Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is a bit like Eat, Pray, Love with blisters and body odor—only Strayed’s account reads more like the story of a real adventure and less like a clever marketing ploy. The author’s life doesn’t so much fall apart as she torpedoes it—the unexpected death of her mother scatters her small family and sends Strayed out exploring one-night stands, casual hook-ups and drugs until her marriage collapses under the strain. A spontaneous decision, at age 26, to hike the length of the Pacific Crest Trail up the mountain spines of California to Oregon—Mojave Desert to Portland—launches her on a different kind of quest, one to salvage and make sense of her life.
An inexperienced hiker, ill-prepared, with the wrong size boots, a pack that weighs almost as much as she does, no money and some pie-eyed idea of what it means to confront nature on its own terms is a poor risk for a rough trail with few amenities. Strayed encounters bears, rattlesnakes, kind and creepy strangers, impassable high-mountain snow, blazing heat, constant hunger, thirst, missing supply packs, relentless pain, unbroken solitude and killer views for eleven hundred miles. She wrestles with a sense of loss so profound it possesses her like a shade and uses the daily severity of the challenge to scour her soul.
It takes most of the trail to exorcise her demons. We learn about her impoverished and itinerate childhood, the mother who spun a strong web of safety around her three children, the father who abused and abandoned them. She goes into excruciating detail about her mother’s death from cancer and her profound inability to deal with it. A hardscrabble life gave her some attitudes useful for coping with deprivation but few skills for months of solo hiking.
I found Strayed’s lack of sound planning and ridiculous amount of gear exasperating but her seduction by the solitude and her surroundings convincing. She survived with nothing more serious happening than the loss of a few toenails and that is down to luck as much as optimism. At times, the powerful lure of her single preoccupation, uninterrupted by the normal cares of daily living and uncontaminated by too much civilization, inspires pure envy. But walking on battered feet with a too-heavy pack day after day is just walking. It’s mile after boring mile as a journal entry. If you aren’t attacked by a flash flood or a rare albino tiger, your story doesn’t offer up a whole lot of excitement.
To Strayed’s credit, and doubtless with some help from good editing, the adventure keeps up a decent pace and there are peaks to offset inevitable slumps in narrative. Wild is flying off the shelves and getting a lot of attention so the reading public must be starved for pursuits out of the ordinary. Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is an adventure that encompasses a lot of dull hours and some degree of privation. It’s an odd kind of self-help program although not really all that wild. But I thought it was an okay book and it will likely make a decent movie—even if the hiker never quite reaches the status of heroine as she slogs along with a condom and some 2nd Skin blister pads in her first aid kit and a giant orange whistle to scare away bogeymen and bears.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail Cheryl Strayed | Alfred A. Knopf 2012