One of my best friends is a HUGE traveler. She is also quite a reader and reads a lot of travelogues. That is how I discovered Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. My own feelings for travelogues is mixed. But, when someone I knew decided to hike the PCT this summer, I knew I had to read this book. And I’m glad I did.
Cheryl Strayed has had a rough few years. Particularly after the death of her mother, she began to make a lot of poor life decisions.
Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren’t a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was.
I imagine most travelogues on a spectrum. On one end, we have Eat, Pray, Love. The focus is on the philosophical and spiritual journey, relationships, and a smattering of places. The other end, we have A Walk in the Woods. Here the focus is the physical journey, the people sharing this journey, and the occasionally philosophical or personal reflection. I expected Wild (for some reason) to be closer to Bill Bryson’s works. I was mistaken. While not on the far end of the spectrum with Elizabeth Gilbert, Cheryl’s story was reflective of the events which pushed her to undertake this journey as well as the physical act of hiking.
What I appreciate most about Cheryl’s reflections of those incidents is that she describes these life experiences without trying to rationalize or explain her mistakes. She isn’t proud of the way she has acted in these situations, but she isn’t apologetic either. Cheryl addresses that in the moment she acted on what she thought was best at the time. While that’s not what other people would think of as “best”, that doesn’t matter. And this frankness follows her onto the PCT. We meet a critical character early on: “Monster”. Monster is the backpack Cheryl takes on the journey with her. Only, she didn’t really know much about backpacking before she left– so Monster weighs a TON. Cheryl owns this mistake and carries it (literally) with her on the whole trip. They don’t always get along, but Cheryl’s acceptance of how her own actions and decisions will shape her trip allow her to persevere in the worst of conditions.
The universe, I’d learned, was never, ever kidding. It would take whatever it wanted and it would never give it back.
My favorite parts of Cheryl’s story always had to do with the interactions she had with others. Hiking the PCT solo doesn’t mean you’re in the woods for 1200 miles all alone. Over her journey, Cheryl ran into many people which both helped and hindered her journey. Most people helped. It was lovely hearing the stories of how humanity is loving and caring. But, not all people helped.
There was one portion of Cheryl’s story that really resonated with me. When she ends up off the PCT for a brief time and runs into two gentlemen… and suddenly Cheryl doesn’t feel safe. I was incredibly moved by the way she clearly articulated her experience. I have never before experienced such a resonant reaction to the fear and anxiety of being in such a situation. I have been there.
While listening to the audiobook I was terrified for her, but I could also hear myself saying, “Yes! Exactly! That’s exactly how I feel!” I want to buy my own physical copy of this book just so I can carry it around and share this with my male friends who cannot relate or do not understand this experience. I feel like these life experiences really ended up defining me as a person and controlling a good portion of my life. Plus, the psychological aftereffects of moments like this and how they follow you for days… Thank you, Cheryl, for articulating this for those of us who have not been able to.
I knew that if I allow fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me.
In the end, I’m glad I read this book. I learned a lot about hiking and the PCT. It really restored my faith in humanity quite a bit, as well. I strongly recommend this to anyone interested in travelogues for sure– just know there will be a lot of flashbacks.
What do you think?
- Do you read many travelogues? What is your opinion of the genre? Any you’d recommend, or suggest to avoid?
- Did you see the film Wild starring Reese Whetherspoon? What did you think? If you read the book as well, can you compare them?
- Do you go hiking? Have you ever done anything like this? What was your experience like?