A Wilderness Book for Wild Women

By age 26, Cheryl Strayed had stumbled over and over again. Her mother had died a few years before, suddenly while still young, from cancer. Her abusive father left when she was only six years old. Estranged from her siblings and adrift with sorrow, Strayed had sabotaged her marriage through infidelity and drug use.

On an impulse, she picked up a book about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and decided to try it. Impulsivity had run her life thus far and hadn’t yielded any positive results; this impulse to attempt a portion of the 2,000+ mile hike could prove fatal.

Though she did some advance preparation, there was no way that this backpacking novice could be ready for such a monumental task — and yet she went anyway.

In Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Strayed describes months of foot-chewing hiking, where she dealt with rain, snow, ice, and heat, often alone with her thoughts. In this remarkable book, beautifully written, she shares the healing she gained on her journey, transforming from a broken young woman to a transformed, empowered one.

Hubby resting on a Colorado hike.

I’ve never backpacked, but I am no slouch as a day hiker. Hubby and I have been known to get up early and hike all day long, especially in Switzerland. While I can’t relate to being alone for months on end, I know how the feet can hurt, especially when the toenails start falling off! I could always sit on a sofa when a needed to, though, with feet propped up so the blisters could heal, so I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to do that day in, day out for months.

Swiss hiking is also known for its excellent facilities. Restaurants pop up in the middle of nowhere so you can fill up on hot apple strudel with vanilla sauce, or, well, grappa if that’s your pleasure. Strayed, on the other hand, cooked while on the trail, eating food she carried with her. On the rare occasions she made it into town, she had to count every penny.

Strayed describes vacillating between pride in each daily accomplishment and a complete and total sense of failure. These can occur on the hiking trail, one after the other, or both at the same time. Again, I only know this from a “day trip” perspective — I understand just enough to be deeply in awe of Strayed’s persistence.

Critics have compared this book, sometimes unfavorably, to Awol on the Appalachian Trail by David Miller. In my view, Awol is a very different book. It is more trail-focused and includes all the interesting people that Miller meets along the way. Strayed’s book is more about her inner journey. The Pacific Crest Trail is less traveled than the Appalachian Trail, and the forced solitude gives Wild a deeply introspective feel as she reflects on her pain, her mistakes, and her grief.

Wild is raw, authentic, and gut-wrenching. I laughed and cried as I read it, sometimes at the same time. I gobbled it up, reading it as quickly as I could, and thinking of it constantly during those times when I had to put it down. The book satisfied me from start to finish, and good thing, too! I had run across a string of boring books lately, and I was due to find a good one.

My idea of lunch on a hike...Swiss rosti, which is like hash browns, with cheese and tomatoes.

While I wouldn’t recommend that anyone new to hiking start with such an extensive journey, I have a real affection for hiking as a way to work out personal challenges and to gain confidence. Out in the fresh air, with one foot in front of the other, one eye on the ground and one eye checking ahead for critters, we find our competence and the best part of ourselves. Strayed learned that lesson…so next time you’re thinking about a self-help book, think about lacing up some hiking boots, grabbing some poles, and heading out on a trail.

Mount Rainier, Washington State

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