Despite its cover art of a boot with red laces,
WILD is not a hiking book. Cheryl Strayed’s gritty memoir takes us on the only possible journey that will save her life after her mother loses hers.
Strayed goes wild in her early twenties after her 45-year old mother dies of cancer, barely a month after she is diagnosed. The instant she has passed on, Strayed’s family disintegrates.
Sex with strangers and drugs take a toll on Strayed’s young marriage. She’s waiting tables and doing heroin with a guy who says he loves her. And, then, one day, the idea of walking the 1,100 mile Pacific Coast Trail crawls into her mind like a dare. It grows until the only thing she can do, is to do this thing that is so outrageous, that she has to do it.
That she has never backpacked doesn’t occur to her.
That she will come eye to eye with a Texas longhorn, several bears and a fox she doesn’t consider. That her enormous backpack she names Monster weighs so much she cannot lift it, literally cannot lift it, the first day of her hike doesn’t faze her.
You know – when you pick up her number one New York Times bestseller and Oprah Book Club pick – that Strayed will survive. But you open the book and read anyway. Strayed’s journey is transformative for the girl she was, and for the readers who go on her journey.
I was with Cheryl when she wrote WILD.
I’m in her writing group. Every week, she would bring in a new chapter – as we all did – and she would read the chapter aloud. Then, one by one, we suggested how to make it even better.
When Cheryl joined Workshop, we were in a chartreuse colored room we called the Dungeon. Sitting in mismatched chairs around a bland oak-colored table, we waited one night for her to begin reading her newest project. This night, I sat directly across from her. She opened somewhat apologetically, saying that she thought she might create a few essays about this hike she had made long ago when she was 26. When times were bad, and she was self-destructing, and, really, there was no other avenue.
Cheryl read about seven pages aloud. Having interviewed thousands of authors for radio, TV and print, I couldn’t help but protest, “Cheryl! That is a book!“ We all protested, in our various ways, begging her to write a book, not a few essays.
Cheryl said she thought she could write about hiking the PCT now, now that it had been long enough, now that she knew what it was about. And, she had journals. While she was burning pages of books by Faulkner and Nabokov to lighten her load on the PCT, she wrote in her journal.
See, the thing about Cheryl Strayed is, she is smart, she is wicked smart.
It’s her literary prowess that makes WILD work. With her gifted prose, she weaves in all the back-story we need to appreciate the grueling hike.
And although I sat in the room, listening to her raw writing, reading the published book, WILD, this afternoon was a gift. A healing.
I had walked an emotional PCT in my twenties – Cheryl’s choice was healthier. My PCT was a marriage, a divorce, and a second marriage to an addict whose ex-wife was into black magic – seven car-crashes that year, one nearly fatal. Living in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Iowa, Washington and Oregon. Moving as far west as I could from my own mother, who disowned me when I was seven and ten and 16 and 23, angry all along that her second husband, my stepfather, was a pedophile, preying on me. Competition.
Cheryl’s picture of her mom is one of unconditional love.
The me-in-my-twenties – that is within me now – needed to know that there are mothers like Cheryl’s. There are ten thousand things, Cheryl Strayed says in WILD, about her mom’s love – “her love was full-throated and all-encompassing and unadorned.”
And that was the fearless strength that walked with Cheryl Strayed as she lost toenail after toenail. Cheryl says the PCT won, six to four, by the time she reached The Bridge of the Gods. But really, she won. She won her soul back.