JULY 11, 2012
IF YOU STAY UP LATE into the night to finish Wild, the 300-page memoir about a woman pushing herself beyond her physical and emotional limits, a woman who endured sore muscles, bruises, blisters, and soaring and plummeting temperatures, you will feel soft and lily-livered in the morning. If Cheryl Strayed can hike through California and Oregon in one summer, risking hypothermia, heatstroke, and death by any number of desert animals, one should be able, at least, to get one’s ass out of bed and perform some downward dog poses.
Wild is a memoir about Strayed’s solo hike over a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. With a keen eye for scene, character, and imagery, the author spins a masterful narrative infused wth the crackling of desert chaparral, and the aromatic pinesap of the Cascades. The empathetic reader may also feel every bruise, scrape, and muscle knot the young woman bears over the course of her expedition.
But Cheryl Strayed’s story begins far away from the Pacific Crest Trail, in rural Minnesota, on the “back-to-the-land” woodland farm where she grew up. In the wake of her mother’s unexpected death from lung cancer, 22-year-old Strayed found herself unmoored, tumbling into common risky scenarios of the newly bereft: unprotected sex with strangers, infidelities, lies, and drug experimentation. As a result of this, her marriage eventually crumbled. Then her family scattered, having lost their mother, the nucleus that centered them. Strayed was plagued by nightmares in which her mother begged her to kill her. Within four years, she was orphaned, estranged from her brother and sister, and divorced from the man she married at nineteen.
After her life took so many unexpected turns, Strayed chose to do one more unexpected thing:
The Pacific Crest Trail was an idea, vague and outlandish, full of promise and mystery. Something bloomed inside me as I traced its jagged line with my finger on a map. I would walk that line, I decided—or at least as much of it as I could in about a hundred days. […] Each day I felt as if I were looking up from the bottom of a deep well. But from that well, I set about becoming a solo wilderness trekker. And why not? I’d been so many things already […] But a woman who walks alone in the wilderness for eleven hundred miles? I’d never been anything like that before. I had nothing to lose by giving it a whirl.
Strayed offers an image of herself as the inexperienced hiker who has never been backpacking, who weighs her pack down with so much needless gear (a foldable saw, an enormous camera flash, a fat roll of condoms) that she can barely lift it. Strayed recounts these early blunders with her characteristic humor and honesty. She does not self-aggrandize or gloss over, but admits plainly just how many times she came close to quitting (an hour into her hike, a day into her hike, the next day, the next few weeks). She shows herself whining, grumbling, wincing, and moaning. But as we follow the novice and her litany of mistakes — she uses the wrong fuel for her camp stove and buys too-small hiking boots that destroy her toenails — we witness her transformation into a seasoned and brave “Queen of the PCT” who can knock out twenty miles in one day and set up her tent “with a flick of her wrist.”
Most importantly, we see the hiker persevering. In the prologue, when her boots “sail irretrievably off the side of a mountain,” Strayed looks “to the wild land that had schooled me, and considered my options. There was only one. I knew. There was always only one. To keep walking.” She maintains this resolve throughout: when nearly mauled by a Texas Longhorn Bull, when spooked by a black bear, when met with leering and drunk hunters who ruin her water filter, and when her last remaining footwear — camp sandals wrapped in duct tape — falls apart.
Strayed walks on. And though she befriends many other hikers on the trail, occasionally sharing the day with them, she chooses to do most of her hiking alone:
I wasn’t out here to keep myself from having to say I am not afraid. I’d come, I realized, to stare that fear down, to stare everything down, really—all that I’d done to myself and all that had been done to me. I couldn’t do that while tagging along with someone else.
Readers will also learn about trail culture: gear, primitive campsites, freeze-dried food, the awkward and uncomfortable methods for heeding the “call of nature.” We learn about trail nicknames, maildrops, “trail angels” who offer meals and showers to weary hikers, “trail magic” (little gifts and other acts of goodwill that one finds along the trail), and the systems of communication that hikers have used since before the days of the cell phone and internet. A through-hiker’s relationship to food comes into sharp detail each time Strayed is blessed with a hot meal and a respite from dry granola. On her rare town days, she orders cheeseburgers, fries, cokes, salads — she notes that after so many days of camp food, she craves both the deep fried and the fresh. She is capable, she says wryly, of eating four dinners in one night.
Wild has been garnering much deserved attention lately. Reese Witherspoon has optioned the book for film production, with Lisa Cholodenko slated to direct it. Oprah Winfrey, who chose Wild as the newest pick for her book club, describes it as “a book about being brave when you never thought you could be.” It’s no surprise that this memoir has been so well received. Strayed uses her talent for craft, her refreshingly candid narration, to connect with her readers — even those whose life experiences match hers not in the least. Strayed’s memoir gets at the heart of the human condition, inspiring readers to reach outward and inward, in equal measure.
In telling such a personal story of transformation, one runs the risk of oversimplifying, of spinning the plot into a morality tale with a neat conclusion. There are certain memoirs, particularly travel memoirs, where the protagonist sets off to find herself and, after a few hundred pages, succeeds with grace and relatively little suffering. She has an epiphany in every chapter. Thanks to the fun-loving supportive characters in exotic locales that present their wisdom to her in portable aphorisms, she learns the meaning of life.
Wild is not that book.
Cheryl Strayed recently said in an interview at Zocalo Public Square in Los Angeles that she is not a fan of stories that make redemption seem tidy. She said she thinks many readers, perhaps because of how other books may have primed them, may begin reading Wild thinking, “Okay, she’s going to go in all fucked up and she’s going to come out The Buddha.” Strayed insists that that is not an accurate characterization. She changed, she transformed, but her trek did not resurrect her from an adulterating junkie into an ethereal yet grounded goddess. “I was still me,” Strayed explained in the interview. Before her hike, she still had friends and a job, and afterwards, though she had learned and grown over the past three months, she still had ground to cover.
Strayed’s relationship with her environment is humble and respectful, not exploitative. The landscape she travails is not a prop for her self-actualization, but a real, physical world that bewilders her, a world in which she learns she can survive bewilderment.
Not that Strayed didn’t set out envisioning a kind of “hike, pray, love.” She admits that she herself expected exactly such a tidy spirit quest. She imagined herself gazing at sunsets and Sierra-Club-calendar mountains as the divine beauty of nature delivered revelation after revelation for her hiker’s notebook:
I’d set out to hike the trail so that I could reflect upon my life, to think about everything that had broken me and make myself whole again. But the truth was, at least so far, I was consumed only with my most immediate and physical suffering . . . . I’d imagined endless meditations upon sunsets or while staring out across pristine mountain lakes. I’d thought I’d weep tears of cathartic sorrow and restorative joy each day of my journey. Instead, I only moaned, and not because my heart ached. It was because my feet did and my back did and so did the still-open wounds around my hips.
The agonies and ecstasies of the body are right at the surface here. Just as Strayed can revel in the pleasures of warm food and showers, she also can endure pain. Her body adapts to meet the demands she places upon it, and in doing so, she comes to feel herself safe in the wild land, in a revelation that carries more gravitas than airy platitudes about becoming “one with nature.” She realizes, “of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.” Her suffering is her joy is her humanity. She lives and breathes on the trail in a deep recognition of her place in its world.
Strayed also explores the meaning of the word “wild.” There is the wildness of the trail that has become her home, the uncultivated landscape’s flora and fauna whose indifference to her she finds comforting. There is the wildness of her youth and the hurt she caused herself and others. And there are the dark memories of her childhood with her abusive father: “Of all the wild things, his failure to love me the way he should have had always been the wildest thing of all.” Wild meaning unbelievable, incredible.
I’ve often thought that the word “wild” could be a portmanteau of “woman” and “child.” At 22, Strayed lost the closest, most beloved woman in her life, and the loss froze her in a space between adolescence and adulthood. She writes that her mother’s death “forced me to instantly grow up [. . .] and at the same time it kept me forever a child, my life both ended and begun in that premature place where we’d left off.” This is the space in which we find her as she embarks on her 1,100-mile hike — the parched, windswept country of a desolate heart. She is a child of grief’s wilderness, a child of “the obliterated place,” where she must make a home and learn to live as the woman her mother raised her to be. She is wild: at once young and old, cut down by tragedy, growing up through bravery.
In flashbacks interspersed throughout the narrative, we learn of Strayed’s life before she set out for the Pacific Crest Trail — the choices she made and the dangers those choices posed to both her body and her heart. During that time of her life, she embodied essayist Rebecca Solnit’s observation that “the young bring the fearlessness of children to acts with adult consequences.” But readers looking for a slut-shaming cautionary fable won’t find it here. Strayed writes of that paradoxical time in her life with clarity and compassion for the woman-child she was. A few months into her hike, she stands on a beach in Oregon and asks, “What if I forgave myself even though I’d done something I shouldn’t have? […] What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?”
In I Could Tell You Stories, essayist Patricia Hampl writes that women have long been allowed to suffer, but the hero’s quest of redemption and rebirth has been strictly relegated to men’s stories. Women get to be reformed sinners, but not resurrected heroes. We are permitted to stray and languish and apologize and come back to the fold, but not often enough are we given the space and agency to blaze our own redemptive narrative trails.
It is significant, then, that Cheryl Strayed chose her own last name because of its multiple layers of meaning:
I had diverged, digressed, wandered, and become wild. I didn’t embrace the word as my new name because it defined negative aspects of my circumstances or life, but because even in my darkest days—those very days in which I was naming myself—I saw the power of the darkness. Saw that, in fact, I had strayed and that I was a stray and that from the wild places my straying had brought me, I knew things I couldn’t have known before.
Strayed bears the torn feet and bruised back of a true pilgrim. Hers is high-voltage prose that challenges any preconceived notions about what it means to be a woman alone, and what it means to journey. There was no cushy safety awaiting Strayed at the end of her eleven hundred mile summer. There were three more years of her twenties and the underbrush she would have to clear to get through them. Her homestretch was the beginning of another as-yet-unknowable journey.
Wild will gather you up with its tenderness. It will flay you with its honesty.
Cheryl Strayed’s collection of advice columns, Tiny Beautiful Things (Vintage), was published yesterday.