I recently finished reading Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, which had been on my to-read list since it was first published in 2012. (As an English major, I’m ashamed to admit that I saw the movie before reading the book. I do highly recommend both.) For those unfamiliar, a woefully oversimplified summary is that it’s about Strayed’s experiences hiking more than 1,000 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, alone and inexperienced, after the devastating death of her mother and dissolution of her marriage. As the book jacket states, “Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.” How soothing to think of strength and healing as the resolution after madness. That’s precisely the kind of journey Strayed takes us on.
I had the pleasure of hearing Strayed read from the book and speak about it as part of SUNY Brockport’s Writers Forum series in 2013. I was struck by how humble, approachable, and normal she was; after having completed this astounding journey, I thought she would seem somehow otherworldly, untouchable. I was awe-struck by what she’d accomplished. But as she talked about what it was like to stagger under the weight of a backpack so heavy she couldn’t lift it from the floor — she calls the approach she eventually managed to adopt “hunching in a remotely upright position” — it was like she answered my thoughts of Wow, how did she do all of that? with her own enthralled gush of, I know, right?!
That humility is present throughout the book and kept me mesmerized by Strayed’s narrative voice. She acknowledges her own amazement and gratitude about being on that hike, her unpreparedness for it and how that added to its impact on her. She knows she wasn’t well suited for it on paper, but that was one of the very reasons she knew she needed to do it. Which, to me, means she had exactly the right kind of mind for it, and the rest she figured out along the way.
One of my favorite moments is when she describes settling in at her campsite one night, 7,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada mountain range:
“The silence was tremendous. The absence felt like a weight.”
How brave of her to go willingly into that silence, to take that journey inward — accompanied only by a constant soundtrack of her own thoughts, memories, pains, regrets — in order to better understand all that is happening around her. Having gone through a few major life changes myself in recent years (exhibit A and exhibit B, among others), I’ve sometimes felt drawn to the idea of that sort of exploration — a long trip somewhere new all alone, a drive on unfamiliar roads with no destination in mind — but I have yet to conquer the self-doubt that inevitably creeps in as to what it would require of me and reveal to me.
Another favorite moment is when she meets a 5-year-old boy on the trail who sings her a song his mother taught him after learning that Strayed is grieving the loss of her own mother.
She describes him singing “in a voice so pure that I felt gutted” and says she felt “half demolished by the time he finished.”
I love this description of something being so beautiful and moving that it’s painful. That’s how I feel about Strayed’s writing. Her craft is so good, so finely tuned, that it hurts; it’s the kind of beauty that punches you and leaves you stinging.
As I neared the final chapters, I experienced that wonderful juxtaposition of emotions stirred up by a great read: I was eager to learn how it would end and yet reluctant to part ways with it. As I read the last few paragraphs — and immediately read them again — I felt gutted. I felt I was mourning a loss. Like Strayed, I was in awe of the journey and grateful to have experienced it.
Reaching the end of her hike and trying to process its finality, she writes:
“There was no way to go back, to make it stay. There was never that.”
Oof. Doesn’t that so accurately describe, with such aching beauty, any sort of loss? There is no route back to before it was gone, no choice but to continue moving forward, no matter how uncertain the steps may sometimes seem.