Book Review: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

I want to preface this review by saying that I tend to avoid books that are touted far and wide as must-read bestsellers because they so often disappoint. That’s why in the past I never seriously considered reading Wild. All that “now a major motion picture” hype. However, I got into the mood to read some travel memoirs and did some research into possibilities, and Wild showed up again and again on the lists I consulted. I read about it and – what the hell – decided to give it a try. I found a used copy of the hardcover on Amazon and here I am.

Having said that, the next thing is to say that reading Wild for me was wonderful and profoundly satisfying. I can’t remember the last time I had such a fully absorbing reading experience. Even more than usual I looked forward to my daily reading session. (I usually read for an hour or so in the afternoon after a short nap before plunging into another bout of work.) When I read it, I would become so absorbed that I completely lost track of everything else.

In short, after Strayed’s mother died her family fell apart, she had casual sex with a multitude of men, she started using heroin, and she divorced her husband. To put her life back together, she got the crazy idea of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from Southern California to the Oregon border all alone. Later, when she found that she had to bypass part of the snowbound Sierra Nevada mountain range, she revised her route and hiked all the way to the Oregon-Washington border.

If this was a simple account of a hiking trip it would not have impressed me so much, but what it is really is a journey of self-discovery. And the reason that I empathize so profoundly with Strayed’s story is that our journeys of self-discovery are similar in so many ways. When I had to burst out of the physical, psychological, and spiritual rut I was in back in the mid-1970s, I didn’t take a long hike; what I did was get rid of anything that wouldn’t fit into a small duffle bag and start hitchhiking: first across the United States, and then around Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian Subcontinent. My initial travels lasted a couple of years, but I eventually lived overseas for thirty-five years.

In my comparisons here, though, I am referring to my time on the road when I was desperate to discover who I was and find my voice as a writer. So here we go. As I was reading Wild, I started listing similarities between Strayed’s journey and mine, and they got so extensive that they filled the piece of paper I was writing on; I had to write smaller and smaller until the paper is a mass of tiny squiggles. I’ll try to sort them out for you.

First of all, Strayed and I were about the same age, in our mid-twenties, when we made our journeys of self-discovery. Both of us were attempting something extraordinary to try to fix our lives. We were both determined to forge ahead and not go back no matter how much adversity we faced. Strayed would say the litany of “I am not afraid” to herself over and over when she’d hear strange sounds on the trail; I would often deliberately go into questionable or dangerous situations because I didn’t want my fears to overcome me.

We both had packs that held all the belongings we had. She had a backpack that she called “The Monster.” I had a long olive-green duffle bag that held my sleeping bag, jacket, toiletry kit, a few extra clothes, notebook and pen, and a book. Strayed would burn the single book she carried when she’d finish it; I would exchange mine with a traveler for another one. Strayed stopped wearing underwear as a hassle to wash and an unnecessary encumbrance on the trail; I did the same when I was on the road.

Body washing was always an issue. Strayed writes of getting extremely smelly and dirty and what a luxury showers were. That was the case for me too on the road, especially in places like the Middle East where I’d have to go to a bathhouse and pay to use a shower.

Then there is the matter of food. Strayed describes the ravenous hunger that she experienced as a result of hiking all day long day after day. I hiked for a week in the Olympic Mountains when I was young and remember how that hiking hunger was, but as an even more extreme example, I ran out of money in New Delhi once and went hungry. I was sleeping on the floor of a cheap hostel with a dozen other hippies waiting for some money to come through; in the meantime, I would walk the streets, look at food, and long for it, and at night I would dream of tables laden with feasts and then wake up and have nothing to eat.

Strayed kept running out of money on the trail, and that happened with me on the road too. I always had to budget carefully and I was often near broke. Once I was broke and had my passport stolen in Iran, and I had to beg on the streets for two weeks before I could get a new passport and move on. Another time I was in Madras, India, and when I counted my money I figured I could just barely make it back to Europe overland, but then I would miss going to Nepal. I decided to go to Nepal anyway. When I finally left Nepal, that’s when I almost starved in Delhi.

Strayed describes the close relationships she developed with fellow travelers on the trail, and that happened with me too, especially as I went farther east. We would form bonds and travel together for a few days. Sometimes I’d meet women and we’d enjoy casual sex and then go our separate ways. The road would bring us together, and eventually the road would break us apart again.

As with Strayed, I would often meet strangers other than travelers on the road who were kind to me and helped me in various ways.

As for family and friends from the past, Strayed would receive packages at infrequent stops along the way. On my journeys, in the days before cell phones when long-distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive, the only contact I would have with my parents and others were aerograms, which I would pick up every couple of weeks or so at the post offices in major cities. These were blue pieces of paper that would fold up and stick together so you could put a stamp on them.

And finally I would like to mention the solitude. Strayed met people along the way but for the most part she made her journey all alone, and so did I. There were long stretches when I was completely by myself. Once I walked up into the Himalayan Mountains alone, just following trails with no map or guidebook. I would go hours without seeing another person. There would only be the immense mountains and the wonderful silence and stillness.

In conclusion, sharing Strayed’s journey was a wonderful experience for me. If you are interested in an account of my time on the road, check out my memoir World Without Pain: The Story of a Search.

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