In the ten years since Cheryl Strayed published her memoir about grief, addiction, and hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, her life has changed dramatically. When the book came out in March 2012, she was a working mother of two, snatching whatever time she could to write. But within months, Wild was picked for Oprah’s Book Club and became a bestseller. Strayed has since published two more books and become a beloved advice columnist with a popular podcast, Dear Sugar. Meanwhile, the PCT has seen a dramatic surge of thru-hikers—the so-called “Wild effect.” We talk with Strayed about the impact all this has had on her and the outdoor community, and ask her to share her advice for aspiring adventurers.
Outside is hosting a live Zoom Q and A with Cheryl Strayed on Tuesday, April 5, at 6 p.m. Mountain Time. You can register to join us here.
This episode was brought to you by Lake Hartwell Country, with support from Discover South Carolina and Pickens County, South Carolina. Start planning your trip to this stunning adventure playground now at lakehartwellcountry.com.
Maren Larsen (host): This is the Outside Podcast.
Cheryl Strayed: The main word I feel for these last 10 years and the wild ride I’ve been on is: gratitude. Thank you, universe. Thank you, whatever, whoever brought this magic into my life.
Larsen: It’s been a decade since Cheryl Strayed published her bestselling memoir: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. The book chronicles her experience hiking the PCT in 1995, when she was 26 years old and grappling with the death of her mother, the end of her marriage, and an addiction to heroin. The memoir details Cheryl’s 94-day, 1,100-mile hike from California’s Mojave Desert to Bridge of the Gods, which spans the Columbia river between Oregon and Washington, while carrying a pack more than half her weight. In the opening scene, one of her ill-fitting boots falls over the edge of a cliff — and in a rage, she sends the other one after it.
In the ten years since Wild was published, it has made serious tracks. Here’s the highlight reel: Just months following publication, Wild was picked for Oprah’s Book Club; soon after, it became a number one New York Times Bestseller, and in the years that followed, it earned numerous awards and was translated into 30 languages. Maybe you were one of the many who read it. And if you didn’t, you might have seen the movie: Cheryl’s story was adapted into a film in 2014. She was portrayed by Reese Witherspoon, who was nominated for an Academy Award for the role. Cheryl has published two more books since, one of which contained essays from the anonymous advice column she wrote called Dear Sugar that she now continues as a newsletter of the same name and a podcast, Sugar Calling.
All of which is to say that the last 10 years for her have been busy and, well, wild.
Strayed: It’s almost impossible for me to express in words everything that this last decade has been.
Larsen: But as much as Wild changed Cheryl’s life, it also contributed to major cultural shifts in the outdoor community, especially among thru hikers, those people who, like Cheryl, spent months trekking our longest trails, like the PCT and Appalachian Trail.
This is a big reason why Outside made Wild our Book Club pick for March, to mark the anniversary of its publication. Outside contributing editor Elizabeth Hightower Allen interviewed Cheryl for the Book Club and this episode, and she’ll be moderating a live Zoom Q&A with Cheryl on April 5th at 8pm Eastern, 5pm Pacific. Details about that in our show notes and at the end of this episode.
So, back to Cheryl’s writing of Wild. As she tells it now, while she thought a great deal about what went into the book, at the time she didn’t spend time contemplating the impact it might have.
Strayed: I wrote that book the way I write everything I write, which is I put everything into it. I spent so many years trying to make sense of and reckon with my mother’s death and, eventually, what that experience of that hike meant to me, what it gave to me. And I put all of that into the book. And, you know, I think that that’s, I mean, obviously that’s what every writer does. That’s our job. And our job isn’t what happens to it once it gets into the world, you know, we just have to do our best. It’s like raising a kid, you have to do your best and send it off into the world.
Larsen: Once she sent Wild into the world, it spoke to a lot of people. Especially women.
Mary Beth Skylis: I think whether she anticipated this or not, that she’s probably encouraged solo female hikers like me to get out in the trail world.
I’m Mary Beth Skylis, my trail name is Giggle Mouse. I usually go by Mouse. I thru hiked the Appalachian trail in 2015 and I’m a full-time freelance writer.
Larsen: I caught up with Mary Beth while she was on the road, where she more or less lives full-time. Earlier in March, Mary Beth wrote an article for Backpacker, another Outside Inc. publication, titled: “Wild Came Out 10 Years Ago—and Since Then, the Pacific Crest Trail Has Exploded.”
And that’s no exaggeration. Before Wild’s publication in 2012, fewer than 200 people reported completing thru hikes on the PCT. In 2018, that number hit an all-time high of nearly 1,200. And while that change likely can’t be attributed to Wild alone, interest in thru hiking as a whole has surged in the years since, and the average PCT season these days sees triple the traffic it did a decade ago. It’s a change so dramatic that some have termed it the “Wild Effect.”
Skylis: A lot of things have changed over the last ten years, like the emergence of social media and Instagram and all these things that just give a greater visual and literary access to the outdoors. But from the time that Cheryl Strayed published Wild to currently, there’s just been a tremendous increase in interest overall in the long distance backpacking community and on the PCT.
Larsen: The demographics of those who hit the trail every year have shifted, too. Though many outdoor pursuits were and continue to be male-dominated, Wild’s popularity made Cheryl Strayed the best-known long-distance hiker to the general public. And that representation matters.
Skylis: In 2013, the year after Wild was published, only about 34% of thru hikers were reported to be female. And in 2021, 42% of hikers were female. And overall, I think the trail community is becoming slowly more diverse and it’s attracting more international thru hikers.
Larsen: Not surprisingly, these kinds of stats make Cheryl very pleased.
Strayed: I mean, I love that, that people felt like it gave them permission to go on their own adventures.
Larsen: In some ways, before Wild, the solo adventure story was a genre reserved largely for white men. Though Cheryl’s book wasn’t the first account of someone who didn’t fit that image going it alone in the wilderness, Wild was and remains one of the most prominent in the genre. And for women thru hikers like Mary Beth, the Wild Effect is personal.
Skylis: Reading a book like Wild, which I did before the Appalachian trail, kind of reaffirmed that it’s something that I can do, you know, that there were other women who had done things like that and who had succeeded in their own right too.
Larsen: But the Wild Effect didn’t catch on just because the book documented a woman completing a thru hike. For Mary Beth, the book also provided a rare, precious window into what, psychologically, she would be up against on the trail.
Skylis: I think that she did a really good job of talking about the experience. What is it like to navigate grief and pain and you know, all these things that a lot of people are dealing with on these long trails? What, what is that experience like? I think a lot of long distance books will talk more about, like, the mileage and the towns and things like that, which are great. But Cheryl does a really good job of getting into the psychological side of thru hiking.
Maren: While the Wild Effect has taken hold, the physical state of the PCT itself has been changing. Cheryl completed her hike in 1995, just two years after the trail was officially completed. Now, nearly 30 years later, the lands it passes through face a new set of challenges. In many ways, the PCT that she hiked no longer exists.
Skylis: In 2020 and 2021, over 500 miles of the PCT were closed in California and Oregon due to large wildfires, and close to 200 miles of the trail were burned, substantially burnt. And many of the sections are still closed today.
I think that drought has become substantially more problematic since the time that Cheryl Strayed had been hiking, and that makes it really difficult for hikers to thru hike truly unsupported because they’re becoming more reliant on trail angels in the community who help to stock water caches. And then as a result of drought, wildfires are becoming more of an issue too. So it’s just, I think physically the sections of trails that are being impacted by wildfires were not impacted in the same way when Cheryl was hiking.
I think across long distance trails that any one year is going to be different, like on the Appalachian Trail, for example, every year it gets longer because they’re adding switchbacks in different areas of the trail, right? So the trail that I hiked in 2015 was different from the trail that somebody else would have hiked in, you know, 2010.
And I don’t think the PCT sees quite the same structural changes as the Appalachian Trail, but it is impacted every year particularly by natural disasters. Which means that it, it is a different trail from what Cheryl hiked.
But that’s kind of exciting too, because every year the trail is new and it’s a different experience. So you could hike it year after year, and have different experiences and see different parts of the country that way.
Larsen: And the sheer number of hikers who have taken to the trail in recent years is altering the landscape, too.
Skylis: Anytime you have more humans in a concentrated area, there are going to be higher impacts. So campsites are very beaten down; a lot of the plants and stuff that are in that area are impacted. There’s a higher level of human waste. There’s more noise: a lot of hikers will, you know, hike with music or travel in big groups.
And then they’re seeing pollution in the water sources that are still available on the PCT too. So it’s, it’s, in some ways it’s really exciting that there’s so many people that are interested and invested in the trail culture, but it’s, it’s a little bit problematic for those who are worried about the PCT from a conservation standpoint.
Larsen: You take all that into consideration and you might think, Maybe I missed the boat on this whole thru hiking thing. I wish I’d been able to go for it in the ‘90s. But talk to Cheryl about this, and she’ll make it clear: there’s still so much to be gained by anyone who gets out there — especially when the experience isn’t exactly the one we’re dreaming about.
Strayed: When we decide to do something like go on a long hike we’re like, Oh my God, it’ll be so beautiful, it’ll be so fun., it’ll be so glorious. And yes, it will be all of those things. And it will also be miserable and awful and agonizing and tedious and boring and harder than you could ever imagine. And that’s the good news. Because those are the things that teach us who we are.
Larsen: That, and much more from Cheryl Strayed, coming up after a short break.
Larsen: When Cheryl Strayed published Wild in 2012, it was greeted by widespread praise from everyone from Oprah to, well, Outside Magazine. But not all readers were adoring of the book, or of Cheryl herself. One common criticism was that, out on the trail, she was way out of her depth, some thought dangerously so.
Strayed: The shorthand that you see when people are describing the book, they’re like: a totally unprepared woman goes out on the trail. And I’m like, actually, that’s not entirely true. I did nothing but prepare in the months before my hike, I just made some mistakes. I didn’t know what long distance hiking really was. I was equating it with camping, you know, and with my experiences camping, where you’d go on a little day hike and then you’d be like making a campfire at night.
The fact is, I really, I did have a lot of experience in the wilderness because when I was, you know, 12 and 13, my family moved to, to the wilderness of Northern Minnesota.
Larsen: They lived on 40 rural acres, 20 miles from the nearest town, which even then was only populated by 400 people.
Strayed: And so I had that sense that the wilderness made me, you know, the wilderness was home to me.
Larsen: But when she hit the trail in 1995, she was a first time thru hiker. The fact that she was well aware that she had a lot to learn didn't make critics of the book any more willing to accept her. To some trail veterans, she was just an invader who didn’t belong.
Strayed: I started a novice, but I became an expert on the trail, you know, and to find that the very community, or at least some, some people in that very community were the people who were for sure, my biggest critics … I didn’t spend a lot of time analyzing it or thinking about it because it’s just like, okay, you know, I wrote the book. You either love it or you don’t. And I’m not really in charge of that. It’s none of my business really.
But, but I will say when I tried to listen to some of the arguments lodged against Wild, they were always rooted in elitism, snobbery, and a sense that the wilderness belongs to the people who have the means and the resources to prepare for it by way of lots of expensive equipment and, and intensive research, you know?
And I, I just am opposed to that idea. I believe, of course you should go out there prepared. My problem was I wasn’t so much I wasn’t prepared. I was over-prepared. I had too much stuff, but you know, it wasn’t as if I just stumbled out onto the trail.
On the other hand, I’m also really a true believer that most of us actually learn most of the important things by going and doing them and making mistakes and learning the hard way. We never forget that lesson we learn the hard way. And that the wilderness belongs to all of us. Those trails belong to all of us. The more of us who love them, the more of us will work to protect them.
Larsen: Cheryl also believes that the culture of outdoor elitism that was the source of so much pushback to Wild is starting to change — in some part, due to the book, but in much larger part due to how easy it is now to get information about trails and outdoor adventure.
Strayed: I think a lot of people who thought they didn’t have permission to go hike a long trail now do, and you know, I’m not saying it’s all Wild, but like, I think it brought a lot of people out on the trail. And I think also the internet, frankly, brought so much more awareness of our national scenic trails and like this thing called the AT, and this thing called the CDT, and the PCT, you know, there’s just so much more information that’s easily accessible.
When I was preparing, like I did, I did consult all the information available to me, but there wasn’t much PCT information anyway, available then on the internet.
The ways that the world has opened up in communications has really also boosted the ways that the trails have become so much more accessible to many kinds of different hikers, many kinds of different people who are seeking something in the wilderness. And I love that. That makes me thrilled.
And, you know, I, I am inspired by groups like the Unlikely Hikers group, that’s like really body positive and says like, listen, you don’t have to be like thin and fit to go hike a long distance. You don’t have to be XYZ to do this, to have this experience. And I love that. I, you know, I think we’re moving more and more in that direction, over time.
Larsen: And the inclusion of more people in outdoor spaces really matters. One of the core messages in Wild that still resonates most strongly ten year later, is that time spent in the wilderness can be transformative and deeply healing. The more people who can experience that, the healthier we all are. And Cheryl says that you don’t have to uproot your life and go for a three-month trek to get the benefits — though she felt that she did.
Strayed: Sometimes, you know, just logistically what you have time for is a week, and it’s like, take it, like, it’s, that’s something, and that can be transformative, right? A day can be transformative, frankly.
But what I knew in my heart is that I needed to do something big and incredible and hard and kind of epic, you know? And I think that, again, it was like, I knew that sort of intuitively and years later, when I was writing Wild, I realized, oh, I, I, you know, what I’ve given myself is a rite of passage that I needed to really be tested to see who I was, and in particular, who I was in the world without my mother.
And, you know, I, I really felt linked to all the people throughout, you know, all the cultures throughout all time that have given their youth opportunities to have rites of passage and, you know, and they’re always like you have to do it alone. It has to be a hard thing. It has to be something that pushes you beyond what you think you can do. And going for a long time was part of it.
I didn’t hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail, but I hiked for 94 days. And that is long enough that I actually experienced, like I lived outside, you know, for a season and I lived in the wild and I got myself a long distance by foot. And those are all really big, hard things that end up being transformative.
Larsen: But those seeking to replicate Cheryl’s transformative experience on the PCT may have a hard time doing so now. Not just because of the physical changes to the trail that we talked about earlier, but also the cultural changes that make it harder than ever to get truly wild.
Strayed: When I was writing Wild, I wasn’t quite cognizant that like, like, oh, I’m writing a kind of historical document of what, you know, backpacking in America used to be like, because this was before cell phones and even I remember thinking, oh, should I take what we had back then? It was, you know, I had a Walkman, right. And, and I was like, should I take a Walkman with the headphones in? But then it’s like, what cassette do you take? How do you carry the batteries? And I was just like, no. So I’m out there with no electronics.
You know, very much alone. I mean, I didn’t even see another human for the first eight days of my hike. And it was really common for me to go, you know, two and three and four days at a time all throughout my trip. And yet I felt so connected, like, because it was a kind of transcendent connection where I had the opportunity to really ponder my place, my place in the world and think about all the people I knew and loved and people I had to let go of, to some degree.
And also, I thought it was, it was beyond the human connections. When you’re out there in nature every day, looking at the trees and the grasses and the flowers and the mice and the deer and the bears and all the things, the snakes, pine needles, all the things of the world, the rocks, you realize you are part of them, you know, that you are a part of this world and it’s the opposite of feeling alienated where you’re alone in a crowded room, or you’re scrolling through Instagram and feeling like you’re not like anyone else. You know, I felt the opposite of that when I was all alone on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Larsen: Nature was Cheryl’s only companion for many, many miles on the trail. But when she settled into her camp each night, it was the human connection she found through reading that brought her comfort.
Strayed: My favorite part of the day was when I would get to just be like, okay, I’ve done my work. I’ve hiked my miles. It’s hot or cold, or I’m hungry or I’m, you know, sore or whatever it is, but I get to leave it behind and read, you know, somebody else’s story in the pages of a book.
Larsen: What she didn’t know then was that, before too long, it would be her providing the story that would keep so many backpackers company when they were alone in the wilderness. And that her story would be quite different from the adventure lit we were all used to.
Strayed: I was writing in a certain literary tradition, but rather I was both writing in it and against it, you know, this kind of man versus nature kind of narrative that we know. And, you know, I, first of all, I’m a woman and I’m also as a writer really interested in going as deeply into that, that emotional, raw visceral consciousness into the body, the carnal, into all of the, the many, many ways that we feel and experience the wild when we’re in it.
And so I didn’t want to have any of that kind of cool reserve. I didn’t want to present myself as anyone other than who I was, which was very human, not, not some kind of hero who was conquering the wild, but a woman who was sort of boldly stepping into it and trying to find a home there.
The thing I always say about Wild, it’s really important to remember is, you know, I did not write Wild because I took a hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. Um, I wrote Wild because I’m a writer and there’s a difference between those two things. So a lot of the wilderness adventure books we’ve read, they’re not really written by people who, whose primary intention is really to create a piece of literature. They’re reporting on something amazing or astounding or exceptional they did.
You know, those books, books absolutely have their place. They can be great to read, but they are focused on the accomplishments and the experience and, you know, all of that kind of stuff that can be very serious. And what I was trying to say is like, here is the story of this journey that changed me and it set on the Pacific Crest Trail.
And so that was really my intention to write about the inner life of this woman on this adventure.
Larsen: When you hear Cheryl explain her original vision of Wild — a chronicle of what was going on inside her, versus the tale of a wilderness journey — it makes you wonder: Does she still get out there? Is adventure still a part of her life now?
Strayed: In Wild my two favorite things to do were hike and read, and it’s still the same. I haven’t changed about those things at all. I haven’t gone on a long hike, obviously, as long as my PCT hike since since ‘95, but I’ve taken other extended trips with now, even with my kids, like a few years ago, my whole family, my, my son, my son, and a daughter and a husband, we went to New Zealand and hiked a couple of trails. We hiked the Milford track and the Routeburn track. And you know, that country is just like a dream for anyone who loves to hike or backpack.
What was so funny is I went in thinking my husband and I were like, okay, like, are the kids going to be able to do this? You know, they have to carry a pack. They have to hike all day. They’re going to be with a bunch of adults. Are they going to like sit down on the trail and cry and say, they can’t go any further?
Like what if they can’t endure the rigors of, of hiking? And so we get out there and it’s the funniest thing. Every day, my kids just absolutely left me and my husband in the dust. And it was just, it was really fun to see them also loving it.
And my kids, they go to this camp every summer in Vermont. And they do a lot of canoeing on big canoe excursions, but they do some hiking trips too. And I got the most wonderful letter from my son. A couple summers ago he wrote me this letter saying how he had these big blisters and, and how he was telling his, his, all his friends at camp that, you know, his mom had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. And, and now he like really related to the stories she told. And he wrote me saying he finally understood what I was talking about, which really warmed my heart. I felt like it was like a passing of the torch, to give my kids the love of hiking as well.
Larsen: So, when her kids get a bit older, when they reach, say, age 26, if either of them wanted to solo hike the PCT, what advice would she give them? You can probably guess.
Strayed: Go, go. I mean, I would tell my, my daughter, my son, anyone who says, you know, I think I want to go on a big adventure. I think I want to hike the Pacific Crest Trail or some other trail I’d say, go trust yourself. Trust your instincts. Believe in your ability to persevere through the hard times, because there will be hard times.
And yes, I really want my daughter to have that experience. I really want my son to have that experience. I really want all of us to have that experience.
Larsen: And just one more question: How does one avoid throwing one’s boots off a cliff? Is there a trick to choosing the perfect boot?
Strayed: The boots that feel good on your feet. And that’s the thing that I’ve learned so much, the hard way is there isn’t, you know, that’s, there’s, it’s not like, oh, this is the boot that’s good. It’s the boot that fits your foot. And you know, that ends up being a metaphor too, because like, it’s kinda like the, the snobs who thought like, oh, she had no right to be on that trail.
I just completely inherently disagree with that. There is no one way to do anything, you know? Um, there’s no one way to step onto any path, all of our lives. You know, we have to find the boot that fits us. We have to find the path that is ours.
We have to walk it at our own speed in our own way. And you know, that’s, that’s the beautiful adventure of life, you know, and I think that’s one of the reasons to go on adventures is you, you learn the humility it takes, I think, to keep going.
Larsen: You can ask Cheryl Strayed your own questions at our live Zoom event with her on Tuesday, April 5th at 8pm Eastern, 5pm Pacific. Details on how to register are at outsideonline.com/cherylstrayed.
You can subscribe to Cheryl Strayed’s advice column, Dear Sugar, on substack, and listen to her podcast, Sugar Calling, wherever you get your podcasts.
This episode was written and produced by me, Maren Larsen, and edited by Michael Roberts. Elizabeth Hightower Allen interviewed Cheryl Strayed. You can read Mary Beth Skylis AKA Mouse’s story about the ten-year anniversary of Wild on Backpacker.com.
This episode was brought to you by Lake Hartwell Country, with support from Discover South Carolina and Pickens County, South Carolina. Start planning your trip to this stunning adventure playground now at lakehartwellcountry.com.
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