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One women’s pilgrimage across the Pacific Crest Trail.
In an effort of full disclosure having just finished the book I must warn you that I am still enveloped in the warm afterglow of Wild.
Wild joins the ranks of other fiction and non-fiction narratives that take on the self-discovery journey of a really long walk. We have seen the story in Paulo Coelho’s spiritual The Pilgrimage or Bill Bryson’s comedic A Walk in the Woods.
For thousands of years in cultures all around the world, on roads and dusty trails, people have been testing themselves physically and emotionally on grand walks in an effort to come out at the end with a new sense of themselves and the world. Aborigines call it a walkabout, Native Americans call it a spirit walk, and the religious call it a pilgrimage.
Cheryl Strayed calls it a hike. Not just any hike, though the hike would shift her internal compass from hurt to hope, and reset her as a person after the tragedies of the past.
In the four years leading up to her hike in 1995, Cheryl’s life had set her on this eventual path. It started with her mother’s sudden death of lung cancer, an issue that haunts her throughout the book. “Until she was dying, the thought never entered my mind. She was monolithic and insurmountable, the keeper of my life.”
In the years after, she struggled with grief, aimlessness, a marriage ending, and finally a brief dance with heroin. While standing in the line at an outdoor store, she saw a book called The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California, and made the impulsive decision to hike that trail. “I was living alone… Each day I felt as though I were looking up from the bottom of a deep well. But from that well I set about becoming a solo wilderness trekker.”
The hike with both her emotional and physical baggage becomes the narrative of the story. She is as prepared as she can be and yet that is still not enough for the journey. Having never gone long distance hiking before she has too much stuff, her shoes are too small, and she is ill prepared for the physical strains. She is weighed down by her overloaded backpack she calls “Monster” and the emotional pains of the past. She realizes that there is really only one way to go. “I could go back in the direction I had come from, or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go.”
The sheer strength and bravery she shows in the face of both her emotional challenge and the physical struggle of walking the trail is endearing and captivating. You so want for her to triumph. It becomes a delight to see her change and grow along the way.
The momentum builds along with the hike and the backstory of her life becomes clearer as time passes. The details of her upbringing, her family, and her marriage are retold as she walks along the high ridges of California’s national parks. These are the two narratives that weave across each other as the story develops. There are also other hikers who from the few meetings she does have really highlight the camaraderie felt on the trail.
Twenty years passed since Cheryl walked the PCT and started writing her memoir. For whatever reason it took so long it has paid off as she had the luxury of hindsight to examine her journey and piece it together in a humorous and heart-warming tale. Wild is currently on the New York Times best seller list.
Cheryl is also known as Sugar from the Rumpus Advice Column.