Cheryl Strayed’s new memoir Wild tells two stories. The first is about the devastating losses, including her mother’s death from cancer at just 45, that lead her to pound through the mountains, deserts, and woods of the Pacific Crest Trail on her own. The second story is about what happens while she’s on the PCT: the people she meets, the books she reads and burns to lighten her load, the foxes and bears and bygone toenails, the backpack she calls Monster, the small gifts of goose feathers and river-cooled Bud Lights that are her talismans along the way. Those gifts don’t protect her, but she doesn’t need protection. The worst has already happened. They’re just reminders of how generous the world can be.
As a 26-year-old woman by herself on the PCT, Strayed stands out from the crowd–both on the trail and on the bookshelves. American literature is replete with stories of men small against the wilderness: “To Build a Fire” and Into the Wild and 127 Hours and Huck Finn and Walden (sort of, Thoreau had some help) and countless more. These stories tend to center on some combination of two narratives: men discover their true, elemental selves by entering into nature and/or test their strength and hubris against snowstorms, avalanches, and other natural events humans experience as disasters.
Wild refuses either of these tropes, insisting on slow self-knowledge and ordinary–though no less frightening–dangers. There are no avalanches; there’s not even a climax that would be easy to identify. Instead Strayed contends with broken water tanks, a moose that charges and disappears, and a stranger with a threatening leer.
Hunger is her most constant worry: surviving off supplies and $20 bills she’s mailed herself along the way, she’s always ravenous. Daily she fantasizes about cheeseburgers, Snapple lemonades, and Caesar salads. These foods are so quintessentially American that it’s hard not to see them as a metaphor for the safe, loving life that began to shatter when her mother died. As she sets out on the trail, her best friend and parent is gone; her formerly close family has scattered. She’s divorced the man she still loves and left her college degree unfinished.
The momentum of her hike prevents Strayed from sinking further into grief. When she begins she doesn’t know exactly why she’s on the PCT. But as she walks, it becomes clear that she’s found a way to make her outer circumstances match her inner ones. As the last name she adopted after her divorce implies, she’s become painfully unmoored in the wake of so much loss. But on the PCT all the hikers are searchers in some way, and on the days – and there are many — when she encounters no one, she’s as wild as the trail. Continue reading