They had come to worship at the altar of Cheryl.
Cheryl, their mentor, their confidante, their “inspiration,” they kept saying. “Just such an inspiration.”
And here she was, on stage at National Geographic’s headquarters in Washington Wednesday night, her name and her book cover projected onto a wall behind her: Cheryl Strayed, “Wild.”
She is a woman who, in the midst of her flailing 20s (a divorce, her mother’s death, a summer of heroin use), went on a grueling 94-day solo hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, and who, nearly 20 years later, as a mildly successful freelance writer, holed up in a borrowed cabin to pen a memoir about her trek of self-discovery.
The book became an Oprah-stickered bestseller. The bestseller became a movie starring Reese Witherspoon. “On my obituary, my own picture won’t even be there,” Strayed jokes to her audience. “It will be Reese Witherspoon.”
“Wild” — the book, the movie, and its collective fandom — has become the woman. Now, Strayed, 46, must both accept and choose how this phenomenon will define her career going forward. If she wants, she could surely ride the wave of her bestseller for years to come. The tickets to this event sold out in 48 hours. The audience has come to see the woman whose story they know so intimately — but they seem to love her because they see their own stories in hers: losing parents, surviving abuse, living through divorces, freeing themselves from addictions. In e-mails and letters, and at events such as these, they tell her how bizarre it is “how much they have in common.”
“What’s interesting is it’s not so bizarre,” Strayed tells the crowd. “We all essentially love the same way, we suffer the same way, we struggle the same way.”
Heads nod all around the auditorium at this, as they do throughout the evening, whenever Strayed — a blond, broad-shouldered woman with a serene smile and confident presence — utters a piece of wisdom like this, or in fact pretty much any time she opens her mouth. Her fans gaze up at her, mouths slightly open. A moderator lobs gentle questions, and Strayed keeps the answers deeply personal and comforting.
“Tell me how the trail defined your sense of home,” he asks, and Strayed delivers a five-minute response punctuated by hand gestures and eye contact.
“In finding a sense of home on the trail, it was like finding a sense of home in the world,” she tells them. “When you make a home in the world, what you’re really saying is you’ve made a home in your own bodies. That wherever you go, you are safe.”
The crowd is nearly all women. The 20-somethings who followed Strayed’s formerly anonymous advice column for the Web site the Rumpus, “Dear Sugar.” The 60-something book-clubbers who couldn’t get enough of “Wild.” Even a small number of superfans who read her debut novel, “Torch,” from 2006.
Brushing off Strayed as a cog in the emotional beach-read industry would be ignoring the deep influence her work has had on these women, from small victories to entire life reversals. They have come to see if the real thing lives up to the inspiration in their minds. With every self-deprecating cuss word, every charming Witherspoon anecdote, every “You guys know what that’s like, right?” Strayed affirms their trust.
She strongly feels that it’s about time to scale back, though.
“My whole thing right now is saying no,” Strayed says in an interview before her speech. “Kind of my old me hasn’t caught up with my new me yet. I need to be able to say, yeah, I’m thrilled ‘Wild’ was so well-received, but now I need to move on to the next thing.”
Turning down speaking gigs is the opposite of her old freelancer’s golden rule: Say yes to everything. Once “Wild” took off, that rule went out the window. There were just so many requests. She was vacationing in Maui with Oprah and meeting George Clooney at the Golden Globes. She was speaking on college campuses and attending galas for nonprofits working on grief counseling and domestic violence — and all the while, she still has a husband and two kids back home in Portland, Ore. Strayed has appearances scheduled through October that were booked a year ago. And even now, with the movie nearly out of theaters and the book reaching its three-year anniversary, the requests keep pouring in.
To navigate this burst into fame, the woman whom legions turn to for emotional guidance needed a guide of her own.
She found it in Elizabeth Gilbert.
Gilbert, the author of “Eat, Pray, Love” was sort of the Cheryl Strayed of 2006 — a freelance writer whose chart-topping memoir turned her into a sort of guru for the Lululemon set. She also triumphed on the lecture circuit; she, too, was played by an Oscar winner in the movie version of her book. But Gilbert eventually moved on to other books.
“Elizabeth knows exactly where I am in this moment of my career,” Strayed said. The two have never met in person but have been e-mailing back and forth ever since Strayed sought her out — recognizing, well, how bizarre it is how much they have in common.
“More recently, since the movie came out, I’ve been asking Elizabeth, ‘Okay, how do I shut this tap off?’ ” Strayed says.
They’ve talked about learning to say no and what it means to disappoint people. They’ve talked about the responsibility an author has when the book of her life takes on a life of its own, and where that responsibility ends.
“You want to be there for it,” she said. “And then you get to this point where you’re like, okay, this has been a long time now, I need to step back.”
And then, she has to figure out the answer to the question all her fans have: What will she do next?
In the 70 minutes Strayed spends after her talk signing books (“Stay Wild,” she writes, and doodles a heart), she’s asked about her next move again and again.
“I’m working on a novel and a memoir,” she tells one fan.
“I’ll probably do the memoir first,” she tells another. “It’s called . . . ‘Mild,’ ” she says with a wink. Everyone around her erupts in laughter and snaps photos of her on their phones.
These are the same people who will rush out to buy her new book when it arrives, and very possibly, be disappointed by it. Or so says the voice in Strayed’s head that Gilbert is helping her shut out.
“It’s kind of none of my business how the next book does or what people think of it,” she said in the interview. “I can’t write with those people on my shoulder, I just have to do my work.”
Until “Wild,” the challenge was finding the time and money to survive as a writer. Now she has an abundance of both. The borrowed cabin where she wrote her book has been replaced by a cabin of her own, just 15 minutes away from the Pacific Crest Trail. And just this week, she finished renovating the attic of her Portland home.