By: Cheryl Strayed, 2012,
Knopf, $25.95, hardcover
There are hiking books and books about hiking, and then there are books about life and how it was irrevocably changed through hiking. Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” is clearly the latter; a personal, intimate, true story of a woman’s descent to the depths of depression and how her entire existence was rebuilt by a happenstance idea to hike 1,100 miles of the 2,663 mile long Pacific Crest Trail.
By the summer of 1995, Strayed was basically about as down and out as one could get, going through an emotionally turbulent divorce and the devastating loss of her mother to cancer. “I was living alone in a studio apartment in Minneapolis, separated from my husband, and working as a waitress, as low and mixed-up as I’d ever been in my life,” she described. Hers was a nomadic existence, roaming from Minnesota to New York to Oregon. For some reason, all that changed one day while standing in line at an outdoor supply store.
“I picked up a book called ‘The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume I: California’ from a nearby shelf and read the back cover,” Strayed wrote. At the bottom of a very “deep well,” as she put it, from that well, “I set about becoming a solo wilderness trekker. And why not? I’d been so many things already. A loving wife and adulteress, a beloved daughter who now spent holidays alone. An ambitious overachiever and aspiring writer, who hopped from one meaningless job to the next while dabbling with drugs [heroin, in particular] and sleeping with too many men.”
Her description of her backpack, which she dubbed “Monster,” tells you pretty much everything you need to know about her skills as a novice hiker!
But it’s not the hiking parts that are why Strayed’s story is so engrossing, and such a page-turner. With one novel to her credit as well, this book is the one that shows off her literary abilities and her very original voice. Locals in the Eastern Sierra can relate to a lot of places she describes along her route to and while on the PCT, especially those readers who have done all or part of the trail themselves, including references to Mojave, Ridgecrest, Mt. Whitney and other localities.
What is so compelling about “Wild” is the honesty and frankness, but also how she describes her mindset and emotions, changes that likely began even before the moment she took her first steps on the trail. The PCT becomes her counselor, as do the many travelers she meets along the way.
In one instance, perhaps it was the trail, or at least its affect on her, that causes her to watch one of her boots sail over a cliff side just six weeks into her sojourn, only one of many life lessons that await her, and one meaning of the shot of the lone boot on the book’s cover.
Her story is filled with peril and adventure, and the descriptions of her situations are comical, bittersweet, but always part of an arc that would alter, and in most cases destroy, any preconceived and pessimistic notions of both her life and her own self-worth.
“Wild” is filled with accounts of how Strayed deals with everything from snakes, bears, and snow and ice challenges, not to mention loneliness, and also how she is changed by the PCT’s beauty, its unyielding truths and an amazement at even her own resilience. Strayed knew that in order to rebuild her life, she must first be broken down. Her intellectual reaction might have been to walk away, but deep down an innate desire to see it through propelled her.
If, as the saying goes, life is a journey and not a destination, then Strayed’s account of her own, which has caught on like “Wild” fire with book club readers across the country, is one journey you’ll want to take.