|•Cheryl Strayed: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail..|
New York: Vintage Books, 2013. 336 pages.
Eastside Road, January 14, 2015—THIS BOOK has gathered decidedly mixed reviews, even in my own family: some of us dislike the author's tone and style; others are sympathetic with her story and her emerging character.
Abandoned by her father early, raised with a brother and sister, in poverty, by an unconventional mother and stepfather, Strayed reacted to her mother's early death (at 45) by falling to pieces, experimenting with drugs, seeking comfort too casually with too many men, until finally a chance encounter with a trail guide on the bookshelves of a sporting good store led her to an almost whimsical decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail — or, at least, the section from Mojave, California, to Ashland, Oregon.
It's a mistake, I think, to believe she did not prepare. She clearly put in a fair amount of research as to equipment and planning. That contrasted, though, with an almost casual approach to physical preparation, in terms of preparing her own physique, rehearsing the pack, even carefully choosing the shoes. Further, she had the bad luck to pick a heavy snow year for her trek, requiring a bypass of the high Sierra (and consequently extending the original itinerary to the Columbia River).
This curious collision of preparation and impetuousness characterizes almost every aspect of the young Cheryl Strayed: intelligent, well read, thoughtful, but clueless about so many aspects of rational living. It's easy to explain this by her upbringing, not only her father's abandoning her but also her cheerfully impoverished mother and the unconventional childhood in a rural setting where material comforts were denied in favor of blithe free-spiritedness: but you can also read that upbringing, in the 1980s, as symptomatic of the times, of a fundamental schism in American society.
The book has been made into a film (which we saw the other night) that's been criticized for its irritating and frequent intercutting. The book itself proceeds by flashbacks, alternating between description of the trek and memories of the childhood and the crisis. Like others, I found this intercutting mannered at times. I'm not fond of the writer's prose rhythm, which alternates extended paragraphs with choppy single sentences; and like others, I found the book's final pages rushed.
But having done a little long-distance walking of my own, though without carrying tent or stove, I recognize the tedium, the meditation, the pain and what can only be called the transcendence of her experience.
…what mattered was utterly timeless. It was the thing that had compelled them to fight for the trail against all the odds, and it was the thing that drove me and every other long-distance hiker onward on the most miserable day. It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or the backpacking fads or philosophies of any particular era or even with getting from point A to point B.Although she hiked alone, a good-looking young woman under a ridiculously big and heavy back-pack, Strayed apparently met with few really scary situations — although she was conscious of risks. She had very little money, and describes the hunger and thirst, in many senses, that accompanied her. She also describes, beautifully, the alternating desire for companionship and solace of solitude that comes to many on the trail — or, perhaps, drives them to it.
It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way. That's what Montgomery knew, I supposed. And what Clarke knew and Rogers and what thousands of people who preceded and followed them knew. It was what Iknew before I even really did, before I could have known how truly hard and glorious the PCT would be, how profoundly the trail would both shatter and shelter me.Wild, p. 207
More than once I thought of Patti Smith's marvelous book Just Kids, describing her life with Robert Mapplethorpe. Whatever you may think of casual sex and drugs, there's a sweetness in both these accounts, a wistful innocence that I think expresses the awareness that something is seriously lacking in the mainstream contemporary American address to life; that in the absence of conventional family structures damaged adults, discontented with the cult of the individual, emerge craving affection, affirmation, companionship.
I think this is an important book in spite of its flaws, a provocative, dogged, generous narrative of things that go wrong, of damaged children and lost adults, but also of daily kindnesses and, ultimately, the lofty, uncaring, objective serenity of the Nature we must all confront, whether disease, privation, discipline, death, or sublime beauty. It makes me want to hit the trail again — finally, perhaps, alone, and with a tent and a stove.