2012. Alfred E. Knopf. ebook. 338 pages.
Recommendation from: Sophisticated Dorkiness
In a nutshell:
In 1995, Cheryl Strayed was twenty-six years old, she solo hiked the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) for three months. Cheryl’s decision to hike the PCT was a desperate bid for reinvention, after the swift, tragic death of her mother sent Cheryl into a spiral of self-destructive behavior that destroyed her marriage. Though ill-prepared for the rigors of the trail, Cheryl manages to find transformative moments through acts of self-reliance and the generosity of strangers. The story of the trail is interspersed with flashbacks to key moments and people from Cheryl’s past.
I’m very late to the game, but I loved this book. I found both the trail story and Cheryl’s life story to be engrossing. Four years ago, I wrote that my favorite subgenre of nonfiction is the travel memoir, specifically travel memoirs where things don’t go according to plan. So, Wild was right up my alley in that regard. Indeed, the prologue in this book is about an event late in Cheryl’s thru-hike, when she accidentally knocks one of her hiking boots irretrievably into the forest below her resting perch. Immediately, I was hooked – what did she do after that? How did she get to that point in the trail?
The rest of the book lived up to the prologue. The terrain of the trail and the grueling nature of thru-hiking is fascinating on its own. However, the story is just as much about the people that Strayed meets on the trail, who are varied and fascinating. Her combined youth and gender and solitude prompts incredulity but also particular kindness and concern from strangers. There is only one incident, on a side-trail (not the PCT), where a person responds to that youth, gender, and solitude by implying threat.
Along with the suspense of the trail hike, there is an emotional heft to Wild. In particular, there is an encounter with a fox and a story about her mom’s horse that made me cry. Those flashpoints were effective because they were grounded in a narrative full of vulnerability. As I think about the emotional quality in Strayed’s writing, my mind jumps to Sufjan Stevens’ song “Chicago”. There seems to be a spiritual kinship between that song and Wild. It’s about acknowledgement (“I made a lot of mistakes / in my mind, in my mind”); it’s also about the connection of travel, and land, and freedom, and being recreated.
I liked that insight was not derived mainly from the beauty of nature, by some magical sunset or stunning panorama. Rather:
The thing that was so profound to me that summer – and yet also, like most things, so very simple – was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial.
Indeed, most of the hike is characterized by the continual effort just to move forward, but “there was a hardly a day that passed that didn’t offer some of what was called trail magic in the PCT vernacular – the unexpected and sweet happenings that stand out in stark relief to the challenges of the trail.”
Of course it would be a mistake to consider nature a stern but ultimately benevolent deliverer of epiphanies and personal growth. In Wild, Strayed gives due respect to the dangers of nature even if her younger self was not wholly prepared for them (though she learned).
A book worthy of its bestselling status, Wild is an engrossing, moving read.
Before I close this post with excerpts from others’ reviews, I have to say that many of the negative reviews I found were incredibly judgmental and I couldn’t bring myself to link to any of them. A comment on one such review floated the theory that fans of Wild were the type of people who didn’t read much. I guess I should check to see if I still have my reader credentials then.
BookNAround – “The backstory at the beginning of the book is rather slow going, albeit generally necessary, and not as engaging as her struggles, dogged perseverance, and soul searching on the trail, so the narrative is unevenly paced and the ending is extremely rushed.”
Sophisticated Dorkiness – “the memoir could have easily turned melodramatic or self-pitying. But Strayed never goes there. There’s a sense of wisdom to her writing and a sense of distance from this experience that let her write about it in an almost serene and matter-of-fact way.”
Sorry Television – “But my favorite thing about Wild—over the rando hikers and animal encounters and the time Strayed’s boot accidentally flies over the side of a mountain—is the book’s lack of overworked “aha” moments.”