Cheryl Strayed writes about her life-changing solo backpacking journey in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s not a new book. In fact, it’s been on my digital shelves since 2014. So, I figured, it’s about time I give it a try.
Strayed’s story has practically no parallels with my own life, which is part of what makes this memoir interesting. When she was just 22, her mother dies from cancer. It isn’t a long battle, but it’s fierce and it rocks Strayed’s world. She floats around for four years, trying to find her way in a world without the anchor she’d always counted on.
On the spur of the moment, Strayed decides to hike a large portion of the Pacific Crest Trail from Southern California to Oregon. She plans a bit, buys some supplies, but generally just decides to wing it. This is a wrong and fateful choice that ultimately makes for a much more interesting book.
Strayed has plenty of problems on the trail. Despite everything from limited money to horrible foot and toe problems, she plows forward. Her plan is to hike alone, and mostly she does. But her descriptions of the unique and generous characters she meets on the trail are a good part of the fun in Wild.
When Wild was first published it hit the world with a bang. But I also recall hearing some critical reviews, even though I don’t recall why they were critical. For whatever reason, I thought maybe the book’s hype would get in the way of its content. So I put it off. Fast forward six years post-purchase and here I finally am.
I really enjoyed Wild, even though Strayed at 26 is a hot mess. She’s also endearingly human and navigating relatable emotional and physical losses. Even if I can’t imagine being lost and alone on an isolated trail. Her life was in shambles, some of which she caused by young-adult mistakes. And yet she pulls herself together, repeating her “I’m not afraid” mantra, and soldiers on. This gumption is what I admire, as well as her camping and outdoors skills. (Something I lack completely.)
If you want to escape from suburban or urban reality, but also want to stay grounded in cold, hard truths, then I recommend this memoir. Strayed is a skilled writer, building the suspense of “will she finish the hike” in nuanced and somehow charming layers. I couldn’t help but empathize and root for her.
Pair with an urban travel adventure like Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. Or try When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams, whose internal journeys after her mother’s death shape this excellent book.