I am not, let us say, an outdoorsy person. I have no issue with being outside per se—it’s a nice enough place, depending on location and season and proximity to a bathroom—but it is my lifelong curse to prefer the climate-controlled confines of a manmade building or, at the very least, the squishy satisfaction of an oceanside beach chair. I want to like The Great Outdoors guys, I really do. It’s just that I’m, what’s that word….tip of my tongue….oh yes, that’s it—I’m lazy.
Of course, it doesn’t take a lazy person to appreciate the concept behind Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: a solo 1,000+ mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, which is like the Appalachian Trail’s more rugged and less traversed western cousin. The idea—which Strayed developed in the aftermath of her mother’s death, her own bout with adultery and heroin, and her divorce—is ludicrous, particularly for someone as inexperienced with backpacking as Strayed was. (Though it’s worth noting that, presented with the same challenge, I would be even less prepared: After just six hours wearing moderately ill-fitting flats for a wedding last weekend, I limped myself home so pathetically that you would have thought I’d been shot.)
Wild is about 75/25 devoted to time spent on the PCT versus the events leading up to the trip, and Strayed is only moderately insightful when discussing her past. But by (perhaps intentional) contrast, her time on the trail feels honest and raw, unaltered by the liberties of hindsight, though she is writing years after the fact. Moreover, the relatively small percentage of the book devoted to backpacking minutia keeps Strayed from ever sounding like an expert, and her lack of expertise forces us to confront the magnitude of her mission. Even as the weeks pass and she hones her PCT skills, the idea itself never stops feeling insane, and the insanity is part of what makes the story great.
Wild is one of many books in what I like to call the Xtreme Soul-Searching Memoir genre, and is at first glance a logical companion to Elizabeth Gilbert’s equally hyped Eat, Pray, Love, which I read last year. Except for a crucial difference. Gilbert sought to expose herself to the beautiful in life (or pure, or important) through the pleasurable: food, faith and shared happiness. It made for an interesting book pitch, but resulted in EPL feeling sometimes whiny and unsympathetic. Like yes, how nice for you to write a self-help memoir about your extremely long vacation, for which you received a fat monetary advance. EPL was, in my opinion, more than the sum of its parts, but it would be fair to say that a few of its parts were annoying.
Strayed’s hike, on the other hand, is far from pleasurable—and so her exposure to the beautiful and pure feels earned, the way you earn knowledge, or courage, or fortitude. There’s something special about introspecting while you’re mainly focused on survival, and Strayed is a better narrator for taking on such a monumental challenge. Unlike EPL, Wild never feels self-absorbed, an admirable feat for a memoir about one person spending the better part of three months in the presence of no other people.
Of course, there are people on occasion, and Strayed’s encounters with amiable fellow hikers are some of the book’s best moments, perfectly encapsulating the unique camaraderie of solo adventuring. Traveling alone makes you feel both enormous and infinitesimal, the center of your own universe and yet a tiny blip in the larger one. It’s a sentiment exacerbated by the circumstances of Strayed’s particular journey, and nicely captured in her writing.
But my favorite thing about Wild—over the rando hikers and animal encounters and the time Strayed’s boot accidentally flies over the side of a mountain—is the book’s lack of overworked “aha” moments. Strayed does come to certain realizations over the course of her journey and, perhaps unsurprisingly, achieves some measure of emotional clarity. But reflections on her mother’s death or the dissolution of her marriage are given no more narrative weight than the perils of purifying water, or the surprise difficulty of hiking downhill.
In the context of Wild, this feels important. We too often expect aha moments in life. We want to experience cinematic revelations—with musical crescendos and nostalgic montages—that swoop down, bestowing clarity and eradicating fears. One of the great triumphs of Wild is that Strayed seems to—or comes to—appreciate the futility of awaiting these epiphanies, and understands the value in life’s endless caravan of uphill battles. If Wild is to teach us anything about soul-searching, it’s that facing your fears is better than not being afraid at all.
TITLE: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
AUTHOR: Cheryl Strayed
PAGES: 315 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Tiny Beautiful Things, Torch
SORTA LIKE: John Krakauer writes Eat, Pray, Love
FIRST LINE: “The trees were tall, but I was taller, standing above them on a steep mountain slope in northern California.”