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.
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.
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.
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