What I’ve Read: Wild by Cheryl Strayed
I know I’m reading a swath of great books when with each new book I’ve read, I pronounce that it’s the Best Book I’ve Read All Year. In this case, I think it is and will remain so.
After her mother’s death, a divorce and a bout with heroin, 26-year-old Strayed decides (almost on a whim) to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, a massive route from Mexico to the Canadian border. The PCT becomes its own character in an emotional story that will simultaneously lift you up and crush you in waves. That’s the thing about a great book, and especially about a great memoir: even if you have not had one similar experience to the author and know nothing personally about the specifics in her life, there is a thread of human connection—of hurt, love and loss—that will still speak to you and touch you in some way.
Strayed’s story is intense from start to finish. Obviously, the portions with Strayed on the PCT itself have elements of adventure and danger, but the quieter portions—moments in her failing marriage, vignettes along the bedside of her dying mother—are equally profound. There have been so many books over the past several years (arguably starting with the bestseller Eat, Pray, Love) that encourage excess, relaxation and, well, vacation in order to “find yourself.” I appreciated that Strayed’s story is presenting a different narrative—one far away from the self-indulgence we as readers have become so accustomed to reading in memoirs. Yes, there may be some merit in healing losses with the balm of self-indulgence, and there may even be solace (though perhaps temporarily so), but I couldn’t help but compare Strayed’s journey to that of others in books I have read. In the end, I found Strayed’s more genuine, more moving and—dare I say it—more authentic. By pushing herself to every limit and by physically removing herself from the problems in her life, she was able to think. In the silence of her own thoughts, with her blistered feet marking a slow cadence on the trail, she was able to discover the start of own path out of the mistakes and heartbreak that littered her past.
I think the hardest part of moving past a tremendous loss or change is finding the will to just keep going. Often there is no trumpet chorus with the clouds opening up proclaiming that you have finally reached your ideal and enlightened self. There is no ashram and no tropical paradise that can hide the realities of your life once you return to it. “Making a fresh start” is impossible. As life unfolds one page at a time (to use a popular metaphor), what makes us want to rip out entire chapters? Those times will always be with us, but we do not have to live in them. We can just continue.
It’s not often I start crying when I’m reading. It happens occasionally, but is often more like a stray tear or two escaping than a full-bodied sob. Yet, this book reduced me to nothing. Brandon and Isobel were asleep, and I was reading in bed at 1 am sobbing so hard I nearly fell off the bed.
I’ve perhaps never read a book that conveyed so poignantly every spectrum of human emotion in a mere 300 pages or so. I hope you’ll give it a chance and see how Strayed’s honest, beautiful memoir might move you as well.
Have you read this book? What did you think?