In her memoir Wild, twenty-six year old Cheryl Strayed takes us on her 1,100 mile journey from ‘lost to found’ along the Pacific Crest Trail. She says that she set out on this trek from California to Oregon, in a desperate attempt to save herself. Shortly after the devastating loss of her beloved mother to cancer, Strayed’s marriage began to dissolve, as she became unable to stay faithful to her husband. She became distanced from her siblings and stepfather, and gradually started to lose herself. Still strapped with sorrow four years later, she began experimenting with heroin and decided to invent a new name for herself: Strayed, because that is exactly what she had done. It seemed that the only possible solution was to pack up her life and head south to the Pacific Crest Trail. So that she did. She put the belongings she had left in storage, quit her restaurant job, packed her REI purchases into her bulky backpack (whom she later names monster) and said good bye to her sad broken life.
Over the course her three-month long journey, the rookie hiker learned to navigate through the mountainous terrain, withstand blistered feet, extreme temperatures and failed waterholes, and encountered bears, a fox, several rattle snakes and an alpaca. She sang songs to pass the time on the trail and read books in her tent each night…on the nights that she had enough energy left after a full day of hiking, that is. When she finally reached the small towns where she planned to stop to collect her resupply boxes that contained a fresh T-shirt, twenty-dollar bill and dehydrated meals, she remembers that her packages felt like a godsend. It was in these towns where she would sometimes be able to shower, splurge on a warm meal and treat herself to her favorite trail beverage; a Snapple lemonade.
While standing firm in her goal to complete the trail ‘on her own’, she did meet and befriend several other hikers at different parts of her journey, briefly enjoying their company for short stretches of hiking and a few overnights at various campsites. She describes in detail, each of these hikers—down to the color shirt they were wearing when she first met them. It was the journal she kept on the trail that made the later authoring of this book possible.
For the most part the book reads and feels like a novel, with vivid descriptions, witty commentary and emotional flashbacks that appear to be more literary than journalistic. They cut straight to the core of you, captivating the head and the heart in a way that makes it seem as if you are there, trekking this treacherous trail with her. Throughout the text, Strayed uses metaphors, similes, anecdotes and colorful language to make her experiences real and relatable for the reader.
The first recurring theme that was explored throughout the memoir was death and grief. As I mentioned, her mother’s death took a serious toll on Strayed’s physical and mental well-being. On the trail, she recounts her mother’s last week of life, and the darkness that ensued shortly after her death. Cheryl was heart broken and hopeless. “I never did call the other therapist Vince had recommended. I had problems a therapist couldn’t solve; grief that no man in a room could ameliorate” (Strayed, 134). Instead of allowing herself to feel the grief, she numbed the pain with sex, drugs and isolation. It is not uncommon for people to bask in their sorrows after a traumatic event, like the loss of a loved one, but Strayed eventually realized that she could not go on that way.
The theme of death reappears later on in her journey when she hitches a ride with a lady named Lou, as she was bypassing some un-hikeable snow in the Sierras. Strayed soon finds out that Lou’s son, Luke, was hit by a truck when he was out on his bike, and died instantly a few years back. Before parting ways with Cheryl Lou recalls, “After that happened, I died too. Inside.” (Strayed, 186). Cheryl knew what she meant.
The second important theme that Strayed weaved throughout her book was the human experience of fear. Although she set out on her journey with a vow to live without fear, she soon discovered that there were certain situations in which being afraid was unavoidable. Fear, she learned, was not always an emotion to be despised. It was bad if it weighed you down, but sometimes, Strayed discovered during her hike, fear was inevitable.
“I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me.” (Strayed, 51)
Acknowledging her fear meant acknowledging her humanity, and her connection to the other skilled hikers who shared this challenging yet rewarding experience with her. Her ability to face, feel and overcome her fear made her proud—something she had not felt in a very, very long time.
The third and final theme that will be explored for the purpose of this essay is the experience of self-discovery. Over the course of her journey, her little triumphs on the trail bring her to life and awaken her soul. Just being immersed in the life and beauty of the nature that surrounded her, seemed to ignite something in her core that had been dormant for a long time. She explains,
“I felt right in my pushing, as if the effort itself meant something. That perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of the regrettable things that had been done to me. Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.” (Strayed, 143).
This journey to self through nature mirrors a few transcendentalist pieces that came before, by Emerson and Thoreau. (Side note: I highly recommend checking those works out too).
All in all, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild is nothing short of beautifully heartbreaking and inspiring all at once. Her vividly sharp writing style describes a journey that most of us can hardly wrap our heads around, in a way that seems so real it is as if we are right behind her, cheering her on through hell and high waters as she hiked over a thousand miles to find herself again. This unimaginable experience becomes totally relatable through the larger human themes weaved throughout the book, three of which are death, fear and self-discovery. Strayed suggests time and time again, that if she can hike the PCT and come out in one piece, anyone can. A more implicit message she leaves us with though, is that if she can overcome all of the pain, regret, and dark and twisty pieces that characterize the human experience, and her life before the trail, we too, she reassures us, can find the light in the darkness.
“To believe that I didn’t need to reach with my bare hands anymore. To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life—like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me. How wild it was, to let be.” (Strayed, 311).
Word Count: 1276
Citation: Strayed, Cheryl. Wild. New York: Vintage Books, 2014. Print