Alfred A. Knopf
Whenever Iâ€™ve collected a particularly burdensome number of writing rejections, I like to make myself a thick-cut sandwich and fill a bottle with water and take a trail up into the hills. As I hike, my mind churns. As I rest at some vista, my mind goes still. I donâ€™t think Iâ€™m unusual in my urge to turn to hiking when life gets difficult. In fact, in WILD, Cheryl Strayed has written an entire memoir about a hike taken to get away from troubles. Except these are no small troubles and this is no afternoon walk in the woods. This is a life-resetting, thousand-plus mile hike across the mountains of the Pacific Coast Trail.
I should say here that I know Cheryl Strayed. Iâ€™m a former student of hers and consider her a friend and a mentor. Before reading WILD, I assumed Iâ€™d leave the reviews to those whoÂ didn’tÂ have such clear conflicts of interest. But some books, no matter how well you know their author, exist as a force of their own. They get inside you. They compel you to act.
The elevator-pitch for WILD is that itâ€™s the story of a young, emotionally messed-up woman who decides to hike the PCT and does so without any substantive hiking knowledge or prior experience. Thatâ€™s the plot. And that plot is riveting. WILD is a page turner, a classic adventure tale full of wilderness dangers and physical hardships and sweeping vistas which Strayed heart-achingly renders in her clean, clear-eyed prose. This is a good read. A damn fine read. But itâ€™s something more than that, too. It has a purpose beyond the tales of bears and rattlesnakes and water filters and blisters.
During her months of hiking, Strayed moves at a pace of 8-20 miles a day. As such, she has plenty of moments to consider the condition of her life, her thoughts most often revolving around her motherâ€™s untimely death and her failed marriage and her reckless dalliances with heroin and men. A desire to move on from this life is what prompts her to hike the PCT, but at no point on the trail is she ever truly free of it, her memories and emotions always there, tangled alongside the sagebrush, then the evergreens, then the late-summer berries, her past still present no matter the terrain or the remoteness of her location. While the messiness of Strayedâ€™s life is not drastically beyond the kinds of messiness many of us have at one point experienced (this is no crash-and-burn addiction memoir), Strayed is clearly at a tipping point. Her life is over-weighted, as cumbersome and as hard to bear as the huge pack she carries on the trail. Although, of course, Strayed is far too fine of a writer to give us that metaphor in any direct way.
Still, the metaphors are there. Not just in that pack, but in the trail itself and in the very idea of a journey, of an attempt to keep moving, to keep pushing oneself towards a distant goal no matter how long it will take or how difficult it will be to get there. Itâ€™s a metaphor Strayed, the writer, clearly understands even as Strayed, the young hiker, often doubts the purpose of her impulsive adventure, continuing onward as much out of a profound stubbornness as out of anything particularly grand or noble. And yet, she does continue on. And as she continues on, we experience the journey through Strayedâ€™s beautifully layered viewpoint, existing within that messed-up young woman on the trail, but also existing beside the wiser woman who is putting the story onto the page.
This is what makes WILD rise far above the typical wilderness adventure story. Strayed is telling us more than just the details of how she managed to hike a thousand-plus miles. Sheâ€™s revealing to us (between her words and inside her words and around her words) a truth about ourselves and the strengths we may not even know we contain.
Donâ€™t get me wrong. This isnâ€™t some starry-eyed, motivational-themed book. Strayed never goes off on know-it-all tangents about willpower or the need to pursue our dreams. But her writing is free of irony and cynicism and, because of that, her voice has an honesty that lets us connect and see ourselves in her struggles. When she wants something, sheâ€™s not afraid to admit she wants it greatly. When she hurts, sheâ€™s not embarrassed to admit she hurts deeply. At no point does she pretend that she is someone special, that she is any tougher or more capable than the rest of us. In fact, she is so honest about how horrifyingly unprepared she is to hike the PCT that, at the end of the book when she tells a stranger that if she can hike the trail anyone can, we believe her. She is right. Every one of us possesses within ourselves the strength to hike the PCT. And if we can do thatâ€”if we can traverse mountains and lose toenails and face down bears and rockslides, then we can â€¦
Well, Strayed leaves her readers to draw their own conclusions about themselves and what they have the ability to achieve. I imagine many, upon reading WILD, will consider embracing new adventures. But I suspect many others will arrive where Iâ€™ve arrived: rethinking their troubles and reconsidering their expectations. On those hikes I take in the dispiriting aftermath of rejection, I always feel heavy with the sense that I should be further along as a writer. Being a good writerâ€”a read writerâ€”is the most important thing in my life outside of my family. And so I tend to obsess on my failures. And yet, itâ€™s not like I havenâ€™t progressed. Itâ€™s not like I canâ€™t look back and see the distanceÂ I’veÂ covered since I first committed myself to writing. Reading WILD has made me think about this, has made me take a moment to look down at my feet and consider the fact that those steps Iâ€™m taking count, that as long as they are leading me towards where I want to be, then they have a purpose. They matter.
As Cheryl Strayed often told me when I studied writing with her: make it meaningful. She meant the details in my work. She meant one thing should deepen the next, then the next and the next until the story arrived at some truth, some understanding. I think this is pretty good advice for life as well. After all, WILD is just about a young woman who takes one step after another. And the result? The result is so meaningful that the end made me cry.
Alan Stewart Carl lives in San Antonio where he writes, reads, fathers, and does a lot of walking and day hiking. He can be tracked down at AlanStewartCarl.com.