Exploring the transformative effects of walking
Any loss can deflate but a catastrophic loss can leave us feeling angry, disillusioned, and broken.
In her memoir, The Salt Path, Raynor Winn describes the moment they knew their home and savings were gone. A failed business deal had left them feeling let down and at the mercy of the legal system.
For 20 years Raynor and her husband Moth had worked and sacrificed to create a life that reflected their convictions, but the judge’s verdict was final. They were liable and there was nothing they could do. The judge had given them 5 days to pack up their life.
When the bailiffs arrived, they were hiding under the stairs hoping they would be spared the indignity of having to walk away from their beloved farmhouse. A packing case revealed a book with the title, ‘Five Hundred Mile Walkies.’ It suggested a way forward. It answered a pressing question, ‘What should we do now?’
The truth was inescapable, and it was shocking. There seemed to be only one reasonable option. As Raynor says,
‘We’re homeless. We lost our home and we’ve nowhere to go, so just walking seemed a good idea.’
But there was more devastating news to come. Moth had consulted a doctor for his shoulder pain and tremors, thinking that it was the legacy of a lifetime of physical labour. The doctor’s diagnosis was devastating. Moth had a rare degenerative brain disease and possibly only 2 years to live.
The revelation was overwhelming, and their future looked bleak. They could have succumbed to fear and paralysis but instead decided to go for a walk. Their response reflects what Rebecca Solnit wrote in her recent book ‘Orwell’s Roses.’ She says,
‘Sometimes the shadow of death frightens or depresses people, sometimes it makes them live more vividly and take life less for granted.’
Raynor and Moth were homeless and penniless. They felt a need to reconnect with the natural world. It was their safe place. They decide to walk the 630 miles of the sea-sprayed South Coast Path Walk, from Somerset to Dorset, via Devon and Cornwall.
Not everyone thought it a good idea. It seemed impulsive and reckless. The doctor had advised Moth to be cautious and limit his physical activities. But there was something compelling about testing themselves.
Not every choice we make in life will meet with other people’s approval. Sometimes, we are asked to go against the flow and respond to the inner voice. Risky living reaps its own reward.
They soon realised they could only take what they could carry. It was essential to prioritise bedding and clothing and basic food supplies. Their camping gear was light weight, and they wondered how it would survive the severe weather they would encounter.
Moth had a map. It gave a clear indication of what was before them. The path would challenge their strength and resolve. But they had a starting point and a finishing line. It gave them a purpose, and a reason to hope.
Surviving any misfortune or hardship is dependent on discovering a renewed purpose.
The path was not an answer to their most pressing questions, but it did provide a way forward. The physicality of the walk, and the rugged beauty of their surrounds, stilled their minds. Raynor says,
‘Rather than the walk being a time to get our thoughts straight and make a plan, it had become a meditation, a mental void filled only with salt wind, dust and light. Each step had its own resonance, its moment of power or failure.’
Walking is a meditation
The path gave them a life when they thought their life was over.
Following the death of our son to suicide, I found walking to be an important part of my survival plan. It is when your mind is being bombarded by an array of conflicting thoughts that walking is a good option.
My walk took me through residential areas, parklands, sporting fields, a golf course, and a cemetery. I welcomed the quiet, so any loud noise like a siren or a dog barking was unsettling. One part of the walk took me up a rise which offered a view of the surrounding hills. I could see the steeple of the church we attend. It brought comfort and a sense that I was not alone.
It was inevitable that Raynor and Moth would be asked why they had chosen to walk the path and why they were camping wild. They soon discovered that telling the truth did not always guarantee a compassionate response.
Poverty and homelessness are not terms that many people can relate to. Unless you have experienced deprivation and the loss of dignity it is difficult to understand.
When we do not understand something, we are often quick to apportion blame. We assume that people living rough have brought it upon themselves. They must have made poor choices and are being rewarded for their ineptitude.
Our judgments are insensitive, harsh, and unkind, and our actions reinforce the stigma that ‘they belong in a world apart,’ a world lacking certainty. Privilege and respectability can alienate us from people who are disadvantaged.
Suicide is also a term many people struggle with. It is a term that engenders fear and suspicion. It is not an easy conversation to start. What do you say to someone who has lost a friend or a loved one to suicide? Often, we choose silence when thoughtful, compassionate engagement would allow for understanding and empathy to grow.
The writer George Orwell did not enjoy good health and was diagnosed with tuberculosis toward the end of his life. Orwell was more than his dystopian books. He was also a keen gardener and took pleasure in growing vegetables. Elements of his daily existence were mirrored in his writing. In reflecting on his work Rebecca Solnit says,
‘The lives he created are miseries studded with epiphanies. Orwell did not believe in permanent happiness… but he did believe devoutly in moments of delight, even rapture, and he wrote about them often.’
The walk was extremely challenging and Raynor and Moth wondered whether they had made a mistake. At the end of the day, they would crawl into their sleeping bags, totally exhausted. Often their food supplies were depleted, reduced to few packets of noodles which they supplemented with what they could forage. But despite the many ‘miseries’ they were blessed with ‘epiphanies.’
Sometimes nature would wrap itself around them, nurturing them, inspiring them. One morning they woke from a restless sleep to find their bodies covered in ladybirds. They were everywhere. Over the tent, over the stove. Raynor says,
‘We stood in the early morning, watching hundreds of tiny creatures stretch their wings for the first time and lift into light from our fingertips… I watched the pink aura lift from Moth and tried to believe in miracles.’
Sometimes they would meet people whose words touched them – encouraging words, thoughtful words, words that lifted their spirits.
On one occasion they passed a man doing yoga. His focus was on every subtle movement of his limbs.
He caught up with them later. It was then that Raynor and Moth discovered he was blind. The man said,
‘I didn’t see you; I don’t see anything. I heard you’
Raynor and Moth wondered how they had missed the obvious.
The man had more to say. Their conversation went as follows.
‘We’re just walking the path.’
‘You are, and you’ll travel many miles.’
‘Well, two hundred and fifty to Land’s…’
‘You’ll see many things, amazing things, and suffer many set-backs, problems you’ll think you can’t overcome.’
He reached forward and put his hand on Moth.
‘But you will overcome them, you’ll survive, and it will make you strong.’
We looked at each other wide-eyed, mouthing a silent ‘what?”
A word of encouragement is like an infusion of light, energising the weary, and restoring hope to the despondent.
Weeks later they watched two figures winding their way up a tiny track from Pendour Cove and on to the path next to them.
The two older men had been collecting blackberries in a Tupperware container. They offered some to Raynor and Moth. The taste was exquisite, ‘smooth, sweet, a burst of rich claret autumnal flavour.’
One of the men explained,
You thought blackberries had passed, didn’t you? Or you’ve eaten them and thought you didn’t like them. No, you need to wait until the last moment, that moment between perfect and spoilt. The blackbirds know that moment. And if the mist comes right then, laying the salt air gently on the fruit, you have something that money can’t buy, and chefs can’t create. A perfect, lightly salted blackberry. You can’t make them; it has to come with time and nature. They’re a gift, when you think summer’s over, and the good stuff has all gone. They’re a gift.”
It was a pivotal moment for Raynor and Moth. There it was. The salted blackberries were a gift of time and nature. Their walk was a gift of time and nature.
This insight grabbed them and would not let them go. It was confirmed, yet again, by a woman they met. She said,
‘It’s touched you; it’s written all over you: you’ve felt the hand of nature. It won’t ever leave you now; you’re salted.’
Circumstances can hit us hard, and the losses can seem irreplaceable. Like Raynor and Moth we can feel overwhelmed. It can be excruciating watching our lives unravel.
But when we think summer is over and the good stuff has all gone, a surprise awaits. It is a gift, the gift of a new beginning, and sometimes the best is saved to last.
If there was one thing the path taught Raynor and Moth, it was ‘Acceptance!’
Some things can never be changed or set right. They just are. We cannot live in the past, but the past is not lost to us. It is real and it remains, but we do not have to be swallowed up by it. We can live. It is our choice whether we live in a state of agitation or acceptance.
As a Raynor says,
‘A new season had crept into me, a softer season of acceptance. Burnt in by the sun, driven in by the storms, I could feel the sky, the earth, the water, and revel in being part of the elements without a chasm of pain opening up at the thought of the loss of our place within it all. I was part of the whole.’