Book Review: Wild: From Lost to Found On The Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
Why on earth would a 26-year-old woman with no backpacking experience whatsoever set out on a grueling solo trek of over 1,000 miles? The answer lies in the powerful memoir Wild: From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed.
The Pacific Crest Trail is a nationally designated hiking route stretching from the California border with Mexico all the way north to Washington’s border with Canada. Along the way, the PCT traverses formidable mountain ranges including the Sierra Nevada and the Cascade, as well as the Mojave Desert and points in between that most of us have never even heard of. Each year, people travel from around the globe to hike all or part of the PCT. For many, tackling the PCT is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
And yet Cheryl Strayed, with practically no preparation, sets out on the PCT for a three month journey, a mere seven months after first hearing of the PCT. For Cheryl, it must have sounded rather like a last grab at a lifeline. Four years after her mother’s wrenching death from cancer, the author found herself in a downward spiral. Her remaining family had scattered; she’d let her young marriage to a good man disintegrate as she herself fell apart, pursuing infidelities, bad decisions, and even a brief involvement with heroin in an attempt to detach and shield herself from the grief she’d never fully dealt with.
When Cheryl picked up the PCT trail guide in a check-out line, it was purely on a whim, but something drew her back. And thus, a few short months later, she began the extraordinary adventure with a tremendously over-stuffed backpack (nicknamed “Monster”) weighing her down so greatly that she was unable to even stand upright… and yet somehow, she set out on the trail, one foot in front of the other, to escape her woes and to find something — anything — to give her reason to keep going.
The story of Cheryl’s journey and transformation is remarkable. As she accumulates the miles, pushing her body beyond any limits she could have imagined, she slowly finds an inner strength and manages to come to terms with her personal demons.
At the outset, I could only shake my head in wonder. Despite her guidebooks and helpful advice from the staff at her local REI, the author really had no idea what she was doing and had no business doing it. Her mistakes were enormous, and easily could have gotten her killed. Her first day on the trail was her first day of backpacking, ever. She had only the smallest cash reserves for the trip, and so time after time found herself stumbling into the next resupply location after days on the trail with only 60 cents (or less) in her pockets. The extent to which she basically let herself jump without a safety net is rather scary to read about. We know because we’re reading a memoir that the author survived her incredible journey, but in chapter after chapter in Wild, we can see that Cheryl’s survival had a lot to do with good fortune. At any one of at least a dozen points, events could have taken a different turn, resulting in injury at the least or perhaps even a tragic fatality. A more spiritual person might even say that someone or something must have been watching over her, because there’s no way that a person so completely unprepared should expect to come out of the experience in one piece.
Despite my disbelief — verging on disapproval — for the shaky decision-making that the author applied toward her trek, I could only end up in admiration of her courage and fortitude. How many of us would have the nerve to take such a giant leap into the unknown? Granted, perhaps the fact that Cheryl had hit bottom helped propel her forward. There really was nothing left for her in her old life, so a dramatic departure was pretty much required. As the book progressed, I was increasingly impressed both by her physical stamina, despite unimaginable pain (she lost half her toenails along the PCT!) and her mental determination to see this quest through, no matter how many obstacles she encountered. Her gradual acceptance of the good and bad in her own life and her growing belief in her ability to change, move forward, and make a new start is quite beautiful to witness.
Along the PCT, Cheryl meets a number of fellow hikers who for a wide variety of reasons have also decided to make the journey. It’s lovely to encounter these strangers and see the instant bonds that form, as these individuals who perhaps overlap in their treks for only a few days form a community that stretches the length of the trail.
The book wraps up at the conclusion of Cheryl’s trek, and I wasn’t ready for it to end. Having come that far with her, I wanted to know what happened next — how did she manage to start a new life? Did it go the way she’d hoped? How did she readjust to civilization? I actually have tickets to hear the author speak in April, and I’m so looking forward to learning a bit more about her thoughts along the trail and the challenges she faced afterward.
The only minor detail in the book that still bothers me — but I’m not a long-distance hiker, so perhaps I simply cannot understand — is Cheryl’s approach toward reading along the PCT. She read throughout her journey, usually alone in her tent at night, and each day before setting out again she’d burn the pages that she’d just read so as to continually lighten her load. I’m sorry, but the idea of burning book pages for any reason gives me the shivers. At each resupply location, people would leave unwanted items in a “free” box for other hikers. Couldn’t she have kept the books intact and simply left them for another person to read? I know, it’s probably petty for me to focus on this, but as someone who practically cries over dog-eared pages or a dented book cover, this felt fairly horrifying. But that’s a very small complaint.
Overall, I’m very glad to have read Wild… although I did come away from it with the probably completely wrong idea that if she could do it, as poorly prepared as she was, then so could I. Not that I would. But, you know, I could! (Ha! Yeah, right…)
Wild is the story of one woman’s journey away from grief and loss and toward a new personal strength and a future of hope. I recommend it highly.