Cheryl Strayed's Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is an unusual book.
It is a memoir, written 17 years after the fact, of a truly life-changing event.
In 1995, with her life in a shambles (a situation so horrible that the oft-overused "hit rock bottom" actually seems appropriate), Strayed decided to take action, and set out to turn the page, embarking upon a solo backpacking trip:
It was 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. A world I thought would both make me into the woman I knew I could become and turn me back into the girl I'd once been. A world that measured two feet wide and 2,663 miles long.
A world called the Pacific Crest Trail.
That's a tall order for a trail to fill.
However, I'm lucky enough to have walked several portions of the Pacific Crest Trail myself, and have even camped along some of its highest and most remote stretches, and I can confirm: it is no ordinary trail.
Strayed's book is startlingly raw and honest. She hides nothing, reveals all, lets us deep down into her torments and the agonies she felt as she struggled along. Before beginning her trip, she had never backpacked a day in her life:
I'd gone to an outdoor store in Minneapolis called REI about a dozen times over the previous months to purchase a good portion of these items.
By the time I made the decision about which backpack to purchase -- a top-of-the-line Gregory hybrid external frame that claimed to have the balance and agility of an internal -- I felt as if I'd become a backpacking expert.
She hadn't though; it's not the sort of thing you can learn in a store, from a book, or by listening to people, and it's not long before the realities of the trail begin to pile up and she is forced to adapt. But she is so remarkably determined and focused that she simply wills herself to overcome obstacles:
I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked.
And so she goes, walking along, changing her life:
I had to change was the thought that drove me in those months of planning. Not into a different person, but back to the person I used to be -- strong and responsible, clear-eyed and driven, ethical and good. And the PCT would make me that way. There, I'd walk and think about my entire life. I'd find my strength again, far from everything that had made my life ridiculous.
It's a great plan, but she soon finds out that the trail doesn't care what she's thinking:
As I hiked, I moaned again and again, as if that would provide some cooling relief, but nothing changed. The sun still stared ruthlessly down on me, not caring one iota whether I lived or died. The parched scrub and scraggly trees still stood indifferently resolute, as they always had and always would.
Though barrier after barrier confronts her, she surmounts each one, and slowly her self-chosen therapy begins to bear fruit:
Uncertain as I was as I pushed forward, I felt right in my pushing, as if the effort itself meant something. That perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of what I'd lost or what had been taken from me, regardless of the regrettable things I'd done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me. Of all the things I'd been skeptical about, I didn't feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.
The wilderness includes not just clarity, but also a different scale, and a different sense of time:
Foot speed was a profoundly different way of moving through the world than my normal modes of travel. Miles weren't things that blazed dully past. They were long, intimate straggles of weeds and clumps of dirt, blades of grass and flowers that bent in the wind, trees that lumbered and screeched. They were the sound of my breath and my feet hitting the trail one step at a time and the click of my ski pole. The PCT had taught me what a mile was.
The PCT, indeed, has much to teach (as I said, it is no ordinary trail), and Strayed is eager to soak it all up, as she follows in the footsteps of the pioneering naturalists who worked to save and create the trail:
It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way. That's what Montgomery knew, I supposed. And what Clarke knew and Rogers and what thousands of people who preceded and followed them knew. It was what I knew before I even really did, before I could have known how truly hard and glorious the PCT would be, how profoundly the trail would both shatter and shelter me.
Like the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed's Wild is powerful and fundamental, and it will both shatter and shelter you. You may not be a backpacker; you may not be a woman in the depths of despair; but if you take the time to enter Strayed's world, and go with her on her adventure, you will enjoy it, you will learn from it, and you won't regret a moment of the time you spent seeing the world through her eyes.