Cheryl Strayed, Wild
An affecting memoir that voids the temptation for wholesale epiphany
There’s a point in Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, when she feels herself torn between two identities. Is she, as her trail mates have suggested, the Hapless Hiker, plagued by a series of misfortunes (too-heavy pack, shoes too small, incidents involving an iced-over tent and hundreds of tiny black frogs), or is she the “hard-ass motherfucking Amazonian queen” that she believes herself to be in more triumphant moments? Strayed realizes, in that moment, that she is neither of them, and both of them, too, and it is this kind of complex realization that is at the heart of this inspiring book.
Strayed, a backpacking novice, decided at age 26 to take on a large chunk of the mammoth Mexican-to-Canadian-border-spanning PCT, all by herself. She’d spent several years in a downward spiral precipitated by her mother’s sudden death from cancer, a spiral that took her through affairs, divorce and substance abuse. When she happened upon a PCT guidebook at camping and hiking store, she was ready for something to transform her. The trail does, ultimately, live up to its transformative potential, both physically and mentally, but part of what makes her memoir so strong is that Strayed avoids the temptation for wholesale epiphany. The trail provides many high and low points, but it’s not as clear cut as all that. When you’re trying to change your life, you may not recognize one exact moment that changed you. You just look around and realize that at some point that you’ve changed. It happens when you’re doing your best to soothe your blisters after a long day of hiking, or when the sweat on your back is freezing as you hike upwards through a snow field, or when you finally get to quench that strange obsession you’ve developed for Snapple lemonade. Healing happens when you’re waiting at a nowheresville post office for that resupply box with a fresh T-shirt in it. By the end of the book, we feel as much joy and relief in the notion of pulling on that clean T-shirt as we do with the knowledge that the trail has, indeed, allowed Strayed to gracefully lay down her pain and to continue with the business of living.