My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I grew up in the foothills of the Sierras and now live in Portland, where Cheryl Strayed ends her 1100-mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. My familiarity with the landscape added to my experience as a reader of Wild, seeing the trails and little towns I know so well through the eyes of a novice hiker with zero backpacking experience.
Due to extreme weather conditions, she made the wise decision to skip over the highest passes with the most spectacular vistas, along the John Muir Trail. I have backpacked along bits and pieces of it myself. (Don’t be impressed; my dad was the outdoorsy sort who dragged me along and carried all the water and food.) Bypassing this section of the trail was a disappointment for her and me, the reader who now prefers to get her dose of wilderness adventuring through books.
It took me a good fifty pages to acclimate myself to Wild. Strayed’s prose style verges on melodramatic, with many, many one-sentence paragraphs and repeated lines:
I would suffer. I would suffer. I would want things to be different than they were. The wanting was a wilderness and I had to find my own way out of the woods. It took me four years, seven months, and three days to do it. I didn’t know where I was going until I got there.
It was a place called the Bridge of the Gods.
Her writer’s hand is too heavy, her sentences cluttered with adjectives and adverbs. This isn’t my favorite style of writing, but once the trail scenes picked up, the prose became less distracting, and I was able to immerse myself in the story.
When we’re not on the trail, we’re excavating Strayed’s past. Four years before her trek, her mother died, and Strayed self-destructed. She lashed out, made questionable decisions, and left her doting husband. The idea to hike the Pacific Crest Trail came years later. Much of the book digs back into the past, unearthing Strayed’s demons. These sections lagged; I longed to get back on the trail. To not appreciate this part of the book is to not appreciate Wild at all, you may be protesting. How she lost herself after her mother’s death and found herself again on the PCT was, after all, the entire raison d’être of the memoir. But I was there for the nitty-gritty survival details: rationing food and water, counting miles and blackened toenails.
Strayed came to the trail only half prepared. She hadn’t broken in her boots and her pack had to weigh more than fifty pounds. But was she playing up her incompetence for the sake of the story? She had practically memorized her guidebook and knew how many miles she’d be able to hike and when she needed to pick up each box of supplies. If you were really spontaneous and impulsive, you’d botch that up. Or you wouldn’t arrange to get supplies mailed to you along the trail at all, imagining you’d nourish yourself with birds and lizards.
Some people can’t stand characters like this. (And I know Cheryl Strayed is not really a character but a real person—we have fourteen mutual Facebook friends, as a matter of fact!) It can be a challenge to root for characters who do stupid things, who act without considering how awful it would be if they died of thirst or fell off a cliff. Strayed reminds me of another character/real-life adventurer, Christopher McCandless. People ask the same questions about him: was he a free spirit, someone to romanticize and admire? Or just selfish and possibly mentally unstable?
I am a romantic—but also a very practical person. I would never do what they did. I wouldn’t venture “into the wild” with ten pounds of rice and a rifle, like Christopher McCandless. Nor would I set off on the longest and most difficult hiking trails on the continent after reading a few guidebooks and a buying some cargo shorts at R.E.I.
But who is going to read a memoir about the summer I didn’t journey into the wild or try to hike the Pacific Crest Trail? Who is inspired by the time I didn’t do something dangerous and somewhat crazy . . . and instead stayed at home and worked a minimum wage summer job? I love to read about people like Christopher McCandless and Cheryl Strayed. They can be foolhardy and sort of inspiring and—here’s the main thing—compelling characters—all at the same time.