Saturday, March 3, 2018

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

I took this one from my wife after she was finished reading it. I asked her if she thought I would like it. She said she thought I would. She was right.

If you’re not familiar with it, here’s the blurb from the back cover:

At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State -- and she would do it alone. Told with suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.

There are two things I like about it.

First, although Strayed’s experience is very much that of a young woman, she has an awareness that she is telling a story that transcends her age and her gender. There are life lessons here for everyone. One of the most telling comes fairly early in her journey, just after she has a scary encounter with a wild bull.

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. The bull, I acknowledged grimly, could be in either direction, since I hadn’t seen where he’d run once I closed my eyes. I could only choose between the bull that would take me back and the bull that would take me forward.

This strikes me very much as life at its essence, the choice everyone one of us has to make with every new challenge that crosses our path. Strayed’s phraseology clearly indicates that she is viewing her journey through this lens as well -- the bulls that would take her back or forward more metaphorical than actual -- but I can’t help but think that she is overlooking the most common choice that humans make in these situations. It was, clearly, the choice Strayed herself had been making in the period of time between the death of her mother and her decision to embark upon the PCT. The decision to neither move forward nor to move back, but to stay permanently in one place, the only place one was sure no bulls were threatening them.

There is an episode much later in her journey, where Strayed, under very different circumstances, faces a very similar choice.

“Me too,” I said. I was intensely aware of his hands on my waist, so warm through the thin fabric of my T-shirt, skimming the top edge of my jeans. We were standing in the space between Jonathan’s car and his tent. They were the two directions I could go: either back to my bed under the eaves in the hostel in Ashland alone, or into his bed with him.

Pulled out of its context, the excerpt above can sound frivolous and base, but I don’t mean it to. Strayed has been honest with the reader throughout her text that she has used sex as a kind of drug, a distraction from the painful realities of her own existence. She has met numerous men on the trail, fellow hikers who are making the same journey as her -- some for some of the same reasons. Although there is occasionally a snippet of flirtatious speculation in her mind, none of these transient relationships reach anything beyond platonic proportions -- the men and women on the trail more appropriately seen as the same kind of neutral gender. They are long-distance hikers, risking their lives to one degree or another, and they have left whatever sexual energy they otherwise possess at the trailhead.

This episode comes late in the story, during one of Strayed’s few excursions away from the trail. She’s had a shower. She’s put on clean clothes that aren’t designed exclusively for hiking. She’s gone out to a club and heard some live music. She’s met a man she finds attractive. Her decision -- to go into his bed with him -- is understandable, but a bit disappointing to this reader. Frankly, I was hoping she’d stick with the bull that would take her forward, not back.

The second thing I like about Wild is Strayed’s relationship with books while on the trail. One thing that she learns to do, rather than carry everything she would need for the thousand-mile hike from the very beginning, was to ship supplemental supplies to herself at post offices and way stations along the way. And one of the things waiting for her in each resupply box? A new book.

The things inside smelled like a world far-off, like the one I’d occupied in what seemed another lifetime, scented with the Nag Champa incense that had permeated my apartment. The ziplock bags and packaging on the food were still shiny and unscathed. The fresh T-shirt smelled of the lavender detergent I bought in bulk at the co-op I belonged to in Minneapolis. The flowery cover of The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor was unbent.

The same could not be said of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, or rather the thin portion of the book I still had in my pack. I’d torn off the cover and all the pages I’d read the night before and burned them in the little aluminum pie pan I’d brought to place beneath my stove to safeguard against errant sparks. I’d watched Faulkner’s name disappear into flames feeling a bit like it was a sacrilege -- never had I dreamed I’d be burning books -- but I was desperate to lighten my load. I’d done the same with the section from The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California that I’d already hiked.

Desperate to lighten her load. Mark that, then let’s read on.

It hurt to do it, but it had to be done. I’d loved books in my regular, pre-PCT life, but on the trail, they’d taken on even greater meaning. They were the world I could lose myself in when the one I was actually in became too lonely or harsh or difficult to bear. When I made camp in the evenings, I rushed through the tasks of pitching my tent and filtering water and cooking dinner so I could sit afterwards inside the shelter of my tent in my chair with my pot of hot food gripped between my knees. I ate with my spoon in one hand and a book in the other, reading by the light of my headlamp when the sky darkened. In the first week of my hike, I was often too exhausted to read more than a page or two before I fell asleep, but as I grew stronger I was reading more, eager to escape the tedium of my days. And each morning, I burned whatever I’d read the night before.

I love this. Consuming literature like water, it must have nourished her in a similar fashion. And in what sense, I wonder, did it “lighten her load?” Undoubtedly, she’s taking there about something more than just the heft or her pack.

Strayed mentions each new book as it comes into her possession, and even includes an appendix, “Books Burned on the PCT,” to memorialize them. But she doesn’t discuss them much in the pages of Wild. And there’s only one on the list that I, too, have read.

I sat for hours reading the book that had come in my box -- Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita -- while waiting for my boots to arrive.

At the moment of this reveal I begin to wonder. Will she comment on this one? Will she let us know what her reaction to this one is? How can she not? Of all the titles in the world, how can Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita be simply mentioned in passing? Just another book her mind and her campfire consumed on the PCT?

There is only one other mention. It comes fourteen pages later.

I simply gave up and devoured a hundred pages of Lolita, sinking into its awful and hilarious reality so thoroughly that I forgot my own.

It’s enough. It has to be. Because Wild is not a book about books, much as I might wish it was. In the end, Strayed quite well understands that Wild has to be a book about the very elusive subject of its title.

I’d read the section in my guidebook about the trail’s history the winter before, but it wasn’t until now -- a couple of miles out of Burney Falls, as I walked in my flimsy sandals in the early evening heat -- that the realization of what that story meant picked up force and hit me squarely in the chest: preposterous as it was, when Catherine Montgomery and Clinton Clarke and Warren Rogers and the hundreds of others who’d created the PCT had imagined the people who would walk that high trail that wound down the heights of our western mountains, they’d been imagining me. It didn’t matter that everything from my cheap knockoff sandals to my high-tech-by-1995-standards boots and backpack would have been foreign to them, because what mattered was utterly timeless. It was the thing that had compelled them to fight for the trail against all the odds, and it was the thing that drove me and every other long-distance hiker onward on the most miserable days. It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or the backpacking fads or philosophies of any particular era or even with getting from point A to point B.

It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way. That’s what Montgomery knew, I supposed. And what Clarke knew and Rogers and what thousands of people who preceded and followed them knew. It was what I knew before I even really did, before I could have known how truly hard and glorious the PCT would be, how profoundly the trail would both shatter and shelter me.

That’s what Wild is about, and for that, it is well worth reading.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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