If you’re not a regular at the Rumpus, you probably don’t know Sugar and that’s unfortunate. Sugar is the Rumpus advice columnist, though she’s more of the crazy honest best friend you’ve always needed. Sugar unveiled her identity, Cheryl Strayed, to the world back in February just as her memoir, “Wild”, came out.
Since then, the book is a New York Times Bestseller, Reese Witherspoon optioned it, and Vogue photoshopped Strayed, a natural beauty, beyond recognition. You know you’ve arrived as an author once the glamorbots digitally bleach your hair! Despite the Vogue endorsement, this is a fantastic book.
I picked up “Wild” really really wanting to love it, but beyond that I didn’t know what to expect. The focus is a solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 1995. At the time, Strayed was struggling with her mother’s death and the divorce from a man she still loved. Maybe this doesn’t strike you as a good time, but don’t put it in the not-my-cup-of-tea pile. It’s an incredibly strange and adventurous read – like an “On the Road” for lost hikers with a messy life.
Take “Wild” to the park or the beach or a sky lake and sink your teeth in deep.
The PCT begins in Mexico and spans 2650 miles, but Cheryl picks it up somewhere in the Mojave Desert and continues for roughly 1,100 miles. On day one, she tries to distract herself from the extreme weight of her backpack named Monster with thoughts of rattlesnakes, bears and serial killers. This is precisely where mind my goes when I hike no matter how long the trail is or if I’m alone or not. Fear can paralyze you from going another step, you’ll swear the wind sounds more like a growl or that every snapped twig is a blood-thirsty maniac. You regret ever reading Stephen King. But not Cheryl. She tells herself she’s safe and forces her self to believe it. She doesn’t let fear enter her mind.
Along the way she begins to recall good memories of her mother in vivid detail. On the trail she rubs sage together remembering her mother saying “it gives you a burst of energy”. She keeps a detailed journal and on nights when she’s not too exhausted she reads. Books take on an intense role. As many hikers do, she tears off the pages as she reads them and burns them for warmth to reduce even a hair of weight.
They were the world I could lose myself in when the world I was actually in became too lonely or harsh or difficult to bear.
The books she had a friend mail to her at stops include: Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying”, “The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Conner”, “The Dream of a Common Language” by Adrienne Rich, and” The Pacific Crest Trail Volumes 1 & 2″.
My favorite quote in the book is from John Muir’s “My First Summer in the Sierra”:
We are now in the mountains and they are in us…
In thinking of Catherine Montgomery, who first envisioned the trail in 1926, Strayed realizes that the people who created the trail had imagined people like her.
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 trees, 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 would always feel like this to be a human in the wild.
Strayed doesn’t romanticize her trek. The moments of magic are well earned. Trail magic is PCT vernacular for: the unexpected and sweet happenings that stand out in stark relief to the challenges of the trail. At one point she spots a dear and feels compelled to tell it “You’re safe in this world”.
Of the handfuls of people she meets, Strayed is the least prepared, least experienced and only female travelling alone. She’s gently received by her fellow hikers. They share meals, stories and even help her lighten her load.
If there’s one new book you read this year, let “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” be the one. Even the monotony of walking mostly by herself in nature every day for months is meaningful and sometimes inspiring. Strayed is completely forthright in her constant pain, hunger and desires. Some of her, um, excursions are written in such detail that it will make you blush. You, not me. I did have look up the word “pudenda“, and am glad I did because it sounded like a piece of furniture.
The appeal of this book is pretty vast because Strayed takes the kind of journey many people dream of. She sets off looking for “a new home in the world” – a spiritual awakening – and gets all kinds of soars and bruises in return. She encounters the things you’d hope for and fear most of all, and she embraces them, herself and the world – as relentless and wild as it is.
The only book Strayed couldn’t bring herself to burn was Adrienne Rich’s “The Dream of a Common Language”. Instead she hugged it. I finished “Wild” and hugged it, too.
Which books would you crave alone in the wild?