Amazon Best Books of the Month, March 2012:
At age 26, following the death of her mother, divorce, and a run of reckless behavior, Cheryl Strayed found herself alone near the foot of the Pacific Crest Trail--inexperienced, over-equipped, and desperate to reclaim her life. Wild
tracks Strayed's personal journey on the PCT through California and Oregon, as she comes to terms with devastating loss and her unpredictable reactions to it. While readers looking for adventure or a naturalist's perspective may be distracted by the emotional odyssey at the core of the story, Wild
vividly describes the grueling life of the long-distance hiker, the ubiquitous perils of the PCT, and its peculiar community of wanderers. Others may find her unsympathetic--just one victim of her own questionable choices. But Strayed doesn't want sympathy, and her confident prose stands on its own, deftly pulling both threads into a story that inhabits a unique riparian zone between wilderness tale and personal-redemption memoir. --Jon Foro
From Author Cheryl Strayed
Oprah with Cheryl Strayed, author of Book Club 2.0's inaugural selection, Wild
I wrote the last line of my first book, Torch, and then spent an hour crying while lying on a cool tile floor in a house on a hot Brazilian island. After I finished my second book, Wild, I walked alone for miles under a clear blue sky on an empty road in the Oregon Outback. I sat bundled in my coat on a cold patio at midnight staring up at the endless December stars after completing my third book, Tiny Beautiful Things. There are only a handful of other days in my life--my wedding, the births of my children--that I remember as vividly as those solitary days on which I finished my books. The settings and situations were different, but the feeling was the same: an overwhelming mix of joy and gratitude, humility and relief, pride and wonder. After much labor, I'd made this thing. A book. Though it wasn't technically that yet.
The real book came later--after more work, but this time it involved various others, including agents, publishers, editors, designers, and publicists, all of whose jobs are necessary but sometimes indecipherable to me. They're the ones who transformed the thousands of words I'd privately and carefully conjured into something that could be shared with other people. "I wrote this!" I exclaimed in amazement when I first held each actual, physical book in my hands. I wasn't amazed that it existed; I was amazed by what its existence meant: that it no longer belonged to me.
Two months before Wild was published I stood on a Mexican beach at sunset with my family assisting dozens of baby turtles on their stumbling journey across the sand, then watching as they disappeared into the sea. The junction between writer and author is a bit like that. In one role total vigilance is necessary; in the other, there's nothing to do but hope for the best. A book, like those newborn turtles, will ride whatever wave takes it.
It's deeply rewarding to me when I learn that something I wrote moved or inspired or entertained someone; and it's crushing to hear that my writing bored or annoyed or enraged another. But an author has to stand back from both the praise and the criticism once a book is out in the world. The story I chose to write in Wild for no other reason than I felt driven to belongs to those who read it, not me. And yet I'll never forget what it once was, long before I could even imagine how gloriously it would someday be swept away from me.
Echoing the ever-popular search for wilderness salvation by Chris McCandless (Back to the Wild, 2011) and every other modern-day disciple of Thoreau, Strayed tells the story of her emotional devastation after the death of her mother and the weeks she spent hiking the 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail. As her family, marriage, and sanity go to pieces, Strayed drifts into spontaneous encounters with other men, to the consternation of her confused husband, and eventually hits rock bottom while shooting up heroin with a new boyfriend. Convinced that nothing else can save her, she latches onto the unlikely idea of a long solo hike. Woefully unprepared (she fails to read about the trail, buy boots that fit, or pack practically), she relies on the kindness and assistance of those she meets along the way, much as McCandless did. Clinging to the books she lugs along—Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Adrienne Rich—Strayed labors along the demanding trail, documenting her bruises, blisters, and greater troubles. Hiker wannabes will likely be inspired. Experienced backpackers will roll their eyes. But this chronicle, perfect for book clubs, is certain to spark lively conversation. --Colleen Mondor
“Unsentimental memoir of the author’s solo hike from California to Washington along the Pacific Crest Trail. Following the death of her mother, Strayed’s life quickly disintegrated. . . . While waiting in line at an outdoors store, [she] read the back cover of a book about the Pacific Crest Trail. Initially, the idea of hiking the trail became a vague apparition, then a goal. Woefully underprepared for the wilderness, out of shape and carrying a ridiculously overweight pack, the author set out from the small California town of Mojave, toward a bridge (‘the Bridge of the Gods’) crossing the Columbia River at the Oregon-Washington border. Strayed’s writing admirably conveys the rigors and rewards of long-distance hiking. Along the way she suffered aches, pains, loneliness, blistered, bloody feet and persistent hunger. Yet the author also discovered a newfound sense of awe . . . stunned by how the trail both shattered and sheltered her. Most of the hikers she met along the way were helpful, and she also encountered instances of trail magic . . . A candid, inspiring narrative of the author’s brutal physical and psychological journey through a wilderness of despair to a renewed sense of self.” —Kirkus Reviews
“No one can write like Cheryl Strayed. Wild
is one of the most unflinching and emotionally honest books I've read in a long time. It is about forgiveness and grief, bravery and hope. It is unforgettable.” —Ann Hood, author of The Knitting Circle
“While reading Cheryl Strayed’s stunning book about her arduous solo journey along the Pacific Crest Trail, I kept asking myself—what would I do if I were stripped bare of everything—money, job, community, even family and love? Thoreau once said, ‘In wildness is the preservation of the world.’ For Strayed, it is clear that in wildness was the preservation of her soul...
“A rich, riveting true story . . . During her grueling three-month journey, Strayed circled around black bears and rattlesnakes, fought extreme dehydration by drinking oily gray pond water, and hiked in boots made entirely of duct tape. Reading her matter-of-fact take on love and grief and the soul-saving quality of a Snapple lemonade, you can understand why Strayed has earned a cult following as the author of Dear Sugar, a popular advice column on therumpus.net. . . . With its vivid descriptions of beautiful but unforgiving terrain, Wild
is a cinematic story, but Strayed’s book isn’t really about big, cathartic moments. The author never ‘finds herself’ or gets healed. When she reaches the trail’s end, she buys a cheap ice cream cone and continues down the road. . . . It’s hard to imagine anything more important than taking one step at a time. That’s endurance, and that’s what Strayed understands, almost 20 years later. As she writes, ‘There was only one [option], I knew. To keep walking.’ Our verdict: A.” —Melissa Maerz, Entertainment Weekly
“Strayed’s journey was as transcendent as it was turbulent. She faced down hunger, thirst, injury, fatigue, boredom, loss, bad weather, and wild animals. Yet she also reached new levels of joy, accomplishment, courage, peace, and found extraordinary companionship.” —Marjorie Kehe, Christian Science Monitor
“It’s not very manly, the topic of weeping while reading. Yet for a book critic tears are an occupational hazard. Luckily, perhaps, books don’t make me cry very often. Turning pages, I’m practically Steve McQueen. Strayed’s memoir, Wild
, however, pretty much obliterated me. I was reduced, during her book’s final third, to puddle-eyed cretinism. I like to read in coffee shops, and I began to receive concerned glances from matronly women, the kind of looks that said, ‘Oh, honey.’ To mention all this does Strayed a bit of a disservice, because there’s nothing cloying about Wild
. It’s uplifting, but not in the way of many memoirs, where the uplift makes you feel that you’re committing mental suicide. This book is as loose and sexy and dark as an early Lucinda Williams song. It’s got a punk spirit and makes an earthy and American sound. . . . Wild
recounts the months Strayed spent when she was 26, hiking alone on the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State. There were very frightening moments, but the author was not chewed on by bears, plucked dangling from the edge of a pit, buried by an avalanche or made witness to the rapture. No dingo ate anyone’s baby. Yet everything happened. The clarity of Ms. Strayed’s prose, and thus of her person, makes her story, in its quiet way, nearly as riveting an adventure narrative as Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild
and Into Thin Air
. . . . Her grief, early in this book, is as palpable as her confusion. Her portrait of her mother, who died of cancer at 45, is raw and bitter and reverent all at once. . . . Wild
is thus the story of an unfolding. She got tougher, mentally as well as physically [and she] tells good, scary stories about nearly running out of water, encountering leering men and dangerous animals. . . The lack of ease in her life made her fierce and funny; she hammers home her hard-won sentences like a box of nails. The cumulative welling up I experienced during Wild
was partly a response to that too infrequent sight: that of a writer finding her voice, and sustaining it, right in front of your eyes.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“One of the most original, heartbreaking and beautiful American memoirs in years. . . . The unlikely journey is awe-inspiring, but it's one of the least remarkable things about the book. Strayed, who was recently revealed as the anonymous author of the ‘Dear Sugar’ advice column of the literary website The Rumpus
, writes with stunningly authentic emotional resonance—Wild
is brutal and touching in equal measures, but there's nothing forced about it. She chronicles sorrow and loss with unflinching honesty, but without artifice or self-pity. There are no easy answers in life, she seems to be telling the reader. Maybe there are no answers at all. It's fitting, perhaps, that the writer chose to end her long pilgrimage at the Bridge of the Gods, a majestic structure that stretches a third of a mile across the Columbia, the largest river in the Pacific Northwest. We think of bridges as separating destinations, just as we think of long journeys as the price we have to pay to get from one place to another. Sometimes, though, the journey is the destination, and the bridge connects more than just dots on a map—it joins reality with the dream world, the living with the dead, the tame with the wild.” —Michael Schaub, NPR Books
“Brilliant. . . pointedly honest . . . Part adventure narrative, part deeply personal reflection, Wild
chronicles an adventure born of heartbreak. . . . While it is certain that the obvious dangers of the trail are real — the cliffs are high, the path narrow, the ice slick, and the animal life wild — the book’s greatest achievement lies in its exploration of the author’s emotional landscape. With flashbacks as organic and natural as memory itself, Strayed mines the bedrock of her past to reveal what rests beneath her compulsion to hike alone across more than one thousand primitive miles: her biological father’s abuse and abandonment, her mother’s diagnosis and death, and her family’s unraveling. Strayed emerges from her grief-stricken journey as a practitioner of a rare and vital vocation. She has become an intrepid cartographer of the human heart.” —Bruce Machart, Houston Chronicle
“Strayed writes a crisp scene; her sentences hum with energy. She can describe a trail-parched yearning for Snapple like no writer I know. She moves us briskly along the route, making discrete rest stops to parcel out her backstory. It becomes impossible not to root for her.” —Karen R. Long, The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“[A] vivid, touching and ultimately inspiring account of a life unraveling, and of the journey that put it back together. . . . The darkness is relieved by self-deprecating humor as [Strayed] chronicles her hiking expedition and the rebirth it helped to inspire. . . . Wild
easily transcends the hiking genre, though it presents plenty of details about equipment ordeals and physical challenges. Anyone with some backpacking experience will find Strayed's chronicle especially amusing. Her boots prove too small. The trail destroys her feet. Then there is the possibility of real mortality: She repeatedly finds herself just barely avoiding rattlesnakes. Strayed is honest about the tedium of hiking but also alert to the self-discovery that can be stirred by solitude and self-reliance. . . . Pathos and humor are her main companions on the trail, although she writes vividly about the cast of other pilgrims she encounters. Finding out ‘what it was like to walk for miles,’ Strayed writes, was ‘a powerful and fundamental experience.’ And knowing that feeling has a way of taming the challenges thrown up by modern life.” —Michael J. Ybarra, The Wall Street Journal
“Strayed’s journey is the focal point of Wild
, in which she interweaves suspenseful accounts of her most harrowing crises with imagistic moments of reflection. Her profound grief over her mother’s death, her emotional abandonment by her siblings and stepfather, and her personal shortcomings and misadventures are all conveyed with a consistently grounded, quietly pained self-awareness. On the trail, she fends of everything from loneliness to black bears; we groan when her boots go tumbling off a cliff and we rejoice as she transforms from a terrified amateur hiker into the ‘Queen of the PCT.’ In a style that embodies her wanderlust, Strayed transports us with this gripping, ultimately uplifting tale.” —Catherine Straut, ELLE
is at once a breathtaking adventure tale and a profound meditation on the nature of grief and survival. . . . . Strayed’s load is both literal and metaphorical—so heavy that she staggers beneath its weight. . . . Often when narratives are structured in parallel arcs, the two stories compete and one dominates. But in Wild
, the two tales Strayed tells, of her difficult past and challenging present, are delivered in perfect balance. Not only am I not an adventurer myself, but I am not typically a reader of wilderness stories. Yet I was riveted step by precarious step through Strayed’s encounters with bears, rattlesnakes, mountain lion scat, ice, record snow and predatory men. She lost six toenails, suffered countless bruises and scabs, improvised bootees made of socks wrapped in duct tape, woke up one time covered in frogs, and met strangers who were extraordinarily kind to her. Perhaps her adventure is so gripping because Strayed relates its gritty, visceral details not out of a desire to milk its obviously dramatic circumstances, but out of a powerful, yet understated, imperative to understand its meaning. We come to feel how her actions and her internal struggles intertwine, and appreciate the lessons she finds embedded in the natural world. . . . Strayed is a clearheaded, scarred, human, powerful and enormously talented writer who is secure enough to confess she does not have all the answers. . . Wild
isn’t a concept-generated book, that is, one of those great projects that began as a good, salable idea. Rather, it started out as an experience that was ...
About the Author
Cheryl Strayed is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Torch. Her stories and essays have been published in The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, Allure, The Rumpus, The Missouri Review, The Sun, The Best American Essays, and elsewhere. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
THE TEN THOUSAND THINGS
My solo three-month hike on the Pacific Crest Trail had many beginnings. There was the first, flip decision to do it, followed by the second, more serious decision to actually
do it, and then the long third beginning, composed of weeks of shopping and packing and preparing to do it. There was the quitting my job as a waitress and finalizing my divorce and selling almost everything I owned and saying goodbye to my friends and visiting my mother’s grave one last time. There was the driving across the country from Minneapolis to Portland, Oregon, and, a few days later, catching a flight to Los Angeles and a ride to the town of Mojave and another ride to the place where the PCT crossed a highway.
At which point, at long last, there was the actual doing it, quickly followed by the grim realization of what it meant to do it, followed by the decision to quit doing it because doing it was absurd and pointless and ridiculously difficult and far more than I expected doing it would be and I was profoundly unprepared to do it.
And then there was the real live truly doing it.
The staying and doing it, in spite of everything. In spite of the bears and the rattlesnakes and the scat of the mountain lions I never saw; the blisters and scabs and scrapes and lacerations. The exhaustion and the deprivation; the cold and the heat; the monotony and the pain; the thirst and the hunger; the glory and the ghosts that haunted me as I hikedbeleven hundred miles from the Mojave Desert to the state of Washington by myself.
And finally, once I’d actually gone and done it, walked all those miles for all those days, there was the realization that what I’d thought was the beginning had not really been the beginning at all. That in truth my hike on the Pacific Crest Trail hadn’t begun when I made the snap deci- sion to do it. It had begun before I even imagined it, precisely four years, seven months, and three days before, when I’d stood in a little room at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and learned that my mother was going to die.
I was wearing green. Green pants, green shirt, green bow in my hair. It was an outfit that my mother had sewn—she’d made clothes for me all of my life. Some of them were just what I dreamed of having, others less so. I wasn’t crazy about the green pantsuit, but I wore it anyway, as a penance, as an offering, as a talisman.
All that day of the green pantsuit, as I accompanied my mother and stepfather, Eddie, from floor to floor of the Mayo Clinic while my mother went from one test to another, a prayer marched through my head, though prayer
is not the right word to describe that march. I wasn’t humble before God. I didn’t even believe in God. My prayer was not: Please, God, take mercy on us.
I was not going to ask for mercy. I didn’t need to. My mother was forty-five. She looked fine. For a good number of years she’d mostly been a vegetarian. She’d planted marigolds around her garden to keep bugs away instead of using pesticides. My siblings and I had been made to swallow raw cloves of garlic when we had colds. People like my mother did not get cancer. The tests at the Mayo Clinic would prove that, refut- ing what the doctors in Duluth had said. I was certain of this. Who were those doctors in Duluth anyway? What was Duluth? Duluth! Duluth was a freezing hick town where doctors who didn’t know what the hell they were talking about told forty-five-year-old vegetarian-ish, garlic- eating, natural-remedy-using nonsmokers that they had late-stage lung cancer, that’s what.
That was my prayer: Fuckthemfuckthemfuckthem.
And yet, here was my mother at the Mayo Clinic getting worn out if she had to be on her feet for more than three minutes. “You want a wheelchair?” Eddie asked her when we came upon a row of them in a long carpeted hall.
“She doesn’t need a wheelchair,” I said.
“Just for a minute,” said my mother, almost collapsing into one, her eyes meeting mine before Eddie wheeled her toward the elevator.
I followed behind, not allowing myself to think a thing. We were finally on our way up to see the last doctor. The real doctor, we kept call- ing him. The one who would gather everything that had been gathered about my mom and tell us what was true. As the elevator car lifted, my mother reached out to tug at my pants, rubbing the green cotton between her fingers proprietarily.
“Perfect,” she said.
I was twenty-two, the same age she was when she’d been pregnant with me. She was going to leave my life at the same moment that I came into hers, I thought. For some reason that sentence came fully formed into my head just then, temporarily blotting out the Fuck them prayer. I almost howled in agony. I almost choked to death on what I knew before I knew. I was going to live the rest of my life without my mother. I pushed the fact of it away with everything in me. I couldn’t let myself believe it then and there in that elevator and also go on breathing, so I let myself believe other things instead. Such as if a doctor told you that you were going to die soon, you’d be taken to a room with a gleaming wooden desk.
This was not so.
We were led into an examining room, where a nurse instructed my mother to remove her shirt and put on a cotton smock with strings that dangled at her sides. When my mother had done so, she climbed onto a padded table with white paper stretched over it. Each time she moved, the room was on fire with the paper ripping and crinkling beneath her. I could see her naked back, the small curve of flesh beneath her waist. She was not going to die. Her naked back seemed proof of that. I was staring at it when the real doctor came into the room and said my mother would be lucky if she lived a year. He explained that they would not attempt to cure her, that she was incurable. There was nothing that could have been done, he told us. Finding it so late was common, when it came to lung cancer.
“But she’s not a smoker,” I countered, as if I could talk him out of the diagnosis, as if cancer moved along reasonable, negotiable lines. “She only smoked when she was younger. She hasn’t had a cigarette for years.”
The doctor shook his head sadly and pressed on. He had a job to do. They could try to ease the pain in her back with radiation, he offered. Radiation might reduce the size of the tumors that were growing along the entire length of her spine.
I did not cry. I only breathed. Horribly. Intentionally. And then for- got to breathe. I’d fainted once—furious, age three, holding my breath because I didn’t want to get out of the bathtub, too young to remember it myself. What did you do? What did you do?
I’d asked my mother all through my childhood, making her tell me the story again and again, amazed and delighted by my own impetuous will. She’d held out her hands and watched me turn blue, my mother had always told me. She’d waited me out until my head fell into her palms and I took a breath and came back to life.Breathe
“Can I ride my horse?” my mother asked the real doctor. She sat with her hands folded tightly together and her ankles hooked one to the other. Shackled to herself.
In reply, he took a pencil, stood it upright on the edge of the sink, and tapped it hard on the surface. “This is your spine after radiation,” he said. “One jolt and your bones could crumble like a dry cracker.”
We went to the women’s restroom. Each of us locked in separate stalls, weeping. We didn’t exchange a word. Not because we felt so alone in our grief, but because we were so together in it, as if we were one body instead of two. I could feel my mother’s weight leaning against the door, her hands slapping slowly against it, causing the entire frame of the bath- room stalls to shake. Later we came out to wash our hands and faces, watching each other in the bright mirror.
We were sent to the pharmacy to wait. I sat between my mother and Eddie in my green pantsuit, the green bow miraculously still in my hair. There was a big bald boy in an old man’s lap. There was a woman who had an arm that swung wildly from the elbow. She held it stiffly with the other hand, trying to calm it. She waited. We waited. There was a beautiful dark-haired woman who sat in a wheelchair. She wore a purple hat and a handful of diamond rings. We could not take our eyes off her. She spoke in Spanish to the people gathered around her, her family and perhaps her husband.
“Do you think she has cancer?” my mother whispered loudly to me. Eddie sat on my other side, but I could not look at him. If I looked at him we would both crumble like dry crackers. I thought about my older sister, Karen, and my younger brother, Leif. About my husband, Paul, and about my mother’s parents and sister, who lived a thousand miles away. What they would say when they knew. How they would cry. My prayer was different now: A year, a year, a year.
Those two words beat like a heart in my chest.
That’s how long my mother would live.
“What are you thinking about?” I asked her. There was a song coming over the waiting room speakers. A song without words, but my mother knew the words anyway and instead of answering my question she sang them softly to me. “Paper roses, paper roses, oh how real those roses seemed to be,” she sang. She put her hand on mine and said, “I used to listen to that song when I was young. It’s funny to think of that. To think about listening to the same song now. I would’ve never known.”
My mother’s name was called then: her prescriptions were ready.
“Go get them for me,” she said. “Tell them who you are. Tell them you&rs...