Sunday as I finished Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail I kind of sighed sadly and wished this book had been around when I was a young twentysomething woman. While the story is uniquely Strayed’s the meaning, the lesson, the whathaveyou feels universal. Mostly it’s this: you are strong and wonderful and can do hard things even if you think you can’t. Also, yes you may be wounded, you may struggle with the ghosts of your past, but it’s going to be okay.
Chances are even if I had this book when I was a twentysomething the meaning would have been lost on me. I was a unique, wounded snowflake. Eye roll. Just like everyone else.
This is not to take anything away from Strayed’s book, because it’s fantastic. She’s a wounded snowflake too, but unlike most of us she writers with the kind of bravery and unsparing eye you don’t see very often.
In the summer of 1995, twenty-six-year old Strayed decides to get the hell out of Minnesota and hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from the Mojave desert in Southern California all the way up into Oregon. Strayed decided that hiking the PCT would be a chance for her to get her life together. She wasn’t doing well: struggling with the grief of losing her mom so young (mom was in her mid-40s, Strayed was 22) and the family that splintered apart after the death; dealing with a divorce, and a flirtation with heroin addiction.
So she chucks it all and heads to California with a giant backpack she called Monster; a pair of hiking boots she’d soon learn were too small; and a heaping helping of gumption.
The story weaves back and forth through Strayed’s time on the PCT and all those things worrying her back in Minnesota. Surprisingly, both stories are equally engrossing. Never once did I wish to get back to the Trail or back to Minnesota. Wherever Strayed was in her story, I was right there with her.
What amazed me the most, as a reader, is that I was constantly worried about Strayed. Logically I knew she made it off the PCT just fine. I knew the story was taking place in 1995 and she was writing it at quite a far remove. I knew she was, in fact, as I was reading touring the country and had recently come out as Dear Sugar at The Rumpus, and yet emotionally I was scared. I didn’t want this person I had developed quite a bit of affection for to be harmed.
It’s hard not to develop affection for twenty-six-year-old Strayed. She’s so flawed and stupid and brave and smart and charming. And the best part? She recognizes all these aspects of herself and of the decisions she made and she never shies away from telling us the stupid things she’s done even though she’s an intelligent woman. She never makes excuses for her behavior. All she does is explain what was going on when she decided to do this or that. But what I liked the most was that there was no grand epiphany. There were teeny tiny epiphanies all over the place about a lot of things and people, which is how life is, isn’t it?
I don’t read a lot of nonfiction. It’s usually not my thing, but if I could find nonfiction like Strayed’s memoir that is tense and funny and smart, I’d read it all the time and never stop. Ever.
Amen, sister. The strongest memoir I have read since Elizabeth McCracken’s.
Have you had Cheryl do a Minnesota Reads interview? That would be awesome.
@David, Thanks for reminding me to ask her! I had intended to do it before she came to read her a few weeks ago and it got shoved aside by work deadlines.
Also, I think I would jam Kristen Hersh’s Rat Girl between McCracken’s memoir and Strayed’s. Definitely in the Top 5.