Summer is a great time to do something ambitious and physically challenging, for example, hiking a thousand miles through the mountains. But since August is already on the horizon, it's probably a tad too late to embark on such an endeavor this year. However, there's still plenty of time to do it vicariously via Cheryl Strayed's engaging book Wild.
Wild recounts the story of Strayed's solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, a journey she undertook one summer several years ago. The book has been generating buzz for months, ever since Oprah announced it as the reason she was reviving her book club. I was intrigued, but afraid it would be full of banal observations about finding inner strength and overcoming adversity. The last thing I wanted to do on my summer vacation was sit down with a book that read like a string of sentimental Hallmark cards.
Then I discovered that the author was a columnist for The Rumpus, an offbeat online literary magazine, and her column is known for being forthright and honest, even funny. My fears about Wild being sappy and sentimental were allayed. In fact, I thought it might be humorous, sort of like a female version of Bill Bryson's book A Walk in the Woods.
A journey to save herself
So, I was quite surprised to find myself choking back tears in the first few chapters. Strayed introduces her journey by describing how she becomes unhinged by the devastating death of her mother. In the wake of her grief, her ties with her siblings become strained, her relationship with her stepfather evaporates, her marriage falls apart, and she plunges into drug use. With her life falling down around her, she makes the impulsive decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail alone, a desperate attempt to save herself.
The fact that she'd never really backpacked before is just a minor afterthought. Before she embarks on her journey, she lists everything she plans to bring in her pack. Even the most novice hiker can't help but cringe. And sure enough, Strayed describes her comic-like attempts to hoist the pack onto her back. She can barely lift it. And yet she plans to hike 14 miles a day, carrying that heavy load? Reading the scene feels a bit like watching a driver run a red light, an indication that things will not go well.
Strayed takes us with her into the back-country along with her ridiculously large pack, describing the long days, the beautiful scenery, the dark nights. Strayed manages to artfully weave the day-to-day experience of her hike with flashbacks that fill in the details of her life. She also ties in information about the trail itself and gives us side stories about the people she meets along the way.
Hiking through words
Strayed's details are vivid and the story is engaging. I felt like I was hiking right along with her, every step of the way, suffering through sore muscles, blisters, and exhaustion. It was like getting a workout, without taking a single step.
The way Strayed writes is both conversational and compelling, like sitting down with a friend over a glass of wine and a good tale to tell. Wild is the perfect summer read, the kind of book that causes you to lose track of time. You find yourself sitting in a beach chair, fully absorbed in the narrative until the chill on your skin reminds you that the day is over, you completely forgot about making dinner, you have a sunburn, and you've lost track of your kids. And still, you want to finish the chapter.
Strayed began her journey as a result of losing her mother, and as the reader, we can't help but step into the parental role. We see her make mistakes. We shake our heads when she ends up short on cash, again. We urge her not to have drinks with that guy she just met, but she never listens to us anyway. When she's gulping the last of her water on a hot dry day, with no place to replenish, we want to say, “Are you sure that's a good idea?”
But we know that she'll get through it. We have faith her in. We believe that yes, she may stumble, but she'll get up again and be stronger for it. As any mother knows, only she can make the journey. We're just lucky she shared it with us.