Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed, is the only non-fiction book I’m reviewing in my haunting books this year. I almost didn’t review this book, because I was disgusted with the author throughout most of the time I was reading her memoir. But I decided that because her story did stick with me after I read it, it met my criteria for “haunting book.”
Why was I disgusted? Because she was so stupid. I don’t think I’m being too harsh, because Ms. Strayed admits her own stupidity in setting out on a high-stakes, high-altitude adventure without adequate preparation.
My husband loves to backpack, and before any trip he makes, he pulls out a checklist of what to take. He inspects all his equipment and repairs it or replaces what is missing. He packages his food into single servings and throws out every extraneous bit of packaging to reduce weight. He limits his clothing and hefts the filled pack, then decides to take even less.
I do not love to backpack, but I’ve accompanied my husband enough that I know to follow the checklist. And I know to take practice hikes to break in my boots.
By contrast, Ms. Strayed set out to hike most of the Pacific Crest Trail from California to Washington State with very little hiking experience. In new boots. With a pack weighing over 70 pounds that she could hardly lift.
What was she thinking?
I asked myself that question on just about every page of the book. And I still ask myself whenever I remember the book: What was she thinking?
SPOILER ALERT – THE REST OF THIS POST DISCUSSES THE PLOT AND THEMES IN WILD.
The motivation for the author’s journey was to find a way to recover from her mother’s death and the subsequent disintegration of her marriage and family. In her grief, she had been unfaithful to a decent husband, had turned to drugs and sex to escape her depression, and was generally a mess.
So in 1995, four years after her mother died, she decided that a cross-country hike would cure her problems. Not just any hike, but a 1000+ mile journey along the Pacific Crest Trail. Alone.
Now, as I said, I do not love to backpack. If my life were collapsing, I doubt I would turn to a high-mountain trip to fix myself. But to each his (or her) own.
If I were coerced into an extreme adventure such as this, I would not take a 70 pound pack. I had a 70 pound dog once. I know what 70 pounds feels like, and I know I don’t want to boost it into the car, let alone carry it for miles each day at high altitudes.
I’d limit myself to 20 pounds, if possible. No more than 30. I’d go with my husband, not alone, so he could carry the tent.
Oh, that’s right. She didn’t have a husband any more. She threw him away.
I do not mean to disparage the tragedies Ms. Strayed suffered before she headed out on the trail. Her mother’s death from cancer was undeniably heartbreaking, as was the loss of family that followed.
But there are positive ways we can mourn our losses and negative. After her mother’s death, Ms. Wild set out on a self-destructive path which only increased the losses she incurred. The book sometimes felt like a celebration or justification for her unfortunate choices, as if the author were saying, “look at all the bad things I did, and I still managed to have an excellent adventure.” I could not condone either her past mistakes or her decision to head out on the trail unprepared.
As one might expect, Ms. Strayed’s journey went more slowly than she expected, and was filled with near disasters. She lost toenails because of her ill-fitting boots. (Until one of her boots flew down the mountain. Then all she had was flip-flops. On snow.) She was cold. She went hungry and thirsty.
I know a lot of the territory she passed through in California and Oregon, though I’ve done little hiking in it. The scenery is majestic. If any place on earth could heal one’s heart, it might be the heights of the Sierras and Cascades.
I can sympathize with Ms. Strayed’s desire to do something difficult to improve her self-worth. I can identify with wanting time by herself to find her inner strength.
But there are smart ways to remake one’s self. And there are dumb ways. This book describes a dumb way.
I could not get pass the dumb-ness of hiking unprepared through daunting climes—and climbs—in an effort to improve one’s self-esteem. Surely a marathon at sea level would have been enough.
So, as I read, I could only say to myself,
What was she thinking?
Ultimately, Ms. Strayed came out the other end. Of the Pacific Crest Trail. Of her confused life. I am happy for her.
But I cannot recommend this book to any young people looking for a way to center their lives, because they might be tempted to follow Ms. Strayed’s folly. I can only recommend it to older and wiser adults who can see a young and foolish woman, overwhelmed by life’s sucker-punches, who chose the wrong way to fight back.
The saving grace of the book is that Ms. Strayed does not flinch from describing the wrong choices she made. She ultimately forgives herself for almost ruining her life and builds a decent future. It appears that she did in fact find herself on the Pacific Crest Trail. Ultimately, her success in pulling through her early life’s tragedies and her ill-conceived adventure makes the book a success as well.
But, what was she thinking?