Book Review: Get Wild on the Pacific Crest Trail with Cheryl Strayed

Book Review of Wild

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

If you’re like me, when you watch a horror movie there are scenes during which you have to cover your eyes. It’s too awful to look.

There were parts of Wild when I could not bear to read all the words. I let my eyes run over the page in a few seconds, just long enough to catch flashes of phrases that made me know  the author’s pain was too great for me to share even through the act of reading.

The worst part was Strayed’s description of the brutally swift death of her mother, who succumbed at age 45 to lung cancer only 34 days after first being diagnosed. Strayed had an unusually deep relationship with her mother, who had raised her three children with a lot of love and very little money after leaving their abusive father. Another part I couldn’t read was about the author’s shooting her mother’s beloved horse after the animal had become ancient and disabled.

If I found Strayed’s memoir unbearable to read at times, how did she cope with the premature loss of her mother and the resulting disintegration of her family?

She tried some wild forms of escapism: having casual sex with many strangers in spite of being happily married; travelling across the country both with and without her husband; and finally losing herself in a heroin haze for a few months with an addicted boyfriend. Ironically, it was her husband who travelled across the country to literally pull her away from this situation. Though she has only good things to say about her husband, Strayed chose to divorce him, feeling it was unfair to remain married to a person to whom she could only give a shell of her former self.

Rootless, Strayed then made the decision to embrace another kind of wild: she decided to hike 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, from the California-Mexico border to a place in Oregon near Portland called the Bridge of the Gods. It was a trip along a trail of mountain ranges, through desert, snow, ice, and forests, with long stretches far from civilization and even the basics of food and water.

This three-month hike is the focus of Wild. Its purpose, for Strayed, was to be alone and figure out how her life had meaning any longer. She denigrates herself for being unprepared for her ordeal. One mistake that became apparent even before she got to the trail was the huge weight of the pack she would have to carry every step of the way—a pack she soon named “Monster.” Another mistake was wearing boots that proved to be too small, causing her constant agony. Her feet were beyond fixing by the time she was able to replace the boots with a larger pair.

Yet a reader can’t help but admire Strayed’s courage, endurance, and quick thinking throughout her journey. Without a gun, she faced bears, rattlesnakes, and predatory men. Her unusual upbringing (she describes growing up in a primitive shack that her mother and stepfather built out in the Minnesota countryside) must have contributed to the toughness that enabled her to survive the trip. She endured searing heat and dehydration on some parts of the trail, and had to cope with snow and ice on other sections. Hunger was a constant worry; there were long sections of trail to be traversed with no place to get food. Even at the small outposts where she picked up boxes she had mailed to herself, the paltry $20 she had put in each box covered but scanty provisions for a thirsty and ravenous hiker.

In spite of her suffering and privation, Strayed writes many times about the beauty of the trail and the solace of being immersed in a natural place. But often, the release from the psychological pain she was still carrying came because her consciousness only had room for her immediate and painful physical sensations:

  • My feet are killing me—with every step—and I’m walking countless thousands of steps today.
  • My pack is so heavy that I can’t even stand fully upright with it on—yet I’m walking countless thousands of steps with it today.
  • I’m so hot I’m drenched with sweat. But as soon as I stop, I get chilled, so I can only stop briefly.
  • I’m so dehydrated I haven’t peed for a day. When I find a sludgy pond, I have to pump with all my strength to fill my water bottles, then add iodine pills and wait for half an hour before the water is safe to drink.

We’ve all heard the expression “simple pleasures,” but unless you have experienced the extremes of food deprivation and thirst the way Strayed did, it would be impossible to understand the nirvana she found when she finally could eat, drink, and shower. She writes about these things with a kind of ecstasy.

Strayed’s gripping, suspenseful, and at times poetic writing drove me through the book at a rapid pace. In a terse and matter-of-fact way, she describes many horrible things; she’s also astonishingly frank about her sexual behaviour and drug use. It seems impossible to judge her in any negative way. She is a person with a huge capacity for love. I found it hard to fathom the unselfish and total love she showed for her mother as she cared for her in her last weeks. Strayed’s warmth for people is revealed, too, in her accounts of the fellow hikers she meets on the trail. She makes many friends, yet chooses to continue hiking mainly on her own so that she can complete her psychological quest as well as her physical journey.

Strayed’s story does have a happy ending. Near the end of the book, she gives us a window into her future, briefly describing the creation of her own family that would come years after completing her Pacific Crest Trail hike. She leaves us with these words:

To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life—like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me.

How wild it was, to let it be.

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About nancytinarirunswrites

I used to be known as a competitive runner, but now I have a new life as a professional writer and editor. I'm even more obsessive about reading, writing, and editing than I was about running. Running has had a huge influence on my life, though, and runner's high does fuel creativity. Maybe that's why this blog evolved into being 95% about running, but through blogging I'm also learning about writing and online communication. I'm fascinated by how the Internet has changed work, learning, and relationships. I love to connect in new and random ways!
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