I feel like I am a bit late to join the group of people reading Cheryl Strayed’s popular memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Last year’s non-fiction sensation continues to be a best-seller. This week it appears for the 51st week on the New York Times Best-Seller List for Non-Fiction in 11th place. Currently there are 100 holds on 98 copies of the book at my local library, and I had to wait a full month to check it out. What is it that makes this book so popular? I had to find out.
When 26-year-old Cheryl Strayed set out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail by herself in 1995, her mother had recently died, she’d just received the divorce papers finalizing her first marriage, and she was losing the profound connection she’d hoped to maintain with the rest of her family. While in line to make a purchase at REI one day, she notices a copy of Pacific Crest Trail Volume 1 California near the check-out line. She’d never actually heard of the PCT at that point, but it soon becomes something that she must do. A pilgrimage, of sorts.
In this tell-all, at times humorously written memoir, Strayed talks about shooting heroin, chewing opium gum, cheating on her then-husband, and many other antics of her youth. This is not another book where the author glorifies himself/herself for accomplishing some amazing feat, but rather Strayed takes a more humble approach similar to “if I can hike by myself in the wilderness for 100 days, so can you.” I’d read a PCT hiker’s memoir in the former category last winter, and now I can for certain say I appreciate Strayed’s style of writing much better. Oftentimes Wild is written in the stream of consciousness, and the book is essentially more about her personal, internal journey than about the Pacific Crest Trail itself.
What I liked the best about this story is that it is one I could relate to. It is, above all, a tale of survival. Although Cheryl grossly underestimates the amount of money she will need on the trail — at times walking for days with only 2 cents in her pocket and finishing the trail completely broke — she presses on. She loses 6 toenails in the process of walking approximately 1,100 miles, but she doesn’t give up. She presses forward as if it is the only thing to do, which is essentially a metaphor for life in general. At times she calls herself a “big fat idiot” and at other times a “hard-ass motherfucking Amazonian Queen.” I was again reminded of how much a person can endure, yet still survive.
I am not sure if I’d be up for walking the entire PCT from Mexico to Canada — Strayed herself walked parts of California and the entirety of Oregon — but perhaps I would consider hiking the 500 miles through Oregon someday. I wonder what lessons such a pilgrimage would teach me.