Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild (Alfred A. Knopf), is an overnight success who has actually been a hard-working writer praised in literary circles for years. She first won anonymous fame as the writer of the “Dear Sugar” column on The Rumpus; “Sugar” revealed her identity shortly before Wild‘s release. It was a masterful plan—her book became an immediate New York Times bestseller, and she’s had readings and appearances to overwhelming crowds all over the country and even attended a small, private literary salon in our fair city.
In Wild, Strayed chronicles her backpacking adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail, which goes from Baja to Washington. She hiked 1,100 miles of the trail in her mid-twenties after negative life experiences had left her down and out. Her mother had died a few years earlier, she and her husband – who she truly loved – had split up, and she’d dabbled a little with heroin use. She needed something to save her.
And save her this trek did. But it wasn’t easy. Before leaving she saved every nickel from waitressing jobs, learned all she could about backpacking (even though she was a rustic girl from Minnesota who had sometimes lived without indoor plumbing, she wasn’t a backpacker), she read about the trail, and packed boxes for friends to send along the way. She started out slowly, with very painful feet, encountering the inevitable snafus – her hiking boots were too small (REI sent new ones), she hit snow and had to divert, and and she had dicey encounters with animals and unsavory men.
But she persevered, through days of crashing rain, nights lost away from the trail, under canopies of lush green trees, aside sparkling pools, and near visiting deer. And despite the vivid descriptions of what was going on in her life before the journey, what sticks in my mind most is when she first puts on “Monster,” her trusty backpack. It was ridiculously heavy, but Strayed’s “I can do it because I have to” attitude is the current running through the narrative, and this scene makes it shine. She sits on the floor, gets the pack on, and describes the rest like this: “I began rocking back and forth to gain momentum, until finally I hurled myself forward with everything in me and got myself to my knees. My backpack was no longer on the floor. It was officially attached to me. It still seemed like a Volkswagen Beetle, but now it seemed like a Volkswagen Beetle that was parked on my back.” That pack (lightened a little along the way) made it to Washington.
Strayed may have had a rough deal growing up (which we learn about on her trek), but she emerged with a gift of observation, a loving, inquisitive nature, and an in-your-face attitude. You also learn to love the characters – rustic mountain men, college students, serious hikers – she meets along the way. Mostly, Wild teaches you that if you want – and need – something badly enough, you may have to hike through cold and rainy nights, but you can get it.