A self-indulgent memoir about a naive 26-year-old woman and her brutal trek across California and Oregon, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed is a harshly honest portrait of grief.
At the tender age of 22, Strayed’s world is turned upside down, when her mother is suddenly diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Her mother dies shortly thereafter. Caring for ailing parents is a burden most would expect to share with one’s siblings. Strayed’s sister and brother were MIA for most of their mother’s last months. Haunted by the loss of the family matriarch, Strayed attempts to glue her family back together without success.
What would anyone do when your blood relatives slip through your fingers? What happens when the family you were given disappears? Strayed chooses to destroy the only family she had left, the one she built. Over four years of grieving the loss of her mother, Strayed single-handedly ruins her marriage (through indifference and multiple extra-martial affairs) and begins a courtship with heroin.
At the end of her downward spiral, pouting in the stalemate that has become her life, Strayed makes a drastic decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail for three months; 1,000 miles of rough terrain from the Mojave Desert to the Oregon border.
*Stop here to avoid spoilers
I have a very personal connection to the material in Wild. I have had more than one relative die of lung cancer (both from hereditary forms and as a result of smoking). Reading the first few chapters of this book was difficult for me. I made it over the hump when Strayed began describing the dissolution of her marriage. The tone describing the nature of how her affairs began felt utterly insensitive. Strayed’s language was as if she were still trying to justify it to herself ten years after the fact, even though she was explaining how she justified her actions at 24.
My issues with the book stems from the fact I am about to turn 24 years old. Maybe it wasn’t my mother, but I understand loss. I have seen both the sudden, and protracted decline and eventual deaths of family affected by cancer. I’m slightly uncomfortable admitting it in print, but I can relate to Strayed’s experiences with an abusive father (details of which I guess I’ll have to save for a memoir of my own) resulting in her emotional detachment from men.
The difference is, I did not marry young, as many of my friends did. I did not cling to the ideals of marriage, and subsequently betray the realities of the union. I will not be running into the woods on a whim for months at a time by myself. Maybe I’m still naïve enough to believe I’m not as naïve as Strayed was at my age.
The differences are the point. These are the reasons Wild works, because I can sympathize with her loss, but didn’t understand her methods of not dealing with it. Simply because of one universal truth: everyone grieves differently.
As much as I disliked Cheryl, as a character, and pooh-poohed her misinformed preparations, judgment, planning, and decision making skills, never once did I not want her to succeed in her mission up the west coast, or in her desire to heal. You’ll read this book and wonder if you could accomplish what Strayed did. Not many could, mentally, physically, or emotionally. After finishing, I’m seriously considering if I could or would even attempt just the Oregon section of the trail. Strayed inspired me. Whether or not I actually go doesn’t matter. Confronting your issues, letting them beat you down and making the choice to beat them back does matter.
Strayed will make you laugh. Strayed will make you cry. She’ll manipulate you into sympathizing for her and detest her just the same. Her ability to wave her freakish flag of personal faults so nonchalantly not only makes her writing brave, but beautiful. As a woman, she clearly communicates, that when you accept your mistakes as simple facts, that despite your faults- it’s more than ok to continue living.