Published by Knopf on Mar. 2012
Genres: Memoir, Non-Fiction
At the age of 26, Cheryl Strayed hit bottom. In the previous four years she had lost her mother to cancer, watched her grief-ridden family disintegrate, gotten divorced from a man she still loved, and developed a dangerous heroin habit. With her life in tatters and a constant howling misery inside her head, she decided to do something that was at once incredibly gutsy and ridiculously foolish: with no previous backpacking experience, Strayed made up her mind to spend roughly 100 days hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,663 mile trail running from Mexico to Canada along the crest of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges. And she was going to do it alone, reflecting on her life and working through her grief while her body pounded out the miles.
Although she embarked on her hike with dreams of bathing in pristine mountain lakes, meditating in the soft light of spectacular sunsets, and gazing in awe at breathtaking vistas, the reality of Strayed’s journey was rather different. Instead of striding powerfully through the unforgiving landscape, she found herself “hunching in a remotely upright position” under the weight of her obscenely (and unnecessarily) heavy backpack. Rather than spending hours reflecting on her life, she found her mind occupied by the pain in her horribly blistered feet caused by her too-small boots. And as it turned out, this is exactly what she needed. The extreme difficulty of her hike and her constant physical pain pushed her emotional turmoil to the side; this was real hardship, this was life or death. She often questioned the wisdom of forging ahead, but by choosing to continue forward in the direction she intended to go rather than back in the direction she had come from, she discovered that she was strong and capable. She discovered she could move forward.
“Uncertain as I was as I pushed forward, I felt right in my pushing, as if the effort itself meant something. That perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of the regrettable things I’d done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me. Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.”
What I loved about this book was Strayed’s toughness. She had been in a lot of bad situations – some her fault and some not – but instead of surrendering to her troubles as she so easily could have done, she broke away from the things bogging her down. She got away from the heroin and her broken family and her ex-husband. I suppose you could argue that she ran away from her problems by taking this hike, but I see her as taking charge and taking a step back to evaluate her life and her self. She needed distance, the primal simplicity of the wilderness, and the physical strain of her hike to achieve clarity. She wasn’t always confident about her abilities on the trail, but I so admired her refusal to give in to her fear!
“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. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked. Every time I heard a sound of unknown origin or felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away. I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid.”
I loved the story, and I thought the writing was wonderful — full of lush descriptions and beautifully worded meditations — but I do have one problem with this book, and that is Strayed’s “If I can do this, anyone can” attitude about her hike. Yes, ill-equipped (in terms of both gear and experience) as she was, Strayed hiked 1,100 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail, mostly by herself. She faced snow fields, rattlesnakes, extreme heat, and dehydration, and she made it. But she was lucky. I think she should have conveyed a message more to the tune of, “If I can do this, anyone can — but first they should thoroughly prepare.” It’s totally inspiring to be told that I could hike the Pacific Crest Trail if I wanted to, but it would be incredibly foolish of me to attempt it in the same manner she did, without ever having backpacked before.
All said, I would highly recommend this book. Maybe I’m a sucker for finding-yourself memoirs and am fascinated by tales of wilderness adventures, but I found Wild to be a very engaging read: equal parts sad, funny, and moving.