Books

Wild Girl

Cheryl Strayed's Memoir of Her Solo Hike Up the PCT

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The popular online advice column Dear Sugar (at therumpus.net) and its commenting community occupy a rare corner of the internet where anonymity facilitates openness and vulnerability, rather than cruelty and cat memes. Columnist "Sugar" gives empathetic, clear-eyed advice about relationships, sex, friendship, and plenty more—for those of us accustomed to wading through comment-section snark, the radical sincerity on display in Sugar's column can be discomfiting (as can Sugar's tendency to refer to her readers as "sweet pea"). After maintaining her anonymity for two years—despite much speculation in the lit blogosphere—Sugar recently came out as Portland author Cheryl Strayed, a revelation timed to coincide with the release of Strayed's new memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.

But the Cheryl Strayed of Dear Sugar is not the Cheryl Strayed of Wild—and thank god for that. While Sugar is a figure of seemingly endless compassion, of an unerring ability to contextualize and address the problems that are posed to her, the Cheryl Strayed of Wild is far more relatable: a mixed-up 26-year-old who can think of nothing better to do with her life than go on a really long hike.

In 1995, after the death of her mother—suddenly, to cancer—and the collapse of her marriage, and with a dangerous dalliance with heroin in the too-recent past, Strayed decides to load up a backpack and hike, alone, from California's Mojave Desert to Washington State.

She embarks on the trail with some idea that while she's alone in the wilderness, she'll have time to think: to come to terms with the death of her mom and her own place in the world. Instead, she mostly thinks about pain. She thinks about how full her backpack is; she thinks about how much she wants a hamburger; she thinks in very literal terms about putting one foot in front of the other. And that, over the course of 1,100 miles, is its own sort of reckoning. "That my complicated life could be made so simple was astounding," she writes. "It had begun to occur to me that perhaps it was okay that I hadn't spent my days on the trail pondering the sorrows of my life, that perhaps by being forced to focus on my physical suffering some of my emotional suffering would fade away."

An inexperienced hiker, Strayed packs her backpack so full she can hardly lift it; she fills her stove with the wrong kind of fuel; she learns, halfway through her trip, that her boots are a size too small, as she sheds one toenail after another. Miraculously, she neither freezes to death nor starves. Wild seamlessly intercuts Strayed's occasionally harrowing adventures on the PCT—from bear sightings to the hot bartender she picks up in a trailside town—with recollections of her childhood and family, as well as postcard panoramas of the deserts, forests, and snowfields she traverses. Wild is a memoir that's light on epiphany, but heavy on the importance of keeping moving—even when it's hard. Even when your toenails keep falling off. "The PCT had gotten easier for me," she writes toward trail's end, "but that was different from it getting easy." It's a modest, practical lesson, and beautifully told.

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