Mark Reid on two books that consider the restorative power of walking.
In The Salt Path, Ray(nor) Winn and Moth, Cer husband of 32 years, are devastated. They’ve lost the house and farm they’d owned for over two decades and where they’d brought up their children. They’re evicted when they lose a legal battle and are liable for debts after an ill-advised investment with a once-close friend. Moth has also just been diagnosed with a life-shortening brain condition. And yet they set out to walk England’s 630-mile South West Coast Path, with just £47 per week in tax credits to live on.
At first, and for a long stretch of the walk, Ray can’t stop thinking of all they had to leave behind, and her sense of loss is colossal. Lost, they shout and argue about all their ‘wrong decisions’. Gradually – despite being ‘battered by the elements, hungry and cold’ – they adjust, and going for a swim in the sea becomes ‘an oasis of clarity, clear water, tide-rippled sand, free from time.’ Moth feels much better and comes off the pregabalin prescribed for his aches and pains. They wonder if it’s because they keep moving and ask, ‘the huge wash of oxygen, can it somehow affect the brain?’
Shane O’Mara is a professor of neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin, and his In Praise of Walking takes us through the evolution and mechanics of walking, which he hails as ‘an astounding neuro-musculoskeletal achievement’. Among the many mental health benefits established are those of a 2014 Stanford University study in which one cohort remained more-or-less immobile while another group walked briskly outdoors. The active ones showed a marked increase in creativity and problem-solving when tested afterwards. Walking stimulates the body’s molecular growth factors to produce new brain cells and the blood vessel network is enhanced as muscle use increases.
O’Mara’s findings are paralleled in The Salt Path – he’s not saying that walking cures brain disease, but it may make it more manageable, just as it eases Ray’s harrowing thoughts. O’Mara calls it ‘mindlessness’ brought on by the body’s walking rhythms, which are set by a ‘central pattern generator’ in the spinal cord. He describes how this can then take the walker into a state in which ‘huge areas of ground are covered for what feels like minimal effort, with great enjoyment and feelings of control, of oneness, of immersion, of being in the zone’. Indeed, as Ray’s psychological wounds slowly heal in The Salt Path she ‘could feel the sky, the earth, the water and revel in being part of the elements’.
There are, though, frequent reminders along the way that they are homeless and poor.
They are often on the receiving end of other people’s bigoted perceptions of homelessness. It’s fine when they are assumed to be happy-go-lucky retired homeowners on a big adventure. But when they tell people, ‘We’re homeless, nowhere to go’ they’re met with contempt or fear. ‘One man reached out and pulled his child towards him, his wife winced and looked away’. In their one encounter with the urban homeless, Ray and Moth know immediately they have no desire to join the street drinkers and the repetitive demands of addiction. ‘I wanted to run’ writes Ray.
‘Walk without expectation’ says In Praise of Walking. The Salt Path echoes this: ‘We walk until we stop walking and maybe on the way we find some kind of future’. The wisdom Ray and Moth are granted is a triumph of the spiritual over the material: from being bereft at losing the bricks-and-mortar of home, their epiphany is that they ‘don’t need to own a piece of land’ to be content.