In the space of four years, Cheryl Strayed lost her mother, cheated on her husband, became addicted to heroin, lost touch with her stepfather, siblings and numerous friends and, finally, divorced her husband. She was “as low and mixed-up as I’d ever been in my life. Each day I felt as if I were looking up from the bottom of a deep well”. There are those among us (myself included), who would consider a three-month hike something that could be added to this list of horrible occurrences, but not Cheryl. Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT to those in the know, was her survival plan; her chance to break the cycle of pain and heal the wounds that life had given her.
Wild is the story of how a grief-stricken Strayed arrived in the Mojave Desert with a pack she could barely lift, to hike a trail she was completely unprepared for. It’s also the story of how she arrived in Portland three months later, at the expense of a lot of tears, some skin and a whole lot of toenails.
The honesty with which Strayed writes about her experience is extremely refreshing – she doesn’t hide how unprepared she was, both physically and mentally. She allows the reader to laugh at her mistakes, because most of the time she is laughing with us. Her naiveté surrounding the realities of the hike felt completely real, I could imagine myself having the same almost romantic view of what was to come.
I’d imagined endless mediations upon sunsets…I’d thought I’d weep tears of cathartic sorrow and restorative joy each day of my journey. Instead, I only moaned, and not because my heart ached. It was because my feet did and my back did and so did the still-open wounds all around my hips…and because I was so hot I thought my head would explode.”
In among the mishaps and the beautifully written passages about the scenery, are moments of extreme sadness. Strayed’s mother was diagnosed with cancer in February 1991, and seven weeks later she died. In an interview with Richard Fidler in 2013, Strayed described that “it happened so quickly, she didn’t have time to truly believe it. She got so ill, all she could do was just die”. Throughout the book, Cheryl’s grief for her mother is palpable: “I almost howled in agony. I almost choked to death on what I knew before I knew. I was going to live the rest of my life without my mother.”
As she hikes she meets this grief in all of its manifestations: love, rage, disappointment, sadness, fear and desperate loneliness. And of all the beautiful things about this book, one of the most significant is that she doesn’t shy away from any of these emotions – she writes about her darkest thoughts in an honest and uncompromising way. She doesn’t hide from us the moments when she hates her mother for dying or when she is so paralysed with grief that just walking is a struggle. It is an unflinching look at one women’s desperate attempt to rid herself of the pain her mother’s death caused, and to fix a life that had become, in her own words, “unmoored by sorrow”.
While the title of the book obviously refers to the physical world she encounters as she’s hiking, it’s more than just that. It’s the freedom she feels when she’s alone on the trail. As she says, “the more important and meaningful part of the book is the wild within us, and the savage self that I came in touch with through the grief and also the difficulty of that hike”.
Before reading Wild, I had heard it compared to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and this made me very apprehensive. I was expecting an emotionally manipulative story, interspersed with some hiking and wilderness. A judgement that, frankly, I’m embarrassed about making, and one that was completely wrong. Not about the hiking and the wilderness, there was lots of that, but it wasn’t manipulative – at times it may have been a tad self-indulgent, but where better to indulge in self than in a memoir. It had much more in common with Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods than Eat, Pray, Love.
I have no great love for camping, hiking and the outdoors in general – I like coffee and snacks that don’t have the word ‘trail’ in their name. I like movies and TV and my insanely comfortable couch. Although unrelated to this review, these facts provide some context for my next statement: reading this book made me want to strap on a pack and head for the PCT. Except I don’t really need to, because Strayed’s descriptions of the trail’s beauty were so vivid, I feel like I have already been there. Likewise, the level of detail that she went into about the food she ate, the food she wished she ate, the books she read and the people she met, transported me from my aforementioned couch right onto the trail with her.
There is something wonderful about the power of books to take us beyond our comfort zones, and show us worlds and adventures that will never be ours. The reality of life is that there are just some things we’ll never do; some of these we are comfortable with, others will leave us with regret. But as long as we have books like Wild to stand in for the actual doing of these things, we’ll never lack for experience.
Watch Cheryl Strayed talk about Wild below...
Published by: Atlantic Books
Publication Date: 01 Aug 2013
Length: 336 pages