Occasionally, though, a book comes along that makes the day-to-day trials and tribulations seem worthy of note, and even a chuckle or two. Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, is one such narrative. Self-deprecating and humorous, this Oprah Book Club pick has taken the arm chair adventurer-world by storm.
What Bill Bryson’s popular travel narrative, A Walk in the Woods, did for the Appalachian Trail, Strayed’s blow-by-blow account does for the longer and higher Pacific Crest Trail. Sitting at home, one can feel the heat, hear the rattlesnakes threatening, feel the dirt and grime of weeks on the trail, and soak up the joys of that unique solitude found only in nature.
What leads this young woman onto the 2,663 mile long trail in the first place, though, is part of the appeal of her story. Barely in her 20’s, Cheryl Strayed is faced with her mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis and subsequent death. Blindsided by the suddenness of her grief, and unable to cope with the tragic loss of her anchor and the crumbling of her family, the author’s world spirals into a tailspin, as heavy drugs and promiscuities take hold and her own short marriage dissolves.
Living dangerously comes in many forms, and Cheryl Strayed takes the prize for sheer audacity and variety. From shooting up heroin with her latest fling to setting off, alone and ill-prepared, on an extreme athletic endeavor is the height of contrasts, and therein lies the primary attraction of Wild. Strayed (not her real name, but an aptly suited and prophetic one chosen after her divorce) is an immediately fascinating narrator, as she clearly identifies and calls herself out on her many demons, naming them, and acknowledging them, not an easy feat for many people.
With plenty of journal-type descriptives, Wild’s allure comes primarily from Strayed’s competent writing, which flows up hill and over dale, as the landscape unfolds beneath her weary feet. Characters met along the journey take on distinct personalities, and the Pacific Crest Trail, itself, becomes the most developed character of them all, cradling the author’s every step, as she sheds her tattered skin, and matures, with every painful mile logged.
Learning lessons both mundane and profound, Strayed manages to complete her task, healing her damaged soul in the bargain. Nature has an overwhelming tendency to force one to confront priorities, peeling away the the layers of remorse, pride, convention, and foolishness. The “why” of it all had to do, in Strayed’s words, 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 this way to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way.”
Through humor, honesty, and a well-written narrative, Strayed is an endearing guide through her personal journey of discovery, which is made even more enticing because it reflects the overall pilgrimage called life, confirming Henry David Thoreau’s famous words, “Not until we are lost, do we begin to understand ourselves.”