Cheryl Strayed hiked the Pacific Crest trail–starting in California, going through parts of Oregon, and ending in Washington State–when she was 26 years old. Before she took off on her trek, she’d had a traumatic early life with an abusive father and a loving, hippy mother. She dabbled in drugs and the wrong guys, but married a good guy when she was barely out of high school. Her mother died of cancer when Cheryl was 22, and it shook her to the core. She heartbreakingly reveals how very hard it was for her to lose her mother: “It had cut me short at the very height of my youthful arrogance. It had forced me to instantly grow up and forgive her every motherly fault at the same time that it kept me forever a child, my life both ended and begun in that premature place where we’d left off.”
Cheryl was wayward for a few years, never having a real career (though she always had the writing gene), and eventually, she self-destructed herself and her marriage. After her mother died, her stepfather, who was very good to her as a child, distanced himself from her and her brother and sister, which was unexpected, but just another of the blows she had to deal with before reaching an age when people are barely beginning to know themselves. She was looking for something to give her clarity and direction, and she came upon a guidebook for the Pacific Crest trail at a bookstore. She could’ve stumbled upon something else entirely, but with her mind unreliable, she chose to focus on hiking the trail and made it her goal.
Wild is not a “how-to” hiking book or a day-by-day journal, as might be expected. The author does plenty of that, but she also flashes back to her childhood, her marriage, her drug use, her relationships with her siblings and her mother, and her sweet husband, who many readers will likely side with. But there should be no taking sides. Strayed lays it all out in an honest and painful way, but still manages to infuse humor and inspiration. Critical reviews for this book have been good: it was chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her latest incarnation of her book club, and it won many awards. But consumer reviews are all over the place, some of them shockingly judgmental and scathing character attacks on Cheryl Strayed, mostly for her drug use and promiscuity. Some readers see her as weak and whiny and wonder “why did she leave that nice husband?” But it’s her journey, and her story, and it is exceedingly well told. It took her a very long time to write this book (about ten years), and it shows. It’s been part of her life for a good long time now, and a movie version of it will be released in December 2014, starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl and Laura Dern as her mother. If it’s half as good as the book, it should make for compelling cinema.
So, back to the hiking part. There is plenty of navigation information, stories of struggles on the trails (bears, thirst, etc.), and descriptions of some of the most remote and breathtaking scenery. Cheryl was gung-ho about this trip, and she thought she did her research, but she bought a pack that was MUCH too big (nicknaming it “Monster” in that fashion that people who are alone for long periods of time do with inanimate objects, a la Tom Hanks in Castaway). Her boots are a size too small and they tear her feet apart. She is unaware of a snow fall that will derail her and make a detour necessary. She does learn that REI has a very good customer-service policy, and she is sent new boots just in time to save her torn-up feet. She meets a few people on the trail who help her and provide support, but mostly she is alone, living for the days when she arrives at a stop, where she replenishes her supplies and is able to drink a cold Snapple and eat a candy bar. Without the distraction of civilization, Strayed has time to think and read (she throws away read pages of classic books as she goes, in order to make her pack lighter).
Strayed has to practice mind over matter throughout: “I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me.” But there are special circumstances a woman alone has to deal with, and it turns out that bears are the least of her worries. She tries to help a couple of hunters who find themselves without water by lending them her water purifier. But their intentions are less than pure, and she narrowly escapes their desires to wipe out all that she has worked for: the building of her strength and self-worth. That scene, amidst tales of snow, hunger, thirst, and wounds, is easily the most chilling of the memoir.
This book will make readers either want to embark on such a journey as Cheryl’s, or it will scare the hell of them. I prefer day hikes and a hotel, myself. But I was spellbound by her story and what she learned. She sums it up so well: “the thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer—and yet also, like most things, so very simple—was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay. As I clung to the chaparral that day, attempting to patch up my bleeding finger, terrified by every sound that the bull was coming back, I considered my options. There were only two and they were essentially the same. I could go back in the direction I had come from, or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go.” She was definitely going in the right direction, and the book is both the end and a beginning for her.