Overcoming Jealousy, Reading Wild
By Emily Burns Morgan
Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, was in Yuknavitch’s Portland writing group. So was Chuck Palahniuk and probably many other talented writers we haven’t heard of yet. And I’m like 99% happy for them and only 1% jealous; okay, maybe 5%. Not so much of Palahniuk, whom I admire but who writes fiction (and worlds differently than I do), but of these women who tell stories not so different from mine, in voices I recognize inside my soul. Perversely, I resist such voices. I didn’t read The Chronology of Water until my personal librarian put his copy in my hands, and I held out on Strayed until I just couldn’t do it anymore—I wanted to read it before the film version starring Reese Witherspoon comes out later this year.
I’m so glad I finally gave in. Wild is a gripping, abundant, fully-realized and possibly perfect memoir that I literally lost sleep over. That doesn’t happen very often for me, and I certainly didn’t expect it to with a book about a person hiking the Pacific Crest Trail by herself. I guess that’s another part of why I waited to read it: the premise sounded boring. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a nature book now and then—I liked Walden well enough, I just don’t consider it a page-turner. And yet somehow Strayed manages to make Wild exactly that.
The inciting incident is heart-wrenching if not, sadly, altogether unique. Strayed’s loving, charming, Minnesota-hippie mother loses her battle with cancer when Strayed is just twenty-two. In the wake of that incomprehensible loss, the young woman’s life quickly unravels. Her remaining family falls apart, she divorces her loving husband, travels around the country for a few years, and takes up heroin before deciding, pretty much on a whim, that hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from California to Oregon will be just what she needs to sort herself out. She’ll commune with nature, find herself again or figure out who she is now, spend time alone facing things, and whatnot. Who can’t relate? It’s the same thing I was looking for when I moved to Thailand by myself at age twenty-four. As on my own journey of self-discovery, Strayed faces a great deal of adversity before reaching a literal and figurative place of catharsis.
While it’s true, as advertised, that Strayed is alone for much of the book, an interesting and inspiring cast of characters I hadn’t expected shows up, too. Strayed meets many folks on the trail who help her. It’s unlikely she would have made it without the kindness of strangers, and she learns much from her relationships with them—though not as much, I think, as from her solo interactions with the trail itself. Strayed describes the landscape of the Western United States in rich, accurate, and loving prose, painting scenes of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains that I can only see through her eyes, as well as many descriptions of the Oregon that I have come to know and treasure as deeply in my own heart. The PCT itself is a major character in this book and (no offense to Walden) one that far surpasses a humble pond in a wood. The incredible variety of the landscape and its geographical features is rendered appropriately mind-boggling. Strayed reminds us how unconsciously easy it has become to believe that this planet was created for our enjoyment and ease. Such an attitude imbues our human problems with a dangerous degree of self-importance. It’s only when we get out into nature that we remember we are just a small part of an incomprehensibly vast and complex whole, and that nature is more or less indifferent to our existence. One does not often come across a book that explores these ideas and yet feels so thoroughly modern.
Strayed arrives on the PCT naïve and underprepared. She has packed too much; she has not saved enough; she has failed to learn how to use her compass (though she does drag along the heavy book explaining it); she has not broken-in her boots. She makes many mistakes, but her difficulties are what push her to grow and change, to accept loss and move through hardship. I found myself thinking that though Strayed’s story has different starting and midpoints than mine, our (and no doubt many others’) end point was the same: catharsis, Oregon.
If everything had worked out perfectly—if there had not been snow and impasses and ill-fitting boots and missed trailheads and sketchy hunters and wild animals—Strayed’s experience would not have made for a good book. And as yet another Portland writer, Donald Miller, points out in his unique, exceptional memoir A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, we aren’t really living if we’re not living good stories, and good stories inevitably involve a character overcoming hardship in order to achieve something she cares about. So maybe it’s a good sign that memoirs are so hot right now. Maybe it means we’re starting to realize the truth in these stories—that great adventures and high drama and big payoffs are not just for characters in books. Terrible, wonderful, extraordinary things happen to real people, too, all the time, whether we like it or not. We only grow and develop into fully-formed characters, though, if we are willing to take terrible, wonderful, extraordinary risks. If we are willing to stray, quite a bit, off the path.
Emily Burns Morgan is a writer, editor, and professor in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Raleigh Review, Killing the Angel, and The Montreal Review, among other publications.