“What if I forgave myself?” I thought. “What if I forgave myself even though I’d done something I shouldn’t have?”
– Cheryl Strayed
Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is more like a confession than a memoir. She set out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail and, in the process, found herself.
It wasn’t easy. Strayed’s book is filled with the flawed logic that goes along with being a young person entangled in the emotional complexities of grief, divorce and addiction. For example, in the beginning of her trip, she packs her backpack so full that when she finally tries to lift it, it’s too heavy, but she’s already out on the trail. Too late to turn back now. She presses onward, baggage and all.
At many points in her emotionally charged narrative, Strayed had the chance to turn back, to give up, but she doesn’t. The Pacific Crest Trail (the PCT, as it’s called in her book) stretches 2,600 miles from Mexico to Washington State. Cheryl Strayed hiked over 1,100 of those miles as an unprepared amateur who’d never hiked before. Nevertheless, she persevered despite radical changes in climate (100-plus degree weather contrasted with bitter cold, snowy elevations), boots a size too small that mangled her feet, limited funds, and perhaps the biggest risk of all, going it alone.
Between chapters, the reader flashes back to the author’s past: her troubled upbringing and loving mother who died of cancer, an early marriage that ended in divorce after her numerous infidelities, and her struggle with heroin addiction. Flawed and vulnerable, Strayed earns the reader’s sympathy by honestly portraying her foibles and her search for greater meaning. Her hike forces her to intersect with a variety of characters: other hikers befriend her and help her; caring folks known as “trail angels” give her sustenance, both physical and mental, when she feels that she can’t go on. Dangerous characters emerge also, but overall the author is buoyed by the kindness of strangers. Nature itself, in its beauty and fierceness, starts as an adversary and becomes a friend. Doubts recede and are replaced by faith and love.
Ultimately, the trail became a second home and an education. She hiked the PCT because it was hard and her intuition told her she had no choice but to go it alone and tackle this seemingly impossible task. In achieving her goal, she became self-reliant. She realized that she is capable of great accomplishment, and she learned to love and trust herself.