The world can be an over-whelming mess of a place sometimes. Trying to deal with sorrow, tragedy and anger can push us to confront pain or flee it. Sometimes being in that place can lead us to do something really big, something that will form a personal mythology - a touchstone for the rest of one's life.
Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail starts with an emotionally strained young woman taking her first steps on a path from the Mojave desert to the Bridge of the Gods.
Four years prior, her mother was diagnosed with cancer and died within 7 weeks. As the eldest, she tried without success to keep her family from crumbling under the weight of that loss. A divorce and experimentation with drugs led her further down the rabbit hole. Not knowing how to cope, Strayed got a big idea. She decided to hike the Pacific Crest trail. She had never backpacked a day in her life.
The Pacific Crest Trail is a 2,663-mile wilderness route stretching from Mexico to the Canada and traversing nine mountain ranges and three states. The first day she sets foot on the trail, Strayed is carrying a backpack the size of a trunk that will open up sores on her body, and wearing boots that will cause her so much discomfort that she will hurl them over a mountain. By the end of the journey she will have found a sense of inner strength that will be a solace to her on other spiritual, psychological and physical journeys. There have been countless re-tellings of this story, but Strayed avoids cliche by presenting the details in such an honest and emotionally compelling way that you feel as though you've earned something just by reading the book.
The story explores many themes: Strayed, a single woman alone in the middle of nowhere, deliberately makes herself vulnerable in order to grow stronger. Those who have taken similar journeys may also recognize that the wilderness of just a decade ago is not the same as today's - when I was young, being in the wild represented both challenge and real danger without the lifelines of technology to come to the rescue. Certainly, there's still danger in undertakings of this kind, but the concept of absolute solitude has gotten that much smaller.
Strayed has been much in the media lately. She made the news when it was announced that she is the author of the Rumpus's online advice column Dear Sugar. You can also listen in on her recent interview on OPB's Think Out Loud. And for the more visual among you, take a peek into Strayed's thoughts about her journey with this slide show.