It was not so much a call from the mountains as a view from the gutter that led Cheryl Strayed to embark on a three-month, 1,100-mile solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail.
After the death of her beloved mother and the fraying of her once close-knit family, Strayed had begun a downward spiral in her life that included serial adultery, heroin addiction, and divorce – all by the time she was 26 years old.
Like most rash pronouncements made from the depths of despair, Strayed’s decision to get her life together by hiking a trail that runs along contiguous mountain ranges from Southern California through Oregon and Washington was utterly preposterous: although she had helped tame a plot of land in the Minnesota north woods as an adolescent with her family, and she had camped a bit, she had never once strapped on a backpack and slept alone in the wilderness.
As you can imagine, Strayed made more than a few missteps along her trek.
Strayed tells the story of her momentous hike in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, out this month from Knopf, and it’s Strayed’s unflinching portrayal of her many monumental blunders – both on and off the trail – that makes Wild such a courageous and captivating memoir.
Strayed, a well-respected magazine writer who is also the author of the novel Torch (2006) as well as the popular “Dear Sugar” columnist for The Rumpus, waited nearly 20 years to write her hiking memoir – and the result is an artfully-rendered narrative that not only amusingly retraces her steps along the PCT, but also skillfully assimilates significant moments from her pre-trail life.
Strayed was 22 years old when her dauntless mother, a woman whose love was “full-throated and all-encompassing and unadorned,” was diagnosed with lung cancer. Strayed’s mother, a single mom who had left Strayed’s abusive, biological father when the children were young, was the kind of woman who would entertain her kids with sugar-water spiked with food coloring, who scraped her pennies together to buy a beloved horse, and who (with a second husband) purchased a plot of rural land in Minnesota and brought her kids to help build a house on it. “It was only after her death that I realized who she was: the apparently magical force at the center of our family who’d kept us all invisibly spinning in the powerful orbit around her.”
Strayed’s mother died less than two months after being diagnosed, and Strayed was inconsolable — “I howled and howled and howled, rooting my face into her body like an animal.”
For Strayed, the loss sent her life into a tailspin, and she began to cheat on her sweet, faithful husband, Paul, whom she still loved. Strayed’s sexual “straying” amounted to more than just a few casual affairs – one could probably call it a full-blown (pardon the pun) sex addiction. “It seemed to me the way it must feel to people who cut themselves on purpose. . . . I was trying to heal. Trying to get the bad out of my system so I could be good again.” During one five-day bender that included three different men, she had sex with a massage therapist who gave her a piece of banana cream pie and a free massage. (Not to be flip, but one wonders how Strayed received so many offers of sex. For her solo hike on the PCT, she stowed eleven condoms in her pack. I won’t say if she used them).
After revealing her infidelity to Paul (which ended their marriage), she took off from their home in Minneapolis for Portland, hoping to leave her troubles behind. Instead, she found a punk-haired young lover who got her pregnant and addicted to heroin. In the mornings, she sobbed over her squalid surroundings, but in the afternoons, she returned from waitressing with a wad of cash for more drugs.
Strayed was rescued, mercifully, by the heroic Paul, who drove her out of Portland and back to Minneapolis. Sobbing, one day, over the “sick mire” she had made of her life, Strayed suddenly remembered a book she had recently noticed on a store shelf – The Pacific Coast Trail, Volume I: California. “The thought of the photograph of a boulder-strewn lake surrounded by rocky crags and blue sky on its cover seemed to break me open, frank as a fist to the face.” Strayed began to see hiking the California-Oregon-Washington portion of the PCT (which actually runs from Mexico to Canada) as a way to save her soul.
For the next few months, Strayed soberly prepared for her journey: “I got an abortion and learned how to make dehydrated tuna flakes and turkey jerky and took a refresher course on basic first aid and practiced using my water purifier in my kitchen sink. I 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 ever made my life ridiculous.”
In short order, up on the trail, Strayed found herself ridiculous again – her pack (which she began calling “Monster”) was so ludicrously overweight she could barely lift it. At one point, Strayed watched one of her (too small) hiking boots sail over a cliff into oblivion. And one night, after camping too close to a reservoir, she woke up covered with tiny frogs.
Strayed’s memoir works simply because she is such a charming travel companion. Even hiking solo on the PCT she manages to befriend dozens of other hikers who have read about her on the trail’s register books, and who begin to refer to her as the “Queen of the PCT.”
What must have been so endearing for those she met along the trail – and what remains so relatable for readers — is Strayed’s humble ability to find herself absurd. As with most memoirs of floundering, we are delighted because we have been there — we recognize ourselves in that lost woman in the woods, and we are thankful to have her chart of the wilderness.