She stood alone in the wilderness of her existence, in that terrible and beautiful silence on the precipice of creation where all things are made and unmade, clutching a boot to her chest, and stared into the green abyss of trees where her other boot had fallen, moments before. Cheryl Strayed begins her memoir, “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” high in the Cascade Mountains of Northern California, in the middle of a solo hike that she hoped would help her piece together the scattered pieces of her life.
Strayed began her journey in 1995, about four years after her mother’s death and the subsequent dissolution of her family and marriage. Her trek takes her over 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail; from the Mojave Desert to the Bridge of the Gods along the Oregon-Washington border; with a backpack, nicknamed “Monster,” she can barely lift; through grief and loneliness to personal redemption.
“I would suffer,” Strayed writes at the end of the first chapter. “I would want things to be different than they were. The wanting was a wilderness and I had to find my own way out of the woods. It took me four years, seven months and three days to do it. I didn’t know where I was going until I got there. It was a place called the Bridge of the Gods.”
Although she has published only one novel, Strayed has gained a large following through her (until recently) anonymous column, “Dear Sugar,” for TheRumpus.net. In “Wild,” she artfully mixes her childhood and the story of her mother’s death into the narrative of her solo hike, creating a rich tapestry of emotions.
“We went to the women’s restroom,” she writes, remembering the moments after her mother’s diagnosis with late-stage lung cancer at 45 years old. “Each of us locked in separate stalls, weeping. We didn’t exchange a word. Not because we felt so alone in our grief, but because we were so together in it … I could feel my mother’s weight leaning against the door, her hands slapping slowly against it, causing the entire frame of the bathroom stalls to shake.”
Personal moments like these are woven into rich descriptions of the trek through the mountains, and reflections on what it is to travel on foot.
“Miles weren’t things that blazed dully past,” she writes. “They were long, intimate straggles of weeds and clumps of dirt, blades of grass and flowers that bent in the wind, trees that lumbered and screeched. They were the sound of my breath and my feet hitting the trail one step at a time and the click of my ski pole.”
Strayed’s narrative ruthlessly delves into the story of her grief and redemption, and avoids the pitfalls of dwelling for too long on episodes such as her heroin addiction, unintended pregnancy, abortion and string of extramarital affairs. By the time that she reaches a revelation at Crater Lake, staring into the deep, blue water of the bowl-shaped caldera, readers identify deeply with her suffering.
“But it was too late now, I knew, and there was only my dead, insular, overly optimistic, non-college-preparing, occasionally-child-abandoning, pot-smoking, wooden-spoon-wielding, feel-free-to-call-me-by-my-name mom to blame,” she writes. “She had failed. She had failed. She has so profoundly failed me … She was my mother, but I was motherless. I was trapped by her but utterly alone. She would always be the empty bowl that no one could fill. I’d have to fill it myself again and again and again.”
“Wild” is more than a journey through the wilderness, and more than a story of redemption. It is a monument to the enduring power of the human spirit. It chronicles a brief window in the sum of life — a moment that is a window on all time. Strayed’s experience becomes ours. We are subtracted into our own nakedness, and by a miracle of chance, a seed blossoms in the desert of our existence, sending new magic into the dusty expanses of time and memory.
Rating: 4 out of 5