Nonfiction – Memoir
2012 Random House Audio
Reader: Bernadette Dunne
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)
From the author’s website:
A powerful, blazingly honest memoir: the story of an eleven-hundred-mile solo hike that broke down a young woman reeling from catastrophe—and built her back up again. At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she'd lost everything when her mother died young of cancer. Her family scattered in their grief, her marriage was soon destroyed, and slowly her life spun out of control. Four years after her mother's death, with nothing more to lose, Strayed made the most impulsive decision of her life: to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State—and to do it alone. She had no experience as a long-distance hiker--indeed, she'd never gone backpacking before her first night on the trail. Her trek was little more than “an idea, vague and outlandish and full of promise.” But it was a promise of piecing back together a life that had come undone. Strayed faces down rattlesnakes and black bears, intense heat and record snowfalls, and both the beauty and intense loneliness of the trail. Told with great suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild vividly captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.
When I was a young girl, my family and I lived in central California. My parents owned a small sailboat, a Glen-L 13 named “Aquarius” (it was the late 60s, after all), which we took on our camping trips to Whiskeytown, Trinity Lake, and Howard Prairie (Oregon). I loved these mini-vacations. We spent the day on the boat, swam in the lake (no matter how icy-cold it was!), met kids around the campgrounds to explore with, played cards at the picnic table after dinner, but most importantly, we got to eat cereal out of those cute little individual cardboard boxes. You know the ones. You poured milk into the box after cutting the flaps open to fold back, creating a disposable bowl. It was always the kind of cereal we never got at home. Sugar Pops. Fruit Loops. Frosted Flakes. Camping was one big treat!
Of course, when my husband and I took our girls camping to Hume Lake (in the Sequoia National Forest), it was a lot more work than I remembered (or even realized) my parents ever having to endure. Unload the car. Set up the tents. Gather firewood. Unpack the food crate, which was secured in a box to keep the bears from helping themselves. Fire up the camp stove. Cook a meal. Clean up the dishes. Pack up the food. Secure it from the bears. Repeat again for lunch and dinner. No different from home, but quite a bit more involved. And, of course, spend night after night in a sleeping bag on the hard, cold ground, which was much more fun at 8 and 9 than at 30!
So, I’ve camped and I’ve gone to camp (church camps on Lake Tahoe and thereabouts), but I have never backpacked a day in my life. My older brother, however, was very active in Boy Scouts (he eventually made Eagle Scout) and went on what seemed like dozens of backpacking trips. I used to watch him prepare for a hike, getting his gear together, filling his pack with all those wonderful gadgets, utensils and freeze-dried food pouches for cooking meals over a campfire. I never asked to try the backpack on to see if I could carry it, nor did I ask if his feet ever hurt or if there were bugs and snakes or how cold it got at night (or after getting soaked in a downpour). Instead, I romanticized the whole idea of hiking in the woods with a bunch of friends. I wanted to eat GORP and beef jerky. I wanted to learn how to tie knots and start a fire with sticks. I wanted to identify wild animal tracks and find the North Star to guide me to my campsite. I even wanted the blisters to prove I’d hiked a challenging trail, with near misses from bears and rattlesnakes and mountain lions.
How hard could it be? If my brother (who is only two-and-a-half years older than I) could do it, I certainly could.
I wanted to go!!
However, as I began to listen to Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about hiking the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail), my first thoughts were, What an idiot! She doesn’t have a clue as to what she’s in for! As she listed all the items she planned to carry on her back, I thought, She’s screwed.
Strayed never bothered to pack her backpack and take it on a trial run prior to her trip. It was day 1 on the PCT and she was only just then loading her pack! And she did this by simply throwing everything she’d bought at REI (items already in her pack, as well as those filling two oversized department store bags) into the pack until she’d run out of room, forcing her to attach all the extras, along with her tent and sleeping bag and camp chair and food bag to the outside of the pack with bungee cords. And then there was realization that she still had to carry two days’ worth of water, which alone weighed 24.5 lbs.! The only way Strayed could manage to get the pack on her back was to sit on the floor in front of the pack, rocking back and forth to gain momentum, after weaving her arms through the shoulder straps. It’s no wonder she named it “Monster.”
So, here you have a woman alone in the woods, with plans to hike eleven hundred miles, pleased with the “look” of being a backpacker.
The trail headed east, paralleling the highway for a while, dipping down into rocky washes and back up again. I’m hiking! I thought. And then, I am hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail. It was this very act, of hiking, that had been at the heart of my belief that such a trip was a reasonable endeavor. What is hiking but walking, after all? I can walk! I’d argued when Paul had expressed his concern about my never actually having gone backpacking. I walked all the time. I walked for hours on end in my work as a waitress. I walked around the cities I lived in and visited. I walked for pleasure and purpose. All of these things were true. But after about fifteen minutes of walking on the PCT, it was clear that I had never walked into desert mountains in early June with a pack that weighed significantly more than half of what I did strapped onto my back.Which, it turns out, is not very much like walking at all. Which, in fact, resembles walking less than it does hell.I began panting and sweating immediately, dust caking my boots and calves as the trail turned north and began to climb rather than undulate. Each step was a toil, as I ascended higher and higher still, interrupted only by the occasional short descent, which was not so much a break in the hell as it was a new kind of hell because I had to brace myself against each step, lest gravity’s pull cause me, with my tremendous, uncontrollable weight, to catapult forward and fall. I felt like the pack was not so much attached to me as me to it. Like I was a building with limbs, unmoored from my foundation, careening through the wilderness.Within forty minutes, the voice inside my head was screaming, What have I gotten myself into?
And of course, this is all before Strayed has to worry about rattlesnakes and bears and mountain lions and running out of water and running out of money and losing a hiking boot. I did have to laugh when I heard the words, “I’m hiking!” I envisioned Bill Murray strapped to the mast of a sailboat, exclaiming, “I’m sailing!” (in What About Bob).
When Cheryl Strayed was 22, her mother died of cancer at the young age of 45. Her marriage fell apart and she felt lost in the world. It was then that she impulsively decided to hike the PCT. Impulsive is the key word here. And inexperienced is more than an understatement! But as the narrative progressed, I found myself rooting for Strayed, admiring her steadfast courage and ability to adapt to tough situations. And, yes, I was slightly envious.
Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren’t a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was. The radical aloneness of the PCT had altered that sense. Alone wasn’t a room anymore, but the whole wide world, and now I was alone in that world, occupying it in a way I never had before. Living at large like this, without even a roof over my head, made the world feel both bigger and smaller to me. Until now, I hadn’t truly understood the world’s vastness—hadn’t even understood how vast a mile could be—until each mile was beheld at walking speed. And yet there was also its opposite, the strange intimacy I’d come to have with the trail, the way the pinon pines and monkey flowers I passed that morning, the shallow streams I crossed, felt familiar and known, though I’d never passed them or crossed them before.
Final Thoughts: I wound up enjoying this memoir so much more than I had anticipated. In addition to the details of the actual hike, it was fun to read about familiar locations such as Mount Lassen, Crater Lake, Mount Hood, the Timberline Lodge, and the Columbia River. I thoroughly enjoyed the audio version and was quite pleased with the reader (Bernadette Dunne), whom I originally thought was the author, as she spoke with such emotion and conviction from start to finish. And, I did not realize that Cheryl Strayed was a novelist until I began the book and suddenly had a sense of déjà vu. I had read her debut novel, Torch, almost three years ago and now realize it was somewhat autobiographical. (The main character’s mother dies of cancer at an early age, leaving behind three young children.) You can find my review for that book here. And, I plan to add Tiny Beautiful Things (Strayed's latest publication) to my TBR list.
For more information about the Pacific Crest Trail, visit this site.
The following trailer is also worth a look.