Reviewed by Mohsin Siddiqui
I’M probably one of the few people who didn’t find Eat, Pray, Love particularly inspirational or motivational. It’s a little hard to find much to admire in someone whose entire life crisis was resolved with a little heart-to-heart with God on the floor of a bathroom in her rather nice house. God, clearly departing from Old Testament ways, gave Elizabeth Gilbert a bit of a cuddle and told her to go back to bed, implying that everything would be OK. And it was; after all, not only did she find mental peace and (true?) love, her happy ending was so saccharine it would likely give an entire army of lab rats terminal carcinoma.
Cheryl Strayed, on the other hand, pleaded with God while in the hospital where her mother was dying, begging for a stay of execution, only to end up with a dead parent, a legacy of heroin addiction and emotionless sex, and a half-baked plan to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, a wilderness experience so brutal that even reading about its overview left me bruised and tired enough to need a disco nap.
Following her mother’s death by lung cancer, the then-22-year-old Strayed became something of an emotional and physical train wreck, determined to crash and burn by any means necessary. As her marriage eroded (eventually crumbling like a stale biscuit), her family also fell apart, lacking the mother who had kept them together through a difficult childhood. Clearly a believer in the whole premise of game theory, Strayed decided — rather than giving up — to double down on her whole life experience.
“The Pacific Crest Trail was an idea,” she admits, that was “vague and outlandish, full of promise and mystery.” It was the feeling, she writes, “as if I were looking up from the bottom of a deep well” that led her to the idea “of becoming a solo wilderness trekker. And why not ... a woman who walks alone in the wilderness for 1,100 miles? I’d never been anything like that before. I had nothing to lose by giving it a whirl.”
Wild is the dark doppelganger of Eat, Pray, Love. Strayed (a particularly apt surname, as we discover), is — literally and figuratively — the bad girl version of Gilbert. She is rash, impulsive and self-destructive; headed off on a physical trek that would have Odysseus sweating gladii at the very prospect, she prepares by packing a backpack so monumentally overwhelming (both physically and emotionally) that her not-so-affectionate nickname for it is Monster. She bears so many literal and metaphorical burdens that one wonders why she felt the need to stuff Monster with, among other things, an excessively large number of contraceptives, a folding saw, books and a sketch-pad, water filters, a camping stove, and a pair of hiking boots so tight that they cause her toenails to come off with depressing frequency.
The literary tradition of writers escaping society is a long one. Thoreau, Walden, Frost, Kerouac ... these are all well-known pioneers (no pun intended) of the art of beating a retreat from ‘civilisation’. Few of them though, I suspect, would have chosen a 1,100-mile hike as their preferred exit strategy from the terrors of polite society. Strayed, however, is clearly not one to do things by halves; adventuresome and gregarious, she combines an oddly delicate and unabashed spiritual sense with a strong practical streak that sees the necessity for prophylactics in her backpack and bemoans a lack of clean underwear to the degree that it may cause second-hand embarrassment in some.
My problem with memoirs and tales of metamorphosis is that they frequently turn into morality stories, populated with profound characters, insights and so many epiphanies that the Catholic Church would be justified in suing such authors for copyright infringement. Strayed, however, is not one to go for sweetness, light, or much in the way of grace, and this is so incredibly refreshing that one cannot help but find it enjoyable. Rather than pontificate on the virtues of physical suffering as transformative, she cuts directly to the chase, not sparing herself in the process:
“I’d set out to hike the trail so that I could reflect upon my life, to think about everything that had broken me and make myself whole again. But the truth was, at least so far, I was consumed only with my most immediate and physical suffering ... I’d imagined endless meditations upon sunsets or while staring out across pristine mountain lakes ... thought I’d weep tears of cathartic sorrow and restorative joy each day ... Instead, I only moaned, and not because my heart ached. It was because my feet did and my back did and so did the still-open wounds around my hips.”
Strayed is not completely at a loss during her trek. Clearly having learned from a childhood of deprivation and food stamps, she took care to arrange for time-delayed “care packages” which would await her at designated rest stops along the Pacific Crest Trail. These aren’t enough though, as both she and we realise, to blunt the urge that drives her on. As in her past lives, Strayed is always moving on; she is always hungry, she is always on theverge of being bankrupt; and most importantly, she is always trying to figure out who the hell she actually is. There’s a particularly amusing moment of this when, as she comes across a writer for a magazine named Hobo Times, she is unable to convince him that she is in fact a backpacker, not a vagrant of some flavour. One wonders if this is because even she is incapable of really expressing or explaining what in her own head constitutes the line between “intrepid hiker” and “tramp”, and what has prevented her from stepping over the line from one to the other.
But there are also lovely moments of revelation. In her extended meditation on loss, Strayed encounters moments of grace that are all too wonderful for being ostensibly banal. For example, when her too-tight boots make it impossible for her to move on without incipient sepsis, the hiking-goods company REI sends her a pair in the right size; she spends a night with someone who is — unsexy though it may sound — aloe vera for the burns on her soul. Someone else helps her understand how Monster can become less monstrous, both literally and metaphorically. There is real beauty in Strayed’s world, especially when she herself starts acknowledging it — without getting weepy or excessively maudlin — as good fortune.
You would have to be completely lacking in empathy to not enjoy this memoir (of sorts). It balances on a precarious ledge, pulling from both external and internal sources, but refusing to be pushed over any sort of edge. The pleasure of reading Wild is in its accessibility; you don’t have to be a narcotics-addled nymphomaniac to laugh at Strayed’s stories or to (very discreetly) hold back tears at her travails. Candid — brutal, even — without being precious or twee, this is the kind of story for which most people would have to live (or suffer) an entire lifetime. Nietzche would be delighted to realise that in this case at least, what didn’t kill Strayed definitely made her strong.
Wild: From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail
By Cheryl Strayed
336pp. Price not listed
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