I found it impossible to have much respect for Cheryl Strayed, author of “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” (Knopf, 2012), at the beginning of her best-selling memoir. Conducting little research, she made the impulsive decision in 1995 to hike a major section of the 2,663-mile Pacific Crest Trail.
Strayed finds herself some months later in a small motel in the Mojave Desert, attempting with little success to lift a gargantuan backpack she nicknames “Monster.” At that point, Strayed had never been backpacking, had not talked to anyone who had hiked the trail and had done little more than make repeated trips to REI for supplies and skimmed one or two books about the hike.
Over the course of the book, however, my respect for Strayed grew immensely, to the point where I found myself repeatedly saying, “This girl has got a lot of grit!”
Strayed begins her book with the poignant story of her 45-year-old mother’s death from cancer. Her mother raised three children with very little money and no husband, and her passing precipitates a series of crises in Strayed’s life. Within a short time, she loses her mother, her siblings relocate to other cities and her stepfather remarries.
In her confusion and grief, Strayed divorces her husband, becomes promiscuous and experiments with heroin. She determines to undertake a physically challenging adventure that is out of her comfort zone, an effort to reclaim control of her life.
She recounts her experiences walking approximately 1,100 miles in chronological order, intersplicing the narrative with thoughts on family, friends and her reckless behavior. On her odyssey, Strayed, who journeyed alone most of the time, encounters bears, rattlesnakes, intense heat and some large, icy patches of snow that she must traverse.
Her hike prompts much soul-searching, and she ultimately finds the experience therapeutic. She reflects: “That was my father: the man who hadn’t fathered me. It amazed me every time. ... But on that night as I gazed out over the darkening land fifty-some nights out on the PCT, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to be amazed by him anymore. There were so many other amazing things in this world.”
I enjoyed reading of the insights Strayed uncovers as she hikes the trail. Her courage shines through the pages. “Wild” reminds me of another book about a woman’s physical, emotional and spiritual journey, Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” (Viking Adult, 2006). I would recommend both books for book clubs that savor stories of self-growth.
Leslie Ashmore, a longtime Mountain View resident, belongs to two book clubs.