I was always drawn to the idea of packing up and leaving everything behind. To leave is a powerful statement, especially when there’s nothing left for you to stay, as in the case of Cheryl Strayed, and her memoir, Wild: From Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. For Strayed, staying meant being trapped by her mother’s death, a failed marriage, and heavy drug use.
It was when she saw a traveler’s book with the photo of a lake in the Pacific Crest Trail that she decided to leave. Sometimes the only place to cure you, to make you whole again, is nature. At 26, Strayed left all that was familiar for the arduous PCT, a long-distance hike of 2,663 mi, passing California, Oregon and Washington, through the highest areas of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges.
I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back. And most surprisingly of all, that I could carry it. That I could bear the unbearable. These realization about my physical, material life couldn’t help but spill over into the emotional and spiritual realm.
Often our emotional afflictions are so unbearable that we see no way out. Hiking teaches us that you can adapt, be flexible and most of all endure what seems impossible at first. Knowing that you are able to withstand the heaviness of a backpack, means that you can carry your vulnerabilities and fears and make them yours, and still triumph.
It’s not common to see hiking movies depicting women surviving in the wilderness. It seems women are always being advised against traveling alone. Sometimes the fears of others stick to us, making us think the world is too dangerous for us to explore, so we leave it to others to write our journeys. But there’s nothing more enriching than traveling alone and figuring out your place in the world.
It was my life– like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me.
As a film, Wild is a study of landscape with subtle dialogue and a mix of flashbacks and reveries. While the film did well to encapsulate the movie, it left out some scenes and changed characters. Reading the book along with watching the film gives you a better understanding of the story. The film is a version of the book; it’s one aspect of it, but the book documents in full scope Cheryl’s good fortunes, near disasters, the kindness of strangers, and learning the hard truths.
Strayed’s prose is energetic, often filled with tense anger. Walking those grueling miles is a way to face her grief. When she finds herself on a rocky cliff, overlooking a valley of trees, high in the sierra, one of her hiking boots falls down. She has blisters on her feet and bruises on her hips from the heavy backpack, and she manages to lose a boot. She yells at her surroundings and throws the other shoe in the same direction.
You’re doing fine, Cheryl, he said. Don’t worry about it too much. You’re green, but you’re tough. And tough is what matters the most out here. Not just anyone could do what you’re doing.
Strayed is not an expert hiker which makes her story all the more unlikely and impossible. There’s suspense as she camps alone, trying to cook food, find clean water, and a place to sleep. There’s always a doubtful voice in her head, saying, go home. We know she wasn’t prepared from day one when she decided to pack too many supplies, or when she decided not to take the ice ax, or when her shoes were giving her blister since they were too small. The lack of preparation forces her to cover a lot more ground compared to the other experienced hikers. Strayed is a human who makes mistakes, and even more amazing for completing the PCT. We’re all humans who forget to be prepared and have to improvise, doing courageous tasks we wouldn’t normally attempt.
Strayed spends much of her time describing her internal, emotional conflicts and physical pain in powerful language that gives us a sense anguish and profound sadness, but her language often feels empty when describing the natural landscape. The quickness of her language is freeing and flows naturally as it lends itself to the adventure. There’s a connection between Strayed’s love for writing and the openness of the PCT. The trail allows her the time to read and to think about her favorite writers. At every trail point she leaves a quote. During the nights she burns a book when she’s finished reading it, almost as if the words are being returned to the wilderness.
Of all the things I’d done in my life, of all the versions of myself I’d lived out, there was one that never changed: I was a writer.
Towards the end when she’s on a narrow trail, entering a dense forest and mist is falling over her face, she sees a llama, then a boy and her grandmother. The boy sings, Red River Valley. He says, his mother has passed too. The silence of the forest contained life itself, the possibility of change, what Strayed needed to make this things right, and be the woman her mother raised.
It had been so silent in the wake of that commotion, a kind of potent silence that seemed to contain everything.