I read Wild when I was feeling wild myself.
Isn’t it funny how that often works? A book seems to find you at precisely the point when its pages would bear something you really need to know.
For me, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of embarking solo to hike the Pacific Crest Trail so topical and enthralling . . . though I listened to the audio nonstop the weekend I moved to Spencer’s, feeling a little bit lost and anxious and uncertain. With Strayed’s soul sprawled bare on the pages, I felt like a warrior alongside her — a compatriot, a comrade. We were in this together.
Whatever “this” happened to be — for her, for me.
For Strayed, it was battling through grief after her mother is quickly taken from cancer. At 24, she’s very recently divorced, a recovering addict — a broken young woman wondering what and where her next move will take her.
On a whim waiting in line one day, she picks up a book that will change her life: The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California. Orphaned and bereft, the idea of leaving it all to hike is pretty appealing. She sells most of her possessions, buys a pack she will affectionately dub “Monster,” creates care packages to be delivered to herself at various post offices along the PCT and sets off.
The adventure is just beginning.
Before I randomly picked up Wild at the library after reading a post from Kim, I had no experience with Strayed. She’s the voice behind Dear Sugar, a popular online advice column — and reading through her backlog is pretty stunning. Many of her essays were recently compiled into Tiny Beautiful Things (and I plan to look for that soon).
So I came into Strayed’s memoir clean. No preconceived notions; no real plans or expectations. And while Wild could be a bit meandering at points, unruly and fierce but occasionally tedious, I really fell in love with the story. I fell in love with Cheryl, so crazed and raw and unsteady on her feet.
Because who hasn’t felt that way? Who hasn’t dreamed of chucking it all, selling off our crap and taking to the woods? I certainly have — and trust that I’m no nature girl. But the idea of living on the land, breathing the fresh air, wandering free with no plans or expectations save finding a clean water source (an important mission) . . . well, it really appeals to me on some deep, visceral level. The same way that traveling the world to “find ourselves” has become so synonymous with Eat, Pray, Love, you know?
The PCT itself is a central character in Strayed’s story, threatening to freeze her to death in one moment while barbequing her alive in the next. All told, Strayed hikes from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State, stopping along the way to chat with new friends, pine for Snapple, bum a meal from a kindly shopkeeper or bandage her damaged feet. Before she sets off to California, she has no real hiking experience; she’s an everyday person, a “regular” woman, and Cheryl wants only to stay one step ahead of her demons.
More than anything, Wild is a walk through grief. Her mother’s death changes everything. Nothing feels certain; everything is a gamble, a mess. And though Strayed takes this journey in 1995, the pain and confusion still feel very much on the surface. Because of this, many passages were very hard to get through.
There were places Cheryl walked that I couldn’t follow. The brutal final days at her mother’s side; the sickness of a beloved horse. A cold and brutal winter that finds her having to make an awful, terrifying decision. Strayed’s prose is so vivid, so gut-wrenching, that my stomach churned and my hands trembled until I had to move forward. I simply couldn’t take it.
It’s hard to capture in words the way this book made me feel. Perhaps because I was listening to it on audio, I was so lost in the woods with Cheryl that I felt bereft when our journey together was over. Though she doesn’t have that one major epiphany we expect from a memoir like this (and perhaps that’s a good thing), her transformation en route to Portland is sincere. Physically, she’s lean and muscular and bitten and bruised; emotionally, she’s fragile but stronger every day. Though nothing truly terrible befalls her, she has a few frightening experiences but lives to tell the tale.
And lives well. Strayed is now a New York Times bestselling author, a wife, a mother. A film adaptation of Wild starring Reese Witherspoon is in the works. She’s come a long way from the frightened but determined twenty-something taking on the PCT . . . and I feel fortunate to have found her.
Highly recommended to fans of memoirs, transformational or inspirational stories, or anyone looking for a riveting non-fic read. Wild is a truly memorable experience.
4.5 out of 5!