Author: Cheryl Strayed
Pages: 315 (Hardcover)
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Pub. Date: 20 March 2012
Review Disclaimer: This was not sent to me, but a purchase I made myself.
I actually read this months ago, back in late March/early April of this year. I do not generally start many books during that time of year because my day job’s busy season is during those months, and I’m usually just too tired to stay engaged in a story, no matter how well-written it may be.
For whatever reason, I felt compelled to pick up this book when I did. I had been under my usual stress from being so busy at work, and I suppose I just really needed a distraction. What better way to feel better about being stressed out than to read a story about enduring life’s traumas and coming out the other side feeling a little less lost?
Of course, this book in particular has been enjoying some extra press of late (something about Oprah and the revival of a book club). Thankfully, I read this in advance of all the hullabaloo. Even so, I can say that I am happy that Cheryl Strayed is enjoying so much success with this book.
Wild is just that. Wild in everything it conveys. Wild loss, wild love, wild search for center. It begins with the untimely loss of Cheryl’s mother to cancer when Cheryl was only 22 and about to graduate college. Like many families who lose the nucleus of their family unit, everything went haywire very quickly thereafter. There was drifting apart of her family members, anger and dismay in losing a loved one so swiftly. Sorrow, defeat and deep grief. Cheryl gradually found herself in a complicated web of extreme self-destruction — which included a breakup of her marriage — and that was the most mundane of her struggles. Her life as she knew it fell apart very quickly, and a lot of that falling apart came at her own hands.
Many people who find themselves in such a tailspin might be tempted to pull a veil over the more surly parts of their story, or at the very least draw the attention away from behavior that they are not particularly proud of. What I liked about how honest Cheryl is with her audience is that she not only does not hide her self-destruction, she shines a giant bright light on it. I found myself feeling frustration and confusion regarding her behavior at some points, but I also experienced relief when she began to pull herself out of the immense emotional hole she found herself in.
Of course, self-destruction is only a part of the story. In an attempt to put her life in order and at least find her center, Cheryl decided, almost on a whim, to hike a large portion of the Pacific Crest Trail…alone. While she was no stranger to spending time camping and generally finding solace in the outdoors, she had never done any “serious” backpacking. Least of all alone on a rather treacherous trail for three months.
While she researched and planned out how she was going to do this hike, her inexperience in this type of long distance hiking showed from the very beginning. Just to name a few examples: her backpack was overpacked (which she later named “Monster”), her boots were not the proper size, she possibly did not have enough money to sustain herself on pit stops along the route, and so on. The very fact that she decided to do this kind of hike to clear her head/find her center/or at least stop herself from spinning totally out of control speaks to the kind of person she is. People often say that you cannot help someone until they help themselves. To my mind, it was clear that this was her way of pulling herself back from the brink of her personal abyss.
She regales the reader with stories from the trail, peppering it with her interactions and in some cases, bonds that she forms with several people that really are “characters”. Within those stories she expertly weaves in scenes from her past, much like someone might do while daydreaming on a long, long hike. It was not unlike someone recovering from a trauma or addiction. Even as she manages to make connections with others hiking the trail for their own reasons, she makes this journey entirely on her own. She sums up her intentions:
But I wasn’t out here to keep myself from having to say I am not afraid. I’d come, I realized, to stare that fear down, to stare everything down, really — all that I’d done to myself and all that had been done to me. I couldn’t do that while tagging along with someone else. (p.127)
To be honest, I had very little that I could directly relate to from my own life in Cheryl’s story. I didn’t lose a parent at the age of 22. I haven’t had my marriage breakup in a whirlwind of self-destruction, or gone through anything like what she does in her life in these pages. But I have suffered my own tragedies, just as most people have. Sometimes people undergo immense, life-changing challenges, and sometimes people merely suffer through more mundane things in life. That is why Cheryl’s book has had such an impact. It is because the very core of her story is indeed universal. Most people I know can relate to feeling a need to bring focus to their life when things begin to crumble. Cheryl felt that this hike was something she needed to do, to experience, in order to help center her life again, and that is exactly what she got.
I had the pleasure of meeting her while on book tour at the fabulous Capitola Book Café about a month ago. I am happy to say that she is as genuine in person as she is in the pages of her book. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to briefly meet her, and I am so pleased that she will be able to enjoy such well-deserved success.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars. This is an especially great read for any lover of the outdoors, but many readers will undoubtedly find something in the story to relate to.