Saturday, February 23, 2019

Wild by Cheryl Strayed, 2012

©Alfred A. Knopf

At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State—and she would do it alone. Told with suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.

My thoughts

In order to find yourself, sometimes you have to lose something. Or in the case of Cheryl Strayed, someone. Someone very dear to her, her own mother, who she loses to cancer. The personal tragedy leaves her distraught with grief and sets off a chain of unfortunate events in her life—estrangement from her stepfather and her two younger siblings; extramarital affairs and experiments with drugs; the heartbreaking decision to put down her horse; and divorce from the man she loved and who truly cared for her.

Cheryl is lost in the wilderness of her life. And it is the wilderness she seeks to find herself again or, as she says, “to save myself.”

Four years after her mother’s death, Cheryl embarks on an epic and a fascinating pilgrimage of self-discovery—all by herself—hiking the 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail that starts from the Mexican border and ends on the Canadian border. Cheryl, though, begins her redemptive journey from the Mojave Desert, hiking through California and Oregon, and finally making it to the Bridge of the Gods, a cantilever bridge, and to Washington state.

It takes Cheryl over three months to complete the hike, through imposing mountain ranges, forests and plateaus, record snowfall and extreme temperatures, and past deadly creatures such as bears and rattlesnakes. Her remarkable and seemingly impossible expedition, often assailed by fear and self-doubt, is as intimidating as it is beguiling, the rocky terrain as hostile as it is hospitable. In the end, Cheryl emerges triumphant, grateful to the PCT—“the long walk”—for making her whole again. 

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is an engaging and entertaining memoir etched with vivid details of Cheryl’s journey starting with her lack of preparedness, first with her humongous backpack she affectionately calls ‘Monster’ and then with her ill-fitting boots that cause her to lose the nails of her feet; the books she carries (including the oft-repeated The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California), reads and burns on the PCT; the many kind and helpful people, mostly fellow-hikers, she meets on the way and exchanges notes with; and the nights she spends alone in her tent, eating granola bars, listening to the voices in her head and the strange sounds outside. 

Throughout her journey, Cheryl recalls, with a tinge of pain and sadness, the life she left behind—her childhood, the abusive father who abandoned them, the stepfather who admirably filled his shoes, remorse over her failed marriage, and finally, the one person who meant the world to her—her mother, and the illness that snatched her away. The frequent flashbacks, however, do not take away the joy of reading about her hike, though, at 338 pages, I thought it was a bit long. But considering it’s a deeply personal and emotionally-charged account of her early life, the writer would be justified in telling it any how she likes. Cheryl tells hers in first person, in a candid, engaging and almost conversational style.

Wild struck a chord because I’d read of similar journeys of self-discovery, undertaken for different reasons. Notably, Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words, where Peace Pilgrim (Mildred Lisette Norman) walked over 25,000 miles on a personal pilgrimage for peace; the classic Walden, a life in the woods of Massachusetts, by Henry David Thoreau; and my personal favourite, In Quest of God and In The Vision of God by Swami Ramdas, the Hindu monk who walked the length and breadth of undivided India in search of spiritual salvation.

Nearly every one of us must someday get on the trail, not necessarily a physical trail, and find ourselves.

I plan to watch the 2014 screen adaptation of Wild where Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed. I learnt of the film only after I read the book.

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