Escaping one’s demons through an epic trek


The Observer


WILD: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed. Knopf, 2012, 336 pp., $25.95 (hardcover)

In this hugely entertaining book, Cheryl Strayed takes the redemptive nature of travel — a theme as old as literature itself — and makes it her own. For three months she hiked 1,100 miles (1,770 km) alone along the Pacific Crest Trail, a continuous wilderness undulating from Mexico to Canada over nine mountain ranges — the Laguna to the Cascades. She did it, she says, “in order to save myself.”

An American raised in rural Minnesota, Strayed lost her beloved mother when she was 22. An abusive father had long ago vanished, and in the wake of their bereavement, Strayed’s siblings and stepfather scattered and her marriage to a rather wonderful man collapsed as a result of her serial infidelities (“I’d smashed up my marriage over sex”). She was waitressing, servicing a student debt for a degree she failed to complete (she reckoned she would pay off the debt when she was 43), and then came Planet Heroin. In the wake of her divorce, she invented a new name for herself: Strayed.

Four years after her mother’s death, still “unmoored by sorrow,” she packed a rucksack and flew to California. “Hiking the PCT,” she writes, “was my way back to the person I used to be.”

On her epic trek, this novice hiker faced temperatures of 38 degrees Celsius in the shade on the Modoc Plateau and record snowfalls in the High Sierras, not to mention bears, rattlesnakes and failed water holes. The terrain was rarely easy: “Sometimes,” writes Strayed, “it seemed that the Pacific Crest Trail was one long mountain I was ascending.” Her boots died (she had already lost most of her toenails) and she made “duct-tape bootees” out of a pair of sandals while waiting for fresh boots to arrive in the middle of nowhere in a courier’s box. When a branch snapped in the night outside her lonely tent, she made herself say out loud, “I am not afraid — I’d come, I realized, to stare that fear down.”

For weeks she does not wash or wear underwear and, as a result, a shower at a lonely campsite turns into “an almost holy experience.” The seasons change, and so does the landscape, but these pages contain little in the way of topographical description. It is the inner landscape that captures this unusual author.

The story of her past, and in particular her mother’s harrowing death, unspools as a counter-narrative alongside the blisters and the bulky backpack she calls Monster. (The mother, clearly an extraordinary and inspiring figure, looms over this book like a ghost.) “Wild” follows Strayed’s painful first steps as she averaged 9 miles (14 km) a day and learned how to use her gear (or didn’t), to the happy weeks when her muscles were like ropes and she was lean, bronzed and hairy-legged. At staging posts on the trail — not towns but straggly outposts of civilization — she picked up resupply boxes she had mailed to herself. Each contained $20, along with books, freeze-dried food and a clean T-shirt (she packed lacy underwear in the last box). At one point she describes herself as “hot, angry, sick of myself.” I recognized that. How very sick of oneself one gets on the road.

Mostly, Strayed saw no one, but she is good on the peculiar intimacy one strikes up on chance encounters in strange parts, and the camaraderie on the trail, when freeze-dried noodles, Elastoplast and news of fresh snowfalls are exchanged in long nights around the campfire. I enjoyed those passages immensely. Similarly, she writes well about the relationship one has with books when alone and traveling, though I was inevitably influenced in her favor by the fact that her writers are mine, notably William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. The latter would have admired Cheryl Strayed. In the evenings, after making camp, she sat with a pot of noodles gripped between her knees, spooning food in one hand and holding a book in the other, reading by the light of her miner’s headlamp as the sky darkened. “I grew stronger,” she writes as the weeks unfold. In short, she read herself out of a hole. And what are books for, if not that?

“Wild” tracks the physical changes as a body gets turned inside-out in three months, and more interestingly, the prose reveals Strayed’s return to sanity. Body image is a component of this last transformation. The author refers at several points to issues with weight that dogged her past, and to her confused attitude to her own physical appearance. At one point, at a PCT campsite, she sees herself in a cracked mirror for the first time in many weeks, and ends up “wondering whether I was a babe or a gargoyle.” Many women will recognize that particular experience, and might take heart from the resolution Strayed finds in the course of her trip.

Sex is a leitmotif: Strayed likes it, and had packed condoms. Men are sized up as soon as they walk into the campsite and on to the page. About two-thirds of the way through the book, congress finally occurs, spread-eagled against a boulder on a beach, with honey and sand involved.

Sex is one of the last taboos in women’s travel writing, and I have noticed that male reviewers tend not to like it. They know, I hope, where they can stick their dislike, and well done Cheryl Strayed.

Despite the Wagnerian tempests that led to the journey, a quiet dignity inhabits the heart of this book, as Strayed takes on the Mojave Desert and the wind-twisted foxtail pines at the foot of Mount Washington. There are longueurs in the story and stylistic infelicities in the prose. But she lobs in lots of yeasty direct speech to keep the book, like the journey, on the road. I can’t wait for the film.

Strayed is 44 now: One senses that it has taken her this long to understand the true meaning of the journey — or perhaps she had to wait for certain people to die. At any rate, she is happily married with two children, her demons at bay, and her book, a New York Times best-seller, was taken up by Oprah Winfrey (you can watch a Strayed slideshow on the Oprah website). Toward the end of “Wild,” approaching journey’s end at the Bridge of the Gods over the benighted Columbia River, the author writes: “I felt fierce and humble and gathered up inside, like I was safe in the world now.” Lucky her.