June 2013: Wild
Reeling from the death of her mother, the end of her marriage, and the destructive behavior she fell into subsequently, author Cheryl Strayed resolved to walk more than 1,000 miles alone on the Pacific Crest Trail. The three months she spent on the trail proved to be nothing less than life-altering, and she recounts the journey she took—physically, emotionally, spiritually—in Wild. Real Simple senior editor Yolanda Wikiel led the June 2013 discussion.
Wild: Parts One and Two
So we’ve met the self-proclaimed Cheryl Strayed—a woman who is “wild, lost, without a mother, a father, or a home, and moving aimlessly in search of something” as she ventures to hike the 1,100 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail. Coincidentally, a month ago I read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, a biography about Christopher McCandless, a young man who journeys on his own in the Alaskan wilderness. While McCandless wasn’t nearly as emotionally broken and self-destructive as Cheryl, the thing that really struck me about both of them was the incredible naïveté they had about what it takes to survive in the wild. Perhaps it was that they didn’t even want to think of the terrifying nitty-gritty of what they were taking on, because if they had, they would have talked themselves out of taking the trip altogether. Ironically enough, McCandless also took on a new name during his travels—Alexander Supertramp—similarly symbolic of Cheryl’s lost-child choice of “Strayed” as a last name.
We see just how much Cheryl is crushed by her mother’s death from cancer. It seems that experience has made her numb to everything else in her life—the destruction of her marriage to Paul (the man must be a saint!), her notorious bed-hopping and subsequent abortion, even her surprisingly easy-to-drop heroin addiction. She mentions all of her transgressions with little remorse and very matter-of-factly. Emotionally she felt alone after her mom died and the hike became a way for her to physically manifest that loneliness, to be alone in every sense of the word. And I feel like her ridiculously heavy backpack, which she calls “my burden to bear, of my own ludicrous making,” became yet another way for her to punish herself. (Why on earth didn't she dump that foldable saw on Day 1?) Even though Cheryl says that while she was hiking along the PCT she didn’t have time to reflect on her life because she was consumed by the immediate suffering of the trail (exhaustion, blisters, that very scary bull!), on some level, those ordeals are showing her how to move on from her emotional pain and her troubled past. She says, “I could only choose between the bull that would take me back and the bull that would take me forward. And so I walked on.”
As Part Two of the book came to a close, we were left with a few cliffhangers: Is Cheryl going to risk her life and cross through the high snows of the Sierra Neveda? (I can't imagine how she would be able to survive that.) Is she going to return to her old ways and hook up with Tom, Doug, or Greg? (I hope not. Any kind of romance, even if brief, would be a distraction.) And when is she going to lose that boot? (The thought of walking barefoot on rough terrain is as horrifying as being face-to-face with a bull…or a bear…or a rattlesnake.)
What do you think it was about the PCT that inspired Cheryl to impulsively make the journey? And what is it that is driving her to continue on even as she experiences so many setbacks? Post your thoughts in the comments section below. And for next week, let’s read Parts Three and Four.
Wild: Parts Three and Four
Cheryl did a quite a bit of growing in Parts Three and Four. It felt as if she was peeling away the layers of who she had become. She acknowledges that she’s been trying on identities up until that point when she says, “Alone had always felt like an actual place to me…[a] room where I could retreat to be who I really was.” And by losing those layers (along with some toenails!), she not only came more into her own, but also started to see how much she has the power to psych herself out. She says, “I could always take another step…[it was] only when I thought how far I had yet to go that I lost faith that I would get there.” She’s basically telling herself to not resist—to surrender to the trail; to Monster, which was no longer her enemy; to the fear that she finally had the guts to face; and to her longing for a family. Cheryl experiences a major turning point by losing her pride, her arrogance, but she gains humility in the process.
The feather, which she later found out through a chance meeting was a “symbol of the void…a place where things are born instead of die,” shows her rebirth as a person who begins to trust her natural instincts. Remember when she surrendered to her senses as she guided herself blindly through the dark trail just like she had done while learning to ride a horse? In fact, there was an overwhelming amount of animal imagery in these two sections—the fox sighting that reminded her of her mother, her dreams of Lady and Bigfoot, and even the magical Bob Marley T-shirt that Paco gave her because he saw that she walked with the spirits of the animals. And as Cheryl points out, her father was also wild, albeit in a very different way. Trekking the PCT was her way of healing her father’s wound, a way for her “to get on that horse and ride into battle like a warrior.” What her father couldn’t teach her, she was attempting to learn on her own.
What was pretty amazing to me is what she endured without crying on the trail. That throughout all the obstacles of losing her shoe, practically dying of thirst, and getting lost, she didn’t have any tears. It’s not until the end of Part Four that Cheryl breaks down and cries. And she doesn’t cry for the reasons that many people typically would. She cries because she finally feels safe and full. Growing up the way she did, those feelings were likely pretty foreign to her. It’s among nature—the sky, the creatures, the snow, the trail—that she finds her place in the world: "The wilderness had a clarity that included me." Cheryl sees that she is just as deserving of certainty, that she is no different from the other elements of the wild.
So what did you think of all the animal imagery? What was it was about her encounter with the fox that made her think of her mother? And what did her tragic memory of putting down Lady with her brother mean? Let me know what you’re thinking in the comments section. And let’s finish up the book for next Friday. Be back then!
Wild: Part Five
Cheryl finally made it to the Bridge of the Gods! That’s not to say she didn’t experience a few other mishaps along the final leg of her trip. In the comments last week, we were discussing whether Cheryl was too trusting of strangers, and she finally came upon someone who rattled her to her core. But luckily the sandy-haired man left without doing her any real harm. Her other encounter with a stranger, her night-into-day date with Jonathan, wasn’t nearly as scary. However, it did end up being a turning point for her in a couple of ways. The day at the beach reminded her of Paul, and she wrote his name in the sand for the very last time, letting him go for good. Then when she says good-bye to Jonathan, she feels empty. She says, “It was the end of an era that had lasted all my life.” Cheryl is closing the book on her wild days. How do you think Cheryl’s experiences with other people she met on the PCT aided in her healing process?
When she was back on the trail, we see Cheryl wrestle through the full range of emotions that her wild ways had prevented her from experiencing all those years. She feels deep anger, then sadness, and finally acceptance about her mother. She notes that if it had not been for the less-than-privileged childhood she had always scorned, she wouldn’t have considered a 1,000-mile trip on next to no money a possibility. And she realized that her stepfather, Eddie, had loved her too, and that she couldn’t have made it through without him teaching her about camping. Everything was starting to make sense to her. She says, “What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what also had got me here?” Cheryl is acknowledging that she can’t change the past; that everything happened for a greater reason—to bring her where she is in the present.
And that is when she begins to see everything in a whole new light. Cheryl now knows that she needs to take responsibility for her own life. Unlike her mother, she is getting the opportunity to be in the driver’s seat; she has to be the one to fill her “empty bowl.” Instead of looking for an escape route, she found a way into herself. It looks like the POW bracelet that Cheryl lost soon after Part Five begins was a premonition after all—it was a sign that she was no longer lost.
Our journey together isn’t over just yet: Cheryl Strayed has agreed to answer our questions! I, for one, would like to know: Now that Cheryl is a mother of two, how would she feel about her kids embarking on a similar odyssey? I’m also interested in hearing from Cheryl what it was, exactly, about Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of the Common Language that made her want to carry it the entire way.
I’m sure there’s plenty more you’re curious about, so please leave any questions for her in the comments below by Friday, June 28.
Thanks for reading along, Bookies. Until next time. . .
Cheryl Strayed Gets Wild With You
In case you didn’t realize this already, I can confirm for you: Cheryl Strayed is an amazing woman. Not only did she hike the Pacific Crest Trail solo—and write about it in her memoir Wild—she also answered our many questions about her endeavor in what has to be some sort of land-speed record, given that I only just sent them off. Below, are her answers in the form I received them. See what Cheryl has to say. Cheers!
From discussion leader Yolanda Wikiel: Now that Cheryl is a mother of two, how would she feel about her kids embarking on a similar odyssey?
CS: I’d be thrilled if my children decided to go on a long backpacking trip or some such other wilderness adventure. I’d worry about them, of course, but I’d try to remember that worries about wilderness travel are often not based in fact. More people die by traveling in automobiles than they do while hiking. I think testing ourselves in nature is a great way to grow and explore.
I’m also interested in hearing from Cheryl what it was, exactly, about Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of the Common Language that made her want to carry it the entire way.
CS: I admire the poems. They spoke to me at that time in my life (and they still speak to me now). But also, and perhaps more importantly, the book was something of a talisman to me. So many of the poems are about finding the beauty in the wound, finding the strength in the weak places. I love that book.
From reader dconnolly: Continuing on from Yolanda’s question, Cheryl, if you were beginning a similarly long hike today, is there a particular book that you would carry from start to finish, and why?
CS: Moby-Dick. I’ve never read it! A long hike would finally compel me to read it after so many years of having it on my “to be read” list.
From reader beachmom11: Are you involved in any conservation programs? With your writing ability and your audience—you could make a big difference! Also, have you had any communication with the people at Snapple? I wonder if their sales have gone up with the success of Wild. I, for one, have looked high and low for Snapple lemonade since reading the book.
CS: I’m very politically and socially engaged and I always have been. I’m passionate about the environment, the arts, feminism, and a range of social justice causes—and yes I’m involved with a range of organizations that reflect my beliefs.
From reader CatKib: Cheryl, how are Karen and Leif? Did they reach out to you after the book was published?
CS: Karen and Leif and I have always been in touch, though we never did regain the closeness we had before our mother died. Both of them were supportive of Wild. Leif in particular loves the book. They both are doing okay, but they’ve had challenges.
Your journey was not spiritual, as many people search for “the answer” or “meaning,” but do you have a desire to find or to practice a religion?
CS: I think you’re right that I wasn’t trying to find one answer—I don’t think there is one. I think life is more complicated than that. But I do think Wild is quite spiritual, just not in the traditional sense when it comes to God as God is generally defined being part of my search. I have always believed there is divinity in all living things. My hike on the PCT put me in deeper touch with that knowledge. I have lots of admiration for the best aspects of every religion or belief system. I’ve found great wisdom in a range of religions and practices and interpretations of faith. I just don’t adhere to one.
Did you finish your degree?
CS: In 1997 I decided it was time to get my degree, so I took one more class at the U of MN and I was done. Yay!
From deputy editor Maura Fritz: I’m always struck by how the rest of the world, and life, carries on seemingly unchanged even though you’ve had a life-altering experience. So my question for Chery is: How difficult was it to orient herself to the rest of the world when she finished her hike? And what did she feel when she touched the Bridge of the Gods: joy, sadness, relief, all of the above?
CS: It was less hard than you might imagine. I was so excited to be back in the civilized world, even while I felt nostalgic for the world of the PCT. The biggest thing was what a great perspective shift it was to spend so much time in the wilderness. It reminded me that the simplest pleasures—like a cold glass of lemonade—are not to be taken for granted. As for how I felt when I reached the Bridge of the Gods, yes, I felt all of the emotions you named, but most of all I felt gratitude. Huge gratitude for all that I’d experienced. Not just on the trail, but in my life. I still feel that way.
From reader jrenae: Do you still hike and if so to what degree? I have to imagine that having a husband and kids makes it a little hard to go hiking for months on end. Next, after writing the book has anyone you encountered on the trail contacted you? After meeting these people through your book I am curious as to how their journeys ended. Finally, I also am curious as to the state of your relationship with your siblings and Eddie since you wrote the book. Is it the same or have you grown closer?
CS: I do still hike. It’s one of my favorite things to do. You’re right that I’ve not been able to go off on a long hike, but I hope someday to do a long hike with my family when my kids are a bit older. Yes, just about everyone in the book has been in touch with me since it was published. It’s been fun reconnecting.
From reader DeAnnaJF: I’m curious about how her life went since finishing the trail. Old habits die hard. Did she have troubles trusting her now husband at first? Did she ever have moments where she struggled to stay faithful? Did she ever have the urge to turn to heroin again? Did she struggle to allow her now husband to help her with things because she felt that if she was strong enough to do the PCT that she was strong enough to take care of anything?
CS: I haven’t had any struggles with heroin in the years since my hike. I have a deeply happy life and marriage, but like in any life there are ups and downs. I’ve written about many aspects of my life post-PCT in my book Tiny Beautiful Things, which is ostensibly an advice book, but also is a memoir of sorts. There are many stories in that book that will offer a fuller picture of my life.
From reader DarleneAA: I’d like to know, of all the people you met during your journey, who was your “favorite” or the person who really stood out in your mind afterward, and why? In your opinion, what was the biggest way that your hike changed your outlook on life? Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions!
CS: It’s hard to pick favorites, but I will say that Rick (one of the Three Young Bucks) became a good friend of mine after our hike and we’ve always been in touch. He’s a fantastic person. The trail didn’t so much change my outlook, but rather deepened what I already knew: that the direction is forward, one step at a time.
Thank you for reading my book. I appreciate it so much.