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.
Women aren’t supposed to become lost, and for that reason they’re not supposed to have adventures either. Wilderness narratives often presume that women are too attached to domesticity, modern amenities, and social contact to undergo a solo trek. Worse, women aren’t supposed to have the kind of spiritual longing that would spur them to a pilgrimage in the first place. The women who do plunge into the wilderness tend to be cast as exceptions: exceptionally athletic, exceptionally outdoorsy, exceptionally un-girlish and therefore more capable of taking risks.
But when Strayed hits the PCT, she has slim experience as a long-distance hiker. (That’s how she ends up with too-small hiking boots and a backpack more than half her body weight.) Strength, she has in massive reserves — but until her body adjusts to long days filled with walking, it’s the inner kind that has to propel her forward. “‘Who is tougher than me?'” she asks herself, “[. . .] when I paused before yet another series of switchbacks or skidded down knee-jarring slopes, when patches of flesh peeled off my feet along with my socks, when I lay alone and lonely in my tent at night [. . .] The answer was always the same, and even when I knew absolutely there was no way on earth this was true, I said it anyway: ‘No one.'”
Passages like that make Wild the kind of book that throws open shutters inside your chest that you didn’t even were closed. To hear Strayed telling herself, over and over, that she’s tough enough, strong enough, and brave enough is to be reminded of the power that comes from persuading yourself that you have it. There are no epiphanies on her journey, only a gradual lightening. As she walks, she’s teaching herself how she wants to live, and remembering how her mother taught her to do it. “I was entering,” she writes as she crosses the border into Oregon. “I was leaving. California streamed behind me like a long silk veil. I didn’t feel like a big fat idiot anymore. And I didn’t feel like a hard-ass motherfucking Amazonian queen. I felt fierce and humble and gathered up inside, like I was safe in this world too.”
Previously on Girls Like Giants: Ashima and Obe: Should We See Race and Gender on the Rock?