'Wild': blisters and redemption on the Pacific Crest Trail
Cheryl Strayed's memoir "Wild" recounts how she found her way out of sorrow and loss by hiking 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. Strayed will discuss her book Thursday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. and Friday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.
Special to The Seattle Times
Cheryl StrayedThe author of "Wild" will discuss her book at 7 p.m. Thursday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com), and at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).
'Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail'
by Cheryl Strayed
Knopf, 311 pp., $25.95
I think we readers love memoirs for the most selfish of reasons: As we encounter the writer's decisions, collisions, the chances taken or missed, some part of our brain is simultaneously revisiting the things in our own lives that got us this far. The most arresting memoirs bring Aha! moments while entertaining with a picaresque adventure.
Portland author Cheryl Strayed's book, "Wild," is one of the best examples of this phenomenon to come along since "Poser" by Clare Dederer last year and "Bird by Bird," Anne Lamott's classic.
In 1995, Strayed was 26 years old, surrounded by the wreckage of a marriage, reeling from her mother's death and reaching for the worst possible solutions to erase all the hurt. Living alone in a Minneapolis studio apartment, she was an "ambitious overachiever and aspiring writer who hopped from one meaningless job to the next while dabbling dangerously with drugs and sleeping with too many men."
Anyone who has read a lot of this genre in recent years can't help but brace herself for the sordid details of a downward spiral. Strayed, however, takes to a different trail. The Pacific Crest Trail, to be precise. "It was a world I'd never been to and yet had known was there all along, one I'd staggered to in sorrow and confusion and fear and hope ... A world that measured two feet wide and 2,663 miles long." She walks 1,100 miles of it over about 100 days, from Mojave, Calif., and on through Oregon and Washington.
Just as her recovery is unorthodox, so is her hiking. She knows next to nothing about how to undertake such a trip and spends no time getting into physical shape to do it. She just starts walking — with Monster, her gigantic backpack that she can barely lift. Then there are her too-small hiking boots, which hobble her through most of the hike. Weighed down with burdens of all sorts, each step hurting, she moves forward in body, and back inside her head.
"Wild" will appeal to readers who dream of making such a hike, and Strayed's descriptions of the landscape will not disappoint. They are as frank and original as the rest of the book: "From afar, the sight of Mount Hood had never failed to take my breath away, but up close it was different, the way everything is," she wrote. "It was less coolly majestic, at once more ordinary and more immeasurable in its gritty authority."
Losing her mother and her marriage had been hard, Strayed mused. "But hiking the PCT was hard in a different way. In a way that made the other hardest things the tiniest bit less hard." This isn't Cinderella in hiking boots, it's a woman coming out of heartbreak, darkness and bad decisions with a clear view of where she has been. She isn't inoculated against all future heartbreak, but she suspects she can make it through what comes next.
"Wild" could slide neatly into predictability, but it doesn't. There are adventures and characters aplenty, from heartwarming to dangerous, but Strayed resists the temptation to overplay or sweeten such moments. Her pacing is impeccable as she captures her impressive journey, unafraid to show inevitable moments of monotony.
She is deliberate and detailed without contrivance, and deftly revisits the mix of bravado and introspection inside the head of a wounded young woman.
Her honesty never flags. "I didn't know how living outdoors and sleeping on the ground in a tent each night and walking alone through the wilderness all day almost every day had come to feel like my normal life, but it had," Strayed wrote about the last days of her hike. "It was the idea of not doing it that scared me."
Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a writer living in Portland.