So for my final project, I’ve been reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed. It recently was made into a movie so many of you probably have a rough idea what the story is about, but I’ll give you all some background information just so you’ll be able to follow what I’m talking about a bit easier! The story is a memoir of Cheryl’s hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT for short, which spans the west coast of the united states from Mexico to Canada. She begins at the town of Mojave, in the Mojave Desert, in southern California. The way she tells the story is both in the “present” moment of her on the trail, as well as frequent flashbacks to the preceding years and struggles of life that led her there. This is not a happy book, there are moments when Cheryl feels herself beginning to heal, but her flashbacks to her childhood, and to her life in the years following her mother’s death are vivid, emotional, and recollected in a way that makes you feel how much pain she is in.
To begin with, Cheryl is not some experienced hiker who knows exactly what they’re doing, she’s just a broken and hurting woman who finds a handbook about the trail called The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California when waiting in line to buy a shovel at REI (a store similar to Mountain Equipment Co-op, MEC, here in Canada). You know the kind of “oh that looks interesting” *inspects for 32.7 seconds* “I guess I’ll buy this” stuff that they put along the lineup for the checkout in retail stores? She didn’t buy the book the first time she saw it, but after starting to come to terms with how serious of a mess her life has become, she remembers the book.
It was then that I remembered that guidebook I’d plucked from a shelf at REI while waiting to buy the shovel a couple of days before. The thought of the photograph of a boulder-strewn lake surrounded by rocky crags and blue sky on its cover seemed to break me open, frank as a fist to the face… It now seemed like…a sign. Not only of what I could do, but of what I had to do. (Strayed 56)
The story begins with Cheryl’s mother being diagnosed with cancer and dying only a month later. Of her two other siblings, Cheryl is the closest to her mother; they are best friends in every way, sharing every joy and struggle, even attending university together so her mother can get the degree she always dreamed of. When her mother dies, it rips her apart and she feels as though she has “a hole in her heart” (Strayed 38). Trying to fill herself, hold her family and marriage together burns her out. While still married to her husband, Paul, Cheryl ends up in a relationship with a man named Joe and becomes a heroin addict.
It was good. It was like something inordinately beautiful and out of this world. Like I’d found and actual planet that I didn’t know had been there…The place where there was no pain, where it was unfortunate but essentially okay that my mother was dead and my biological father was not in my life and my family had collapsed and I couldn’t manage to stay married to a man I loved. At least that’s how it felt while I was high. (Strayed 53)
I have never gone as far as Cheryl does, but I can understand her feeling of “I know this isn’t me, this isn’t going to make me better or help me through this… BUT, it feels good in the moment”. My parents and I have never really been close, I know that they wish we were, but we’re not. They were always fighting with my sister, there was a lot of yelling while I was growing up, and my sister and I have never gotten along. More than just ‘sisterly disagreements’, there have been times when I genuinely hated my ‘family’ and wanted nothing to do with them. Even just recently, I kind of gave up trying to do the right things and do what my parents wanted and started doing whatever felt good in the moment. There are some things I probably should regret more than I do, but either way, I understand somewhat her apathetic feeling towards doing what she knows is wrong because, for the moment, it feels good.
That’s the first, and the beginning of the second sections of the book; Cheryl’s mother’s death, and Cheryl falling apart. On to happier trails now.
As I mentioned, Cheryl begins her hike in the Mojave Desert. Where she chooses to start her trek makes me think about where she is in life when she starts. What are
deserts? Desolate, unwelcoming, unloving, often fairly barren, hard, and difficult to cross places. What is Cheryl’s life when she decides to hike the PCT? Her mother/best friend has died, and she missed it. Her marriage to someone she still loved fell apart because she cheated. She’s addicted to heroin. She’d had an abortion. She has no home or real family. You see the similarities?
Throughout the second section, she spends about two weeks alone on the trail not seeing another human. She comes face to face with a longhorn bull charging down the trail, and many other wild animals such as rattlesnakes and spiders. The physical pain of the trail is much more than she had expected. However, the landscape begins changing, slowly, and without much notice from Cheryl.
When she arrives at her first supply pick up location at Kennedy Meadows, she is hiking through lush forest that is full of life. And just as the land has changed and started coming to life, so had Cheryl.
Even in her youth, she looked to the opinions of boys and other people to validate herself.
…I’d become an expert at being around men. It was a version of myself I’d first tasted way back when I was a child of eleven and I’d felt that prickly rush of power when grown men would turn their heads to look at me…The one I’d banked on all through high school, starving myself thin, playing cute and dumb so I’d be popular and loved. (Strayed 111)
Along the trail, before Kennedy Meadows, she meets Greg, and Albert, and then later Tom and Doug when they arrive at the campground. The subtle change that has happened in Cheryl since she started hiking is that she is less concerned with her outward appearance. “It was just as well, I knew, that I simply let myself look and feel and smell the way I did,” (Strayed 112). Yes, she is conscious of the fact that she is the only girl in a group of men, but during their night at the campground, she overcomes the need to act girlish and seductive, and simply enjoys their company as that of other human beings. This subtle change in her mirrors the subtle change in the landscape over which she had been hiking; it was changing all the time, but she doesn’t notice it until there is a stark contrast between where she is and where she was when she started.
In the summer after grade 9, I spent multiple weeks in the hospital because my heart rate was too low (about 35BPM at times). Apparently working out all the time and not eating don’t go well together. The thing about eating disorders is that you don’t notice how far you’ve gone until you’re too far gone. All through the second semester of grade 9 there was that subtle and continuous pressure I kept putting on myself, and I didn’t realize how much it was controlling me until I couldn’t fix myself alone. Grade 10 was a lovely type of hell; I would get better for a bit, then get much much worse. It was a one step forward, two steps back, except I was the only one who noticed the two steps back so I ended up dealing with it alone. There were the nights when I didn’t want to wake up in the morning, and the nights when I very nearly decided not to, but slowly I got better. I didn’t realize that I was completely “out of the woods” (pun not intended) until one day only a couple months ago, I realized that I was happy with myself. Annoyed at all my other medical problems, always, but concerning the reasons that made me stop eating and hate myself, I was good on that account.
Cheryl goes to the wilderness to break and overcome herself physically so she can heal herself emotionally and mentally. Of all the experiences I have had in my life so far and all the places I have been, there is nowhere I love more than the wilderness and the outdoors. I grew up playing in the woods at my cottage up north in Muskoka like Cheryl grows up in the woods of northern Minnesota. I am in love with the woods and the mountains and find comfort in immersing myself in the outdoors. My dad and I do canoe camping trips up north every summer, and I look forward to it all year.
Do hiking boots hurt? YES.
Are canoes and packs heavy? YES.
Is it hard to sleep in a tent? YES.
Are you a bottomless pit than devours whatever food is around you when you come to a place where you don’t have to limit your food intake? YES.
Is it easy being out in the wilderness? NO.
Does it hurt you physically? ABSOLUTELY.
But when I’m out there, I barely notice when my muscles are burning, my feet are blistering and I’m so tired that I can barely keep my balance or keep my eyes open, because it’s a pain that feels good.
The physical pain of being on the trail, being out in the wilderness, pushes out whatever emotional and mental pain you’ve been carrying. The same way Albert helps Cheryl unpack all the extra weight from her pack, which leaves her feeling like she “could leap in the air” (Strayed 108), being out in nature unpacks all the extra burdens of life that slowly accumulate and weight you down (like the 15oz difference between one sleeping bag or tent and another one). As John Muir once said:
Thanks for reading!
LAST THING: here’s the links to two songs from the movie Pete’s Dragon (I know, I’m 16 and I like kids movies, it’s weird, get over it) that I think the lyrics apply really well to the first two sections of Wild. “Nobody Knows” describes fairly accurately how Cheryl feels about losing her mother, and “Something Wild” relates well to how she comes to decide to hike the PCT.
Nobody Knows by The Lumineers*: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6q5Zn_ZkehM
Something Wild** by Lindsey Stirling: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I2lVEiwKVFM
*My favourite band (their concert was amazing!!!)
**The violin in this is INCREDIBLE
Kennedy Meadows. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.