We all probably fantasize about “escape” at one time or another, a seductive, thrilling challenge—climbing Mt. Everest or backpacking through… In our minds, the journey will be transformative, shaking us out of our malaise or easing our deepest pain.
Few of us act on these impulses, however—they seem too extreme, too indulgent, and in many cases too physically difficult. But for some the pull is too hard to resist. They are the ones who actually go to REI and buy the backpacks and ice picks. Cheryl Strayed, who hiked 1,100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, a wild landscape which stretches from Mexico to Canada, is one of these fearless souls and her recent memoir Wild is a testimony to her spirit.
Wild is a riveting book. Strayed’s writing is frank, earthy, and at times hilarious. She turns the “adventurer-into-the woods” memoir (often dominated by men) on its head by focusing as much on her failures as she does on her accomplishments. I’ve read plenty of mountaineering memoirs, such as John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, a marvelous, recent classic that kept me on the edge of my seat, as well as other books by expert mountaineers.
But these disaster books often focus on egregious “mistakes” the rock climbers make (if only the climbers would have turned around before they reached the top!; if only the novices weren’t so cocky, then they would have survived!). The dizzying description of gear and position and climbing vernacular can make the reading slow going. One of the messages of the books seems to be this: IF YOU ARE NOT PREPARED, YOU WILL FAIL.
Strayed’s book couldn’t be more different. She admits from the outset that she knows absolutely nothing about hiking. She’s camped, but has never been backpacking. She knows nothing about water purification, rattlesnake wounds, or how to light a portable camp cook stove. In fact, her purification system barely works (it’s incredibly hard to pump) and she fills the stove with the wrong kind of gas. She even buys the wrong size hiking boot, making one part of her journey absolutely tortuous as her toes pound against the front of her shoe (by the end of the hike, five toenails have turned black and she plies them off, an especially gruesome, yet telling detail).
The book is full of these blunders. In fact, one of the most ironic moments in the book is when she’s about ready to hike the first day. Looking proudly at her monstrous bag of gear as she sits in a hotel room in Mojave, California, she feels ready for her adventure, yet when she tries to put her pack on, she realizes it’s impossible for her to lift it off the ground. She finally manages to strap the pack she later names “Monster” on her back and heads out, clear-headed, but essentially unprepared.
I’ve rarely read a book where I felt more empathy with the writer. When Strayed is blazing hot and dusty with her hair matted in the blistering desert, I too felt hot. When she gets a string of licorice or a ripe peach from kind souls she meets along the way, I too, rejoiced at the offerings. When she almost runs out of water, I felt myself dying of thirst. This immediacy is a testament to Strayed’s writing, which is pitch-perfect and sensual.
So why does she set out on the journey in the first place? Strayed begins to envision her journey after the death of her mother. After going to the doctor for symptoms of a cold, Strayed’s mother succumbs to cancer a couple of months later at the age of forty-five. Crushed with grief and unable to exist in the world anymore, Strayed’s life quickly unravels. The twenty-two year old doesn’t finish college though she only has one paper to write, begins sleeping with a variety of men, and eventually falls for heroin. Needless to say, her marriage falls apart. She barely recognizes herself as she slips further and further away from the responsible, curious girl she was.
The pages where she describes her love and fierce loyalty to her mother are almost painful to read. Growing up poor, Cheryl’s mother used every ounce of her being to make her children feel loved and wanted. And Cheryl felt loved. Loved entirely. That is why she feels so abandoned. It is only when she is on the trail that she realizes she is angry at her mother’s death as well as heart-broken. She cannot fathom being alone.
At the age of twenty-six, four years after her mother’s death, she sets out on the trail. For Strayed the trail is healing. She does not describe the trail as healing; she does not use purple prose or corny metaphors. In fact, much of what she imagines happening on the trip does not happen—she does not sleep under the stars (instead preferring the false protection of her tent) or gaze at the sunsets endlessly or bathe in the freezing lakes for more than a cursory plunge. But what does happen is nothing short of miraculous; she falls under the spell of “trail magic,” a common name for the grace and miracles which happen on the PCT.
Part of the magic is in the fellow travelers. One of the delights of the book is Strayed’s description of the people she encounters on her trip. Because of the brutal nature of the course—the unrelenting heat, the elevation, the solitariness—those who do attempt the trail are a breed apart: people who have come to the realization that they must do the trail in order to survive in some fundamental way. We do not know why many of them are there; we feel as readers, though that they belong there. So she meets Greg, an accountant with a cool-headed approach to the trail, who boosts her spirits when she has the most doubts about her abilities to handle this.
The dynamics on the trail is fascinating—you may camp with someone one night and then not see them for a couple of weeks; you will see their tracks in the snow or read their messages on the PCT logbooks. The trail walkers give each other nicknames such as the three young guys with good climbing skills who are named “Three Young Bucks.” This is all part of the jargon, the inner circle of knowledge of the trail. Only those on the trail, hiking day after day could appreciate one cold beer, a piece of fruit, the gloriousness of a shower….
As well as hikers, Strayed meets a host of characters along the way. One man named Paco gives her his Bob Marley shirt and says, “I can see that you walk with the spirits of the animals, with the spirits of the earth and sky.” Another man researching “hobos” is sure that Strayed is one herself, in spite of the fact that she feels she’s not. He insists on interviewing her for his article, one he claims will end up in Harpers. She gets off the trail for a while in Oregon and ends up hooking up with a guy she meets at a concert. She hitchhikes and gets rides from all sorts of different strangers—the working poor, the wealthy. They take her to their houses and feed her, they give her fancy mixed drinks, and they say she is so cool for being a woman gutsy enough to do what she’s doing.
One of the tensions in the book is whether Strayed will get the supplies she needs and how she will survive on what little she has. Periodically on the trail a friend sends her supplies and the cash she packed back home. In spite of this there is a time in the book when she is down to two pennies. Literally two cents. There are times when she longs for an ice cream cone, but can’t afford it. But in spite of the glut of physical pain in the book, there is joy.
Strayed writes, “Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.” And by the end of the journey, you as a reader feel a sense of that clarity—you know the vulnerable twenty-six year old has made it.