- Date Finished: Oct. 1, 2014
- Genre: Memoir
- Year: 2012
- Project: n/a
- Reading List: Fall 2014, 65 Books to Read in Your 20’s
- Grade: A
- Thoughts upon reading:
I don’t like to think of myself as “that” girl, – that girl who reads all the hot books, the books Oprah talks about, the books people “gush over” on the Internet, the “girly” books. I like to think that my tastes are refined and educated enough to go beyond motivational chick lit, lighting instead on “serious literature.”
Then, I remember that’s stupid, and I’m a woman, and I like books that are powerful, and well-written, and compelling. If these books happen to fall into the chick lit genre, so be it. You would have thought I would have learned my lesson after loving Eat Pray Love (who would have thought?). If I didn’t then, Cheryl Strayed’s wonderful memoir Wild brought me back to how great strong woman writers with interesting stories to tell can be.
One more caveat, though: while reviewing Mary Carr’s memoir Lit, I mentioned that memoirs sometimes seem silly to me. Like, memoir-writing is “the thing” for young writers now, no matter if your life is interesting or not. I still think that, but luckily Wild did not fall into this category.
I think the reason Wild is so strong is because Cheryl Strayed has a legitimately powerful story to tell. After losing her mother to cancer when she was 21, Strayed’s life begins to fall apart in bits and pieces. She never finishes college. She starts using men for sex, cheating on her husband, resulting in a long, emotional divorce. She experiments with drugs. Four years later, her life is falling apart, and so she decides to do something radical and very unexpected: hike almost the entire length of California and Oregon on the Pacific Crest Trail. Kind of like the Appalachian Trail, the PCT is a rugged, wilderness trail that snakes through brutal deserts, snowy mountain passes, and leafy forests. It’s dangerous and crazy difficult, and for some reason, Strayed – who’s never really hiked much in her life – decides she’s going to do it, if only to find some kind of redemption and rescue in the wilderness.
As you can expect, the story is very powerful. I was constantly in awe of Strayed’s courage to tackle the trail, even though she’s honest with herself – and readers – the entire time. She refers to herself as a big fat idiot almost the entire way, marveling at her own mistakes and shortcomings. She makes sure we know the pain is constant, and never goes away. She tells us about the nights she talked herself to sleep, telling herself that she wasn’t afraid, even though she desperately was. The PCT puts hikers WAY out there in the wilderness, and it’s easy to see how one could easily get lost, be bitten by a rattlesnake, fall off a mountain, run out of water, freeze … and just die. There’s no other way to put it – you can just die out there. Very easily. That’s not to mention that Strayed was near broke while doing this, meaning at some times, the $20 in her pocket was all she had in the world (well, beside her backpack). There’s mention of stops on the trail where she wanders into stores and restaurants, wanting to EAT so badly – but she doesn’t have the money for it. If the wilderness isn’t scary enough, being that down and out would make me feel even more alone and scared.
Suffice it to say, I could not do this (though I wouldn’t mind a day hike on the PCT!). I was very impressed with the accounts of the PCT, so much so that I think it’s even more impressive than the AT from A Walk in the Woods by my fav, Bill Bryson. Strayed’s journey on the PCT makes it looks like Bryson took a leisurely stroll up the AT. I mean, lucky Bryson never had to worry about money, and was even able to enjoy a nice stop in Gatlinburg – Gatlinburg! He also has a house to return to, and gets off the trail for a time to do some day hikes. When he and his hiking partner run into their first life or death situation in Maine, they decide to cut their AT adventure short and go home. But Strayed never really has that option. She has to press on; she has no choice. Some kind of new life is waiting for her at the end of the trail, but in the meanwhile, she has no choice but to walk there.
To be honest, I was constantly on edge while reading this book just waiting for the moment when Strayed would be approached by a man with bad things on his mind. I mean, when Strayed does this, she’s 26, thin, blond, and pretty – and very much alone. I actually think I would be less scared of the solitude and mountain lions than I would of being raped. It’s unfortunate that that is the truth of today’s society, but there it is. Happily enough, Strayed only runs into one potentially dangerous situation on the trail, and it’s near the end (which makes for a nice climax!). What I was surprised to learn was how many supportive and kind people Strayed met while on the trail, including many men (and women) who took care of her, gave her rides, helped organize her pack, shared their precious food … and did not rape her. It’s amazing and hopeful…but at the same time, if I were going to take a similar hike today, I would either not go it alone, or I’d carry a weapon. Again, Strayed has some serious guts. I only wish I could be so brave.