Book Article

Cheryl Strayed: Hiking 1,100 Miles to a Fresh Start

When her life was rocked by addiction, death, and divorce, Strayed walked away from it — and didn't stop until she had trekked from California all the way to Washington State. As her new book explains, the physical journey was the easy part

Okay, admit it: Did you feel slightly resentful after reading Eat, Pray, Love? Was it hard to sympathize with a well-paid, much-loved woman who took a whole year off work just to cure her sadness with pizza napoletana? Then you might be drawn to Cheryl Strayed's backpacking memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, a face-up-to-your-problems book for those of us who can't afford to eat our way through Italy or jet off to an ashram. Though, in Elizabeth Gilbert's defense, ''If I'd had a whole bunch of money, I would have gone to Italy,'' Strayed says.

Wild begins in the summer of 1995, just as Strayed's life was falling apart. At 26 years old, having just divorced her husband, lost her young mother to cancer, and started using heroin, she needed a way to prove that she was stronger than she felt. So after spotting a Pacific Crest Trail guidebook near her home in Minnesota, she made an impulse decision to hike 1,100 miles from the Mojave Desert, through California and Oregon, up to Washington, all on her own. ''I'd never gone backpacking before,'' says the author, now 43, who lives with her second husband and kids in Portland, Ore. ''It was probably more stupid than brave. But I knew that nobody was going to swoop in. I needed to save myself.''

During her grueling three-month journey, Strayed circled around black bears and rattlesnakes, fought extreme dehydration by drinking oily gray pond water, and hiked in boots made entirely of duct tape — until her toenails turned black and fell off. ''There were many times when I thought, I could die,'' she says. ''I wasn't prepared, so I would've deserved it.'' Still, in some of the book's most dramatic passages, she's just walking and thinking. In one scene, she considers how emotionally draining it was to grow up poor, recalling the time when she and her brother had to shoot their mom's horse because they didn't have the money to hire a vet to put it down. The PCT trip put memories like that in perspective, says Strayed, making ''the other hardest things [feel] the tiniest bit less hard.''

Reading her matter-of-fact take on love and grief and the soul-saving quality of a Snapple lemonade, you can understand why Strayed has earned a cult following as the author of Dear Sugar, a popular advice column on the literary site therumpus.net. You can also imagine her fans reading Wild, buying their first pair of REI boots, and prepping for a Life-Changing Adventure. (The rest of America will join them when the inevitable movie comes out; Reese Witherspoon just optioned the rights.)

With its vivid descriptions of beautiful but unforgiving terrain, Wild is certainly a cinematic story, but Strayed's book isn't really about big, cathartic moments. The author never ''finds herself'' or gets healed. When she reaches the trail's end, she just buys a cheap ice cream cone and continues down the road. ''When you're actually out there, taking one step after the other, it's not romantic,'' she says now. Maybe not, though it's hard to imagine anything more important than taking one boring step at a time. That's endurance, and that's what Strayed understands, almost 20 years later. As she writes: ''There was only one [option], I knew. There was always only one. To keep walking.''

Our Verdict
A rich, riveting true story about a woman who has bottomed out emotionally and decides to do something wildly out of character — hike the Pacific Crest Trail — to get her life back on track. A

Originally posted Mar 30, 2012 Published in issue #1201 Apr 06, 2012 Order article reprints