March 2012

Jill Talbot

nonfiction

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Around 1994, when Cheryl Strayed embarked on her Pacific Crest Trail journey that she writes about in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, I was reading about roads. As Strayed traversed a path through California and Oregon alone, I sat on the loveseat in my living room following men across the roads of the country, sitting in the passenger seat of a '49 Hudson with Jack Kerouac, sleeping in the back of John Steinbeck's trailer that he named Rocinante, riding alongside William Least Heat Moon in his truck, Ghost Dancing, these just a few of the many trips I took in the pages of the road narratives that were the focus of my doctoral dissertation.    

The road narrative is literary cousin of the western, so I spent my late twenties reading about women who were either omitted from the narrative or had only fleeting appearances when it came to roads, trails, journeys, adventures. The road seemed to be no place for a woman. One of the lines from Kerouac's On the Road I always recall: "I suddenly realized that all these women were spending months of loneliness and womanliness together, chatting about the madness of the men." Indeed, women stayed at home or let a man share their bed (think of the Western: the domesticated woman, the saloon whore), but if they did take off on their own, they found danger faster than they found freedom. Thelma and Louise may be forever flying free in that teal Thunderbird, but they learned the hard way that the road will not let women just be. How could I imagine that a woman in the west, also in her late twenties, was currently embarking on her own road, the Pacific Crest Trail?

I won't bore you with all the tenets of the road narrative and turn this into a graduate seminar on the genre, though Strayed's memoir works very well within and against the traditional road narrative. (The trail is her road, though often in the book, she is, literally, on the road.) First, there are two goals: one concrete, one abstract. Strayed repeatedly insists, to the reader and to fellow hikers and curious folks, that she has to hike this trail alone; thus, she is the sole carrier -- of not only a backpack she names Monster, but also of the goal to hike the trail from Mojave, California to The Bridge of the Gods in Oregon -- but the inspiration for her hike, and her true goal is to find her "way out of the woods." 

"So much had been denied me," Strayed writes. First, her father: "Of all the wild things, his failure to love me the way he should have had always been the wildest thing of all." Next, her mother: "Her death had... obliterated me." Then, her infidelity, her divorce, a dual fling with a man named Joe and with heroin, all culminating into "problems a therapist couldn't solve," so she packed up and hit the trail.  

In the road narrative, the internal journey coincides with a physical one. Remember that moment in the desert when Thelma tells Louise, "Something's like, crossed over in me, and I can't go back"? People on physical journeys are compelled to continue because, more than anything, the place they need to get to more than anywhere is themselves, or some part of the self that's been lost or left behind. In Strayed's case, every step she takes on and off that trail is one step closer to uncovering a "yearning for a way out, when actually what I had wanted to find was a way in."

The world we look at, the one we see, is a reflection of ourselves, and Steinbeck knew this well. "This monster of a land," he writes in Travels with Charley, "turns out to be the macrocosm of the microcosm of me." Here is the only place where Strayed falls short in Wild. The strongest moments are not the ones in which she describes the landscape or the trail, but when she travels back into her past. The moments on the trail, though told in the past tense, create a sense of present, as if we are on the trail with her, and it's not the most compelling writing.

When she's walking with her one ski pole or navigating a slippery patch of snow and ice, the writing becomes less engaging, less intense, almost as if Strayed, the writer, disappears (at times I felt the heavy presence of an editor's insistences). At an early point, she describes the world around her: "The silence was tremendous. The absence felt like a weight." And this is exactly how much of the book felt for me, as if I were hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, hoping to run into someone I could talk to for a few pages. At page 136, when she had only gone 170 miles (with 1,008 to go), I felt the defeat she must have experienced all those times she had only twenty cents in her pocket, another toenail fell off, or some sandy-haired man broke her water filter, but as she wrote in the preface, the only thing to do was to keep walking, so I kept reading. I'd like to think these drawn out sections were intentional on Strayed's part, to have her prose match the content, but after finishing Wild, I am convinced that Strayed's strength as a writer is in contemplative meditation and searing honesty. When she gets off of the trail, figuratively, to reflect on her father or when she makes a list of the things she hated about her mother, I found the Strayed I had hoped to find in these pages, the Strayed of the essay, "The Love of My Life," who can open up and dare to expose all of her misgivings and uncertainties and pain, who can write so clearly about not understanding her own self and her own life that it gives every reader a little more permission. These passages were few, like respites from a nineteen-mile hike, so when I got to them, they seemed what it must have felt like the day Strayed received her new one-size-bigger boots from REI. To put it plainly, I think Wildwould be a stronger book had Strayed applied that from-a-distance reflection onto the moments on the trail to make the work more cohesive in terms of tone and voice, to merge the psychological with the physical.

"The road has its own reasons and no two travelers will have the same understanding of those reasons," says Billy in Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing. The Pacific Crest Trail is a trail that many people have taken and will continue to take (I assume many after reading this book), though every person, including Strayed, who attempts it has her own reasons, just as everyone who picks up this book will have varying reasons. I would recommend this book for the adventurous or those who like to live vicariously through adventurers, for anyone without a father, for anyone who has lost a mother, for any single mother who is raising children alone (as a woman doing just this, I found Strayed's mother a great comfort, someone to admire), for women who look back at their youths and need to forgive themselves and keep walking, because Wild is, all in all, does more than redeem the literary road, and it's more than a healing memoir, more than a journey of self-discovery, it's about boots that don't fit, the money you forgot to pack, fathers with wounds, mothers who love, and believing that yes is the right answer instead of no.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
Knopf
ISBN: 978-0307592736
336 pages