Many of us wish we’d done this or that—taken that trip, quit that job, or started a project—but Cheryl Strayed put a chance moment in an outdoor store’s checkout line to good use. Due to a glance at the back of a Pacific Crest Trail guidebook, she got the itch to do it. Then actually did.
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The story of how she did it, however, is not that easy. In her memoir, Wild, Strayed is wrestling with some mighty beasts by her mid-20s—divorce, her mother’s illness and death, drug abuse, and that just-what-the-hell-am-I-doing-with-my-life? malaise of young adulthood. Strayed may be lost when she hits the trail, but she knows that it’s something she’s got to do. And despite the many challenges—exhaustion, dehydration and her feet being beaten into a bloody pulp—she has many epiphanies on the trail, big and small, and is forever changed by her adventure.
In a starred review, we called Wild, “a candid, inspiring narrative of the author’s brutal physical and psychological journey through a wilderness of despair to a renewed sense of self.” In any case, it’s an incredibly rewarding read for anyone who craves adventure, closure and moving forward.
The book takes place during your 20s. What spurred the decision to write it now?
I teach memoir sometimes, and I always say to students just because you have an interesting story or tragic story or fantastic story, or whatever it is, it doesn’t mean you should tell that story until you have something to say about that experience. All of us have had all kinds of experiences, but the writer’s job is to bring his or her consciousness to bear on that experience. Sometimes it takes quite a while to figure out what something meant to your life.
And then it’s time, just logistical, learning how to become a writer, growing up, doing all those things that a writer has to do. My first novel was Torch—every writer has that first book in them that they have to do before they can go on. Years passed, and the story of my hike was always one I would tell people about at dinner parties, and they would always say, “You have to write about it.”
I think what happened is that something inside me, that material had to compost…then a few years ago I realized that I did have something to say about it. Part of it, for example, I could write about Minnesota [her home state] best after I’d left it. I couldn’t write about my 20s until I had a perspective on them. I couldn’t until my late 30s, and I’d moved into different space. I became a mother, settled and fulfilled in a way, and that was when I could write about that time of my life. It’s sort of a coming-of-age tale.
You used journals and memory to write the story. Were there any surprises along this journey? Anything or anybody you forgot about who popped back up?
In some ways, it’s like it’s back in ’95, and in some ways, it seems like yesterday. I had my journal and read it a couple times between when I wrote Wild and hiked…It was very helpful in terms of memory, in terms of this thing happened and this thing happened, the order of events, details. I couldn’t have written it without my journal…After I met someone, I’d sit down and write pages and pages—about the meeting, quoting what they said—it may not be the most direct quote, but I’m writing the quote an hour after those conversations actually happened, not 15 years later.
One thing that I was really struck by, I got in touch with a few people I met on the trail, and I’d say, “Just tell me what you remember about that night, about what we said together,” and pretty much always what they remembered was what I remembered.
You mention many trials on the way: dehydration, hunger, your feet especially play a huge role… what you went through is emblematic of the entire trip, i.e., there is a lot of pain, but it gets you to where you need to go.
It was interesting the relationship between physical suffering and emotional suffering. When I went on that trip, I was suffering emotionally and spiritually, I was lost and hurting and felt that my life was going in a direction that it shouldn’t. I felt like I’d lost my center.
And I had this idea that a lot of people have: I grew up in rural Minnesota and I know the realities of the natural world—not this all idealized version people have—yet I did kind of have an idealized version of what it would be like to hike the PCT. I thought, well, it will be hard, but it will mostly be me pondering things while the sun sets. I had this very benign ideal of what the experience would be like.
Then, of course, I get out there and realize that this is going to be the biggest physical hardship of my life, to do what I did. It entailed a lot of physical discomfort and, at times, actual suffering. My feet were always in pain, and to this day, I gave birth to both my kids naturally outside the hospital, with no medical intervention—my son was 11 pounds, my daughter 10—and those were the two most painful experiences in my life. But the third most painful was hiking the PCT.
What was fascinating to me about that was that I realized that this [the hike] was going to be my cure, to take my mind off of that [emotional pain]. It wasn’t that I needed to reflect more deeply on my emotional suffering—in some ways, I needed to blunt it in someway else. I needed some sort of different reality. To this day, I still cry over my mom at times. It didn’t make it all better, but it reshifted my perspective, put me into the physical experience. I had to rely on myself, I had to be powerful, and that really spilled over in to my emotional and spiritual life.
You decided to do this strenuous, at times dangerous, hike alone. Most women do not travel alone, but what are your thoughts for women thinking about taking the plunge?
My first impulse is to say, do it. The reason women don’t go by themselves is because of cultural fear…We’re told over and over again bad things happen to women traveling alone. The sad truth is that some things do happen to women alone. That moment in Oregon, when I met two men who felt very threatening to me, I realized that something bad may happen to me and obliterate all the wonderfulness that had come before.
I say this with all humility. If things turned out differently, I may have a different perspective, but they did turn out wonderfully. In some ways, it’s really when women agree to continue to be afraid that it only makes the world a more dangerous place for women. We’re cooperating with that kind of belief system that we’re not strong and safe alone.
A lot of the fear stuff is perception…I was in a world most people weren’t in. It feels dangerous, but it’s important to ask yourself, is it more dangerous? Or am I just going along with these conventionally agreed upon fears? And therefore limiting yourself…If you want to have a big life and fulfill your dreams and see what you’re capable of, you have to take some chances, in writing as in life.
Molly Brown is the features editor at Kirkus.