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

Daring to Rest

I’ve written a lot about rest this week. So far, I’ve stuck with my plan to take some rest time in the afternoons. Yesterday I was reminded of kindergarten, with my little red mat, and the milk and cookies that came after quiet time. I never slept — I wasn’t a napper, even then — but I remember fondly curling up on that mat. Maybe it’s why I’ve come to love my yoga mat so much!

There’s a hidden danger in all this resting, however. Dare to rest, and I cannot be responsible for what might happen!

When we find ourselves in a quiet, peaceful space, allowing our minds to unclutter, something happens. We start to notice the thoughts and feelings rattling around inside, and hearing our inner truth. It’s not always pretty, and it can definitely be inconvenient!

Case in point: since we returned from Switzerland, we’re still in a restful mode. We’re working, but we’re unwilling to put pressure on ourselves to achieve. In the quiet of our return, a message has emerged loud and clear. Well, it’s more like a question. “If you like the mountains so much, why do you still live in Houston?”

Indeed. Why are we here?

For years, the answer was easy. I had work and friends. Henry was raising a family, and his parents were here as well. I even used to like the heat! Then his children grew up and left home, and his parents died. While all of this was going on, we were traveling more, and taking trekking poles with us wherever we went. Our travel decisions started to center on where we could hike. We fell in love with two places in particular: the Pacific Northwest and Switzerland.

Still, we didn’t stop to think about living elsewhere until we came home. Henry called me from a bike ride, complaining about the heat and the lack of places to bike in the city.  I, meantime, was doing my daily meditations and starting to rest. “Why not move?” the inner voice asked. “Why not live in the environment that you love the best?”

Why not? Because we humans love inertia and habit. Sometimes the prospect of change just looks like too darn much work. Still, there comes a time when the pain of change is less than the pain of staying the same, and I think we’re just about there.

We are taking the next step by planning a trip to explore an area in Washington State that meets the criteria we have set. I try not to think about the work involved, of selling our house, finding another, and moving all our stuff a few thousand miles. This is the problem with resting. When you start getting ideas, they involve a certain amount of work.

Resting stops our complacency. Resting asks questions. Resting holds a mirror up to us and suggests, gently, that we see things a little differently. It may not cause us to want to relocate, but it may show us something in life that wants to change. Resting reveals who we are under all that busy-ness. There, we may feel emotions we don’t want to feel — but we will also learn the truth of ourselves. We will find our yearnings, our hopes, our dreams. We find surprises. I didn’t know until age 51 that I had a passion, and a certain amount of skill, for gardening. Resting showed me the way and suggested that I give it a go.

Rest if you dare! Take a little time each day, even if it’s five minutes, and let yourself unplug from the world. What does your rest tell you?