It had to have been a shock to 26-year-old Cheryl Strayed to realize she couldn’t lift her backpack 1 inch off the floor mere minutes before commencing on a two-month wilderness hike. She found a way to crawl into her backpack and struggle to her feet. And thus began Strayed’s wilderness adventure.
"Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail," by Cheryl Strayed. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2012. 311 pages. $25.95
It had to have been a shock to 26-year-old Cheryl Strayed to realize she couldn’t lift her backpack 1 inch off the floor mere minutes before commencing on a two-month wilderness hike. She found a way to crawl into her backpack and struggle to her feet. And thus began Strayed’s wilderness adventure. The ultra-heavy backpack (including a surplus of condoms) was the first of many harsh reckonings on her 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail from Mojave, Calif., to Cascade Locks, Oregon, a town that borders Washington state.
Though Strayed had lived in what she called pioneer conditions, she had never actually attempted backpack trekking, much less trekking up and down any of the nine mountain ranges that lay before her. She persisted, facing down isolation in remote regions, high elevations, extreme temperatures, hunger, thirst and times when bears and men became threats to her safety. Add to that a coming to terms with her own sexuality. And to heap yet more misery onto her burden, add the utter agony of horrible boots and torment of water purification equipment that barely worked. She lost not just one boot over the edge of a cliff but gave up six toenails to boot abuse. Then there were the rattlers, warning her off just in time.
By the end, Strayed had acquired a hard-earned trail name: Queen of the PCT. She was one of the few female solo hikers in 1995 to tackle such a long stretch of the trail. And we have touched only on the physical challenges. Strayed took to the trail a messy lot of problems having nothing to do with over-packing or exhaustion. She had just divorced a man she loved, she had been sexually promiscuous, she had lost her beloved 45-year-old mother and was struggling to make sense of the loss, she had become enamored of heroin taken in all forms and she was looking for answers.
“I’d set out to hike the trail so that I could reflect upon my life, to think about everything that had broken me and make myself whole again,” she wrote. But, she goes on, “I was consumed only with my most immediate and physical suffering.” And though the suffering doesn’t lessen considerably as she becomes conditioned and acclimated, she does experience a process of letting go that includes a deeper, more accurate understanding of herself. She started out as a woman “with a hole in her heart” and by the time she reaches Crater Lake at the halfway point in her journey, she could draw parallels between that caldera — a mountaintop gutted by a cataclysmic volcanic eruption; “a mountain that’s had its very heart removed” — and her own broken heart. It was then that she contemplated some of her mother’s last words: “I never got to be in the driver’s seat of my own life.” A long wilderness solo trek with 2 cents in your pocket and bad boots and surprise bear encounters ensures that’s not going to happen to Strayed.
“Strayed,” by the way, is a name she gave herself. She responded to associations with “stray” and “orphan.” But there are lots of upbeat moments in this book, too. There are moments of “trail magic,” where a kind of spiritual euphoria takes hold at the grandeur and beauty of the surroundings, and there is one erotic adventure that lasts almost two days before she heads back to the trail.
At the end of her impressive trek, Strayed uses her last two dollars to buy herself an ice cream cone. An attorney greets her and says, “It’s an honor to meet you at this momentous juncture.” So true. It took Strayed 15 years to produce this book, but readers will no doubt feel that it’s an honor to be given this carefully considered and very well executed story of hardship and growth and terrific adventure. In the end, she delivers up many thank yous to the universe as she realizes that not all reckonings have to be precisely articulated. A thank you back to Strayed for articulating so much of interest and value. She writes, “How wild it was, to let it be.” Perfect.
Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in bookstores. Write her at email@example.com. Or read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF.