Skywalker Recommends New Pacific Crest Trail book, Wild, by “Mama Sugar”, Cheryl Strayed
People keep asking me about this new book on the Pacific Crest Trail book, Wild, by well-known author, Cheryl Strayed (“Mama Sugar”). “Are you worried about it?” they always ask me. My honest answer is NO.
Cheryl Strayed must be a good writer because she has a loyal following. She certainly has a good story about her relationship with her mother, drug abuse, etc. Better yet, she headed off to the Pacific Crest Trail to find reality. That right there tells you she is a an authentic individual. What better thing could a person do?
I honestly wish she had written this memoir 17 years ago, after she first walked the PCT. The reason is because I never had heard of the PCT until 7 years ago while hiking the Appalachian Trail. Had Mrs. Strayed written it before, the trail might have gained popularity earlier.
The more people walk outdoors, the better off we will be as a society. That’s why when somebody like Bill Bryson walks the Appalachian Trail or Cheryl Strayed the Pacific Crest Trail, it’s ultimately a good thing. It creates a buzz, increases the number of hikers, gets people away from their computers, cell phones, and televisions. Our national obesity rate is 21%. Honestly, that’s tragic.
Mrs. Strayed’s book, like all hiking books, brings a unique perspective to the fore. I went to the big opening ‘Kickoff Party’ (which they didn’t even have back when Cheryl walked the PCT, and hiked mostly in the ‘bubble’ of hikers, although with significant days and nights alone. Thus, my narrative, Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail has significant character descriptions and human interaction in the midst of all the isolation. Mrs. Strayed appeared to have been alone most of the time. Quite valiant. Hopefully, this book, Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, will become a bestseller.
Portland author Cheryl Strayed, also known as Dear Sugar, writes personal stories that bond with her devoted readers
Published: Saturday, February 18, 2012, 10:59 PM Updated: Sunday, February 19, 2012, 7:55 AM
By Jeff Baker, The Oregonian The Oregonian
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View full sizeBenjamin Brink/The OregonianPortland author Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” is getting big buzz around the country.
Cheryl Strayed likes to say that the path will reveal itself, as the path always does. Sometimes that’s literally true when you’re on the Pacific Crest Trail and can’t find your way across a clear-cut or a talus slope. Sometimes it’s more metaphorical, when you’re not sure what to do with your life and you have to believe you’re going in the right direction.
If that sounds corny or folksy or woo-woo — “the path will reveal itself” can come off like a discarded Grateful Dead lyric — Strayed doesn’t care. She’s not into irony or trying to be the hippest writer in Southeast Portland. For her it’s all about emotional honesty, going deep after the truth and making a connection.
“I’ve always risked sincerity and sentimentality, and that’s been criticized,” Strayed says. “In graduate school that wasn’t the cool thing to be, but with Sugar I finally found a forum for that sincerity.”
Author Cheryl Strayed speaks about writing her memoir, “Wild”
Memoir writer and advice columnist Cheryl Strayed talks about where she writes and what gave her the inspiration for her upcoming book, “Wild, From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail.”
On Valentine’s Day in San Francisco, Strayed announced she was Sugar, an advice columnist whose “Dear Sugar” columns, published anonymously on the literary website The Rumpus, have gone viral and attracted thousands of devoted followers who say that her advice changed their lives. Strayed has been revealed — one of her favorite words — as both a literary author of a much-anticipated memoir and as the Dear Abby of the digital age. Her memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” (out in March) is one of the hottest books of year, published by Alfred A. Knopf, excerpted in Vogue, and advertised everywhere from The New Yorker to Trails.com. A book of columns, “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life From Dear Sugar,” will follow on July 10. Her profile could go even higher if rumored interest from Hollywood comes through.
Frankly from Sugar
“There’s a level of humming noise around Cheryl like nothing I’ve seen in a long time,” says Robin Desser, her editor at Knopf. “The buzz just keeps growing.”
It reached a pitch last week at the Verdi Club in San Francisco’s Mission District, where a sold-out crowd of 300 people greeted Strayed’s unveiling as Sugar with a standing ovation. She was preceded onstage by musicians, a comedian and seven “women of The Rumpus” who wore fishnet stockings and orange gloves with “Hell’s” on one hand and “Bells” on the other. They read questions and answers from columns by Steve Almond, who originated the “Dear Sugar” column in The Rumpus before passing it on to Strayed. Almond wrote “Dear Sugar” in the persona of a woman who had been around the block a few times and wasn’t above a snarky response. Strayed, he says, took a more nurturing approach and turned the sometimes-reflexive hostility of the Web into a community of supporters.
View full sizeCourtesy of Cheryl StrayedCheryl Strayed in June 1995, after 10 days on the Pacific Crest Trail.
“People are desperately lonely, especially those who haunt the Internet,” Almond says. “They feel alone with their unbearable emotions and almost freakish in that solitude. And I think Cheryl ministers to them. I know that sounds kind of heavy, but it’s true. She listens to people’s darkest secrets and refuses to turn away. Instead, she offers them stories from her own life and the assurance that there is meaning within the chaos of their feelings.”
Strayed took on “Dear Sugar” on a lark for no pay and always planned to shed the cloak of anonymity at some point. She didn’t mask the details of her life, either mundane (43-year-old married mother of two, lives in Portland), or more personal. When Strayed was 22, her mother died of cancer, a wrenching ordeal Strayed has written about in essays, in her 2006 novel “Torch” and in “Wild.” Her mother’s death led to a spiraling set of experiences — affairs, a divorce, heroin use, an abortion — that Strayed has written frankly about. Anyone who knew her writing and read a “Dear Sugar” column could figure it out, and by the time she took the stage and greeted her fans as “sweet peas,” the endearment she uses in her column, hundreds of people knew the secret, and she was relieved to share it with the world.
Once Strayed started writing long, sincere responses to questions for advice, the reaction was overwhelming. One column, “Tiny Beautiful Things,” got 75,000 hits its first week. Dear Sugar has more than 7,500 Twitter followers and about the same number on Facebook, but it’s the emotional reaction that’s more meaningful than the number of unique visitors. Isaac Fitzgerald, the managing editor of The Rumpus, didn’t have any statistics handy, but he does know one fact.
“Early on I was putting one of Cheryl’s columns in and I started crying,” says Fitzgerald. “I hadn’t cried in over half a decade.”
The mood at the Verdi Club was openly emotional, and not because it was the holiday for sweethearts. Fitzgerald greeted strangers with a hug while Almond joked that there was nobody there who hadn’t cried while reading a “Dear Sugar” column. Strayed held it together and brought her husband, filmmaker Brian Lindstrom (“Mr. Sugar”) onstage with her. It can’t be easy being married to someone who writes about her life the way Strayed does. Lindstrom calls it “terrifying at times” but is a good sport about it, even though one of the most popular “Dear Sugar” columns deals with the time he had sex with another woman and almost wrecked their relationship. (They weren’t married yet.) Strayed is “a truth machine,” he says, and being married to her is a privilege, a comment that drew awws of delight from the Valentine’s Day crowd.
A personal life
There are boundaries, places Strayed won’t go in print. Her brother and sister are mentioned in “Wild,” but she’s careful about what she writes about them. There’s much that hasn’t been told about her father. Editing “Wild” was, among other things, a process of weighing the potential hurt or harm to others. Strayed gets a lot of questions about what her and Lindstrom’s children (“the baby Sugars”) might think about some of this stuff, and her response is she doesn’t expect them to read “Wild” “until they’re like, 32.” Otherwise, the payoffs and perils of writing openly about her life have been worked through long ago.
“So the self-revelation, protecting myself thing, holding myself up for judgment?” she says. “I would encourage (my kids) to wait to read a lot of my more personal writing because there are things there that they don’t necessarily want to know because it breaks a certain mother-child boundary, and I respect that entirely. Other people knowing certain details about me does make me a little queasy. … I also know that it’s part of what it means to be a writer and especially a writer of memoir. You have to simply say, ‘This is the scary part of the job’ and do it.”
It doesn’t feel too scary at Lindstrom and Strayed’s inner Southeast Portland home a few weeks before Sugar’s coming-out party in San Francisco. They’re renting this place so the kids can attend Buckman Elementary School. Strayed writes in an upstairs bedroom, her cat Gulla at her side all day long. A framed letter from Alice Munro and a photograph of her mother are nearby.
Family and wilderness
Strayed’s relationship with her mother was close, and her death marks everything she’s written. Almond calls Bobbi Lambrecht “the true original Sugar,” and Strayed agrees. The mother and three little kids lived poor in apartments around Minneapolis until Lambrecht remarried and they moved onto 40 acres in northern Minnesota. There was no electricity, no indoor plumbing, no running water. All that came later. “We aren’t poor,” Lambrecht would say, “because we’re rich in love.”
When Strayed went away to college, her mother enrolled with her and got straight A’s. They were seniors, at different colleges, when Lambrecht was diagnosed with cancer. Seven weeks later she was dead. The details of her final days, as recounted in “Wild,” are almost unbearably painful to read, hard and beautiful as a marble death mask.
The family fell apart, and four years later Strayed was in Minneapolis working as a waitress and standing in line to buy a snow shovel at REI. She saw a guidebook called “The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California” and was intrigued by the picture of a high-mountain lake on the cover. The PCT was a remote dream, something Strayed knew nothing about. Wilderness was home, though, a place to become whole again, and she went back and bought the book. A few months later, she was in Southern California, determined to hike as much of the trail alone as possible within about 100 days.
An interesting life doesn’t necessarily make a memoir, say those who write and edit in the genre. Desser prefers to stick to fiction and has done only a few memoirs, including “Girl, Interrupted” by Susanna Kaysen and “Brother, I’m Dying” by Edwidge Danticat. Strayed says she didn’t want to write about her backpacking adventure until she felt like she had something to say and was encouraged by her writing group and her agent, Janet Silver, to expand an essay into something more.
“[I]t quickly became clear there was a terrific book in it,” says Silver. “… When I submitted it to editors, the response was instantaneous and overwhelming.”
An open author
After not publishing a book for six years, Strayed will have two out within four months. Her life is about to change dramatically with a big publicity tour for “Wild” and more events for Sugar. The publishers are figuring out how to promote both books without one usurping the other.
And where does that leave the “Dear Sugar” column and the thousands of letters awaiting a reply? Strayed wants to keep it going, but not as often. She’s read “Miss Lonelyhearts,” Nathanael West’s classic 1933 novel about a nameless advice columnist overwhelmed by the misery and meanness in the world. It’s big responsibility, trying to solve people’s problems, and Strayed has attacked it by playing to her strengths, telling stories and putting her nurturing nature on full display.
“She’s all ‘here’s an answer to your question, here’s a heartbreaking/enthralling story that your question reminds me of, here’s how that story relates to what you should do,'” says Fitzgerald. “It leaves you empty and breathless. Gutted in the best of ways.”
Strayed ended her evening at the Verdi Club by describing a gesture her mother made to her that she repeats with her children. Do I love you this much, she asks, holding her hands a few inches apart. No, they say. Her hands move farther apart. This much? No. This much? Arms are extended as wide as they can reach. No! The answer, of course, is never. There is no limit to a mother’s love for her children. Her arms can never hold it.
“I try to write as if my arms were wide open,” Strayed said, and held them far apart.