The odd thing about being a professional outdoor writer is that I dislike outdoor writing. And what bores more than the tedious compendium of paths walked and rivers forged is its pious cousin, nature writing, the litany of species identified and thesaurus-sapping sunsets depicted. What’s missing in all the where is the why. A book without longing—someone wanting something he can’t have—fails to carry me to the next page.
Which is why I responded to the first notices of Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of hiking the Pacific Coast Trail, with a yawn. Worse than a trip report of some exotic untouched Neverland is a diary of a trek through our backyard, already with its pantheon of guidebooks and blogs. Just last summer, when a workshop student asked if she should quit her job, hike the PCT and write about it, I said, yes, of course, quit your job, do the trek, but don’t think it’ll lead to a book deal. “There’s no commercial potential in that,” were my exact words.
So I was startled to see Wild surfing the the bestseller charts, gathering impassioned reviews, and landing a Reese Witherspoon movie deal, while the author spoke to standing-rooms-only like some pop singer or movie star. When a book gains undue attention (that is, when it gains more attention than my books), I console myself by reading the one-star reviews on Amazon. The shadenfreude elicited by the uncensored rants buoys my spirits. So I looked up Wild. Among the usual hobgoblins of “self-indulgent” and “waste of time,” something grabbed my attention. “A junkie in the woods,” groused one malcontent, while another denounced the author’s “incredibly poor decisions, her pathetic sexual episodes and drug use.”
Wait a minute. This was sounding like a book I wanted to read.
Wild did not disappoint. Because despite its backcover billing, it’s not a book about hiking, travel, adventure or nature. It’s a memoir of redemption—and wilderness just happens to be the stage. At its outset, Strayed is a young woman in a dizzying spiral toward self-destruction. After her mother dies of cancer, Strayed wrecks her marriage in a sprint of bed-hopping that would make a frat boy blush—bagging three different dudes in just five days. Her next boyfriend teaches her to shoot dope. She becomes the type of girl that certain young men of bohemian tendancies might fondly call a sister of mercy, one that Strayed herself refers to as a slut. This is not the life Cheryl had envisioned for herself, and seeking escape, she goes to the woods.
To say that she was unprepared for the 1,100 miles of the PCT is by several orders of magnitude too generous. Her ignorance of what she’s getting herself into is utter to the point of charming. Not only had our young heroine never been backpacking, but up until she attempts to check out of her Mojave motel room on Day One, she’d never even put her pack on her back. She’s stuffed the thing with all manner of heavy, unneccesary objects like binoculars, folding saw, and in an Augustinian wink (“Lord, grant me chastity, but not yet”)—a 12-pack of Trojans. Although the hike ends as an act of courage and transformation, it begins as yet one more semi-suicidal bad idea, tromping into the wild to either discover a life worth living or to literally die trying.
A naturalist she’s not, thank God, logging not a single species, and lingering mercifully briefly on sunrises and mountain vistas. As it happens, the dips into outdoor writing are where the book sags. So many ridges run together, the hiking companions met are hard to tell apart, and the inquisitive reader might be excused for skimming ahead to learn what befalls those condoms. (As Chekov would have it, a Trojan in Act One must be fired by Act Three.) Strayed is at her best with the odd, creepy, and sometimes delightful meetings with citizen non-hikers—a miner, a writer, a pair of hunters—in which, cast into contrast with the modern world, the pilgrim in our midst is truly strange, vulnerable and alone.
I was halfway through when Oprah Winfrey announced that she had chosen Wild to re-launch her famous book club. Strayed had truly leapt from the outdoor cubby-hole into the mainstream. It didn’t surprise me. Her memoir is, after all, the sort of gut-wrenching tale of a lone woman’s courage and resolve that Oprah extols. But it’s appeal is deeper, too: the ballad of the wayward damsel is one of the most enduring tropes in our pop mythology, from Moll Flanders to Sister Carrie to Pretty Woman.
What makes it unique is wilderness. We never quite learn why Strayed thought the woods would make her whole; what matters is that she believed it enough to give it a try. As much as I grumble about nature writing, I love me some nature. At age 22 I set out for the desert with some notion that rowing boats through river canyons would offer more than the pointless flings and easy drugs of the city. It did. I worked almost a decade for Outward Bound, founded on a principle very similar to what Strayed writes about: that in wilderness journey, with its peculiar balance of brutal hardship and sublime beauty, and a new connection with the natural world, we gain the wisdom and strength to overcome even the most wretched of human conditions.
And that’s what carried me to this book’s end. Not the gear or the skills or the route or the views. It was the pure unashamed belief that there’s something true and beautiful beyond civilization, and that if we’re brave enough and strong enough, we might learn what it is.