by Cheryl Strayed
Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck once said, "Our life is always all right. There's nothing wrong with it. Even if we have horrendous problems, it's just our life." We are continually battered and redeemed, often by our own hands, and our strength comes when we recognize the broken pieces of our lives. Recognition does not necessarily mean repair, but rather learning how to live amongst the rubble. We cannot go back and keep ourselves from our misfortunes and bad decisions. We can only put one foot in front of the other, carrying our knowledge, and remain open to whatever is next.
Devastated by the death of her mother and the end of her marriage, Cheryl Strayed transformed this idea into a literal journey. During the summer of 1995, she decided to hike the majority of the 2,663 mile Pacific Crest Trail. Despite never having backpacked before and having no real idea what she would do with her life once she finished the trip, the 26 year old Strayed knew that she had to do it. Something had to help her dig out of the hole left in her mother's absence.
It took me years […] To be the woman my mother raised. To remember how she said honey and picture her particular gaze. I would suffer. I would suffer. I would want things to be different than they were. The wanting was a wilderness and I had to find my own way out of the woods. It took me four years, seven months, and three days to do it. I didn't know where I was going until I got there.
It was a place called the Bridge of the Gods.
At age 45, Strayed's "vegetarian-ish, garlic-eating, natural-remedy-using nonsmoker" mother found out she had late-stage lung cancer. Incurable. They gave her a year to live. Instead she lived just forty-nine days. Though she spent much of that time at her mother's bedside, Strayed wasn't there when she passed away — a fact that haunted and tormented her, filled her with guilt. "Nothing could ever bring my mother back or make it okay that she was gone," Strayed writes. "Nothing would put me beside her the moment she died. It broke me up. It cut me off. It tumbled me end over end."
I know from where she comes. My father, not even six months past getting the all-clear from prostate cancer, suddenly died from a heart attack at age 50. It was Christmas Eve 2005, and it happened while he was at work up at the airport. Our conversation that afternoon before he left, about how he didn't feel well, replays in my mind almost every time I think about him. His heart was winding down the entire time and nobody knew. He was there, and then he was gone.
My dad was a backpacker. His ashes are scattered at Logan's Pass in Glacier National Park, and instead of flowers, people donated money to The Glacier Fund in his name. He would have liked this book. He would have known exactly what it was like to see your feet obliterated by that much walking, and also the incredible peace one finds when the wilderness is your only soundtrack. That, and all the songs you make up along the way — the "mental jukebox," as Strayed puts it, the mishmash of every song you've heard combined with your own inventions.
To say that I miss him vastly understates the loss, but I am learning to live within that loss. It is rarely easy.
The four years before Strayed arrived at the Pacific Crest Trail had plenty of difficulty. She found herself kissing men who were not her husband, justifying it in her mind as being okay because she wasn't sleeping with them, but soon she was sleeping with other men too. She tried, however subconsciously, to put as much distance as she could between the person she was while her mother was alive and how she felt after.
It seemed to me the way it must feel to people who cut themselves on purpose. Not pretty, but clean. Not good, but void of regret. I was trying to heal. Trying to get the bad out of my system so I could be good again. To cure me of myself.
Separated from her husband, she moved from Minnesota to Portland, Oregon, and took up with a boyfriend who introduced her to heroin. A friend and eventually her husband intervened, and she briefly returned to Minnesota, needing to be done with this whole crazy period in her life. Drawn to a guidebook she'd seen in REI, The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume I: California, she knew she had to change:
I had to change was the thought that drove me in those months of planning. Not into a different person, but back to the person I used to be — strong and responsible, clear-eyed and driven, ethical and good. And the PCT would make me that way. There, I'd walk and think about my entire life. I'd find my strength again, far from everything that had made my life ridiculous.
But here I was, on the PCT, ridiculous again, though in a different way, hunching in an ever-more-remotely-upright position on the first day of my hike.
Her pack would come to be known as "Monster," so unwieldy at first that she had trouble just putting it on. She would lose toenails, bits of skin, and feel more exhausted than she ever had in her entire life, but she kept walking. Sometimes she would see other hikers, but for the most part, she did it alone.
Wild is not some overly feel-good, spiritual-uplift type of story. Strayed does not gloss over the difficulty of the trail, but she also does not over-dramatize. She is honest, but she is kind. Her voice is very much like that of her other writer-persona, Sugar.
I first read Wild in January, but I postponed reviewing it, in part, to be closer to the book's publication date (March 20), but also to pass the date of Sugar's "coming out" party. Sugar, if you're unaware, is The Rumpus' much-beloved advice columnist, though her column goes far beyond the likes of Dear Abby. She answers tough questions with full-hearted grace, often telling stories from her own life that coincide with her advice. Up until this past Valentine's Day, Sugar's identity remained a secret — Not a particularly well-kept one, as some people in her life were told. Others merely connected the dots. I figured it out when someone landed on my site with the search terms "Sugar Cheryl Strayed." (They found my review of The Rumpus Women, in which I refer to Sugar as "magic.")
The reveal did not minimize the magic — if anything, reading Wild and knowing "Cheryl Strayed = Sugar" lends Sugar's advice another layer: I have been here too. I know what it is to screw up. I know what it is to have no money, to be loved, to love, to cheat, to fall down, to get back up, and on and on and on... One sees even more that Sugar is not an act, but by not using her own name in the column, she makes it about the letter writer's situation and not herself.
I know I have described a lot of Strayed's life independent of the PCT, but Wild truly is about navigating that trail — it makes up the bulk of the book, and to be honest, I don't want to ruin the experience of reading it for the first time.
And you should read it. There has been and likely will be a lot of hype surrounding this book. Reese Witherspoon has already optioned it for film. The more contrary among you might want to resist the hype and not seek out Wild. Resist your contrary nature, just this once. The hype is well-deserved. Cheryl Strayed has written an outstanding book,, one that is now easily counted among my favorites. Get thee to a bookstore or your library and soak it in. And then tell others to do the same.
Full Disclosure: Knopf sent me this book at my request. I thank them for the gesture and will continue to be fair in my reviews.
This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year. Though I'm taking things easier this year, I expect to surpass the 'Half Cannonball' distinction by the end of 2012.
This review also appeared on Pajiba on March 17, 2012.