Cheryl Strayed. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Knopf. 2012.
Reviewed by Paul Haney
Cheryl Strayed’s new memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, is about a 26-year-old woman coming to terms with the hardships of her life by retreating for two months to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. This retreat, however, is no vacation. Strayed encounters snakes and bears, turns to a traveling community of hikers for kinship and guidance, and faces the seemingly insurmountable challenges that lay before a woman who, never having hiked, must fend for herself in the wilderness.
But that’s not exactly right.
Like any good quest recounted, Wild is as much about the myriad circumstances that drive our protagonist into the wild and compel her to put one foot after another as it is about the journey itself.
The book is about Strayed’s romantic relationships, her infidelities leading to a divorce from the husband she loves. “What I had to have when it came to love was beyond explanation” she writes (33), then confesses to a heroine-addled affair with a man from Portland, refers often to the roll of condoms she carries with her on the trail, and tells of a final (albeit fulfilling) one-night stand. Strayed’s transformation becomes clear when, on parting, she tells the man, “’Don’t call me baby’” (261).
Then again, Wild might be about Strayed’s mother’s abrupt death four years prior to her journey, the ensuing gulf between her and her siblings, and the absence of a father figure. Thoughts about her broken family haunt her on the trail. Strayed says the flowers, whose names she learned from her mother, “seemed to speak to me, saying their names to me in my mother’s voice” (192-93). Later, we flash to her mother’s deathbed, cremation, and the moment when Strayed writes, “I put her burnt bones in my mouth and swallowed them whole” (269).
Or maybe Wild is a story about naming: naming the hurt; defining the size and shape of those emotional bruises; claiming ownership of one’s own life. Our narrator even renames herself, adopting the surname Strayed as a gesture of empowerment. She writes: “I didn’t embrace the word as my new name because it defined negative aspects of my circumstances or life, but because even in my darkest days—those very days in which I was naming myself—I saw the power of the darkness. Saw that, in fact, I had strayed and that I was a stray” (Strayed’s emphases 97). By changing her name, Strayed merges with her tribulations so she can face them and use them. More verbiage comes into play as she employs mantras and incantations to create a more palatable reality during the hardest times. “Who is tougher than me?… No one” she announces, donning her impossibly heavy backpack named Monster, though she admits it isn’t true.
Maybe Wild is a love story between Strayed and Monster. Early in her hike Monster—stuffed with nonessential items—elicits laughter from other hikers and desperation from Strayed. But after Strayed discards half its contents, grows callouses where its straps rub, and learns to carry its weight, she and Monster make up for lost miles.
Monster isn’t the only piece of equipment that gives Strayed trouble. Wild is also a story about feet and the battering they take, especially when squeezed into boots one size too small. Our narrator keeps tally between her and the PCT over who lays claim to more of her toenails as they pop off one by one.
However, the descriptions of Strayed’s mangled toes aren’t the most gruesome in the book. Wild also includes probably the most gruesome scene of euthanization you’ll ever read. Strayed, her husband, and her brother must lead their elderly horse into the snowy woods and shoot her in the head. After the first few rounds, Strayed writes, “Her eyes were wild upon us, shocked by what we’d done, her face a constellation of bloodless holes” (161); it gets worse from there. What this grotesque scene has to do with hiking the PCT becomes apparent by the end.
In fact, Strayed weaves all her tangents together into a tapestry of her younger self. At the center of this tapestry lies the PCT, delivering Strayed from her era of hardship. She couldn’t have told the story of the trail, sold her motivation for each step, without exploring these threads. However, Wild is also a book about great literature, as our heroine inventories the books read and burned along the way. The only book that survives from start to finish is The Dream of a Common Language, an appropriate choice as Strayed dives into the wreck of her life at the time of hiking the PCT.
Cheryl Strayed has published award-winning stories and essays in the New York Times Magazine, Allure, Elle, and Nerve, among others. She has been responsible for The Rumpus “Dear Sugar” column since 2010. Widely anthologized, her creative nonfiction has been selected twice for The Best American Essays, and The Best New American Voices 2003. Strayed has worked as a political organizer for women’s advocacy groups and was an outreach worker at a sexual violence center in Minneapolis. She holds an MFA from the Syracuse University Graduate Creative Writing Program.
Paul Haney is a master’s student at Florida State University and contributing writer and reviewer for SEROnline. He is currently at work on a travel writing project, addressing the question “What does it mean to be an American?” by seeing the country by rail. You can read essays on his blog, Haney on the Train.