Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
by Cheryl Strayed
“The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer—and yet also, like most things, so very simple—was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay. As I clung to the chaparral that day, attempting to patch up my bleeding finger, terrified by every sound that the bull was coming back, I considered my options. There were only two and they were essentially the same. I could go back in the direction I had come from, or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go.”
Ever since she lost her mom, Cheryl's life had fallen apart. Divorce, drugs and sex to fill the void, family members pulling away, giving up on college. And that is just the beginning. She hits rock bottom, and on an impulse, decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail which spans from Mexico to Canada. She is unprepared for the rigors and dangers of the trail, but through tenacity, luck, stubbornness, and sheer will, the trail turns from enemy to old friend. It breaks her down and builds her back up again as she tries to remember the child she once was and the woman she wants to be.
I always have a hard time reviewing memoirs. How do you review a person's life? I have never had something as devastating as Cheryl's mother dying make my life implode. I stand on the outside looking in, wondering if the same thing would happen to me. Part of me scoffs at the thought of me falling so irreparably apart that I destroy every other good thing in my life. Part of me fears that I would.
This is what makes the first half of Cheryl's memoir so bafflingly heart-wrenching. When yet another mistake or tragedy rears it's ugly head, you don't know whether to laugh in disbelief or cry. The sequence with her mother's sick horse captures that feeling perfectly. It just gets more and more painful and you go right through "morbidly humorous" and right out the other side into sickeningly awful again.
The trail starts the same way. Cheryl is woefully unprepared (or over-prepared, judging by her overstocked backpack) for the trek. She overestimates her walking stamina. She encounters bears, rattlesnakes, skeevy skeevy men, dangerous snow and ice, looses her shoes, misses her supply packages, and runs out of money several times. She looses 6 toenails and gets cuts and bruises and blisters all over. And yet, through it all, she perseveres. She learns from her mistakes. She builds muscle, and confidence. She makes friends with strangers. She navigates the wilderness. She braves hostile animals and humans. She rediscovers the strength within herself. She learns to forgive, and she is finally able to let her mother go.
Cheryl's transformation was a joy to read. She goes from flailing about to fill the hole in her heart to finding peace in simplicity. It is written by an older Cheryl Strayed, looking back at this time in her life when she was 26. As a 28 year old, I had to keep remembering that this was not a mid life crisis book. This was someone younger than me who had experienced this huge upheaval and forced herself through a crucible of transformation.
Many people have criticized this book for two things: 1) her seemingly horrible life choices and 2) her blind naivete on the trail which could have lead to her death, and now she is encouraging others to do the same thing. To those people, I say 1) Walk two moons, people. 2) Cheryl made no bones about the dangers of the trail, and how most of her survival was shear luck and the kindness of strangers.
Cheryl learns. She changes. She overcomes. Regardless of the decisions she made in her time of trouble, she comes out transformed.
An inspiring read!
Books like this:
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
The Winter of Our Disconnect by Susan Maushart
Hamlet's Dresser by Bob Smith
The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan
The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs