Wild: From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed – a review

I did not expect to enjoy this book.  I’ve been seeing it everywhere I turn for the past few months, in bookstores and on best seller lists, and that level of popularity usually gives me pause.  I assumed it was a “memoir” by some twenty-something trust fund kid who hiked the trail on a lark one summer.  Not sure why I assumed that, but I did.  I tend to assume the worst.  It’s not my best quality.  I remember picking up a copy of Wild at Chapters in Ottawa and wondering whether I should give it a try, before putting it back down again and walking out of the store.  The turning point for me was an interview that one of my friends did with the author.  I sensed depth and raw emotion beneath the surface that I didn’t expect, so I decided I’d give the book a chance.

And wow, am I glad that I did!  I could not have been further off-base with my assumptions.  I loved it; absolutely loved it.  Not at first, to be sure, but within the first fifty pages it started growing on me, and by the last fifty, I didn’t want it to end.  By the last ten or so, I REALLY didn’t want it to end.  There were several points at which I was so concerned about the author’s safety and well-being that it was difficult for me to continue reading, and impossible to stop.  Strayed’s writing is incredibly honest, without wallowing in melodrama or poor-me.  She doesn’t pull any punches; she doesn’t sugar coat (or overdramatize) what her life was like before the trail; she doesn’t make any attempt to hide her failures in preparing for the trail, or her near complete lack of understanding of how rigorous the trip would be.  Her descriptions of trail life are spot-on – the fetid odours arising from one’s own unwashed body, the soreness of muscles, blistering of feet, and the ravenous hunger that comes from hiking all day, every day, with a pack that weighs half one’s own weight.  Her writing made me want to do two things that writing about hiking almost never makes me want to do:  hike and write.  And so I have been doing both.

All this in contrast to other hiking narratives I’ve read, most notable Bill Bryson’s A Walk In The Woods, about his time on the Appalachian Trail.  My recollection of this book (which I read ten or fifteen years ago) is that Bryson bent over backwards to be so affable, so goofy and chummy, that by the end of the book I kind of hated him and wished he would shut up.  Subsequent experiences with several of Bryson’s other books have not dampened this initial impression.  I experienced the opposite emotional progression, though, when I read Wild.  I did not like Strayed at first.  Despite her hardships, it was hard for me to feel sympathy for the questionable decisions she was making.  That, perhaps, says more about me than it does about her.  I kept thinking back to friends of mine who have made similar decisions in bad situations and who were not as fortunate; did not come out on top of the game, or even still in the game.  It made me resentful about the dubious connection between cause and effect, a connection which seems more and more tenuous as I get older.  Chance plays a horrifying large role in every outcome.  We can’t control everything.  But these are my issues, and have little to do (directly) with Strayed’s excellent writing.

I did not expect to enjoy this book; but I did, tremendously.  And although I don’t believe the author and I could have been friends at the start of her 1100 mile hike, by the end, I think we may have had some things to talk about.

One of my favourite passages:

…what mattered was utterly timeless.  It was the thing that had compelled them [the trail’s creators] to fight for the trail against all the odds, and it was the thing that drove me and every other long-distance hiker onward on the most miserable days.  It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or the backpacking fads or philosophies of any particular era or even with getting from point A to point B.

It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild.  With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets.  The experience was powerful and fundamental.  It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way.  That’s what Montgomery knew, I supposed.  And what Clarke knew and Rogers and what thousands of people who preceded and followed them knew.  It was what I knew before I even really did, before I could have known how truly hard and glorious the PCT would be, how profoundly the trail would both shatter and shelter me.

page 207

Wild:  From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed.  Read it!

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2 Responses

  1. I’m actually very surprised thatyou are so exuberant. I read it, and didn’t really like it. For many of the reasons you mention, but you got over them to the point that you liked the book. She just kinda pissed me off. And no way in hell could I read the horse story and don’t tell me what happened! Ugh.

  2. I think my taste for personal narrative changed a lot because of my experiences with the TMI project.

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