Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Wild, Cheryl Strayed's account of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, is the book equivalent of squeezing the juice out of a blister. It's both satisfying and viscerally disgusting. Her journey along the trail--a chronicle of aches and pains, foolish mistakes and leaps of faith--is the means by which she sweats out the poison of grief, regret, and self-destructive recklessness. And she doesn't spare us the details. At first, during the early chapters, Wild made me so angry. Strayed starts this 1,100 mile journey without ever having backpacked before. Without  packing her supplies into her pack to see if they'll fit, or testing the weight on her back even once. She starts in the Mojave Desert, in summer, without enough water. This made me furious; my perennial refrain, as I listened, was: You are lucky to be alive.

A personal aside: I went on my first backpacking trip when I was 2. A 20 mile trip through the Sierra Nevadas out of Tuolumne Meadows. We backpacked yearly all through my childhood. I have known the things that Cheryl Strayed discovers by trial and error--mostly error, mostly painful--for as long as I can remember. That was often the source of my frustration with the book, but also my delight. Along the way, as Strayed gains competence and trail savvy, she articulates things that I've taken for granted, has moments of realization that made me remember everything I love about the wilderness, despite and sometimes because of all the misery.

Here's an example:

"Foot speed was a profoundly different way of moving through the world than my normal modes of travel. Miles weren't things that blazed dully past. They were long, intimate straggles of weeds and clumps of dirt, blades of grass and flowers that bent in the wind, trees that lumbered and screeched. They were the sound of my breath and my feet hitting the trail one step at a time and the click of my ski pole. The PCT had taught me what a mile was. I was humble before each and every one." (Wild, 191)

It's the last line, especially, that got me: I was humble before each and every one. Yes.

While Strayed bumbles about the wilderness risking her life, she tells us all the other ways that she's screwed up. She is brutal with herself. Sometimes, like when she talks about getting a divorce or using heroin, she's looking squarely at major events, Disasters with a capital D, and admitting her responsibility. Sometimes, like when she spends an evening with a vacationing family and fantasizes about being adopted by the parents, she is shining a light on thoughts that are so tender and shameful they are excruciating to speak aloud, excruciating to hear.

And that's how she got me on her side. She doesn't spare herself. She puts it all out there, and while she is cruel to herself, she is kind to others. To the people she meets along the trail, so that each chance encounter with a stranger seems almost magical in the telling. To the people in her life--she makes the husband she divorces sound like a prince, her mother a mythic heroine. Wild is a sort of eulogy to both, and it is a loving one.

So Strayed has a rough time on the trail, but she perseveres. She wants to give up. She obsesses about giving up. But she doesn't give up. And when she finally starts to conquer the trail, it feels earned. It's some of the most satisfying payoff I've ever encountered in a book.

There's a moment, when Strayed is trying to communicate across a great distance with a handful of skiiers and she keeps shouting, "Where are we?", again and again until the skiiers can understand. Then the skiiers shout back, "Are you lost?" and Strayed screams, "No!" -- I felt such triumph and joy, I wished I could have been there to whoop and holler and cheer for her.

She doesn't reach the end of her trip and find out everything's fixed. It's not. But the poison is gone. I cried as the narrator read the final words--kind of hard, actually--the way I'd cried two or three times while I listened. It's a textbook Oprah pick, in that sense: an absolute tear-jerker. But it also filled me with a sense of wonder and enthusiasm. I read Wild because several people had recommended it to me, but also to prepare for a trip I'm taking at the end of the month. It got me in the exact right headspace: ready for anything, open and eager.

And it really, really made me want to undertake an epic hike. What an experience. So--definitely recommended. Read it, and be prepared to feel inspired by the end.

One last favorite quote:

"The universe, I'd learned, was never, ever kidding. It would take whatever it wanted and it would never give it back." (Wild, 209)