Wild by Cheryl Strayed

[rating=3] Like Cheryl Strayed on her hike, I started ‘Wild’ without a good idea of what I was getting into. The first few chapters were surprisingly difficult, as the narrative progresses from a taste of catastrophe on the trail – she opens with an anecdote about losing her boots on the side of a mountain – and regresses back to the family trauma in her early twenties that drove her to hike the PCT in the first place.

I understand the loss of a parent can be brutal, but reading Cheryl’s description of her rage and spiral of self-destruction was sickening. I found myself teetering between yelling at the inanimate pages, (“Seriously, heroin? Seriously?”), muttering about first-world problems and sentence fragments, and thinking that this was not a woman I would want to hang out with. Fortunately, Cheryl appeared to be thinking these exact same things about herself… so she decides to take a literal hike.

There was some wincing at the start of the adventure, as we witness Young Cheryl’s laissez-faire attitude towards testing out her equipment, reading the manual, and generally not having a clue. Eventually, the clouds that separate Cheryl’s individual mistakes and personal demons from the universal angst of Being In Your Twenties drift apart, allowing the reader to more closely identify with her journey. Eventually… well, eventually, it gets addictive.

The narrative is solidly constructed, with flashbacks to the past peppering long days of hiking. There are quick character sketches of the folks she meets on the PCT, and detailed descriptions of the beauty of nature and the challenges of physical pain, monotony and loneliness that are the bane of anyone traveling by foot while carrying everything they need for shelter and survival on their back.

Heavily weighted towards Cheryl’s early hiking mishaps, two-thirds of the book take place on the California section of the trail. Once she gets to Oregon the details recede and the pace picks up. There are fewer educational tidbits and more obsession with food and feet and what happens at the end of the PCT. I don’t know if Ms. Strayed struck a marketing deal with Snapple for a lifetime supply of their lemonade in exchange for writing about her obsessive lust for that beverage while hiking, but she really should have. I found myself jonesing for a bottle so badly that I stopped in three convenience stores looking for it on my third day of reading.

By the end of the book, I no longer wanted to slap Cheryl across the face and yell “Snap out of it!” There was less judgement of her actions and a dawning realization that this was not the mature author speaking with her adult voice, but a true moment-in-time memoir, reflecting the self-absorption and sense of indignant victimization that envelops college kids in their twenties; a cozy cocoon of egotism.

I found the relationship between Cheryl and her mother profoundly unhealthy; the psychoanalysis that put her abusive, absentee father at the root of her problems was just another push in the direction of weird codependency on her mom. At the moment when she recollects the disposal of her mother’s cremated remains, and ends the chapter with the observation that her mother’s dying assurances that she will “always be with” her children was made disturbingly true in Cheryl’s case, because Cheryl *swallowed* some of Mom’s burned chunks of bone after scattering the rest of her ashes, was where I grasped the full extent of Cheryl’s monomania. I can understand wanting a memento mori of a loved one. Keeping a lock of hair, perhaps, or a baby tooth in a box. But when you reach the point where you are ingesting your parent’s remains, darker forces are at work. Cannibalism may not be listed as a pathology in the DSM-IV, but it’s not exactly stable behaviour. The idée fixe of mom mom mom, echoing endlessly throughout the text was agonizing, and by the end I still felt unsure that she had come fully to peace with the loss, not merely of her mother’s presence, but of her mother’s potential.

I am glad to know that Cheryl’s future is not as dark as her past. Despite heroin, divorce, abortion, and self-loathing, she rises above: She becomes loved, remarried, a mother, a writer. The story that begins after this book ends is the part that intrigues me, and the fact that Cheryl Strayed sees the growth of her mature life extending forward as an offshoot of this crazy formative experience is revealing.

Is the bravado and struggle of youthful transformation all we need to prove to ourselves that we can handle the terrifying decisions of adulthood? Does the seed of faith in ourselves get planted in the tumult of the quarter-life crisis? Where do we look to find reassurance that our choices are informed and valid when facing the big questions about commitment, reproduction, creative courage?

‘Wild’ is a raw but helpful reminder to draw inspiration from your early journeys. They give sustenance and hope when we falter in our faith that we have gifts to give to the world.

For more womanly wisdom and amazonian adventures…

1) Advice! Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar’

2) Anxiety! Jenny Lawson’s ‘Let’s Pretend This Never Happened’

3) Mommy issues! Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room’

3 of 5 stars / bookshelves: read, biography, non-fiction, travel. 336 pages, Publisher: Atlantic. (2012)
Read from August 04 to 20, 2013

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