A profound and moving pilgrimage through the wilderness of grief, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is one of the best American memoirs to emerge in years. After the shock of her mother’s unexpected death, 25-year-old Strayed is profoundly lost in the world, her family shattered. In the tradition of Thoreau and Kerouac, she finds herself again by hitting the road, or in this case, through-hiking 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail through California and Oregon.

Painfully funny and honest, Strayed documents the sheer stupidity of her early days on the trail, when her pack weighs upwards of 70 pounds and she fills her camp-stove with the wrong kind of gas. But mile by mile, and toenail by lost toenail, she grows stronger and smarter and lighter as she experiences how the extreme physical suffering of long-distance hiking eases the intense emotional suffering that brought her to it. She realizes that her instinct to walk the PCT was “a primal grab for a cure,” an attempt to create a new self and life from the ruins of the old. This reinvention extends to her new name, “Strayed,” which she chooses because “I had strayed and I was a stray . . . from the wild places my straying had brought me, I knew things I couldn’t have known before.”

As “Dear Sugar” advice columnist for The Rumpus, Cheryl Strayed is beloved for her compassionate wisdom. With Wild, we now witness the crucible that forged that hard-won knowledge. On the PCT, the loneliness of grief evolves into a visionary state of solitude: “Alone wasn’t a room anymore, but the whole wide world, and now I was alone in that world, occupying it in a way I never had before.” Even so, “trail angels” begin to reveal themselves to her, people who offer water, food or companionship—stations along the lonely way.

Wild is never simply a survival memoir, although it offers up many a thrilling incident—bears, rattlesnakes, dehydration, blisters, weather—to compel the reader’s attention. It is also a guidebook for living in the world, introducing a vibrant new American voice with a deceptively simple message: Go outside and take a hike.

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