When did you know you weren’t going to like Eat, Pray, Love? For me, it was the moment when Elizabeth Gilbert—weeping on the bathroom floor of the perfect house she shared with the lovely man she no longer wanted to be married to for reasons she couldn’t really explain—looked in desperation to God, asking for help. What he told her, gently, in his beneficent Godlike way, was to go back to bed. And just like that, she knew everything would work out.
In other words, she was sure in her belief that the world was a place of comfort, and that her spot in it, while temporarily in chaos, was ultimately safe. For what else are our perceptions of God, after all, if not reflections of what we know to be true about the universe he created? That comforting conclusion made, as it had to, for a story that was pleasant, mild, romantic, and completely lacking urgency.
When Cheryl Strayed asks God for help early in her memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, the result is somewhat different. The scene is the hospital room where her adored mother will soon die at 45, a merciless 49 days after her diagnosis of lung cancer. “I prayed to the whole wide universe and hoped God would be in it, listening to me,” Strayed writes. “I prayed and prayed, and then I faltered. Not because I couldn’t find God, but because suddenly I absolutely did: God was there, I realized, and God had no intention of making things happen or not, of saving my mother’s life. God was not a granter of wishes. God was a ruthless bitch.”
Despite a bedside vigil, Strayed just misses her mother’s death. “I howled and howled and howled,” she writes, “rooting my face into her body like an animal. She’d been dead an hour. Her limbs had cooled, but her belly was still an island of warm.” Her book is crammed with moments like this—passages of vicious discomfort with herself, her family, and her physical surroundings that are almost painful to read. Her childhood was scrappy and impoverished, including a long stint in a house in the Minnesota north woods without electricity or running water. Her biological father was abusive, and it was years before her mother finally managed to leave him. In the aftermath of her mother’s death, her much-loved stepfather distances himself and remarries quickly. Her two siblings drift away, and her young marriage fails as well, in a kind of hideous slow motion punctuated with affairs and constant moving. Four years later, Strayed is 26 years old, divorced, a veteran of innumerable meaningless sexual encounters, plenty of bad waitressing jobs, and a fortunately short-lived heroin addiction.
She survived it all by adding a literal burden to her many psychological ones. Saddled with a backpack so heavy with useless gear that she names it Monster, Strayed sets out to walk 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon and into Washington state. The first time she tries to put Monster on, in a chapter appropriately titled “Hunching in a Remotely Upright Position,” she literally can’t lift it. Why did she fill it with things like a foldable saw and a huge camera flash, you might ask? Strayed has your answer: “Because I was a big fat idiot and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, that’s why.”
But Strayed is not the sort of person who will let an enormous pack deter her for long. She hoists the beast onto her back at last and heads out of her hotel room toward the trail, “a world I’d never been to, and yet had known was there all along, one I’d staggered to in sorrow and confusion and fear and hope,” she recalls in philosophical mode, looking back to the spring of 1995 when her hike began. And then she summarizes for us, in a single, elegant sweep of a sentence, both her problem and its only possible resolution: “The wanting was a wilderness and I had to find my own way out of the woods.”
It is this voice—fierce, billowing with energy, precise—that carries Wild. (It is also the voice that has made Strayed so loved as Sugar, the pseudonymous advice columnist for The Rumpus. After two years in the job, she went public on Valentine’s Day.) In it, there is room for emotional breakdowns on the PCT; longings for Snapple lemonade that one imagines rival the ones she previously reserved for drugs; descriptions of the beauty, misery, and danger—not to mention moose and rattlesnakes—she encountered on her 100-day walk. By turns both devastating and glorious, Strayed uses it to narrate her progress and setbacks on the trail and within herself, occasionally flashing back to fill in the events that brought her to this desperate traverse.