Are we drawn to the wilderness or driven there?
While Louise Dickinson Rich (We Took to the Woods) and Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods) were drawn, Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, was clearly driven.
Strayed became a novelist of some note in her late 30s. Back in 1995, however, she was a rootless 26-year-old waitress about to embark on her first backpacking trip: a three-month, 1,100-mile trek up the rugged and remote Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from Tehachapi Pass in southern California to the northern Oregon border. The trail is actually 2,650 miles long, but heavy snows blocked Strayed from hiking the portion through the High Sierra.
In Wild, her long-after-the-fact memoir, Strayed recounts how she used that epic jaunt to sort out a young life laid waste by death, divorce, self-destructive urges and a “ravenous” need for love. (Indeed, Strayed’s surname is a moniker she chose for herself; the word seemed to fit a woman, she explains, who “had diverged, digressed, wandered, and become wild.”)
The primary source of Strayed’s anguish was the death of her mother, Bobbi, “whose love was full-throated and all-encompassing.” Though Bobbi was a nonsmoker, she died of lung cancer at age 45, just seven weeks after being diagnosed with the disease. Strayed witnessed her mother’s rapid decline but missed the moment of her death, arriving at the hospital to find ice-filled surgical gloves covering Bobbi’s eyes to preserve her corneas for transplantation. Strayed buried her face in her mother’s belly — “still an island of warmth” — and howled. (Strayed’s abusive father had long since left the scene.)
Strayed is a graceful writer, but Wild recounts an often-graceless existence. Among the failings she insists on scrutinizing here are her infidelities, notably a heroin-fueled dalliance that prompted a trip to a Portland, Ore., abortion clinic. Strayed accepts full responsibility for the pain she inflicted on her “kind and tender” husband, Paul. A month after their divorce was finalized in May of 1995, Strayed — desperately seeking distance from her rudderless life — hit the rocky trail.
Not just memories burdened her beginning strides. She also had to shoulder a backpack she dubbed “Monster,” whose overstuffed contents included three gallons — that’s 25 pounds  — of water. Thankfully, at one of her first resupply stops Strayed met Albert, a 52-year-old Georgia man hiking the PCT with his 24-year-old son, Matt; Albert helped pare her pack to the bare essentials, jettisoning a folding saw, a pair of binoculars, a camera flash and a roll of condoms.
As she continued hiking north, Strayed had to dodge rattlesnakes, a longhorn bull and even a bear. She also suffered endlessly from a pair of ill-fitting boots.
Strayed befriended a dozen or so gritty fellow hikers, mostly men, who shared her path north and bolstered her flagging spirits. Ten days in, for example, the author was on the verge of abandoning her through-hike when she ran into Greg, a 40-year-old accountant from Tacoma, Wash. As well-prepped for trail life as Strayed was green, Greg became her “guiding star to the north.”
On Aug. 18 Strayed finally vented her grief at her mother’s death, wailing and cursing Bobbi “for not being alive” on what would have been her 50th birthday. That’s when she spotted a crocus growing among the rocks beside the trail — the same flower that had grown up where she spread her mother’s ashes. As Strayed fingered the delicate petals, her anger ebbed, leaving her grateful at last for Bobbi’s boundless love.
A month later, Strayed reached her goal: the Bridge of the Gods spanning the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington. Another 15 years would pass before she returned to the scene of her accomplishment, this time in the company of her new husband and their two young children. There the author shared the story of her long walk toward redemption along the Pacific Crest Trail. Wherever Strayed’s trail through life may lead from here, you turn the last page of Wild convinced that a new life — and the approach of middle age — have actually lightened her load.
David Brill is the author of Desire & Ice: A Search for Perspective atop Denali and As Far As the Eye Can See: Reflections of an Appalachian Trail Hiker.