Strayed’s memoir has turned out to be not just a bestseller, but a transformational story that has given many women the courage to take enormous risks.
The other day I was reading an essay by Barry Lopez, “Landscape and Narrative.” He tells of visiting a small village in the Brooks Range of Alaska and listening to stories about animals and hunting. He says:
“The stories had renewed in me a sense of the purpose of my life. This feeling, an inexplicable renewal of enthusiasm after storytelling, is familiar to many people. It does not seem to matter greatly what the subject is, as long as the context is intimate and the story is told for its own sake.”
Cheryl Strayed’s Wild has that kind of magic.
This summer Heather Anderson broke a record by backpacking the length of the Pacific Coast Trail, alone and without support, in 61 days. It’s good to see women taking risks and feeling more at home in the world.
Lopez quote: “Landscape and Narrative” in Crossing Open Ground by Barry Lopez, Vintage Books, 1989.
I write this on the night of the supermoon, high in the sky outside my dining room window.
In her journal, Cheryl Strayed kept a list of the books she burned as she walked the Pacific Crest Trail: Dubliners by James Joyce; Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov; The Novel by James Michener; The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California and Volume 2: Oregon and Washington; plus a few more.
Every evening she’d make a campfire, tear out the pages she’d read that day, and feed them to the flames to lighten the load in her over-stuffed pack. I imagine her performing her nightly ritual, the words on paper turning to ash.
Cheryl carried one book the length of her trip: The Dream of a Common Language, by Adrienne Rich.
Reading Wild, I remember this stray fact: In college, I wrote my senior seminar English paper on Adrienne Rich’s Diving Into the Wreck. I’d like to find that old English paper so I can read it after all these years and see what I had to say about Rich’s poetry.
Reading Wild, I remember a vacation in Portland, Oregon to visit family. Our boys were six and nine at the time.
We decided to hike with my sister-in-law and her family along the lower elevations of Mount Hood in search of a waterfall whose name I can’t remember. The map posted at the trail head indicated the hike was a couple of miles. A manageable trip for young children, we thought. The day was hot and sunny, but we walked in the shade of a beautiful pine forest along an easy, well-cleared path.
When Cheryl began walking, her pack was so heavy she couldn’t lift it, and her brand new REI hiking boots were too small. Along the way, she shed many layers of skin from the pads of her feet and several toenails as well.
She’d walk a week without seeing anyone. She’d go days with a handful of change to her name until she reached a town where a supply pack (mailed by a friend) awaited, with necessities and two ten dollar bills to tide her over for the next couple hundred miles.
The day of our hike we walked. And walked. And walked some more. Until it got to be not so much fun anymore. Until the children were dragging, and the teenage cousin and her friend decided to go on ahead.
One of our boys (who shall remain nameless) grew cranky. The heat was intense and our water was running low. But we figured we were almost to the waterfall, so we kept going.
We walked another half hour, and then in a full meltdown, the thoroughly overheated and tired boy refused to go any further. We’d stopped next to a creek, and my husband took his handkerchief, dipped it in the ice-cold mountain water, and we took turns bathing our faces with it.
My in-laws decided to keep going with their children while we cooled off at the stream. Before long, I was ready to move on. My husband stayed behind with the tired one, cajoling him to take off his shoes and socks and wade in the stream.
Our original group had now split into four groups, which made me uneasy. Walking along holding my son’s hand, I hoped the path wouldn’t split off. What if we went the wrong way and got lost? We saw an older couple approaching as they headed back down the trail.
“Are we close to the waterfall?” I asked.
“You’re getting there. But you’ve a ways to go,” the man said. Not what I wanted to hear.
At the age of 26, with little preparation and no extreme hiking experience, Cheryl decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. She was grieving for her mother, who had died in her early forties a month after a cancer diagnosis, and Cheryl had been making a mess of her life ever since. She hoped the trip would save her in some way.
My son and I heard rushing water and felt a million invisible, blessedly cool droplets on our skin before we saw the waterfall. In the clearing ahead, ribbons of spray curved and tumbled down a wall of solid rock, like a bridal veil fluttering in a breeze. Instantly, the temperature dropped ten degrees. We were like parched plants coming back to life after a generous watering.
Everyone had arrived except for my husband and the tired one; they came along a few minutes later. In this peaceful and secluded Shangri La we stretched ourselves out on large, flat rocks and talked as the kids splashed about the stream looking for tadpoles.
Having walked 1100 miles, Cheryl ended her journey at the Bridge of the Gods spanning the Columbia River, which lay between Oregon and Washington.