Reese Witherspoon in Wild.
Welcome to Book Club, where we’re reviewing books, old and new, that inspire, empower and motivate women. Today: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed’s epic 2012 memoir about thru-hiking the PCT.
“I was alone. I was barefoot. I was twenty-six years old and an orphan too.” These words are nestled in the prologue of Wild, the best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed that is now also a movie of the same name starring Reese Witherspoon. In the scene, Strayed is standing atop a mountain slope in northern California, which isn’t necessarily unusual for a healthy 26-year-old woman. What is unusual is that at that moment, Strayed is 38 days into a solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, a 4,000km long trail that runs from southern California all the way up the west coast of America and into Canada.
If you didn’t know otherwise, you’d think that the young, blonde woman standing on that mountain was simply the adventurous type, not a woman “at the end of a line.” But she is; four years earlier, Strayed’s mother had died of lung cancer, just 49 days after her initial diagnosis, and well short of the year doctors had given her to live. In the wake of her mother’s death, Strayed “became unmoored by sorrow,” and that is when her story begins.
A week after her mother dies, Strayed kisses a man, which one might consider a reasonable emotional reaction were it not for the fact Strayed was married to “a good man named Paul.” A week later it happens again, and in the months that followed the pattern continued. Eventually, Strayed and her husband move to New York where, Strayed writes, “I could have a fresh start. I would stop messing around with men. I would stop grieving so fiercely. I would stop raging over the family I used to have.”
A fresh start is rarely as clean as the term implies, and for Strayed, it was anything but. She and Paul left New York after six months and returned briefly to Minnesota, before “departing on a months-long working road trip all across the West, making a wide circle that included the Grand Canyon and Death Valley, Big Sur and San Francisco.”
By journey’s end, they were in Portland, where they would stay and live for a while. It was here that Strayed began to think she could “be Paul’s wife,” but time wore on and soon they were in a long-distance relationship. Paul returned to Minneapolis for work, while Strayed stayed behind in Oregon to see out the housesitting arrangement they had organised for that summer. It was at this time that Strayed began sleeping with other men, a line she had not crossed until that moment.
Cheryl Strayed on the Pacific Crest Trail, 1995.
Eventually, Strayed worked up the courage to tell Paul “not that I didn’t love him. But that I had to be alone, though I didn’t know why.” They embarked on a separation, but three months into it Strayed was still confused: “I wanted neither to get back together with Paul nor to get divorced.”
At the behest of her friend Lisa, Strayed quit her waitressing job, packed her belongings into her truck, and drove west to Portland. Again, she believed in her fresh start, but it was not to be just yet. A few days after Strayed arrives in Portland, a man named Joe walks up to her in a bar. Later that night, they sleep together; a week later, Joe introduces her to heroin.
By the end of the summer, she and Joe were doing heroin every day. Eventually, Lisa called Paul, and he immediately drove “the seventeen hundred miles straight through from Minneapolis to talk to me.” Strayed met Paul in Lisa’s apartment, where he asked her to drive back home with him that afternoon. She did, although that wasn’t the end of her relationship with Joe or heroin. But it soon would be.
Within a few months, things were different. Strayed had found a Pacific Crest Trail guidebook, seemingly by chance, while queuing to buy a shovel. She writes, “I believed I’d only been killing time when I’d picked up the book while standing in line, but now it seemed like something more – a sign. Not only of what I could do, but of what I had to do.”
Strayed was a woman adrift, but the guidebook lit a fire inside her. At some point, she decided she would hike a portion of the trail, solo. For the next months, she would read a copy of The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California over and over again, while taking a refresher course in basic first aid and practicing using her water purifier in her kitchen sink. And she would tell herself, “I had to change. I had to change was the thought that drove me in those months of planning. Not into a different person, but back to the person I used to be – strong and responsible, clear-eyed and driven, ethical and good. And the PCT would make me that way.”
The Pacific Crest Trail.
It was the summer of 1995 when Strayed took her first steps on the Pacific Crest Trail. It would take her three months to hike, from beginning to end, the portion of the trail she had mapped out. Nothing could have prepared her for the journey, both physical and emotional, which lay before her; not the brown leather Raichle boots she has bought for the hike, not her guidebook, not her water purifier nor her tumultuous past.
“Each day on the trail was the only possible preparation for the one that followed,” Strayed writes. “And sometimes even the day before didn’t prepare me for what would happen next. Such as my boots sailing irretrievably off the side of a mountain.”
Throughout her hike, Strayed encounters challenge after challenge: bears, snakes, wild weather, predatory men, the loss of six toenails, the chafing of skin where her backpack rubbed her thigh, generous strangers, frogs. And through it all, she lays her feelings bare. Wild isn’t a glossed-over account of a woman’s journey “from lost to found.” Rather, it is a memoir that perfectly details the raw intricacies of life, the tiny things that can make one break down and cry in one moment and feel joyous in the next. It is a story that will feel familiar, at some point, to any woman reading it.
And while Strayed certainly gets her happy Hollywood ending, it doesn’t arrive in Wild, for Wild is not that book. Wild is about going it alone and the not knowing. Wild is about the possibility of a happy ending, but not the promise. As Strayed writes in the final pages: “It was all unknown to me then, as I sat on that white bench on the day I finished my hike. Everything except the fact that I didn’t have to know. That it was enough to trust that what I’d done was true.”
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail ($16) by Cheryl Strayed