In her early 20s, Cheryl Strayed watches her 45 year-old mother die of cancer, standing by faithfully while her siblings and her stepfather keep their distance and fade into the remote background. Her family has seemingly evaporated into the ether around her. She proceeds to flee from her loving marriage, cheating on her husband with numerous men if for no other reason than because she is confused, destroyed, and needing to be away from the person she’d always relied on but no longer can identify with. Four years later, after she’s long since left Paul but still confides in him, depends on his love, and sees him often, they decide to make their divorce official. They get matching tattoos to symbolize the rupture and she heads off to the Mojave Desert with a pack full of all the food, water and gear she will need for the next several months. Indeed, she has decided, after a trail book in REI caught her eye, that she will solo-hike over a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail with no hiking experience and no idea what she’s getting herself into.
There are three immediate questions in Strayed’s memoir that will keep most readers glued to the page. The first seems the most obvious: Will Cheryl survive her badass yet highly dangerous trek? But the other two questions have no simple answers, and these were the questions that burned for me throughout my time compulsively reading this book: Why is Cheryl set on leaving the man she loves, and why must she hike the PCT? To contribute my own thoughts on these two questions might spoil the incredible personal experience of reading “Wild.” And yet, I’d much rather write in reaction to Strayed’s memoir than in review of it, so if you want to get Strayed’s own answers before my personal analysis, you might want to stop reading this second-rate blog and go straight to the source.
I assume many who haven’t read “Wild” will tell you that they don’t plan to read it because it’s “chick lit.” At the same time, many who have read the book will probably claim that it will speak to women more so than men. My experience is that, first of all, no matter who you are it is hard not to be totally fucking inspired to get lost somewhere in the wilderness after only an hour’s exposure to Strayed’s story. Having just finished reading, I immediately want to go spend all my summer money on a proper pack and a lightweight tent, throw in my water pump and stove and sleeping bag, and hitchhike to southern California and start walking. This inspiration is largely an effect of Strayed’s wonderful descriptions of the people she met on the trail, her deep and unabashed rendering of the bonds she formed with those people, and her enumerations of the emotional losses and victories, the weird situations she found herself in and the endless natural beauty that was constantly swallowing her up. In this sense, it is not a book for women but a book for adventurers or just appreciators of the outdoors, male or female.
But more incisively and powerfully, “Wild” is a story about loss, and I feel like this book is explicitly speaking to me regardless of the fact that I’m a guy. My ex-partner and I broke up three months ago, after four pretty solid years. A lot of people couldn’t understand what had happened between us, and on many days over the past three months I’ve sat scratching my head, wondering what had happened as well. I knew, and still know, that I had done only what I felt very strongly was what I had to do. But in the wake of that decision I routinely contend with feelings of contrition, regret, self-blame, foolishness, loneliness and, most sharply, grief. She was/is my best friend; we’d known each other since we were 10. The inner conflict that prompted the breakup has receded–it exists now only in letters to myself, vague memories of our arguments, recollections of therapy sessions and of phone conversations with friends–while all the reasons we did work have lingered and created a predominately warm, cozy, loving memory of my partner and our relationship.
Cheryl Strayed seems to have nurtured those kinds of memories in the four years after she cheated on her husband and broke it off with him. She nurtured them to the point where her husband remained her confidante and, sometimes, her lover, even though she was embarking on other relationships with other men and moving to different parts of the country. Even as they are finalizing the divorce in writing, Cheryl knows that they can and would put a stop to the proceedings if she simply suggests it to Paul–she knows Paul would want to give their marriage another shot if she decides that it’s possible. Instead, she forces them to seal the deal, and she flies away to the PCT, where she begins a pilgrimage on which she undergoes a personal transformation. In short, she begins to understand that her need to propel her life in a different direction after mother’s death was valid, even if it was sad and fucked up and unfair. And because it was valid, she has the right to see where that life will lead her, rather than harping solely on the pain that her straying caused her and Paul and anybody else.
Consider this tempestuous excerpt:
“I want to walk a bit farther, if you don’t mind,” I said [to Jonathan], leaving my sandals near the blanket. It felt good to be alone, the wind in my hair, the sand soothing my feet. As I walked, I collected pretty rocks that I wouldn’t be able to take with me. When I’d gone so far that I couldn’t make out Jonathan in the distance, I bent and wrote Paul’s name in the sand. […] I’d done that so many times before. I’d done it for years–every time I visited a beach after I fell in love with Paul when I was nineteen, whether we were together or not. But as I wrote his name now, I knew I was doing it for the last time. I didn’t want to hurt for him anymore, to wonder whether in leaving him I’d made a mistake, to torment myself with all the ways I’d wronged him. What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I forgave myself even though I’d done something I shouldn’t have? What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I’d done other than because it was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently than I had done? What if I’d actually wanted to fuck every one of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?
The hike becomes a dual grieving process–grieving for her mother, and for her marriage. She continually finds she must dispense with things that she initially thought would be impossible and inconceivable to part with, whether those things are in her memory, like her mother’s precious wooden table, or in her burdensome pack, like an ice ax or the pages of a book. She asserts that many of these things contain enormous emotional weight that she didn’t even realize was there until she was faced with the imperative of tossing it away forever. In the moment it feels so much easier to just hold onto such seemingly trivial things, rather than bear the intensity of that loss. But on Strayed’s journey, those things will only weigh her down.
There seem to be three elements of the hike that were invaluable in Cheryl Strayed’s quest for closure. The first was how the trail brought her face to face with the need to make basic decisions for survival. Strayed endured great physical suffering that often did not end but only persisted and eventually plateaued in such a way that she no longer thought about it. Her broken-down feet, for example, eventually became a fact of life that she could not afford to think about as she continued to walk hundreds of miles over steep terrain. When the presence of a threatening hunter with dubious motives in the Oregon woods forced Strayed to leave the camp she’d already set up for the night, she only charged forward through the dark rather than rue the spot she’d given up and the comfort, rest and dinner she’d almost had. For these months on the trail, her life basically became a project of survival. Her existence became purposeful, her decisions deliberate, full of calculation, sacrifice, and acceptance of the unavoidable consequences.
The second crucial element was her solitude. We know that Strayed got much support from friends and even family as she reckoned with her mother’s death and her breakup. While that support was no doubt essential in helping her literally get through these roughest times, show up for others, and continue to live, it seems only prolonged time with herself could enable Strayed to let go of the past. At one point on the trail, Strayed falls over crying and remains face-down on the dirt, beneath her 25-pound pack, bawling over her dead mother for several minutes. If falling face down and crying about it, for Strayed, is anything like it is for me, then this is about the involuntary release of an inarticulable pain inside the body. It is about coming to terms with one’s own vulnerability and failure. Once the episode elapses, it is more possible to see yourself and your life in a generally, and again inarticulable, positive way. You’ve been through the shit and the shit’s been through you and you succumbed to it and you broke down and you let it pour out of you at the mercy of the rest of the world. And yet, you’re still here. You’re still walking. Because that’s what you do. Eventually when it happens enough you stop needing the reminder of your weakness because you understand exactly what that weakness is and you’ve owned it and you wear it proudly, and it has changed from a weakness into a strength.
Finally, I imagine the natural beauty and simple joys of traveling through the wilderness, away from human society, introduced Strayed to a new way of living and a new understanding of where contentedness can come from. Throughout the trek she keeps a running tally of her lost toenails; eventually the PCT triumphs over Cheryl, 6-4. In a way, she has given herself over to nature, and learned that she can still be happy, and that things will be okay. She abandons lifelines she’s met on the trail even though part of her desperately wishes they could remain in her company; she does it in part because she knows that the woods, the desert and the mountains have more treasures in store for her, and because she knows from experience that she will meet other incredible people, and have other joyful times, farther down the line. On her adventure, nature and humanity have a way of rewarding her for unthinkable risks she’s taken. As we plod along with her, we are alert not only to the cruel savagery of the world but to the uncanny ironies, the humor, the beauty and the propensity for deep satisfaction such savagery perpetually holds. For Strayed, this becomes a source of relief, and wisdom, and power.
Maybe the primary reason why I so enjoyed this book is because I read it at a time in my life when I could identify with some of what Strayed was trying to work through. But I still think that it works on a more universal level, and that is entirely because of Strayed’s skill as a writer.
Namely, “Wild” offers a portrait of the author that is raw and specific, candid and funny. Strayed is merely committed to telling the reader every important thing about how she felt and what she did, and yet, unlike a lot of memoirs, this book somehow manages not to overindulge in sentiment, nor does it linger on revelation. Her flashbacks are ample but they are never overkill and they are never extraneous, and best of all, you never feel like you wish she would just get back to telling us about the hike. The hike weighs less than the interior journey, and yet somehow she manages to keep the reader excited about what will happen on that hike, too. It’s a huge feat of narrative-making that could go unnoticed by those who want to call this simply a book about grieving, a book about a breakup, or a book about a hiking trip. I’ve never read Bill Bryson’s “Walk in the Woods” but I would be completely taken aback if in that book he delivers the kind of double or even triple emotional payoff that Strayed does. “Into the Wild” might be a better comparison–I know Krakauer is writing about a certain kind of loss in that book–but alas, I haven’t read that either, only seen the film.
Maybe the most impressive thing about “Wild” is that, as out of breath as I was after reading it, I knew there was more that hadn’t been said. Strayed dares to show us the blood pulsing through her body, the callouses of the heart, the steady gazes at the gaping darkness, but she always prefers description to analysis, leaving the rest of it to us to process. It’s a book about a victory of sorts, as it is about an incredible loss (paradoxically, the victory is in the loss), but it wouldn’t be accurate to say that “Wild” concludes with either happiness or sorrow. Overall it’s an emotionally difficult read that somehow continues to be fun throughout. I can’t really think of any adult for whom the book would not be appropriate.