I am a Cheryl Strayed fan-girl. I read her book Tiny Beautiful Things first and loved it to bits. Her memoir, Wild, was no different (although I enjoyed Tiny Beautiful Things more).
At 22, Strayed lost her mother to lung cancer. Her family, her marriage, her life collapsed in the wake of her mother’s death. With nothing more to lose, Strayed decides to hike a thousand miles alone with no training to the Pacific Crest Trail. She would hike from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State — and she would do it all alone.
It’s an old story. But Strayed’s reason to not feel unsafe going on this trip alone broke my heart:
“…the death of my mother was the thing that made me believe the most deeply in my safety: nothing bad could happen to me, I thought. The worst thing already had.”
There are lots of stops on the way before Strayed makes the decision to go wild (quite literally): she ruins her own marriage to a great man by cheating on him continuously, she begins taking heroin, she watches her mother’s horse die, she realizes she’s not going to be able to pay her debt by 43, and she begins to do a waitressing job after getting divorced.
Her story is interesting. It’s different from most memoirs because her life has a certain level of relatability that other memoirs lack:
“I’d finally come to understand what it had been: a yearning for a way out, when actually what I had wanted to find was a way in.”
Strayed is not physically ready to take on the hike (mentally, she proves, she’s rock-solid). She has no experience, no training, she hasn’t taken the right shoes, her backpack is too heavy & overstuffed (she calls it ‘Monster’), she doesn’t have enough cash to survive, she has no plan B.
And mostly, that physical journey is a mess.
She loses her boot and hikes in sandals (her foot swells terribly). She faces a temperature of 100 degrees that she hasn’t prepared for. She twitches at the sound of leaves and shouts at the faces of harmless animals.
But Strayed stays despite all that. She meets wonderful people and makes a genuine connection with them. Her emotional journey is nothing short of astounding. If Strayed is anything, she’s a writer:
“Uncertain as I was as I pushed forward, I felt right in my pushing, as if the effort itself meant something. That perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of the regrettable things I’d done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me. Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.”
She reflects on her past life often and decodes patterns, unhealthy coping mechanisms, and her grief. I am particularly close to my mother, so the passages regarding Strayed’s motherly sorrow particularly shook me:
“I didn’t get to grow up and pull away from her and bitch about her with my friends and confront her about the things I’d wished she’d done differently and then get older and understand that she had done the best she could and realize that what she had done was pretty damn good and take her fully back into my arms again. Her death had obliterated that. It had obliterated me. It had cut me short at the very height of my youthful arrogance. It had forced me to instantly grow up and forgive her every motherly fault at the same time that it kept me forever a child, my life both ended and begun in that premature place where we’d left off. She was my mother, but I was motherless. I was trapped by her, but utterly alone. She would always be the empty bowl that no one could fill. I’d have to fill it myself again and again and again.”
This book doesn’t read like a memoir. It reads like a novel. Strayed’s storytelling is compelling. But the book is not perfect and there’s a reason I enjoyed Tiny Beautiful Things more than this wildly wild bestseller:
Shortcomings of “Wild”
If you read the top Goodreads review of Wild, you might actually never pick up this book. It’s been accused with everything: Strayed being a dumb fat idiot for doing heroin, for leaving her husband, for being impulsive. She’s also blamed for being sexually promiscuous and overtly sexual at every encounter.
Wild isn’t a perfect book. But these shortcomings are uncalled for.
A person acting in grief, a person dealing with childhood traumas, a person going through the loss of a parent – these are the things that often make people take decisions on a whim. Strayed isn’t validating any of her wrong choices of the past at any point during her memoir.
And the comments on her sexuality can entirely be dismissed on the fact that she’s a woman: any talk she does of her own sexuality is going to be seen that way. It’s a cultural stereotype that people won’t look through.
Having said that, here are some actual shortcomings in my opinion:
1. Strayed is an amazing storyteller. But her story often switches back and forth from PCT to her past American life. I often found this breaking the flow instead of enhancing it. The consistency wasn’t gelled well enough for me.
2. Cheryl Strayed’s story has raw emotion. But her lack of physical preparation for the trek can be read more of as a cautionary tale rather than an inspirational one. She wasn’t at all prepared for what is to come and honestly, she was lucky she survived. With her lack of supplies, money, and preparation, anyone could’ve died.
3. The book can get a little repetitive. The descriptions of nature and actual wilderness were of far less quality than the depiction of her American life. This was a major disappointment for me. I didn’t expect it all to be poetic or anything, but there was a serious lack of any descriptive wild.
I’d definitely recommend you read this book. But read Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things first. And if you’re wanting to just read a travel book, I’d recommend Eat, Pray, Love, or Into The Wild instead.
Find this book on Amazon here.