‘I was twenty-two, the same age she was when she’d been pregnant with me. She was going to leave my life at the same moment that I came into hers, I thought’.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Pg.11
A couple of months ago now, I saw the recent film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir/travel-writing – Wild – completely unaware of the story line, or the fact that it was based on a true story. Since watching the movie it has sparked an interest in travel writing by women. It’s not everyday that you hear or read about ordinary women who have done extraordinary things, like hike the Pacific Crest Trail. I have now come across two books: Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Tracks: A Woman’s Solo Trek Across 1700 Miles of Australian Outback by Robyn Davidson, which was also made into a very good film and is on my TBR list. Any other recommendations would be very much appreciated.
Wild is a very well-written memoir that tells more of a personal and spiritual journey rather than a practical guide to hiking the lesser-known, lesser-developed Pacific Crest Trail. Beginning with the news that would lead the protagonist into a downward spiral of grief, Strayed finds out that her mother is dying of cancer. At only twenty-two years of age, she is unable to comprehend the magnitude of this situation and, in the midst of her final year at university, drops everything to try and keep her family together.
‘It turned out I wasn’t able to keep my family together. I wasn’t my mum. It was only after her death that I realised who she was: the apparently magical force at the centre of our family who’d kept us all invisibly spinning in the powerful orbit around her. […] Hard as I fought for it to be otherwise, finally I had to admit it too: without my mother, we weren’t what we’d been; we were four people floating separately among the flotsam of our grief, connected by only the thinnest rope’.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Pg.34
In the aftermath of her mother’s death, Strayed does many things in order to lose herself. From moving states, destroying her (admittedly premature) marriage to experimenting with drugs, Strayed recalls these moments with what I can only assume is an unflinching honesty. She doesn’t try to excuse her actions but instead realises their significance in the woman she has since become. Although written with a great deal of hindsight (Strayed hiked part of the trail in 1995 and her book was only published a few years ago, in 2012), the narrative only occasionally reminds us of this. The story is told as if she is there in the strenuous, torturous advent of the hike and we, the reader, are right there alongside her. We glimpse flashbacks of her life pre-PCT, and these are often intimate revelations of how lost she became in her grief. The spontenaity with which she decides she must hike this trail is her way of grasping some power back over her life.
‘The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, 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. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay’.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Pg.69
Fraught with difficulties, Strayed is completely unprepared for the intensity of long-distance hiking. Packing over and above what she can physically carry, wearing the wrong size boots, bringing the wrong gas for her mini-cooker, it seems near-impossible that Strayed even completes a day of her intended three month journey. What impressed me, though, was that, despite how unprepared she was, Strayed pushes on regardless. Even when she wants to quit after a few minutes on the hike, she carries on, one step at a time until she reaches her intended destination – the Bridge of Gods.
Cheryl Strayed’s memoir was particularly interesting for me because she mentions a lot of feminist authors, from Adrienne Rich to Flannery O’Connor, who I have been meaning to read for a long time. It was also interesting to witness the power books can have over people’s lives. Strayed mentions that they were ‘the world I could lose myself in when the one I was actually in became too lonely or harsh or difficult to bear’ (pg.105). It reminded me of the immense comfort books can have when you truly lose yourself inside one, even if you don’t fully understand the meaning of the words. As Strayed beautifully sums up towards the end of her memoir:
‘Often, I didn’t know exactly what they meant, yet there was another way in which I knew their meaning entirely, as if it were all before me and yet out of my grasp, their meaning like a fish just beneath the surface of the water that I tried to catch with my bare hands – so close and present and belonging to me – until I reached for it and it flashed away’.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Pg.304
It just goes to show that you don’t have to fully understand everything in order for it to have meaning in your life. This completely resonated with me and was a wonderful way to finish off Strayed’s momentous spiritual and physical journey to recovery.