In the mid-1990s, Cheryl Strayed walked into the wilderness with a backpack she could barely lift. Reeling from her mother’s death (cancer; 49 days from diagnosis to death), she had a single objective: to hike 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail alone. The 2,663-mile trail runs from Mexico to Canada, but Strayed chose to start in the Mojave Desert and stop at the Oregon-Washington border. Her trek is the subject of “Wild,” a memoir of recovering from debilitating grief by striking out on a journey that’s both necessary and totally insane.
Strayed has one novel to her name, but she’s gained a huge following as the until-recently- anonymous advice columnist Sugar for TheRumpus.net, writing deeply personal essays about dealing with intimacy, loss and self-doubt. Strayed “came out” as Sugar in February, possibly because no one could read the forthcoming “Wild” and not recognize her authorial voice. To anyone familiar with her column, it’s hard to not look for clues in “Wild” as to how we should live our lives — Strayed’s advice as Sugar often takes the form of a personal narrative, after all. But that’s not what “Wild” is for; this is her story, not ours, though it’s told in her familiar expansive, yet focused, style.
Very little of the book is actually devoted to Strayed’s childhood and her mother’s death. The scenes she gives us are incisive and telling — crying in a public bathroom after her mother receives a diagnosis of incurable cancer, her mother crying the next stall over, neither saying a word to the other. It’s only a paragraph, but it sticks in your heart, like so many of Strayed’s lines. Most of the book is subtler, sneakier, focused on the quotidian details of life hiking the Pacific Crest. “The wanting was a wilderness and I had to find my own way out of the woods,” she tells us before diving into tales of enormous backpacks, friendly fellow hikers and treacherously icy mountain paths. Once she gets “wanting was a wilderness” out of her system, Strayed walks us through her healing process in more prosaic language. Her grief may be operatic, but the healing, the “real live truly doing it,” is not.
Tragic notes that a less skillful writer would draw out — a heroin addiction, an unintended pregnancy and abortion, a string of extramarital affairs — are struck quickly and ruthlessly. Her abortion, for example, takes up less than a sentence. She knows that’s not the cause of her pain, just another symptom of her grief, which she describes in shuddering, almost gruesomely emotional detail. She holds nothing back, whether it’s the horror of watching her mother fade into a morphine haze or a nightmare in which she is forced to kill her mother over and over. Or rather, if she’s holding anything back, it was a wise choice, because what made it onto the page is almost unbearably sad and true. Delving any deeper into her breathtaking, body-shaking sadness might hurt us too much.
Strayed comes off as a total screw-up and a wise person at the same time, perhaps because she has the ineffable gift every writer longs for of saying exactly what she means in lines that are both succinct and poetic. When she accidentally knocks one of her hiking boots over a cliff, she sums up that sinking feeling when we realize that the unbelievable thing that just happened wasn’t a joke or a dream: “The universe, I’d learned, was never, ever kidding.”
“Wild” is a story about solitude, about getting away from the real world when it seems terrible and about reminding ourselves that we can do hard things. Though Strayed’s story is inspirational, it’s not aspirational — the Pacific Crest Trail won’t be lousy with hikers this season because of this book. Some memoirs make the steps between grief and healing so clear that the path seems easy for readers to follow. Strayed, on the contrary, respects mystery. She knows that her hike revived her soul but doesn’t pretend to understand, minute by minute, exactly how that happened. No epiphanies here, no signs from the gods. Just a healthy respect for the uncertainty we all live with, and an inborn talent for articulating angst and the gratefulness that comes when we overcome it.
From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
By Cheryl Strayed
Knopf. 315 pp. $25.95