A long, cathartic walk through the wilderness

Wild 2 (1 of 1)

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
By Cheryl Strayed
311 pages, Vintage Books, New York, 2013

The idea of a woman taking off on a solo hike on the formidable Pacific Crest Trail was enough of a premise for me to want to read Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Wild is as much about a long walk through the wilderness as it is about Cheryl coming to terms with her mother’s early and unexpected death. Cheryl’s best asset is her unbridled truthtelling. Vivid and eloquent descriptions of her raw emotions, whether grief from her mother’s harrowing death or the maddening monotony of the trail, are the backbone of the story. In an interview with George Stroumboulopoulos, she said “I tried really hard to not only tell the truth in terms of the facts, fact-checking what I could, but also really searching my soul. What is the true story of this experience for me? And I took that really seriously. There’s nothing in the book that I decided to make up because it sounded better to do this versus that.”

George Saunders wrote “Find two or three writers that you’re really excited about. Follow their lineage back. Know everything about them. Immerse yourself in those writers.” For me, Cheryl Strayed, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Jane Austen are the trifecta of writers that inspire me. There are surely more, but the writing of these three resonates with me more deeply and consistently across their bodies of work than all others. I have an affection for Cheryl Strayed not only for her skillful writing, her wisdom, and her personality, but also because she got her MFA at Syracuse University, my undergraduate alma mater. In fact, George Saunders was one of her mentors. On page 143 of Wild, Cheryl wrote “In a flash, I could see myself from far above, a speck on the great mass of green and white, no more or less significant than a single one of the nameless birds in the trees. Here it could be the fourth of July or the tenth of December. These mountains didn’t count the days.” I have to imagine that the reference to “the tenth of December” was a subtle nod to her mentor’s book of stories Tenth of December.

The Pacific Crest Trail is a 2,650 mile footpath that begins on the California-Mexico border and ends on the Washington-Canada border. The trail traverses the Mojave desert, the highest points of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges, and through dense forests of California, Oregon, and Washington. Not only is the trail long, but the estimated total elevation gain/loss for a northbound thru-hiker is approximately 489,418 feet ascending and 488,411 feet descending. To put this in perspective, Mount Everest is 29,029 feet. Hiking the PCT is roughly equivalent to summiting Mount Everest 17 times. I read some vitriolic reviews in which the authors were relentlessly scathing about the fact that Cheryl didn’t hike the entirety of the PCT. This is unfair for a few reasons: 1) Cheryl never claimed she hiked the entire PCT, and there is a map at the beginning of the book that clearly shows how much of it she hiked; 2) She still walked about 1,100 miles(!) of it; 3) At the end of her journey, she is left with twenty cents to her name, so it is very likely that she didn’t have the money to walk the whole thing, which isn’t reason for condemnation; and finally 4) so what? Let us remember the words of Teddy Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the [person] who points out how the strong woman stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the woman who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends herself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if she fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that her place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

I read the last two pages of Wild aloud to myself and they brought me to tears. It was the best ending to a book I’ve read in a long time. The adventure of it all! This one wild and crazy life. All the places she’s been, the things she’s seen, and the feelings she’s felt, from grief to anger to acceptance and back again. The journey is the greatest gift of all, and Cheryl Strayed captured its essence in Wild. Most of all, it makes me want to begin a journey of my own…

Rating: 5 stars
(to see rating scale, click here)

After reading this book, I highly recommend watching the 2014 film adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl. 

Further Reading/Listening/Watching:

Photo credits: @judsongates on Instagram

2 thoughts on “A long, cathartic walk through the wilderness

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