Lost on the Pacific Crest Trail

Cheryl Strayed is a memoirist, not a nature writer. Here’s why.

July 25, 2013

    THE FOX APPEARS in the snow.

    At almost the exact midpoint of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, novelist Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir of her life-altering trek along the spine of the West, a fox steps into the snowy clearing where Strayed has stopped to rest and eat. The fox is a potent emblem of the wilderness Strayed has ventured into the mountains to experience:

    My heart raced, but I sat perfectly still, fighting the urge to scramble to my feet and leap behind the tree for protection. I didn’t know what the fox would do next. I didn’t think he would harm me, but I couldn’t help but fear that he would. He was barely knee-high, though his strength was irrefutable, his beauty dazzling, his superiority to me apparent down to his every pristine hair. He could be on me in a flash. This was his world. He was as certain as the sky.

    What happens next shows the unwitting cultural prescience of Wild, the most commercially successful work of nature writing in decades.

    “Fox,” Strayed whispers:

    as if by naming him I could both defend myself against him and also draw him nearer. He raised his fine-boned head, but remained standing as he’d been and studied me for several seconds more before turning away without alarm to continue walking across the clearing and into the trees.

    “Come back,” I called lightly, and then suddenly shouted, “MOM! MOM! MOM! MOM!” I didn’t know the word was going to come out of my mouth until it did.

    And then, just as suddenly, I went silent, spent.

    An encounter with wildness, transmuted even as it occurs into an opportunity for self-expression. Strayed’s memoir, a New York Times bestseller translated into 28 languages, has been hailed as “a literary and human triumph” (The New York Times Book Review) that single-handedly revives the increasingly moribund genre of American nature writing. In fact, Wild is something altogether different. It’s not a “wilderness story” (again, Times Book Review) at all. It’s an Eat, Pray, Love-style autobiographical quest that only happens to be set in the outdoors. Far from reviving nature writing, Wild’s runaway success marks a further step toward extinction for the genre. Present-day readers, Strayed seems intuitively to understand, will read about the outdoors only when what they’re actually reading about is a plucky young woman triumphing over grief and bad boyfriends on an audacious long-distance hike. In Wild, Strayed’s writerly skill makes the merger between memoir and nature appear seamless. But her resulting achievement represents not so much a merger as a takeover, one writ large in an American book market increasingly dominated by autobiography — to the extent that almost all recently published nature-related titles are centered around a dramatic human narrative, not a landscape.

    The demise of nature writing shouldn’t come as a surprise in an America where recent studies show steady declines in almost all forms of outdoor recreation except off-road vehicle driving. Like all extinctions, nature writing’s gradual disappearance represents a profound loss. However sophisticated recent memoirs have become (Mary Karr’s Lit), the genre is by definition human-centered and inward looking. Nature writing in its purest form challenges both of those literary impulses. The best nature writing looks away from the human narrator and seeks ultimately to lose the writerly self in a natural world both incomprehensible by, and often hostile to, human perception. That outward focus and appreciation of human limitation are key components of a balanced, comprehensive understanding of the world. In a book market dominated by a genre always at risk of tipping over into narcissism, the loss of nature writing means the loss of an irreplaceable corrective, a way of seeing, thinking and being in the world available nowhere else. Surely I’m not the only reader of Wild who wishes Cheryl Strayed had mustered enough curiosity to put her troubles aside for an afternoon and follow that fox into the woods. Surely Wild would have been a better, bigger, more sustaining book if Strayed had returned from the mountains with more than her own story. Nature writing may be on the wane but nature isn’t. We still need to know what’s out there. We need to be told about more than ourselves.


    Wild is set in the outdoors, but the outdoors is not its subject. The book tells the story of Strayed’s 1995 summer-long trek along the Pacific Crest Trail when she was twenty-six years old. The PCT, as it’s called by hikers, is a long-distance, mostly high-altitude path that traverses the Sonoran and Mojave deserts, seven mountain ranges, twenty-five national forests, and seven national parks as it wends its way 2,663 miles from the Mexican to the Canadian border. Strayed’s journey along this epic trail is an act of desperation. Bereaved by the sudden death of her mother from cancer, Strayed begins Wild newly divorced, a semi-sex addict, and shacked up with a heroin user in Portland. A chance sighting of a PCT guidebook in an outdoor gear store offers an unlikely way out:

    The photograph of a boulder-strewn lake surrounded by rocky crags and blue sky on its cover seemed to break me open, frank as a fist to the face…. I had to change…. Not into a different person, but back to the person I used to be — strong and responsible, clear-eyed and driven, ethical and good. And the PCT would make me that way.

    It is Strayed’s merging of this interior narrative of redemption with an exterior of grandeur and physical danger that accounts for Wild’s runaway success. “Strayed’s language is so vivid, sharp and compelling that you feel the heat of the desert, the frigid ice of the High Sierra and the breathtaking power of one remarkable woman finding her way — and herself — one step at a time,” Caroline Leavitt wrote in People, summarizing the book’s appeal. More than a year after its publication, Wild remains on The New York Times bestseller list and Strayed appears around the world reading to paying audiences.


    Like Strayed, most nature writers, from Romantic poets, to John Muir, to Annie Dillard, to English academic and mountaineer Robert Macfarlane, the current dean of world nature writing, blend natural observation with first-person narration. Strayed’s innovation is to incorporate these writers’ techniques while leaving behind their traditional — and less salable — preoccupation with the natural world itself. Most of Wild is devoted not to descriptions of the PCT or what Strayed found there, but rather to lyrically detailed accounts of Strayed’s harrowing childhood, her mother’s illness and death, and the subsequent derailment of Strayed’s pre-PCT life. Precisely how the wild landscapes Strayed passes through rescue her from her myriad troubles remains unexplored. Even her climactic decision to give up the casual sex that wrecked her marriage — and by implication the whole grief-fueled binge of drugs and aimlessness that followed her mother’s death — occurs off the trail, after a one-night stand with a hot rocker dude Strayed meets in a club in Ashland, Oregon. (“There was no way I was going to keep my pants on with a man who’d seen Michelle Shocked three times.”) At the end of this fling Strayed tosses aside a condom she’s been toting in her pack and heads back toward the trail, giving Mr. Michelle Shocked a firm goodbye kiss “like it was the end of an era that had lasted all of my life.”

    The rocker accomplishes what the mysterious fox in the snow, and the rest of the PCT’s harsh landscapes, don’t. And of course he does. The fox, for all its enigmatic beauty, brings a whiff of something that, though it is precisely what nature writers head outdoors to encounter, might have threatened Wild’s resolute focus on Strayed’s redemptive arc: nature’s ultimate, grand indifference to human affairs. “He gazed straight ahead without looking at me, not even seeming to know I was there, though that seemed impossible,” Strayed writes of the fox. Then the fox trots off into the woods, obligating Strayed to yank the focus back to herself with her plaintive cry. A few pages later, Strayed is off the trail again, eating a sandwich and cake in a kind couple’s home and wondering, inexplicably, whether the fox returned to the clearing to look for her.


    Strayed does not claim to be a nature writer. And generic hairsplitting is no reason to denigrate her achievement in Wild. Still, Wild’s success, and the shift in readers’ tastes the book reflects, sounds an ominous note for nature writing’s future. Consider a selection of books directly below Wild on Amazon’s list of most popular “Nature Travel” titles: Into the Wind: My Six-Month Journey for Life’s Purpose; Grand Ambition: An Extraordinary Yacht, the People Who Built It and the Millionaire Who Can’t Really Afford It; Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, And Why; Walking Home: A Poet’s Journey. Veteran outdoor journalist Jon Krakauer has made a career taking advantage of this trend. His Into the Wild (1993 article in Outside magazine; 1996 bestselling book; 2007 Sean Penn-directed movie) conjures the Alaskan outback to tell the poignant story of a lost soul. Into Thin Air (1997) makes Mt. Everest a theater for the grisly death of eight mountain climbers. Wild is a better book by far than competitors in its hybrid genre, but its effect on readers is the same. It portrays wilderness as a catalyst for human self-knowledge. It invokes the wild as a prop then turns away, inward.

    What is lost when wilderness as a subject is lost? Ironically, Wild supplies a suggestive answer. On a handful of occasions, Strayed’s inward attention is drawn away from herself and her troubles by something enigmatic glimpsed in the landscape. Strayed never figures out what the something is:

    As I ascended, I realized I didn’t understand what a mountain was, or even if I was hiking up one mountain or a series of them glommed together. I’d not grown up around mountains. I’d walked on a few, but only on well-trod paths on day hikes. They’d seemed to be nothing more than really big hills. But they were not that. They were, I now realized, layered and complex, inexplicable and analogous to nothing.

    Analogous to nothing. Strayed finds herself momentarily in the presence of wilderness’s most essential characteristic: its fundamental otherness from human experience. “Wildness,” writes Robert Macfarlane, “is an expression of independence from human direction, and wild land can be said to be self-willed land.” Encounters with this self-willed quality in wilderness invariably produce a strong reaction. Some people love it. Others hate and fear it. Strayed fears it at first, then makes her peace with it by seeking the company of other hikers on the trail, pausing her trek for regular forays into civilization and, ultimately, using her solitude as time to work through the voluminous emotional damage sustained in her youth.

    Now and then, however, wildness forces its way into Strayed’s therapeutic retreat. “These mountains didn’t count the days,” she muses when she realizes she’s forgotten the previous day was the Fourth of July. “When I sat up and unzipped the door [of her tent] and looked out, I watched the birds flitter from tree to tree, elegant and plain and indifferent to me.” And of course there is the fox. “All travelers to wild places will have felt some version of this, a brief, blazing perception of the world’s disinterest,” Robert Macfarlane writes in The Wild Places, his superb 2008 travelogue of remnant wild places in the British Isles. “In small measures it exhilarates. But in full form it annihilates.”

    Strayed seems instinctively to understand that for most people who venture outside — and the far larger number who do not — that intimation of annihilation is nothing short of dreadful, an experience to be shielded from, whether by a phalanx of expensive outdoor gear, a cadre of hearty companions or, simply, by staying home. In Wild it is Strayed’s autobiographical voice (“billowing with energy, precise,” as Slate’s Melanie Rehak describes it) that shields her from being “compacted to nothingness” (again, Robert Macfarlane) by the wilderness she encounters. Other writers are not so self-protective. Annie Dillard, announcing the authorial intent of her seminal Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, places herself, and her book, at the mercy of the self-willed whims of her outdoor subject:

    So I think about the valley. It is my leisure as well as my work, a game. It is a fierce game I have joined because it is being played anyway, a game of both skill and chance, played against an unseen adversary — the conditions of time — in which the payoffs, which may suddenly arrive in a blast of light at any moment, might as well come to me as to anyone else. I stake the time I’m grateful to have, the energies I’m glad to direct. I risk getting stuck on the board, so to speak, unable to move in any direction, which happens enough, God knows; and I risk the searing, exhausting nightmares that plunder rest and force me face down all night long in some muddy ditch seething with hatching insects and crustaceans.

    But if I can bear the nights, the days are a pleasure. I walk out; I see something, some event that would otherwise have been utterly missed and lost; or something sees me, some enormous power brushes me with its clean wing, and I resound like a beaten bell.

    Even the normally ebullient John Muir lays himself perilously open to Dillard’s “enormous power.” In his 1894 The Mountains of California, he writes of climbing the western face of 13,156-foot Mount Ritter, in what is now the Ansel Adams Wilderness of the eastern Sierra Nevada. Amid a “wilderness of crumbling spires and battlements,” Muir finds himself momentarily paralyzed on a steep pitch a few hundred feet from the summit. Clinging to the rock “with arms outspread,” he feels he must fall to his death on a glacier below:

    But this terrible eclipse lasted only a moment, when life blazed forth again with preternatural clearness. I seemed suddenly to become possessed of a new sense. The other self, bygone experiences, Instinct, or Guardian Angel — call it what you will — came forward and assumed control. Then my trembling muscles became firm again, every rift and flaw in the rock was seen as in a microscope, and my limbs moved with a positiveness and precision with which I seemed to have nothing at all to do. Had I been borne aloft on wings, my deliverance could not have been more complete.

    Note how Muir’s language moves from inarticulate (“call it what you will”) to lyrical precision as his attention shifts from himself to the mountain. The gift wilderness gives to writers who surrender to its imperatives is an expanse and clarity of vision unavailable to those whose focus remains fixed on themselves. For all the billowing energy of Strayed’s voice, the story she tells in Wild is ultimately not that different from countless other memoirs of difficult childhoods followed by personal and professional redemption. Wilderness, by contrast, is near infinite in its permutations. So many of its workings remain a mystery. In the encounter between that mystery and an inquisitive mind, limits of knowledge are explored and realities are revealed more various and unexpected than the repetitive tropes of memoir. “You raise your eyes from these remains [of human activity on Arctic tundra], from whatever century, and look away,” Barry Lopez writes in Arctic Dreams, his 1986 study of northern landscapes. “The land as far as you can see is rung with a harmonious authority . . . ”


    Eleven years ago, late one summer night, a twin-engine charter plane crashed while attempting to land outside the high desert town of Bishop, California. Among the four passengers killed was renowned wilderness photographer Galen Rowell, at the time of his death considered the greatest outdoor photographer of his generation, an heir to Ansel Adams. Rowell, who was 62 when he died, is less well known today. Following publication of a retrospective of his work in 2006 (Galen Rowell: A Retrospective, Sierra Club Press), Rowell mostly faded from view, his numerous books and national magazine photo spreads becoming the province of specialist outdoor photographers and dedicated lovers of the places Rowell devoted a lifetime to photographing — the High Sierra, the Himalayas, Patagonia, and other remote landscapes. Though Rowell was often compared to Ansel Adams, his work ended up not enduring like his forebear’s. Adams’s images remain iconic and beloved, so prevalent they are arguably more representative in the public’s mind of the places they document than the places themselves, particularly Yosemite. Rowell approached but never attained this level of popularity.

    Rowell failed to last because, like many of the nature writers considered here, he could not help himself from filling his photographic images with wilderness’ alienating otherness. In reality, Rowell was nothing like Ansel Adams, whose carefully composed studies of light and shadow bear a reassuring, controlling human imprint though they rarely include human subjects. Rowell’s photographs of the outdoors are wild, sometimes unbeautiful, sometimes hard to like, sometimes even frightening. “In general I don’t like photographs of forests because they so often seem to be contrived,” he wrote in Mountain Light: In Search of the Dynamic Landscape, his 1986 compilation of outdoor photographs. “The photographer’s eye can give wonderfully random arrangements of trees an appearance of openness and order that just isn’t there.”

    Order rarely predominates in a Rowell image. In “Winter in the Patriarch Grove, White Mountains, California,” a 1974 photograph of a bristlecone pine tree, among the oldest living things on earth, a gnarled, leafless specimen, probably several thousand years old, leans precipitously toward the viewer on a snowy mountainside. The tree appears deranged, or dead. Limbs tangle like kelp. One whorled branch reaches out as if to strike. In “Chris Vandiver on the First Free Ascent of the East Face of Keeler Needle, Mount Whitney, California, 1972,” climber Vandiver perches on a granite ledge, fiddling with rope. Granite crags thrust on either side, threatening to push him off. A rope, anchored somewhere behind the field of view, snakes toward the camera, vanishing in a precarious blur at the bottom of the frame. In “Clearing Storm over El Capitan, Yosemite, California, 1973,” the iconic cliff face, target of countless eager lenses, looms through vaporous clouds, weirdly lit by placeless light. The rock face is not pretty, not welcoming, not composed, not accessible. It appears hulking, even angry, possessed of an inward life and time-scale wholly divorced from the human viewer daring to try to capture its visual essence. Most photographs of Yosemite appear designed to entice the viewer to visit. This is only images of Yosemite I have seen that frightens me.

    Cheryl Strayed was often frightened during her trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. She was lonely, sometimes lost, once charged by a bull, once sexually threatened by a pair of hunters, and once nearly ran out of water in the middle of the desolate Modoc Plateau. Yet Wild is never frightening, certainly not frightening in the way of a Galen Rowell image. Unlike Annie Dillard, or John Muir, or any in a long line of distinguished nature writers, Strayed is not keen to abandon herself to the self-willed rhythms of a landscape. She goes to the landscape to find herself. She is the object of her own quest.

    Praise and sales of Wild, and the continuing popularity of artists such as Ansel Adams, demonstrate that, even when contemplating the by definition non-human subject of wilderness, people feel compelled to seek out what is affirmingly human in the landscape. There is something in the human mind that seems to demand to see itself, to see its imprint, in everything. Of course humanity is not imprinted on everything, and human stories are not the only stories, or even the defining stories of the natural order. It’s commendable that Cheryl Strayed finished her long-distance hike and wrought from it a finely written memoir. It’s a shame memoir is all she wrought. There is so much more along the Pacific Crest Trail, in wild places everywhere, to see and to know. So much to be content not to know.


    Jim Hinch’s most recent piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books is “Why Stephen Grennblatt is Wrong.”


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