A memoir captures the romance of hiking but raises questions about the trustworthiness of its story
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. By Cheryl Strayed. Vintage, 336 pp., $15.95, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
In 1982 Steven Callahan spent 76 days floating on an inflatable raft in the Atlantic after his sailboat sank on a trip from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean. A few years later, he described a risk of writing about that ordeal in the preface to his memoir, Adrift: “Of course, I can never be completely sure that all my conclusions are exactly what I felt then rather than new insights.”
That kind of honesty helped to make Adrift one of the great seafaring memoirs of the past quarter-century. And it’s part of what’s missing from Cheryl Strayed’s account of how, at the age of 26, she hiked for more than 1100 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail from the Southern California to the Oregon-Washington Border.
Strayed evokes with considerable skill the romance and peril of traveling alone through rugged terrain that, if “beautiful and austere,” sheltered bears, rattlesnakes and mountain lions. And she gives a lively sense of the camaraderie among hikers whose paths cross and re-cross on a long trail. One couple thrilled her by leaving a peach for her on a picnic table at a time when granola and Better Than Milk amounted to a feast and when “fresh fruit and vegetables competed with Snapple lemonade in my food fantasy mind.”
But Wild tells you many things you don’t need to know while omitting those you do. Strayed reports that in her first six weeks on the trail, she “hadn’t even masturbated, too wrecked by the end of each day to do anything but read and too repulsed by my own sweaty stench for my mind to move in any direction but sleep.” (She made up for lost time at an Oregon hostel where she “lay awake for an hour, running my hands over … the mounds of my breasts and the plain [sic] of my abdomen and the coarse hair of my pudenda.”) And yet, for all the intimate details like those, Strayed doesn’t answer big questions such as: Why didn’t Wild appear in print until 17 years after she took her three-month trip the summer of 1995? How do we know that the thoughts she says she had on the trail occurred then and not years later as she shaped her story for publication? Aren’t some of the line-by-line conversations in her book far too long for her to have transcribed in the journal she carried with her?
These questions matter because Strayed casts Wild not as a conventional travel memoir but as a secular sin-and-redemption tale. She styles her hike as a trip she took to heal or “to save myself” from a self-destructive spiral set in motion by painful events that began more than four years earlier with the death of her mother. In the months just before her trip, Strayed had extramarital affairs, left her husband, and aborted a pregnancy that resulted from a fling. She also used heroin. Strayed says she knew it was wrong to cheat on a husband she loved, but her mother’s death had left her unable to control herself: “So much had been denied me, I reasoned. Why should I deny myself?”
Strayed carried her instinct for rationalization with her as she navigated forest paths and rocky ledges with a backpack that “seemed like a Volkswagen Beetle that was parked on my back.” Near end of her hike, she followed a man she had just met into his truck, where he asked if she wanted some “chewable opium. “Sure,” she replied. Later that night, she drove off with another stranger and realized that “there was no way I was going to keep my pants on with a man who’d seen Michelle Shocked three times.”
So when did the healing occur? In the last pages of Wild, Strayed says vaguely that she was sitting beside the Columbia River thinking about how long she had carried the emotional weight of her mother’s death: “And something inside of me released.” But it was not until 15 years after her trip, when she returned to the area with a second husband and two children “that the meaning of my hike would unfold inside of me, the secret I’d always told myself finally revealed.” As she tells it, her New Age-y “secret” sounds like a cross between a Beatles lyric (“let it be”) and a bumper sticker about the value of “seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water.” What if the fish were sharks?
Strayed’s explanation for how her trip helped “save” her is so coy and unpersuasive that you wonder if something else isn’t at work. The 17 years between her hike and the publication of her book brought a lucrative crop of high-profile memoirs – most notably, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love – that treat rigorous journeys as therapy for divorce or other sorrowful events. Did Strayed reposition her story at some point to catch a piece of the trend?
If so, she has reached her goal at a cost to her credibility. Like Eat, Pray, Love, Wild implies that you can fix a broken life by taking an ambitious vacation. Gilbert casts “recovery” as form of consumerism, and Strayed turns it into an extreme sport. Both ideas are suspect. Any therapist — or anyone who has left a marriage or lost a parent — will tell you that what makes grief less acute is not an extended vacation but time. Strayed’s failure to deal adequately with this issue involves more than ethics: It raises questions about trustworthiness of the emotional core of her book.
Best line: “My backpack was no longer on the floor. … it seemed like a Volkswagen Beetle that was parked on my back.”
Worst Line: Strayed writes of extramarital affairs she had years after her mother died: “Though I’d had attractions to other men since shortly after we married, I’d kept them in check. But I couldn’t do that anymore. My grief [about my mother's death] obliterated my ability to hold back. So much had been denied me, I reasoned. Why should I deny myself? … I knew I was wrong to cheat [on my husband] and lie.”
Published: 2012 (Knopf hardcover), 2013 (Vintage paperback).
Jan is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for the Plain Dealer and the book columnist for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar at right.
© 2103 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.