A little ways into Wild, Cheryl Strayed talks about how the idea became a plan – based on seeing a book in a store and deciding to buy it. She kept thinking about this book on hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. That is somewhat how I found Wild. Last fall I kept seeing it pop up on Amazon, saw it in the window of my neighborhood bookstore (yes, those still exist). I needed a break from the Goldfinch and couldn’t think of what to read that was new. But this kept coming up.
I was laughing on page one. I was cringing a few pages later. The hike is only part of the story – the rest is Strayed’s life story. I’ve heard people who haven’t read the book try to describe it. I wish they’d stop. It’s not like reading Bill Bryson. It’s not a story of her hiking. It is a story of her healing from a life that seemed to crumble suddenly and fall away. It’s a story of finding yourself, finding yourself when you need it the most.
Let me get this out of the way, in case anyone was not already aware of this: the book is always better than the movie.
Strayed’s relationship with her mom was unique – the story of her childhood – an abusive, alcoholic father, siblings to watch out for, a new start in a house without running water or electricity – this is the definition of a close family. At some point that family comes apart though.
In her early twenties and faced with the sudden loss of her mother, Strayed’s life starts to spin out of her control. She leaves school, splits with her husband, runs away, starts using heroin, and watches as things slip slowly, then quickly out of control.
So how’d she end up hiking? A frequent question she’s asked in the book, but I never felt compelled to wonder myself. When everything falls apart, the most obvious solution is to start over. Everyone does this in their own way. Some people need to get lost to find their way again.
She keeps thinking about this book she saw in a shop. After saving up everything she can from a waitressing job, she, somewhat haphazardly, prepares for an 1,100 mile hike that will take her several months to complete. She contemplates how she’ll be alone – and while she is alone on the trail much of the time – she also finds new friends along the way. Anyone who has ever traveled alone knows, you’re never really alone unless you want to be. To be fair, on a trail like she was, yes, some of the time there is no other choice.
There is a constant fight in her head – is this strength or insanity to do this? I believe it was strength – knowing there is a lot to deal with mentally, she does what most people would never do – voluntarily chooses to be alone with her thoughts to get through all that happened. Between her mother’s death and her starting the hike, the one thing she didn’t really do was process and move on. She reacted by trying to run away, feel something else, fill a void with anything.
The other big fight going on as she walks: how does she move on? Can she forgive those around her? Can she forgive herself? Accepting a painful past, and moving forward without regret is a tricky thing to accomplish. What does it mean to forgive anyone?
Caring two big loads – the backpack overfilled with unnecessary items, and the past she is trying to process – not just the loss of her mother, but of the siblings who are now so distant (literally and figuratively), the father who vanished when she was a child, and the stepfather who walked away at the loss of his wife, the end of her marriage and – what most people forget to ever think about – her relationship with herself – figuring out who she was on her own and what that meant moving forward – on the trail and after.
The books is written with gritty detail, making it so visual I cringed and closed my eyes with the loss of each toenail, and grimaced through each description of shooting heroin. Strayed seems to do this, not for entertainment, but to show in as much reality at possible, what this life was like – the current (1995 on the PCT), and past.
Since seeing the movie I’ve been wanting to give a little comparison. The book seems to translate so well into a movie – the snippets of her past seemed to flash by though. If you hadn’t read the book would you understand what was happening – how that piece of the puzzle fit into the whole? How each part of her past led her to the PCT and a three month hike? It’s possible I pay much more attention to such detail than the average person – especially when I’ve read the book. The movie was good – and it included some of my favorite parts of the book – a boot disappearing off the edge of a mountain. I laughed out loud knowing there was no way that could be good. And that was how the book began.