While readers find peace in the natural beauty of the Pacific Crest Trail and Strayed’s enchanting prose, Strayed searches for peace with herself and her life.
I consider myself extremely knowledgeable about hiking the American Outback. Ok, so maybe I don’t own hiking boots, a hiking pack, or know what to do if attacked by a bear or rattlesnake. And no, I’ve never hiked more than 7 miles at once. And perhaps I don’t exactly know what the “American Outback” refers to… but it sounds like something you could hike through… maybe… Plus, I don’t mean to brag, but I have read two books about hiking: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson and now Wild by Cheryl Strayed. That’s gotta push me into expert territory, right? No?
Ok, so maybe I don’t actually know anything that would allow me to hike from California to Washington State on the Pacific Crest Trail unscathed, but that puts me in exactly the same position as Cheryl Strayed at 26. In fact, I’d consider myself in an even better position than she was, considering I’m not divorced, I’m not reeling from the death of my mother and the subsequent disintegration of my family, and I don’t shoot up heroin just for kicks. Cheryl, on the other hand, was at rock bottom, and with nothing to lose she decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (by herself!) in an effort to find some peace with her life and pull herself together. I know what you are thinking – A woman with zero hiking experience setting off through the wilderness by herself!? Either she is extremely gutsy, desperate, or just plain out of her mind (my bet is on all three)! But even if she was a bit off her rocker, I can still recognize the fact that deciding to hike those thousands of miles to reclaim her life is pretty amazing.
Cheryl hit the trail extremely over-prepared (in terms of having so many supplies she could barely stand upright under her heaving pack) and yet grossly underprepared (for the adversity she would face on the trail). If you can name it, she lived through it: bears, rattlesnakes, scorching desert temperatures, portions of the trail completely iced over, boots falling off the edge of the cliff (after which she had to construct duct tape booties), losing nearly all of her toenails, creepy men, severe dehydration, hitchhiking, going without money and food, etc). If fact, for the first half of her trip she was so focused on her physical suffering that she didn’t even have the strength to think about how her reason for hiking the trail in the first place. But, as her body grew stronger, she was gradually able to let go of the heavy burden she carried (now if only she could get rid of that heavy pack as well!).
Cheryl is not a likeable character in the slightest. Plenty of people have been able to cope with the death of loved ones without flying off the deep end, resorting to drugs, and self-sabotaging the relationships with the people who mean most to them – but not Cheryl. In the beginning, it is hard to not want to shake her and tell her to quit the self-pitying garbage, the drugs, the adultery, and the running away from her problems. But as others have pointed out, Cheryl doesn’t ask to be liked. In fact, you don’t even need to like her to enjoy her spellbindingly beautiful prose (she has a rare gift for words that few possess) and to really fall in love with the trail. And even Cheryl, who I couldn’t stand at first, got infinitely more bearable once alone on the trail.
If you have a soft spot for nature coupled with learning to cope – I would recommend reading Wild. But for the avid nature enthusiasts, you might be disappointed to realize the emotional journey in this story sort of overshadows that of the trail.
Final Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.