This wasn’t the first time the pair took to the road in search of a better fortune. Eight years earlier, Winn and Moth walked 600 miles after they lost their home and savings and had nowhere to go. That trip also had the unlikely effect of reversing Moth’s symptoms, despite doctors’ warnings. (“Don’t tire yourself, and be careful on the stairs.”)
But now Moth is older, and his symptoms are worse. When Raynor Winn’s memoir “Landlines” opens, Moth’s illness has progressed to a dire stage. He’s falling often and losing his ability to think clearly or walk steadily. His hands tremble, and his feet are numb. When one day he falls flat, face-first, in their orchard, “like a dead tree in a high wind,” Winn and Moth realize they are at a crossroads; they need to either accept his impending death or try what helped before: long-distance walking.
“Walking the Cape Wrath Trail through the north of Scotland had seemed achievable as we planned the trip in the warmth of a Cornish spring, when the sun was shining and the apple blossom about to break,” Winn writes. “We knew it wouldn’t be an easy trail to navigate, with no signposts or quick ways out, but that was part of the challenge.” The obstacles were many: Moth stumbles up mountains, falls and bashes his head on a river rock, and endures severe foot pain. He grows so exhausted he falls asleep standing up. Winn, meanwhile, seems incapable of buying properly fitted boots, and her feet become a mass of bruises, blisters and peeling skin.
As they walk, Winn’s keen observations flit from details of nature to global issues; the hike takes place during the early years of Brexit and the pandemic, and she ponders questions of borders and land ownership and, especially, climate change. The pair experiences changes in the terrain (mountains and bogs, icy streams) and withstands all manner of unpleasantries (camping in downpours and fighting off clouds of biting flies), but one thing remains constant: the single-note song of a mysterious bird.
“We walk on … never alone, accompanied by the long-repeated call of a bird I don’t know,” Winn writes. That bird — eventually identified as a golden plover — is a symbol of many things: resilience, perseverance, hope.
Winn can be forgiven for sounding, at times, preachy; she sees evidence of disaster everywhere, from the drought-blackened heather, to the hungry deer that wander into villages searching for food, to the notable absence of cuckoos, skylarks and otters.
“Surely there has to be some way of reversing this destruction?” she asks, and though she is talking about the Earth, she is also talking about Moth — that dual meaning runs throughout her prose. “They’ve made it north to their summer home,” she writes earlier of a small, thrush-like bird called a wheatear. “A journey of danger and exhaustion, but one they had to make.”
Winn, author of two memoirs — “The Salt Path” (2019), shortlisted for the Costa Book Award, and “The Wild Silence” (2021) — fills her work with rich metaphors drawn from the natural world. Diagnosing Moth’s illness is like “trying to catch an eel in a bath of seaweed.” Guilt gnaws its way into her bones “like a grub through dead wood.”
The landlines of the title come not just from the walking paths but from the people who help Winn and Moth — the “taxi-driving Viking” who goes miles out of his way to give them a lift; strangers who share their food; the nervous groom at a fancy wedding who invites them to come have a drink.
Despite the rugged terrain, roaring rivers and blazing sun, Winn’s story is never one of humans against nature. She understands that it is only by embracing nature that the couple — and all of us — will survive. “We’ve … flown free with the eagles in the glens, become one with the weather on the wild moorland tops.”
“Landlines” is both an inspiring testament to fortitude and a plea to save a burning planet. “All we can do,” Winn writes, “is take the next step and see where that leads.” Like the golden plover, like the little wheatear, Winn and Moth push on, from the far north of the island all the way home.
Laurie Hertzel, author of the memoir “News to Me,” is a book critic in Minnesota.
The Remarkable Story of a Thousand-Mile Journey Across Britain
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POST AUTHOR: Laurie Hertzel