Cheryl Strayed – a name she chose for herself – found herself and her voice while hiking more than 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail” is her account of a remarkable journey that ultimately strengthened her body and her soul.
Reeling from the death of her beloved mother, 22-year-old Strayed is lost. Her mother had held her unconventional family together: now siblings and stepfather have moved on even as Strayed continues to grieve, her “life unmoored by sorrow.”
She married a fellow student, but strays and dissolves the marriage in the wake of her mother’s death. She takes up with Joe, a heroin addict, and comes dangerously close to becoming addicted herself.
On something very close to a whim, she decides to tackle the Pacific Coast Trail, to reclaim her best self, believing that this would be “my way back to the person I used to be.”
She misses her mother:
It took me years to . . . be the woman my mother raised. . . . 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.
She is untrained for the rigors of this kind of solo hike. With stubborn determination and the loopy optimism of the ill prepared, she started at the Mojave Desert and made her way through California and Oregon, to her final destination of the Bridge of the Gods at the Washington-Oregon border.
Things don’t begin well. She can barely lift her overloaded backpack:
My backpack was no longer on the floor. It was officially attached to me. It still seemed like a Volkswagen Beetle, only now it seemed like a Volkswagen Beetle that was parked on my back. . . . My pack rose up like a mangle behind me, towering several inches above my head, and gripped me like a vise all the way down to my tailbone. It felt pretty awful, and yet perhaps this was how it felt to be a backpacker.
I didn’t know.
Step by step, Strayed walks away from her past and her angry grief. While she connects from time to time with fellow hikers encountered on the trail, she invariably insists on hiking alone. Step by step, she shares the beauties of the wild terrain – from desert to mountaintops, from snowfields to forests – with readers:
The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way. . . . It was what I knew before I even really did, before I could have known how truly hard and glorious the PCT would be, how profoundly the trail would both shatter and shelter me.
This is a remarkably penetrating book, written with painful candor that is informed, always, by a sense of wonder. Before she sets forth on her epic trek, Strayed thinks:
I had diverged, digressed, wandered, and become wild.
Her wildness, her spirit – her very American spunk -- is her salvation.
“Wild” is available on amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.