Wild: From Lost to Found to the Pacific Coast Trail by Cheryl Strayed
blog by Cindy Bushey
Dictionaries define a hedonist as someone whose life is devoted to the pursuit of pleasure and self-gratification. It is a word sparingly used, and its rareness causes heads to turn when someone is described that way. There is also the implication of self-absorption and a loss of moral grounding implicit in its use. Observing a hedonist’s behavior can instigate contrasting feelings of repugnance and fascination in the watcher much like happening upon a train wreck. You are appalled but cannot stop looking. Those two feelings can almost sum up the reactions of Zion’s readers to our January selection Wild by Cheryl Strayed.
In Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Ms. Strayed recounts a personal journey in unsparing terms that offer a brutally honest picture of a particular hedonistic time in her life. Some readers found the first 20 percent of the book difficult to get through as the author vividly described her rough and tumble childhood, abandonment by an abusive father, the death of her loved but troubled mother, the disintegration of her remaining family, and her descent into promiscuity and heroin use. However, it was like that train wreck – you just could not stop watching as she unraveled. One reader ventured a professional opinion: “She was totally messed up”!
Our readers also deemed those chapters very necessary for an understanding of the author’s character and how each of those happenings affected her subsequent behavior. In those pages, we were introduced to a unique area of the western United States called the Pacific Crest Trail. The trail runs from the Mexican border to the Canadian border and follows the Sierra Nevada and CascadeMountain ranges. Think of a sister to the Appalachian Trail on the east coast, but with a greater diversity of climates and far fewer hikers. The PCT runs the gamut from desert to high mountain and woe to the unprepared hiker – which brings us back to our author. Definitely a free spirit (note the last name which she chose and legally adopted to echo her feelings of having strayed from any mooring in life), she decided on a whim that hiking the PCT was the only way she could come to grips with her grief over her mother’s death and consequently find herself.
After reading a book about the trail, Ms. Strayed spent a lot of money on way too much reputable equipment, packed scant care packages and sent them to trail destinations for later pickup, ditched her husband, job, most recent lover and fellow drug user, gathered favorite books, and took off on her adventure. Reading descriptions of her probably 60-pound backpack, our readers were both horrified and entertained (that train wreck again). This non-athletic, almost willfully ignorant woman certainly deserved whatever she had coming as she set out across the desert with insufficient water.
Sparing herself nothing, the author thoroughly describes the beauty, rigors, and trials of the PCT as well as the wide cast of characters she encountered on the way. Absorbed as she was with her problems, she found the trail demanded total concentration to avoid pitfalls and stay oriented. She was extremely cavalier about becoming lost, a feeling to which Zion’s readers could NOT relate, as well as possible animal encounters. Beyond some glaring eyes burning back at her at night, a few rattlesnakes, and a bear sighting, she had a disappointingly tame acquaintance with the local fauna. There were more helpful people than scumbags among her fellow hikers, although a few of the latter definitely sent our readers’ stress levels climbing. Her blisters and bruises resonated with our readers who had a relative who hiked the Appalachian Trail with deep caverns in his feet. Her feelings of euphoria after conquering a particularly arduous section had other readers who hike nodding in appreciation and reminiscing about the emerging popularity of hiking in the early 1970’s. Strayed’s need for solitude when hiking struck a chord with others, and all could understand her reluctance to bring the hike to an end. As one reader commented, the author was establishing real, if temporary, relationships for the first time in her life. Leaving the trail meant breaking those bonds to some extent and going forward into the unknown.
Some of our readers found the ending disappointing saying it did not wrap things up in a satisfactory manner. Indeed, one felt a 10-page epilogue would have been a definite improvement. Others decided, as they read the first 20 percent of the book, that they were tired of Strayed’s griping and found it hard to dredge up sympathy for her. The author definitely has a way with words and many of our readers thoroughly enjoyed the trail descriptions while others focused on her family dynamics. We were astounded that the author had not heard of the Appalachian Trail, yet many of us were unfamiliar with the PCT. We were equally astounded that, self-absorbed as she was, Strayed failed to recognize how often fellow hikers and local citizens aided her and enabled her to continue on her vision quest. Yet, as the trail toughened Strayed and she persevered, all our readers on some level appreciated the effort it took her to break with her past, accomplish an amazing goal, and in the process find her bearings again. Wild can appeal to a broad range of interests, but it can inspire equally negative reactions. Zion’s readers reflected that in their vote: seven gave it one thumb up while two were neutral. If readers of this blog enjoy reading about personal challenges and hiking, this might be the book for you.