Title: Wild – A Journey From Lost To Found
Author: Cheryl Strayed
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Release Date: 2012
Cheryl Strayed doesn’t have great coping or impulse control skills. At 26 she has been through four years of chaos. Her mother has died rapidly from cancer, her siblings scattered and their step-father withdrawn from them to be with his new family. Unable to keep her family together, Cheryl turns away from her loving husband and to any man who’ll have her (and eventually to heroin), thus wrecking her marriage. On top of this, she’s wracked up considerable student debt without even finishing her degree. She decides to take the name Strayed, because she has. Hoping to heal and return to the person she once was, Cheryl makes the rash decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail that runs from the Mexican to the Canadian border. Or some of it. Completely inexperienced and ill-prepared, Cheryl packs a rucksack so monstrously heavy that she can barely get it off the ground, and sets out on a three month long hike. She’s determined, sure, but also foolish and lazy.
On the trail she faces harsh conditions, hunger and thirst, but also bounds of beauty and kindness. She struggles through incredible heat, dangerous snowfall (though she skips the worst of it) and dark, lonely nights. She has to deal with ill-chosen equipment – her boots are too small and make her toenails fall off – rattlesnakes and a creepy stranger or two. But she also meets generosity and support in the people she encounters along the way (a shocking number of people want to sleep with her as well). Not to mention from REI who send her a new pair of boots free of charge. Things have a way of working out for her, people help her out a lot and her situation never becomes desperate enough to be really impressive.
“I’m not afraid” she tells herself, and she learns that most of the time, she doesn’t need to be.
“…the death of my mother was the thing that made me believe the most deeply in my safety: nothing bad could happen to me, I thought. The worst thing already had.”
Her story is not simply one of hiking though hundreds of miles of wilderness. While we do get some sparse description of the spectacular scenery, this is not what’s in focus. Rather, Cheryl’s internal world is the main setting; her relationship with her mother, her abusive and estranged father, and her loving but not-quite-enough husband. These tales intertwine with her experiences on the trail. Especially the stories of her mother’s death and the putting down of her mother’s gorgeous horse are heart-breaking but a bit too tear-jerking for my taste. I understand the self-pity, but I don’t very much like looking at it.
The hike changed Cheryl, both in body and in mind, and may have helped her get her life back together. On the trail she was full of sorrow, doubt and weighed down by all that had happened to her, and all that she had done to herself.
“What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I forgave myself even though I’d done something I shouldn’t have? What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I’d done other than because it was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently than I had done? What if I’d actually wanted to fuck every one of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if yes was the right answer instead of no? 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?”
But it took her 15 years to realize the full meaning of her journey. As it turns out, despite all of the hardship, pain and injuries she sustains, going hiking might have been a good decision.
While reflection and self-discovery are the main themes in the book, I found far more enjoyment in the passages about the hike itself, the camaraderie with the people she meets, and her relationship with the books she read – and burns! – on the trail. In many ways, the books help save her and I couldn’t wait to see which book would be in the pre-packaged box at her next stop ( it seems that Cheryl and I are both fans of the Southern Gothic genre). I could imagine myself doing the same thing, eating the same freeze-dried foods, stale trail-mix and pitching my tent in the pouring rain. These are the passages that make the book engaging and make Cheryl more than a bundle of self-pity and self-absorption. She’s tough and incredibly honest. She’s also pretty lucky that her cluelessness and lack of backpacking savvy didn’t get her killed.
However, I must say that I didn’t find the prose itself to be anything special. It’s not particularly bad, but there’s not much of a distinctive voice or style, no poetry. It’s a quick and easy read but it’s also very entertaining, and if like me, you have a long-distance hiker inside that’s just dying to come out, I’m sure Cheryl’s adventure will awaken the wanderlust in you.