I was first introduced to Cheryl Strayed in May 2013 by one of my best friends, Aleesha. We were having a girl’s weekend at her house, and as I put my things in the guest bedroom I scanned her bookshelf (something I do whenever I visit), and her copy of Wild jumped out at me like a caged animal who just realized it was free to go.
I immediately took it to her and asked “What’s this?”, which resulted in her scolding me for not already being familiar with the story. She offered to lend it to me, but the next day I was catching a bus to New York City and her hardcover copy couldn’t fit in my backpack, so I had to decline.
That book then haunted me for the few days I was in Manhattan. I couldn’t get the image of the cover out of my head. When I found myself in my favourite magazine shop in Grand Central Station, standing in front of a rack filled with the new paperback version, I took it as a sign and bought my own copy. I read it every night at my hostel, and it acted as my bus mate on the ride back to Toronto. I couldn’t put it down for the life of me.
Wild is the story of Cheryl’s 1,100 mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail — a route that in its entirety stretches from the Mexican/USA border in California’s Mojave Desert to the Canada/USA border in Washington State. At the age of twenty-six, after losing her mother to cancer and filing for divorce, Cheryl impulsively decided to hike from the Mojave to a trail point in Oregon called the Bridge of the Gods. And she was going to do it alone.
From the moment I read the synopsis on the back cover I was hooked. This book spoke to me. Cheryl’s writing is honest with no bullshit. On top of that, I could relate to her suffering as we had gone through some similar experiences — I, too, had married young but went through a separation years later; I also lost a loved one, resulting in a rift in my life (for me, it was my grandmother); and like Cheryl, following this death I had also decided to take on a huge solo hike in order to seek some solace (mine is coming in two months and will be in Spain). The only major difference between her and I is that I didn’t experiment with drugs or the lifestyle associated with it, something which she openly talks about in her book.
Throughout her storytelling Cheryl jumps back and forth between her time on the PCT and her life outside of it. We learn of her upbringing in Pennsylvania and Minnesota, and of her mother’s illness and the demise of her family after the illness won. We’re brought into her marriage with Paul, a man she truly loved yet married too young, and her subsequent relationship with Joe, the man who introduced her to heroin.
Along the PCT we meet the people she befriended — Greg, Ed, Albert, Matt, Stacey, Trina, Odin the dog, Doug, Tom, Rex, and the Three Young Bucks. I know I’m forgetting a few names here, but those are the characters I came to love and cherish. After reading a fair share of memoirs dedicated to various long-distance hikes, I’ve come to the realization that despite being provided with proper introductions to these trail mates, I can only ever remember a handful.
This thought then spurned an analogy (forgive me if I sound obtuse): travelling on foot along a path traversed by many others is like riding one of those flat movators at the airport — you pass through plenty of people to get to your destination, but every now and then you look up and make eye contact with a stranger, or notice something about a particular person as you move along. The trail is the movator, and those special people who are met along the hike are like those few individuals that stood out to you from amongst the crowd. It’s those special people who make the journey more memorable, for both the author and the reader.
At least that’s how I see it.
Cheryl’s writing is insightful and thought-provoking. There’s been more than one occasion when I found myself having to put the book down for a minute to take in what I had just read, and also to get control of the mistiness in my eyes that her words caused. She’s easy to relate to and her thoughts are profound.
“It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or the backpacking fads or philosophies of any particular era or even with getting from point A to point B.
It had to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles with no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way.”
“There’s no way to know what makes one thing happen and not another. What leads to what. What destroys what. What causes what to flourish or die or take another course.”
“I didn’t feel sad or happy. I didn’t feel proud or ashamed. I only felt that in spite of all the things I’d done wrong, in getting myself here, I’d done right.”
This year I made only two New Year’s resolutions, the first of which was to become the Cheryl Strayed of the Camino de Santiago, the hike I’ll be tackling in March. My hike is not nearly as physically monumental as hers was, nor is it as long, however I feel that to me this will be my version of the PCT.
I also made this goal out of sheer respect to Cheryl — that’s how much she’s inspired me. She was younger than me when she hiked the PCT, and what she was able to accomplish was nothing short of amazing. I will keep her story in mind with each step I hike through Spain.
Oh, and the icing on the cake is that they’ve been filming a movie version of the book with a release date set for this year. I’m so excited for this that I might have to read the book a third time before I see it (and you can bet your ass I’ll be there on opening day).
Do yourselves a favour — read this book. It’s monumental in its importance. Throughout my life there’s been a small collection of books that seem to cling to me, causing me to reread them again and again, never tiring of their impact on me as an individual. Wild is now part of this collection.