At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State — and she would do it alone.
Told with suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.
This book has also been made into a movie, starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl. It came out in December of 2014.
At first I really didn’t like the narrator of this book. I thought she was selfish and needy and spoilt. Her story from the first was heartbreaking. She and her mother were very close, and when she was diagnosed with cancer, Cheryl was the only one of her siblings (another girl and a boy) who dedicated her time to taking care of her mother. She had help from her stepfather, Eddie, but her other siblings had a hard time with seeing their mom weakened by the treatments. Cheryl stepped up to the plate and took the bulk of that burden on herself. She and her mother had been attending college together, as I said they were very close. Before her mother died, Cheryl seemed (to me) desperate for her mother’s attention, for her love and approval.
It’s obvious that her mother loved her, but Cheryl needed more, a daily verbal affirmation that she was a good daughter, that she was the best daughter, that her mother loved her the most. She hated herself later for getting frustrated with her mom while she was sick, when she was listless or tired. Caretaking someone with an illness like that is a heartbreaking, draining, thankless job, and I can’t blame her for that. That’s not the reason I disliked her.
The saddest moment for me was that towards the end of her mother’s life she was readmitted to the hospital. The nurses, having a sense about these things, told Cheryl that it wouldn't be long more for her mom. At that point Cheryl had been with her mom in the hospital for quite sometime, never leaving. When the nurses told her that she thought that her mom may only have days left, not knowing that she could pass as quickly as she did. Cheryl left the hospital briefly to go home and take a shower. When she got back her mother had just passed. She missed it, she didn’t get to say her final goodbye, after all of these months of watching her mother get weaker and weaker. That just broke her heart, and in truth it broke mine a little too. I’m blessed to still have my mom with me, and for her to be in almost perfect health. I honestly don’t know what I would do without her. In the same breath I feel guilty as hell when a week passes and I don’t remember to call her just to talk.
It’s not until years later that Cheryl makes her decision to go for her “long walk” on the PCT. In the years since her mother’s death it’s plain to see that her whole life has just fallen apart. Soon after her mom died, she started cheating on her husband, Paul. They eventually divorced, but remained close friends. She went from man to man, searching for something, and not finding it. She was dismayed to find her family drifting apart. Her brother and sister, whom she resented for “chickening out” when their mom was ill went on with their lives. Cheryl just couldn’t. Her step dad fell in love with another woman. The only home she ever knew was just gone, with everyone she cared about so different than they were before. She tried drugs, got on heroin. Her ex husband Paul tried his best to get her off of it, and after several tries she did give it up, and the man that she was involved with that got her on it. I have to hand it to her for that, heroin is hard to kick. She has an unexpected pregnancy, and an abortion.
When she gets the idea to walk the PCT it is totally at random; she was standing in line at a sporting goods store, buying a shovel. She saw the guidebook on the rack by the cash register - that was all it took to plant the seed. Several months later she arrives at a hotel at the head of the trail in the Mojave. She’s clueless, educated only by the guidebook, and the people at the sporting goods store that she bought most of her gear at. When she packs everything into her backpack for the first time and straps it on she can’t even lift it. I’m looking forward to that scene in the movie, it should be hilarious.
Despite her obvious lack of knowledge, Cheryl manages to get upright under her pack (which she aptly names Monster) and heads out onto the trail. Her first few weeks are brutal, as she has vastly overestimated her hiking ability and the roughness of the trail ahead of her. Her poor feet….just the descriptions of how they blistered and bled and hurt made me cringe in sympathy. I walk myself, and the thought of hiking a trail that long all alone was one of the reasons that I picked up this book. Cheryl trudges on though, through blisters, and bears, and one long stretch with no water at all. Eventually she figures out what she’s doing, and gets good at it.
At different towns along the PCT she has had her friend mail her packages that she put together before she left. The packages have more food, more clothes, money, etc. She lives for getting to the next package, daydreaming about the cheeseburger she’s going to get with the money in the box, the Snapple lemonade she’s going to drink. Some of her food fantasies were downright funny. She meets people along the way, at the various stops along the trail. They offer her advice, and one awesome dude helps her lighten up her pack. It’s still huge, and too heavy for her frame, but after he’s done with it at least she doesn’t have to prop it on a rock to get it on!
Crater Lake, in Oregon.
Just her description of how blue the water was made me want to go there.
She does a fair amount of thinking while on the trail, and we learn the details of her life as she goes. Her mother left her father, as he was abusive. Her mom met Eddie when they were still pretty small, and he has been pretty much the only father she has ever known. Her mom and Eddie were back-to-the-land type hippies, and Cheryl and her sibs spent some time living in a very small shack while they were building a house. It was a life of poverty, even though at the time she didn’t recognize it. She comes to terms with all of it as she goes. It was interesting to watch her comb through her life, to comb through her relationship with her mom. You get to watch her grow up, and if she’s ever said that she found herself on the Pacific Crest Trail, then I would have to agree with her. As she got nearer and nearer to the end of the trail you really begin to see how her outlook on life in general has changed. She’s learned that the trail goes on, and you have to walk it, no matter what.
At one point she is told by another hiker that her boots are actually the wrong size, which is the source of her biggest problems with her feet. She speaks to the store where she bought them, and they agree to mail her a new pair to one of her next stops. She walks the whole next leg of her trip in a pair of flip flop like shoes she brought with her to wear while camping at night. She winds up wrapping the whole thing in duct tape, and dragging her weary ass twice as far as she should have with them, because her shoes weren’t shipped where they should have been. Despite equipment troubles, she really doesn’t have too many bad experiences on the trail with the people that she meets. For the most part the other hikers and random people that she occasionally catches rides with (part of the trail is impassable due to record snow) are all kind. There are only a couple of exceptions to this, the most harrowing being a couple of male day hikers near the end who give her a “little lady what are you doing out here in the big woods alone” spiel and made me wonder if they were going to attack her.
The Bridge of the Gods, Oregon. The end of the trail.
Finally she is in the home stretch. She runs into more and more people who have been reading her notes in the trail record at each stop. She’s become something of a celebrity among them, earning her the nickname “Queen of the PCT”. Her final destination is a place called the Bridge of the Gods, in Oregon. She has finally done something she can be proud of, after several years of being anything but proud of herself. She remarks before she finishes that she can feel her mother’s weight sliding off of her back, indicating that her long period of grief is now over. She can start her life again fresh.
As I mentioned before, I had a hard time liking Cheryl at first. But then again, it’s easy to see patterns of destruction in another’s life and say, “hey, that’s where you’re messing up”, it’s not so easy to do in your own life. I am downright amazed that she ran into as little real trouble on the trail than she did. She made it through with no injuries at all, other than the beating her feet took. She didn’t fall out from hunger or hypothermia, or dehydration, which was a feat all in itself. All in all I think walking the PCT was a good experience for her, and she came out of it changed for the better.
Keep it between the pages.