Skywalker Comprehensively Reviews ‘Wild–From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail’, by Cheryl Strayed
“Nobody in particular looked like a murderer or rapist, but nobody in particular didn’t look like one either.”
That line is a sample quote from Cheryl Strayed’s powerful Pacific Crest Trail narrative, ‘Wild’. You’ve got to hand it to her. She meets the Pat Conroy test. “I want it all,” Conroy has written about what she is looking for in the books he reads. “That’s all I ask for an author. That they tell me everything in their gut.” Yes indeed, in her story of hiking alone across a large part of the West Coast, Mrs. Strayed holds nothing back.
Cheryl Strayed’s biography is of a girl from a working-class home abandoned by her violent father, a battle with heroin addiction, divorce from a man she still loves, and, most destructive of all, loss of her beloved mother. To recover from all this, she sets out in 1995 at age 26 alone on America’s great national scenic trail, The Pacific Crest Trail. This trail actually runs 2,663 miles from Mexico to Canada. She began in the desert town of Mojave and walked most of the way to the Bridge of the Gods over the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington.
The good news is that more women are hiking; and more women are hiking alone. Women account for approximately 35% of the hikers on America’s great trail of the masses, the Appalachian Trail. However, they are only 25% of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) population. Further, far fewer women attempt the PCT alone. At one point when two strange males continue bothering her at a campsite in northern Oregon, she decides she’s got to get the hell out of there, even as night is approaching. She breaks down camp and bolts. “I walked until walking became unbearable, until I believed I couldn’t walk even one more step.” Nonetheless, despite the inherent risk of a woman out alone in such an open-ended journey, it only made sense for her to damn the torpedoes and head out alone, given the depth of the problems that led her to the trail in the first place.
Like most new hikers undertaking such an epic journey, she wasn’t prepared. First, she made the classic mistake of carrying way too much with her, leading to nicknaming her backpack, ‘Monster‘. However, the part I found most gut-wrenching, being a hiker myself is that she attempted to do the PCT in heavy boots. In fact, that is rule number one for anyone planning to do the PCT is to wear lightweight, trail-running shoes that are at least a size bigger than your normal size (I went out there with a pair of Vasque Size 14’s, which is my normal size, and blistered so bad in the desert that I needed 16 ‘zero days’ in Idyllwild).
This book is the bestselling book about hiking since Bill Bryson’s inimitable Appalachian Trail narrative, A Walk in the Woods. They are very different. Bryson’s style is of slapdash, cutting humor, leavened with doses of discussion of serious outdoor issues. Nobody can match him in the entertainment department. However, if you ask me, Cheryl Strayed has the more powerful story to tell. In fact, this book is as much of a personal memoir as a hiking book. It is the story of a very troubled woman indeed, who looks into the abyss and finds another way. She is bound to become a heroine to certain independent-minded young, and even middle-aged and older, women who desire adventure.
As a fellow author, one of the things I most liked about the author is the fact that she is such an unlikely member of the New York Times bestseller list, given her troubled upbringing. Rather than an elite education in Ivy League universities, she bounced with her mother, brother, and sister in a virutally penniless tour-de-force of America’s working-class backwaters. Then when she gets married and her husband starts talking about moving to New York, she writes imaginitively, “I’d wear funky ponchos with adorable knitted hats and cool boots, while becoming a writer in the same romantic, down-and-out way that so many of my literary heroes and heroines had.” But that didn’t happen. More turbulence, heartbreak, and tragedy awaited her.
I recently read an analysis of contemporary writers. “They are very well-educated, and polished as can be. But they lack stories. They haven’t lived. Where are your Hemingways?” In that one sense at least, Cheryl Strayed takes after Hemingway. Whatever she lacks in formal education, she more than makes up for with cuts and bruises.
As an author of a Pacific Crest Trail book myself, I am excited at the way interest and awareness of the PCT has been sharply ratcheted up. Indeed, my sales have increased noticeably since the publication of her book. In a nation with an obesity rate of almost one in three persons, the more people who take to the ‘Great Outdoors’, the better. “Why go out there and punish yourself?” people often ask me. Mrs. Strayed gives a brilliant answer for that on page 80 of her book: “I felt better than I’d ever felt in all of my life, now that the trail had taught me how horrible I could feel.”
Bill Walker is the author of Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail (2010). He is also the author of ‘The Best Way–El Camino de Santiago (2012), as well as Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail (2008). Walker, who is nearly 7-feet tall, is currently working on a whimsical book on the subject of height.