What do you do when your mother dies and you feel lost in the world, angry and hell-bent on self-destruction? You take a 1,000-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. Or at least, that’s what Cheryl Strayed did in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Knopf). This is an epic journey across mountains and deserts—and along the way we are forced to endure snow and rain, intense heat and brutal cold—a passenger in the overloaded backpack that Cheryl Strayed calls “Monster.” While this is certainly a memoir—and we do spend time inside her head thinking about the death of her mother, her relationship with her family, and her troubled history with men—it is just as much a tale of wanderlust, the outdoors, and an education that only Mother Nature can provide.
Early on, Strayed (which later morphs into “Starved,” the letters on her necklace difficult to read at times) gives us a bit of backstory to help us understand why she is doing this:
“I was alone. I was barefoot. I was twenty-six years old and an orphan too. An actual stray, a stranger had observed a couple of weeks before, when I’d told him my name and explained how very loose I was in the world. My father left my life when I was six. My mother died when I was twenty-two. In the wake of her death, my stepfather morphed from the person I considered my dad into a man I only occasionally recognized. My two siblings scattered in their grief, in spite of my efforts to hold us together, until I gave up and scattered as well.”
She gives us this bit of family and her state of mind as she sits there on the edge of the trail holding one boot, as the other has just tumbled over the edge and out of sight, never to be seen again. It won’t be long before she hurls the second boot over the cliff as well, a breaking point in her journey, but a powerful way to show introduce us to her story, and her inherent ability to fight for survival and knowledge.
The Pacific Crest Trail runs from Mexico to Canada, all the way up the state of California, and through Oregon and Washington as well. It includes high and low desert, as well as old growth forest and alpine country. Cheryl Strayed wanted to hike this trail alone, to think about her life, to contemplate her choices, and to deal with the premature death of her mother. It was essential to make this trek alone, and to not do it filled with fear:
“It was a deal I’d made with myself months before and the only thing that allowed me to hike alone. I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked. Every time I heard a sound of unknown origin or felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away. I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid.”
But the dangers of the trail are real. In addition to weather, a lack of water, and the physical demands of hiking such long distances, there were many opportunities to wander across a rattlesnake in full warning mode, or to see a bear crashing through the bushes, to run across elk and deer, and to meet up with other hikers that were predatory in nature.
A great deal of the time we do focus on the premature death of Cheryl’s mother from cancer, and; it haunts the trail and fills her head with a variety of emotions. She feels all of the stages of grief and loss—denial, regret, anger, and ultimately, acceptance. But it is not an easy journey, these feeling rushing to the surface whenever they felt like it, a date or flower or song triggering a rush of sadness and loss. She would torture herself, relentlessly:
“I dreamed of her incessantly. In the dreams I was always with her when she died. It was me who would kill her. Again and again and again. She commanded me to do it, and each time I would get down on my knees and cry, begging her not to make me, but she would not relent, and each time, like a good daughter, I ultimately complied. I tied her to a tree in our front yard and poured gasoline over her head, then lit her on ﬁre. I made her run down the dirt road that passed by the house we’d built and then ran her over with my truck.”
And other times, the death of her mother spurned her on, offered her strength:
“Of all the things that convinced me that I should not be afraid while on this journey, of all the things I’d made myself believe so I could hike the PCT, the death of my mother was the thing that made me believe the most deeply in my safety: nothing bad could happen to me, I thought. The worst thing already had.”
There are moments of rage and anger, triggered by a birthday that would never come:
“She didn’t live. She didn’t get to be ﬁfty. She would never be ﬁfty, I told myself as I walked under the cold and bright August sun. Be ﬁfty, Mom. Be fucking ﬁfty, I thought with increasing rage as I forged on. I couldn’t believe how furious I was at my mother for not being alive on her ﬁftieth birthday. I had the palpable urge to punch her in the mouth.
And much later in the book, we get the haunting and touching details of one bizarre act that would radiate out through the rest of the text, and illustrates the lengths that Cheryl would go through to find completion, to let her mother go, but to also hold onto her mother’s love, forever. She is dealing finalizing with her mother’s tombstone, and about to spread the ashes, and in one quick gesture, she acts:
“When we’d ﬁnally laid down that tombstone and spread her ashes into the dirt, I hadn’t spread them all. I’d kept a few of the largest chunks in my hand. I’d stood for a long while, not ready to release them to the earth. I didn’t release them. I never ever would.
I put her burnt bones into my mouth and swallowed them whole.”
Wild is an inspirational story—well written, and presented with great courage and depth. But this book is much more than a long walk up and down a trail. It is more than the beauty and danger of nature, the details lovingly remembered and chronicled, transporting us up and down the worn dirt path. And it is more than an ode to a dead mother, a loss that will forever affect the author’s life, for the better, and the worse. There is humor and laughter on the trail, there are sexual longings and conquests, there are tense moments where we wonder if the author will survive the elements, make it through the snow, find water, and repair her damaged and torn feet. Whatever reason brings you to Cheryl Strayed and Wild, the journey will wring every possible emotion from you, and deposit you at the Bridge of the Gods, to contemplate your own mortality, your current state of family and contentment, and the beauty and possibilities that surround us everywhere—every day of our precious lives.