Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed (March 2012)
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Overview: A powerful, blazingly honest memoir: the story of an 1100 mile solo hike that broke down a young woman reeling from catastrophe — and built her back up again.
At 22, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother's death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life: to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State — and to do it alone. She had no experience as a long-distance hiker, and the trail was little more than “an idea, vague and outlandish and full of promise.” But it was a promise of piecing back together a life that had come undone.
Strayed faces down rattlesnakes and black bears, intense heat and record snowfalls, and both the beauty and loneliness of the trail. Told with great suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild vividly captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.
This eBook edition includes a Reading Group Guide.
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir,
About an hour ago I finished Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. The book has of course been made into a movie, and I saw that also, but the book, as is the usual case, trumps the movie by some measure. Rarely have I read of such an emotional journey, Strayed walking from the Mojave Desert to the Columbia River mostly alone. That's more than a thousand miles, mostly going up and down in the mountains with a backpack she nicknamed "Monster" because it was spectacularly heavy. I was pumped to write about the experience of reading this book, but right now all I want to say is read it.
One of the most pleasant aspects of the book is the masterful handling of flashback. As Strayed walks the PCT, she finds herself mesmerized into sorting out the past. This is by no means the most challenging aspect of the long walk, though she thought, as she planned, that there would be plenty of time on the Trail to think about stuff. It turns out that the Trail itself, and its challenges, were the main things Strayed had to confront, from extreme temperature changes (mountains, desert) to rain and snow and 100 degree heat. The Trail forced her to let go of all her idealistic plans for self-reflection and apply herself to maintaining her forward momentum in trail boots that were too small and equipment she was carrying that a professional hiker had to advise her to dump off.
That summer she was the only woman on the trail hiking alone, and with one exception she found that the men she encountered on the trail were in awe of her--they nicknamed her The Queen of the PCT. They followed her boot tracks, read her short handwritten paragraphs in the trail logs that she spent some time filling out along the way. She also was broke most of the time. She was having boxes of replenishment sent ahead to her to trail stations along the way, but it was that same trail pro who told her that she could get new trail boots free by calling REI and telling them that the boots she bought there were too small and she needed boots a size larger--and where to send them.
Most of the Trail she traveled in great pain, her feet feeling like they were broken sometimes, her toe nails coming off, blood from the blisters saturating her socks. She carried a first aid kit and had to do work on her feet almost every night. She carried several books, also heavy, that allowed her to escape the pain and the realities of the trail, short stories by Flannery O'Connor, Lolita by Nabokov, poems by Adrienne Rich. She learned to burn the pages of the books as she read them, to lighten the load.
At the end of the Trail, in Portland, she finds that she is stronger and that her mind has cleared, not because she did obsessive self-reflection on the Trail but because the Trail hike contained so many challenges that occupied her. One challenge was that there was unusual amounts of snow fall in the highland areas, and with some regret she began to mull over detours that would take her around the snow at lower, warmer elevations. Her maps and compass always showed her how to find her way back to the PCT, and since the Trail had engaged and challenged her, she did want back on it.
I'm sure she kept journals of her trek. The book Wild is chock full of the kinds of specifics that her walking journal might have recorded, including encounters with rattlesnakes, bears, a llama, and numerous other hikers who knew her by reputation on the trail and would finally catch up to her. Many of them had started hiking in Mexico and were on their way to Canada. While she knew she'd most likely never see them again, she was still very happy to sit around a campfire on a picnic table and exchange stories with them. It is amazing how engaging her book is, a masterwork in the memoir genre for sure.