Wanting Is a Wilderness

Reading between the lines.
March 3 2012 12:09 AM

Trail of Tears

After her mother died, Cheryl Strayed left for the Pacific Crest Trail, a world “two feet wide and 2,663 miles long.”

(Continued from Page 1)

Walking solo for hundreds of miles, she has whole afternoons to consider a single incident from childhood, entire days to consider other, weightier rites of passage. I won’t be alone, I’m sure, in bringing up the passage in which Strayed and her brother have to shoot their mother’s elderly horse because they don’t have the money for a vet. It does not go smoothly. In the end, they’re left with an empty gun, pools of blood, and a broken creature—so cherished by their dead mother—expiring horribly in front of them. It’s hard to imagine what could possibly give someone the ability to put an event like this into perspective, but Strayed finds a unexpected new angle on it, along with many other things in her past, on the PCT.  The trail, she says, is hard “in a way that made the other hardest things the tiniest bit less hard.”

By laying bare a great unspoken truth of adulthood—that many things in life don’t turn out the way you want them to, and that you can and must live through them anyway—Wild feels real in ways that many books about “finding oneself,” including Eat, Pray, Love and all its imitators, do not. The hike, rewarding though it is, doesn’t heal Strayed. “I’d thought I’d weep tears of cathartic sorrow and restorative joy each day of my journey,” she writes.  “Instead, I only moaned, and not because my heart ached. It was because my feet did and my back did and so did the still-open [pack] wounds around my hips.”

This is someone you want to listen to as she walks on, and many of the people she meets along the way do, too. “You must be the famous Cheryl of the enormous backpack,” one guy greets her, her reputation having traveled before her. At her first rest stop, roughly two and a half weeks into the trip, she shakes hands with a fellow hiker and sees in his eyes a kindred spirit: “I could read precisely the expression on his face. It said: I’VE GOT TO GET THESE FUCKING BOOTS OFF MY FEET.” Needless to say, they become great friends.

Strayed waited close to 20 years to publish her story, and it shows. Though many of the things that happen to her are extreme—at one point she hikes in boots made entirely of duct tape—she never writes from a place of desperation in the kind of semi-edited purge state that has marred so many true stories in recent years. Such fine control over so many unfathomable, enormous experiences was no doubt hard-won, and much of it clearly came long after Strayed’s days on the PCT were over.

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The beginnings of it are here, though, in moments like the one when Strayed realizes she’s reached a plane of existence that “had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles with no other reason than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets.”

This, as it happens, is about as good as it gets for her on the trail. When she  finally reaches her destination, she’s completed her hike, but her mother is still dead, her marriage is still over, her family and home still lost forever. She spends $1.80 of her last $2 on an ice cream cone. The ice cream is wonderful, but it’s not the answer to anything, and she knows it.

What she does offer up are many, many new questions far more valuable than any platitudes about self-discovery, and it’s in these that the heart of her story lies. “What if yes was the right answer instead of no?” she asks herself near the end of her trip. “What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?” One question is left unspoken, but it nonetheless animates every page of this ardent memoir: What do you have to say now, God?

See all the pieces in the new Slate Book Review.

Melanie Rehak is the author of Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her and Eating for Beginners: An Education in the Pleasures of Food from Chefs, Farmers, and One Picky Kid. She covers food for Bookforum and is currently at work on a book about the uses of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” in the 21st century, to be published in 2013.

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