I've been looking forward to reading "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail" by Cheryl Strayed all summer, and apparently so have legions of armchair adventurers. After receiving the blessing of Oprah, the book shot to the top of the New York Times best-seller list, joining "A Walk In the Woods" as unlikely bestsellers about hiking long distances with the prospect of little food and trees for companions.
"Wild" opens with the interesting premise: would you hike alone in the wilderness? Many seasoned travelers balk at the thought, even in well-trod places like national parks. Hikers half-expect crazed hillbillies and mountain lions to emerge from the shadows ready to ambush, when perhaps the greatest danger they face is being left alone in the woods with their thoughts.
“Wild” follows a pattern to those familiar with books based on pilgrimages that date back to the “Canterbury Tales,” taking the form of the hero’s journey with a cast of holy fools and seekers. An essayist and advice columnist, Strayed seems well-suited to the task, laying down surefooted sentences that carry the book briskly along, even though most of the dialogue is inside her head and she assumes most of the speaking parts.
Aged 26, Strayed takes to the Pacific Crest Trail or PCT after the collapse of her first marriage. Divorced with a destructive bent, she dabbles in heroin and bed hopping, making one questionable decision after the next. She decides to tackle the PCT on a whim, having gleaned what she knows of the trail from the cover of a guidebook while perusing the shelves at REI. With little forethought, her next move is to embark on a 1,100-mile wilderness trip with no backpacking experience beyond childhood camping trips in the North Woods of her native Minnesota.
None of this readies her for the rigors of the PCT. For much of its length, the formidable trail threads its way through the mountain ranges of California, Oregon and Washington with few amenities to speak of. Each spring hundreds of thru-hikers start their journey on the fringes of the Mojave Desert near the U.S.-Mexico border in the hopes of reaching the Canadian border before winter sets in. Completing the trail in time becomes a race against the seasons, even for the fittest backpackers embarking on the 2,500-mile-plus journey. Many fail due to harsh weather conditions and trail-related issues such as tedium and homesickness.
Strayed hits the trail in arid Southern California near Tehachapi Pass determined to reach Oregon, woefully unprepared for the physical for the mental challenges that lie ahead. The PCT is not the place for inexperienced hikers, hypochondriacs or nervous types. Even if the terrain doesn’t take its toll then trail gremlins will, as exhausted hikers can spend anxious hours seeking potable water or decent campsites along the trail.
In this case, her misfortune makes for a remarkable story. Like a penitent, Strayed suffers. At first, she struggles to adjust to the deprivations of trail life such as lack of food and water. And then she begins to unpack her emotional baggage with miles upon miles of open ground to cover. With a loopy mix tape of half-forgotten songs and jingles playing inside her head, what bubbles to the surface are unpleasant memories of a turbulent childhood and feelings of abandonment. Burdened with the sudden loss of her mother to cancer that leaves her shattered, days on the trail are filled with loss and longing for what remains of her scattered family.
Fortunately, Strayed discovers that humping heavy loads through the wilderness can be both a blessing and a curse, interrupted by moments of rapture when the universe seems to click. On the downside, hikers having traversed rough terrain through knee-buckling heat can find themselves in a remote campsite at roughly the same elevation as when they started at sunrise. The reward is stopping for the day, capped by a glorious sunset of lavenders and pinks glinting across an alpine meadow (Ah bliss!).
The trail leaves her bruised and bloodied, much of it her own doing. Her greatest enemies aren’t lurking woodland creatures but her hiking boots (purchased one size too small). Her overloaded pack, which she dubs the Monster, rubs her torso raw. Faced with carrying a heavy physical and mental load, she learns to embrace the trail, putting one boot in front of the other over mountain passes, traversing sketchy snowfields and marching through parched landscapes. Pushing through difficult miles despite the circumstance becomes part of her recovery.
“Wild” is the antipode to “A Walk In the Woods.” The latter is leavened with humor throughout, while the former swings between a wilderness narrative and a searing memoir of a woman living on the edge. Part confessional, part adventure story, “Wild” has the best possible outcome for Strayed.