Friday, March 1, 2013

Book Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

When I opened up the first page of Cheryl Strayed's enthralling Wild, I was disappointed. The book was supposed to be the memoir of a woman who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in the mid-nineties; but on the map at the beginning it only showed that she hiked part of the trail. She hiked a bit low down in California, a bit high in California and then all of Oregon. My first thought was, why should I read a book about someone who only hiked part of the PCT.

Over the years I've met a lot of people who have trekked from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail. Indeed, we have employed at least four guides since I've been here who have made the journey. The trail's length and the endurance it takes to hike it are things to be admired. The trail stretches 2,663 miles and most people take five months to hike it. Strayed walked 1,100 miles on a 100-day expedition, which is nothing to scoff at.

But what I found truly engaging about Wild was not the adventure travel narrative. Instead it was the journey within the journey. As such, it didn't matter that she hadn't hiked the whole trail. That's not what the book was about.

Cheryl (it's hard to refer to her with her last name after reading such an intimate book) started the trek in an extremely dark place. She had hit the absolute rock bottom in self-destructive behavior. Her mother had recently died, which resulted in a profound grief that ruined her youthful marriage and lead her down a dark rabbit-hole of one-night stands and drug abuse. She knew that she needed a change. She needed to find a way to deal with her grief while building herself back up; so with little knowledge of wilderness travel, she decided to hike a large portion of the Pacific Crest Trail.

The young woman didn't really understand what she was getting herself into. She had never been backpacking before and she had no idea how to pack her pack or how to select boots for the trip, or even how to light her stove. 

The result?

Hamburger feet. A massive pack she could barely lift nicknamed, Monster. Painful calluses on her hips from her waist-belt. An irrational fear of animals. Dangerous dehydration. And minor epics too numerous to count.

Often times Cheryl's ignorance is funny. And sometimes it's a little bit scary. But it's always entertaining.

We've seen this comic novice backpacker part before though. Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods covers much of the same ground on a different trail. His book deals with his own comic ignorance on the Appalachian Trail. And while this aspect of Wild is entertaining, it's not the heart of the book. No, the heart comes from a deep place where nature helps to heal the emotional wounds that we suffer in this life. This core of the memoir is what removes Wild from the standard aventure narrative and elevates it to the highest level of outdoor literature.

Cheryl writes eloquently about the history of the trail and about the people who helped it come into being. These include proponents like Catherine Montgomery in 1926, Clinton Clark, who took up the cause in 1938, and then Warren Rogers who saw the trail dedicated in 1968. In the following passage, she writes about how these people understood what nature means to the human soul.

It didn't matter that everything from my cheap knock-off sandals to my high-tech-by-1995-standard boots and backpack would have been foreign to them (the trail's founders), because what mattered was utterly timeless. It was the thing that compelled them to fight for the trail against all odds, and it was the thing that drove me and every other long distance hiker onward on the most miserable days. It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or backpacking fads or philosophies of any particular era or even getting from point A to point B.

 It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel that way. That's what Montgomery knew, I supposed. And what Clarke knew and Rogers and what thousands of people who preceded and followed them knew. It was what I knew before I even really did, before I could have known how truly hard and glorious the PCT would be, how profoundly the trail would both shatter and shelter me.

There are dozens of beautiful and heartbreaking moments in Wild. We cry for Cheryl's mother. We cry for Cheryl's ex-husband who tries to deal with her grief, but can't handle it when the grief turns to adultery. We cry for a horse that has to be put down and is done so sloppily. We cry for Cheryl's drug abuse. And finally we cry for Cheryl... We want her to survive, not just the trail, but her grief. We want her to learn what she needs to learn from the wilderness, and we want her to bring her knowledge back with her.

I often found myself both angered with and enamored by Cheryl. From a technical perspective, it drove me nuts that she hiked over a thousand miles and never figured out how to take care of her feet, or really pare down on her backpack. From a personal perspective, it drove me nuts that she was attracted to a guy that brought her into a dangerous drug culture. And it drove me nuts that she treated her ex-husband -- whom she truly loved -- so poorly. But on the other hand, I found myself falling in love with her as she came to terms with her mother's death and with her personal quest to find value in herself and in her life through self-imposed wilderness therapy.

I went into the women's restroom. As I brushed my teeth before a flourescently lit mirror above a bank of sinks, a woman said, "I like your feather," and pointed to it on my pack.

"Thanks," I said, our eyes meeting in the mirror. She was pale and brown-eyed with a bumpy nose and a long braid down her back; dressed in a tie-dyed T-shirt and a pair of patched up cutoff jeans and Birkenstock sandals. "My friend gave it to me," I mumbled as toothpaste dribbled out of my mouth. It seemed like forever since I'd talked to a woman.

"It's got to be a corvid," she said, reaching over to touch it delicately with one finger. "It's either a raven or a crow, a symbol of the void," she added, in a mystical tone.

"The void?" I'd asked, crestfallen.

"It's a good thing," she said. "It's the place where things are born, where they begin. Think about how a black hole absorbs energy and then releases it as something new and alive."

The wilderness is the void, and the adventures that we take there are what shape us. This is implied throughout the cannon of outdoor literature; but few books take us simultaneously so deeply into the crucible of the backcountry as well as into that of the human heart. Wild is a funny, adventurous and heart-wrenching tale that reminds us of something that we already know. That wilderness and our adventures there can heal us and give us hope.

--Jason D. Martin

No comments: