It’s safe to say that in 1995, few people thought of hiking 1100 gruelling miles along the Pacific Crest Trail, alone, with no prior backpacking experience, as a way to turn their life around. But some may do so today, because one woman in 1995 did: Cheryl Strayed.
In 1995, Cheryl Strayed was 26 years old. Her mother had been dead four years. In the wake of that loss, her life had spiralled out of control. Her marriage had fallen apart (she chose the surname “Strayed” for herself at the time of her divorce), and she was using heroin.
The book “Wild” explains how Strayed went from the devastating news in the Mayo Clinic that her mother would die of lung cancer to the first steps on the Pacific Crest Trail with a backpack far too heavy for her and too-small boots that would eventually cost her most of her toenails. It weaves together her journey on the trail with the searingly painful memories she has not wanted to face. Strayed does not spare herself when she narrates how she acted out sexually following her mother’s death, or how she started using heroin, or the agonizing botched euthanasia of her mother’s beloved horse; or how her inexperience on the trail causes her a great deal of effort and suffering.
“Wild” is now a bestseller and an Oprah Book Club pick. I wanted to like it more than I did. It had the potential for something really beautiful: a story of transformation and healing in the surroundings of Nature. I respect Strayed’s tremendous determination to stay the course on an incredibly difficult journey. What hampered the experience for me was the way the events were narrated. It’s not that Strayed was anything short of brutally honest, but I found that there was a little too much emphasis on the brutal. I feel that creative endeavors related to painful times call for a profound emotional sobriety. Any tendency to dramatize or make art of the pain may not actually transform the pain so much as it amplifies the painful thinking. There was a certain hardness in the way Strayed narrated her experiences that did not feel entirely sober to me.
I believe that Strayed did receive a great deal of healing from her time on the Pacific Crest Trail. It appears to have served as a detox and rehab to help her get her life back on track. Her tears of gratitude at the Bridge of the Gods, when she reaches the end of her journey, are heartfelt, and I celebrated with her. But I’m left unconvinced that this journey was the only way that would have worked. Maybe a much less drastic step taken in sobriety could have done much the same. It’s also not clear from the book that she fully comprehended the healing she received. It’s as though she understood one layer and wrote about it instead of digging down a couple more layers.
In the same way, we may feel we need to do something drastic like quit our job, sell all our possessions, and move to an ashram in India in order to make changes in our life. But maybe a short vacation, spent in the right place with the right mindset, and a redirection of our inner world, will do as much for our personal growth.
“Wild” is a good read. But at Parvati Magazine, we’re interested in books that support personal awakening. In this respect, I don’t think “Wild” quite got there. For a book whose journey does get there, I suggest Peace Pilgrim’s “Steps to Inner Peace”, which you can read online at its entirety at the link given, on the Peace Pilgrim website.
Pranada Devi is a communications professional living in Toronto, Canada. She manages the Politics, Books and Activism sections for Parvati Magazine in addition to serving as Managing Editor for the magazine overall. She serves as an advisor on marketing communications for Parvati’s various projects.