It seems Cheryl Strayed is the fresh new author of the moment. I mean, Oprah resurfaced from retirement after reading her new book Wild just so she could rave about it to the world. Impressed yet? I wasn’t either. Not until I uncovered more about Cheryl’s life. She grew up in Minnesota and attended the U of M. I did both of those things. Her dad abandoned her family when she was young. My mom abandoned my family when I was also young. Her loving mother died from lung cancer when Cheryl was only 22 years old. My loving father died from lung cancer when I was just 24 years old. After her mother’s death, her siblings dispersed while she tried to hold them together. I’ve been desperately trying to keep my younger brother closer than ever since my dad passed.
It appeared that this woman’s life was somehow my life, only she’d gotten a head start.
Wild is the story of her 1100-mile solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail that runs from Mexico to Canada on the West coast, through California, Oregon and Washington. She was 26 years old at the time and feeling utterly alone in the world, having lost her family and divorced the husband she’d married young. I’m 26 years old and I’ve battled lonesomeness intermittently throughout my life, but more than ever over the past two years. This book, I felt, was written for me.
Of course, every reader feels that way about particular stories. Egotistical, aren’t we? Maybe. Or maybe we readers are bound by some force in the universe to find the authors we do. An energy that draws souls together and makes them feel connected—emotionally, spiritually, beautifully connected—to at least one other human who feels and thinks and experiences life similar to the ways we do.
Cheryl writes that she always knew deep within her that she was a writer. (“Of all the things I’d done in my life, of all the versions of myself I’d lived out, there was one that had never changed: I was a writer.” p. 188) And at 26, she thought she’d have already published her first book. I’m reluctant to admit that my 20-year-old self also expected I’d have a published book by now. How ignorant, and arrogant. Though for any writer or artist the innate urge to empty yourself of what you presume you have to tell is with you since as far back as you can recall, it’s not until you’ve had the perfect medley of experiences that you can do your story justice and tell it from a knowing perspective. In fact, Wild has just now been published almost 20 years after Cheryl’s summer-long hike.
Beginning her trip, the only knowledge Cheryl had of the Pacific Crest Trail was that which she gained from the trail guidebook that had inspired her idea to hike it. While telling of her encounters on the trail (with people, nature, animals, her own thoughts even), Cheryl reveals significant life events that ultimately led to her journey. Her careful recollections of her mother’s diagnosis, suffering and death so heart-wrenchingly mirrored that of my experiences losing my father that I had flashbacks of my own life while consuming Cheryl’s words about hers. (“Those were the worst days, I believed at the time, and yet the moment she died I’d have given anything to have them back.” p. 100)
Reading the ways Cheryl described her love for her mother and her mother’s love for her, I couldn’t help but sense that their relationship must have been like the one I’d had with my dad. She refers to her mother as having been at the center of her, the way my dad had been for me. (“We were her kids, her comrades, the end of her and the beginning.” p. 13)
Several themes are thread throughout the story.
- She repeatedly refers to the aloneness she feels on the trail, her feelings about which fluctuate over time. // “I was alone again, just the trail and me.” (p. 287)
- She also continuously tells of how she simply had to move herself forward. Turning back was not an option. // “There was nothing to do but go on.” (p. 238)
- Then there was the presence of her excruciatingly heavy pack, called Monster, which mutilated parts of her body. // “I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back. And, most surprising of all, that I could carry it. That I could bear the unbearable.” (p. 92)
While reading it, I felt about the book how I’ve felt before about new romantic relationships. Every hour away was too long. I couldn’t wait to be reunited with Wild each night. I came to the edge of tears several times, but the tears only broke free, rolling down my cheeks while reading about her mother’s horse midway through and then again for the last few pages of the book. As Cheryl recounts how she knew her hike would soon be over, I too realized that it would be, which meant I was almost finished with the story. A story that was now as real to me as my own life. “It was really over, I thought. There was no way to go back, to make it stay.” (p. 307)
I’m gushing with respect and admiration. I’m a better reader, a better writer and a better person for having read this penetrating, liberating, moving story. A brave journey, bravely and perfectly captured on paper.
Bravo, Cheryl Strayed.
Some delightfully stirring passages.
“I’ve always been someone’s daughter or mother or wife. I’ve never just been me” (273).
“The universe, I’d learned, was never, ever kidding. It would take whatever it wanted and it would never give it back” (209).
“I loved REI more than I loved the people behind Snapple lemonade” (199).
“The amount that she loved us was beyond her reach.” (p. 13)
“We didn’t exchange a word. Not because we felt so alone in our grief, but because we were so together in it, as if we were one body instead of two.” (p. 12)
“[The Ten Thousand Things] were all the named and unnamed things in the world and together they added up to less than how much my mother loved me.” (p. 303)
“One of the worst things about losing my mother at the age I did was how very much there was to regret. Small things that stung now…” (151).
“Here it could be the fourth of July or the tenth of December. These mountains didn’t count the days” (143).
“It had been so silent in the wake of that commotion, a kind of potent silence that seemed to contain everything” (145).
“The silence was tremendous. The absence felt like a weight. This is what I came for, I thought. This is what I got” (83).
“Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren’t a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was” (119).
“In my perception, the world wasn’t a graph or formula or an equation. It was a story” (141).
“The day we signed our divorce papers, it was April in Minneapolis and snowing, the flakes coming down in thick swirls, enchanting the city” (97).
“Everything I’d ever imagined about myself disappeared into the crack of her last breath” (34).