“I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back. And, most surprising of all, that I could carry it. That I could bear the unbearable. These realizations about my physical, material life couldn’t help but spill over into the emotional and spiritual realm. That my complicated life could be made so simple was astounding. It had begun to occur to me that perhaps it was okay for that I hadn’t spent my days on the trail pondering the sorrows of my life, that perhaps by being forced to focus on my physical suffering some of my emotional suffering would go away.”
At age twenty-six, Cheryl Strayed’s life was in shambles. Her mother had died of cancer two years before, her family was scattered and diminished, and Strayed had just divorced her husband after experiencing infidelity, drug use, and an abortion. When she picked up a guidebook about the Pacific Crest Trail (a trail on the west coast of the US, beginning in Mexico and ending on the Canadian border), Strayed decided that hiking the trail solo was what she needed to do in order to get her head straightened out. Wild is her account of the three-month hike she took from California to Washington.
My experience reading this book went something like this: I would be reading some description of Strayed hiking a mountain alone and I would think, that is so cool, I’m totally going to start hiking. Then three pages later: Holy shit, I am never leaving my couch again. Strayed makes it clear that hiking the PCT is not easy, even for experienced hikers (which she was not when she started her trip). She doesn’t shy away from sharing the grim details of her experience, from scabbed skin to dehydration to countless injuries – Strayed lost six toenails over the course of her hike, and the description of each one being pulled off was just as horrifying as you’d expect it to be. But all the attention spent describing the physical trials of the hike means that Wild is mercifully light on soul-searching and navel-gazing. There are many passages where Strayed processes her grief about her mother’s death (and these parts are completely heart-wrenching) but the narrative is primarily concerned with Strayed’s daily struggle to survive on the trail.
One thing that surprised me was how many other people are involved with Strayed’s hike. Although she hiked the PCT by herself, she wasn’t the only person on the trail, and there are several other hikers who go in and out of the narrative as Strayed runs into them in various towns along her route. Some reviewers were put off by all the other characters (and seem to be personally offended by how many people helped Strayed with her trip, for some reason), but I didn’t mind, because I’ve already read one book about one person’s solitary trek through the wilderness, and it’s called Into the Wild and it’s pretty boring. Strayed’s book does a good job of showing the solitude and the repetition of the PCT without ever getting dull or repetitive itself.
I also appreciated Strayed’s narration and the way she matter-of-factly describes her infidelities and drug use without trying to rationalize or explain her mistakes. She isn’t proud of what she’s done, but isn’t overly apologetic either.
Ultimately, I appreciated this more as an account of a physical journey than a spiritual one.