, in the wind, and we’ll find the horizon together.”
I hung on to him, too choked to speak. It had been said; death had been acknowledged. He would fight, but eventually he’d lose. Moth had been strong enough to see this from the start; now I was calm enough to know it was true and let it be. We lay in the tent at the edge of Lyme Regis, on a patch of grass between the lobster pots and the chalets, and let death in. And life came with it. The jagged, shattered, lost fragments of our lives, slowly mercurially drawn back together.
Adapted from The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Raynor Winn.