I may have just completed a near perfect memoir.
It was beautifully written and told with deep honesty from beginning to end. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, is not your typical bestseller. It is not page-turner. It doesn’t leave you needing to know what exactly happens next. What it does do, is deeper than that. It made me cry (often), it made me laugh (out loud), it made me wish I could tough it out and hike the Pacific Crest Trail…alone.
I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t relate to Strayed’s story in some way. Her book was so good, I scanned through the internet looking for reviews. I needed to know what other people thought of this well-crafted tale of loss and acceptance. Fortunately, readers loved this book as much as I did. Below is a great article published in the New York Times by Author Dani Shapiro. I think she did a fantastic job of reviewing this riveting book.
The High Road
‘Wild,’ a Hiking Memoir by Cheryl Strayed
By DANI SHAPIRO
Published: March 30, 2012
In the summer of 1995, a 26-year-old woman who had never been backpacking before set out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. She had already separated from her husband, quit her waitressing job and sold most of her belongings. Now she went to the outdoors store REI to purchase almost everything she could possibly think of for her three-month journey: fleece pants and an anorak, a thermal shirt, two pairs of wool socks and underwear, a sleeping bag, a camp chair, a head lamp, five bungee cords, a water purifier, a tiny collapsible stove, a canister of gas and a small pink lighter, two cooking pots, utensils, a thermometer, a tarp, a snakebite kit, a Swiss Army knife, binoculars, a compass, a book called “Staying Found” to teach herself how to use the compass, a first-aid kit, toiletries, a menstrual sponge, a lantern, water bottles, iodine pills, a foldable saw (“for what, I did not know”), two pens and three books in addition to “Staying Found”: “The Pacific Crest Trail, Vol. 1: California,” William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” and Adrienne Rich’s “Dream of a Common Language.” She also bought a 200-page sketchbook to use as a journal.
To begin to understand something about Cheryl Strayed, know that Strayed is not her given name. We never find out the name she was born with, but we are made to understand with absolute clarity why she chose to change it, and just how well her new name suits her. Contemplating divorce, she realized that she couldn’t continue to use the hyphenated married name she’d shared with her husband, “nor could I go back to having the name I had had in high school and be the girl I used to be. . . . I pondered the question of my last name, mentally scanning words that sounded good with Cheryl. . . . Nothing fit until one day when the word strayed came into my mind. Immediately I looked it up in the dictionary and knew it was mine. 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. I had diverged, digressed, wandered and become wild. . . . I saw the power of the darkness. Saw that, in fact, I had strayed and that I was a stray and that from the wild places my straying had brought me, I knew things I couldn’t have known before.”
Cheryl Strayed’s load is both literal and metaphorical — so heavy that she staggers beneath its weight. Her mother has died (lung cancer, age 45); her father is long gone (“a liar and a charmer, a heartbreak and a brute”). In what is for her a stunning act of filial betrayal, her brother and sister find it too painful to come to the hospital as Strayed’s mother is fading, leaving her, then 22, to prop up the pillows so that her mother could die, as had been her wish, sitting up. Strayed’s stepfather, whom she had loved, disengaged himself from the family and quickly found new love, unwilling even to take care of his late wife’s beloved mare, who became so enfeebled that — in one of the book’s most harrowing scenes — Strayed and her brother are forced to put her down. They do this the old-fashioned way, by shooting her between the eyes. Beside herself with grief, Strayed abandons her kind and loving husband, gets involved with a heroin addict and becomes an addict herself. Just before leaving for the Pacific trail, even after six months off drugs, she shoots up once more, “the little bruise on my ankle that I’d gotten from shooting heroin in Portland” now “faded to a faint morose yellow.” Beneath her wool socks and too-small hiking boots, that bruise was a continuing reminder of her “own ludicrousness.”
Often when narratives are structured in parallel arcs, the two stories compete and one dominates. The reader skims the less-favored one, eager to get back to the other. But in “Wild,” the two tales Strayed tells, of her difficult past and challenging present, are delivered in perfect balance. Not only am I not an adventurer myself, but I am not typically a reader of wilderness stories. Yet I was riveted step by precarious step through Strayed’s encounters with bears, rattlesnakes, mountain lion scat, ice, record snow and predatory men. She lost six toenails, suffered countless bruises and scabs, improvised bootees made of socks wrapped in duct tape, woke up one time covered in frogs and met strangers who were extraordinarily kind to her.
Perhaps her adventure is so gripping because Strayed relates its gritty, visceral details not out of a desire to milk its obviously dramatic circumstances but out of a powerful, yet understated, imperative to understand its meaning. We come to feel how her actions and her internal struggles intertwine, and appreciate the lessons she finds embedded in the natural world. In a brief meditation on mountains, for example, she writes: “They were, I now realized, layered and complex, inexplicable and analogous to nothing. Each time I reached the place that I thought was the top . . . there was still more up to go. . . . I was entirely in new terrain.” “Wild” isn’t a concept-generated book, that is, one of those projects that began as a good, salable idea. Rather, it started out as an experience that was lived, digested and deeply understood. Only then was it fashioned into a book — one that is both a literary and human triumph.
What allows us to survive? To lose and then find ourselves? How do we learn to accept grief instead of permitting it to obliterate us? How can a young woman who describes herself as having a “hole in her heart” (a mother-shaped hole, I thought to myself) transform herself through solitude and high-octane risk and the comforts of literature (along the way she picked up books like “The Complete Stories” of Flannery O’Connor and J. M. Coetzee’s “Waiting for the Barbarians”) into a clearheaded, scarred, human, powerful and enormously talented writer who is secure enough to confess she does not have all the answers? “It was enough,” she tells us as she reaches the poetically named Bridge of the Gods, which connects Oregon to Washington, “to trust that what I’d done was true.”
Perhaps a clue can be found in the words of Strayed’s mother, and the legacy she left her daughter. “‘The first thing I did when each of you was born was kiss every part of you,’ my mother used to say to my siblings and me. ‘I’d count every finger and toe and eyelash,’ she’d say. ‘I’d trace the lines in your hands.’” Strayed writes that “I didn’t remember it, and yet I’d never forgotten it. It was as much a part of me as my father saying he’d throw me out the window. More.”
As Strayed’s mother grew sicker, she would repeat the sentence “I’m with you always” again and again. And, in a way, she was her daughter’s constant companion through it all. In the end, it was this: not the loss, not the abandonment, not the rebellion, but the love itself. The love won out.