Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed (A Review)

Based on reviews I have read, Wildis a book you love or strongly dislike.  I for one loved this book and felt as though I was witness to an extraordinary metamorphosis in Cheryl Strayed as she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in search of healing and self.

Strayed's life had never been easy, but the loss of her mother to cancer was the crushing blow that pushed her to the edge.  Her life spiraled down into easy sex with men other than her husband, dangerous drug use, and an inability to rise above these issues and stay above them.

In the first 100 pages, Strayed explains her last name.  In my opinion, she sums up who she is when she makes the decision to hike the PCT.  Strayed and her soon-to-be ex-husband, Paul, are reviewing their divorce papers, when they come across a question asking for the last name they would each use after the divorce.  Beneath the question was a blank line on which they could write anything, become anyone they wanted to be.  Later in her apartment, Strayed ponders her last name sounding out names that go well with Cheryl.  Ironically, the word "strayed" came to mind.  The dictionary confirmed her new last name:

Its layered definitions spoke directly to my life and also struck a poetic chord: to wander from the proper path, to deviate from the direct course, to be lost, to become wild, to be without a mother or father, to be without a home, to move about aimlessly in search of something, to diverge or digress.

As she writes her story, Strayed weaves back and forth between the present and episodes from her earlier life as if she is knitting together her past and her present. The reader experiences with her the excruciating want to turn her life around, heal herself, and become the woman she knows she can and wants to become.  All this intricate storytelling makes for a riveting read.

Strayed doesn't plan well for her hike requiring her to draw on inner strengths she had no idea she possessed, and often leaving herself in predicaments that reduce her to tears alone on the trail.  Yet, in the next few pages, Strayed's circumstances have the reader laughing, along with her, at her quirky mistakes and slip ups.  What stands out for me in this memoir is Strayed's ability to connect with people along the way but also understanding her crying need to be alone to give life to the woman she becomes.

Strayed's eloquent writing of the history of the PCT, including the people who helped it come into being, enlightened me to facts I was not aware of even though I live in its shadow. She reflects on proponents like Catherine Montgomery in 1926, Clinton Clark, who took up the cause in 1938, and then Warren Rogers who saw the trail dedicated in 1968. In the following passage, she speaks to the understanding these people had about what nature means to the human soul:

It didn't matter that everything from my cheap knock-off sandals to my high-tech-by-1995-standard boots and backpack would have been foreign to them (the trail's founders), because what mattered was utterly timeless. It was the thing that compelled them to fight for the trail against all odds, and it was the thing that drove me and every other long distance hiker onward on the most miserable days. It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or backpacking fads or philosophies of any particular era or even getting from point A to point B.

It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles for 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 that way. That's what Montgomery knew, I supposed. And what Clarke knew and Rogers and what thousands of people who preceded and followed them knew. It was what I knew before I even really did, before I could have known how truly hard and glorious the PCT would be, how profoundly the trail would both shatter and shelter me. (Emphasis mine.)

In this passage, Strayed speaks to the universal nature of humanity.  In the darkest of times, often we must reach the absolute depths of despair to find our way through the darkness to the sheltering and healing qualities of the light.  Alone, afraid at times, and shattered by her circumstances, Strayed found in nature the woman she was born to be despite the crises of her early life.

Written with a fluid style and a combination of truth and authenticity, grief and sorrow, and yes, humor, Wild is not a guidebook for planning a hike along the PCT, but one woman's story of renewal and hope. I highly recommend it.

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Cheryl Strayed is the author of #1 New York Times bestseller WILD, the New York Times bestseller TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS, and the novel TORCH. WILD was chosen by Oprah Winfrey as her first selection for Oprah's Book Club 2.0 and optioned for film by Reese Witherspoon's production company, Pacific Standard. WILD was selected as the winner of the Barnes & Noble Discover Award, the Indie Choice Award, an Oregon Book Award, a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, and a Midwest Booksellers Choice Award. Strayed's writing has appeared in THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS, the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post Magazine, Vogue, Allure, The Missouri Review, The Sun, The Rumpus--where she has written the popular "Dear Sugar" column since 2010--and elsewhere. Her books have been translated into twenty-eight languages around the world. She holds an MFA in fiction writing from Syracuse University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and their two children.  (Biography from www.cherylstrayed.com)

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