Wild is a wonderful, absorbing memoir about a completely misguided, poorly-planned journey of self-discovery that somehow ends in triumph rather than disaster. Cheryl Strayed was 26 when, with her life falling apart after her mother’s death and the end of her own early marriage, she made the impulsive decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT is the west-coast equivalent of the Appalachian Trail that we here on the east coast of the continent know better: a mountainous hiking trail that winds from America’s southern border with Mexico up to the northern border with Canada, passing through rugged and remote regions of California, Oregon and Washington.
Strayed was a day-hiker and camper but had never attempted a long backpacking trip before and was completely unprepared for the rigours of the trail. Her pack was too heavy; her boots were too small; she herself was untrained and unready for such a demanding trip. She just set out and … did it.
Along the way she experienced the predicatable: blisters, pain, hunger and thirst, discouragement, determination, stronger muscles, and a clearer perspective on life. Strayed found herself surprised at first by how little time she spent reflecting on the issues that had driven her onto the trail: if she wasn’t thinking through her problems, was the trip really having its intended effect? As she hiked, she realized that while she was spending time thinking about the trail itself rather than her problems, the trail was changing her. She also became part of an unexpected community of others hiking the trail; though she was determined to complete most of the actual hiking solo, she found friendship, help and support all along the way.
Strayed’s writing is completely engaging and I loved the story. It probably helps that I’m exactly the sort of person to take on an ambitious physical challenge with inadequate preparation, though even I wouldn’t try anything as ambitious as the Pacific Crest Trail. Another thing that I think made this book work well is that Strayed made her trek in the mid-90s but didn’t release the book until this year. Though she’s obviously drawing heavily on the copious notes and journals she wrote on the trail, she’s allowed a lot of time to pass since the experience and I really think (as I’ve said elsewhere in critiquing a just-happened-last-week kind of memoir) this makes for stronger memoir-writing — it allows the writer to put the experience in perspective, to write from the point of view of the person she’s become since and see how the events she’s describing fit into the bigger picture of her life.
Reading this book in tandem with Alister McGrath’s theological reflection on the importance of nature made for some interesting thoughts. While I’m not likely to hike the Appalachian Trail anytime soon, I did start thinking about how I, as a confirmed urbanite, can appreciate the natural world more, and allow it to shape and teach me as it did for Cheryl Strayed. Not just an enjoyable read but a thought-provoking one: I wouldn’t recommend everyone try a major backpacking trip without proper preparation, but I would recomment that everyone read Wild.