Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Strayed, Cheryl. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. New York: Knopf, 2012.

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Where do I start with this mesmerizing book? Maybe I should start with what I’d write in a fan letter to Cheryl Strayed, were I the sort to write such things, “Bravo! I wish I had an ounce of the sort of writing talent it takes to get a reader to suffer through unbearable heat and cold, a monster backpack that weighs a ton, lost toenails, dehydration, etc., etc. and still to come away from it all thinking, “I’d like to hike some of the Pacific Crest Trail.'”

Note I said some of the trail. I could never do what Strayed did, hiking the trail for months, 15-20 miles per day to total some 1100 miles. You should see me after a 10-mile hike in Acadia National Park in Maine, and those mountains are mere hills compared to what the West Coast has to offer. Still, Strayed is an inspiration, and she’s a beautiful and passionate writer. Read this book, and you will see, feel, taste, hear, and smell a little bit of everything she did along that trail.

Another thing I ought to tell you is that this isn’t the sort of book I’d typically read. I’m not a big fan of travelogues, and I’m quite tired of all the oh-woe-is-me-but-look-how-fascinating-my-bellybutton-is memoir, which were interesting when they were first being published but have gotten old. And look at that subtitle. I’m also one who reads a subtitle like that and thinks, “So you went on a journey and saw the light? Ho hum. Tell me something new.” I only decided to read it because quite a few people had read it and said it was good, and also because I’d seen an endorsement somewhere from Elizabeth Gilbert (another one who wrote a book — Eat, Pray, Love — that I thought I had no real interest in reading and that I fell in love with when I did).

This book is part travelogue and part memoir, a combination that works well, and Strayed knows how to blend the two without making the book jumpy or disconnected. She also writes in such a way that she doesn’t ask the reader for pity. Her life story is as fascinating as her hike. She had a very unconventional childhood in Minnesota, born into a family beaten down by a violent father until her mother finally left him for good. By the time she was a teenager, she, her two siblings, her mother, and her stepfather were living (by choice) a quite primitive life, homesteading on a large plot of land they owned in a house they’d built themselves. What helped them all survive, she tells us, was their mother’s love, the one constant for all of them in an ever-changing world. And then, the unthinkable happened. When Cheryl was in her early twenties, and her mother was in her mid-forties, her mother died of cancer. It was a relatively quick and agonizing death that rocked her family’s world.

Strayed spiraled out of control, destroying her marriage and embracing both promiscuity and heroin, which left her feeling empty on the one hand and full of self loathing on the other. Not quite — but almost — on a whim, she decided to hike the Pacific Coast Trail, a trail I’d never heard of that stretches from the Mexico-California border all the way to Canada. Strayed’s descriptions of this trail make its East Coast sister, the Appalachian Trail, sound like a luxury resort. This could’ve been a cliche’-ed tale of a woman going it alone and finding the meaning of life, but it isn’t.

Cheryl doesn’t find the meaning of life. She doesn’t meet God on a mountaintop and become a saver of souls. What she does do is prove to herself that she can do it, that she’s a survivor, and along the way, she heals old and new wounds (both emotional and physical), the healing of which helps her to take control of her life, and, yes, to appreciate it. She comes to grips with her mother’s death, her fractured family, her odd marriage and divorce, and she is able to let it all go in a way that brings her inner peace.

Meanwhile, we get to join her on her adventure, sharing marvelous, and often hilarious, details. Imagine facing bears and rattlesnakes numerous times, all alone and with no weapon greater than a loud whistle. Imagine watching one of your hiking boots go sailing off the side of a mountain. Imagine meeting all kinds of interesting people with whom you instantly connect in some primal way because you are all attempting to do this “crazy” thing, hiking through on this trail.

I especially loved the book when she got to Oregon, because so much of it was reminiscent of my first trip to the West 25 years ago. I went out to visit a friend who had moved to Oregon: Ashland, the Columbia River Gorge, Crater Lake — I was there, and I knew exactly how she felt seeing all that for the first time. She truly brought that part of her journey to life for me.

But, really, I loved all of it. I’d love to read a sequel to this book. She hiked the trail back in 1995. What happened after that? It has to be good. Until then, I’m strapping on my hiking boots and hitting some trails. Anyone want to join me? I’m sure I’m not as tough as Strayed, but I’ll give it all I’ve got.

Oh, one more thing, in case you’re wondering, her name is pronounced “straid” as in, “She strayed from the path and ended up in an enchanted forest.”