Wild was published last year and I read quite a lot about it at the time. I like a good memoir, and since reading Martha Gellhorn for the first time last year I’ve wanted to read more travel memoirs and travelogues, and Wild by Cheryl Strayed seemed like a book for me. However, I always have too many books to read, and didn’t get around to picking it up until a couple of weeks ago.
This week just gone I started my new job in Oxford, temporarily commuting from Hertfordshire. This journey takes about 2.5 hours each way, so I’ve got lots of time to read – and this week I read the entirety of Wild, all 311 pages of it.
I was transfixed. I read the prologue on the Sunday night before starting the new job, and it got me straight away
The trees were tall, but I was taller, standing above them on a steep mountain slope in Northern California. Moments before, I’d removed my hiking boots and the left one had fallen into those tress, first catapulting into the air when my enormous backpack toppled onto it, then skittering across the gravelly trail and flying over the edge. It bounced off a rocky outcropping several feet beneath me before disappearing into the forest canopy below, impossible to retrieve. I let out a stunned gasp, though I’d been in the wilderness thirty-eight days and by then I’d come to know that anything could happen and that everything would. bUt that doesn’t mean I wasn’t shocked when it did.
My boot was gone. Actually gone.
She throws the other boot over the edge too.
What is one boot without the other boot? It is nothing.
This moment is somewhat pivotal in Strayed’s hike, when she is separated from the boots with which she began her mammoth journey along the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches between the Mexican and the Canadian borders, going through California, Oregon and Washington. Four years earlier her mother had abruptly died from cancer, and since then her family had drifted apart, her marriage had ended, and she recently had managed to extricate herself from a self-destructive, drug-fuelled relationship. She picked up a book about the Pacific Crest Trail by chance while queueing to pay for a spade, and was so enchanted by it that she decided to hike the trail, despite no experience of hiking or backpacking. She also decided to do it alone.
Straight away I was astounded by her bravery and determination, even in the face of a muddle of a life and a lack of direction. Cheryl Strayed made a direction for herself, and it was north from the town of Mojave in southern California. From there she hiked up along the PCT, being ripped apart along the way by her backpack (which she aptly named ‘Monster’) and her boots. She had no idea how much she could carry, and when her bag was packed she could not lift it; and yet she carried it all the way up to the Oregon/Washington border. Again, the astounding determination.
Wild is ‘a journey from lost to found‘, as the cover tell us, and in many ways it is. Strayed made her journey along the PCT for several reasons: she was ‘very loose … in the world‘, still grieving for her mother and her marriage, and unsure of what she wanted or needed. Thus as she walks, she ponders her life, her family, her mother, her marriage. She makes decisions, and comes to realisations, walks and tries to find herself. But don’t get me wrong – there is no cheese or over-sentimentality here. Strayed is an intelligent and perceptive writer, honest and straightforward. She does not get carried away with emotional sentimentality or any sort of ‘woe is me’ attitude. She is tough on herself.
I’ve read reviews of Wild that condemn it as self-indulgent and self-pitying. Strayed was at a point in her life when everything was a bit of a mess, and so she starts a journey to sort herself out, and twenty years later she wrote about it. Is this self-indulgent? Surely memoir as a concept is always in some way self-indulgent? To read a memoir you’ve just got to accept that it is a whole book of someone talking about themselves and their experiences. But the good thing about memoir, which I love, is that as long as their story is an interesting one, you empathise, are entertained, hopefully learn something, and hear about a life that you have never experienced. A lot of people are really dull, but a lot of people are really interesting and intelligent. Cheryl Strayed is the latter.
I also loved the travel element and the descriptions of the amazing landscapes and natural wonders (Crater Lake in particular sounds unbelievable), and maybe it’s a bit hippy-ish of me, but I loved the connection between Cheryl and her surroundings. Her journey is emotional and psychological, but also intensely and often painfully physical. Her feet are ravaged, her backpack chafes and scars her skin, she loses weight and gains muscle, and her view of herself as an attractive woman shifts as she is unable to get dolled up or wear ‘sexy’ clothes, and interacts with men as ‘one of the boys’ rather than a potential sexual partner. She gets in touch with nature, and the animals of the PCT, and finds both loneliness and solitude, as well as a feeling of belonging.
I liked Cheryl immensely as a person, and I loved her writing too. You can tell she is a real writer in Wild, as she documents her physical and psychological journey, her meetings with fellow hikers and those based along the trail, the beauty of the landscape, and the fear she feels and refuses to feel along the way.
I was sad when I got to the end of this book; I wanted to spend more time with Cheryl Strayed and ask what she did once she stood up from that bench by the Bridge of the Gods at the northern border of Oregon. She got married, moved to Portland, had two children, and developed a career as a writer; but was there a feeling of anti-climax once she was done with the PCT? Or a sense of a new beginning? This was what I wanted at the end, as well as photos from Cheryl’s journey – these would really have enhanced the book. Luckily there are some online, particularly on Strayed’s Facebook page.
If you think memoir is too self-indulgent, then read something else. If you love travel books, memoirs, intelligent writing and a likeable narrator, read Wild.
Cheryl Strayed will be speaking on ‘Lessons on Fear and Healing‘ at The School of Life in London, on 14th October 2013.