Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, is the object of relentless derision. Critics complain about her drug addiction, her sex addiction, her infidelities and her overwhelming grief. One reviewer writes: “This is not so much a book about hiking the PCT as it is her own catharsis: her father brutalizing her and her family, the death of her mother, her heroin addiction, and the final straw for me: the graphic murder of a beloved horse (it made me ill). And the hiking of the trail? She’s lucky to be alive. Don’t take notes. She’s ill prepared, and with the aid of strangers, who provide rides, showers and food, she ‘makes it.’ I was not inspired. Just saddened.”
After reading such comments, I was determined to avoid her book. Why read a memoir that brings personal horror into the holy temple of the American Wilderness, which I personally cherish?
But I kept hearing women chatting about it. They would mention it to me at parties, or I’d catch a phrase from strangers passing by. Try as I may to avoid the book, it kept coming into my life, so I finally bought a copy and read it all the way through.
And yes, her critics are right; Strayed includes every painful detail of her life, down to the heroin-induced scar on her ankle, which was fresh the day she started hiking the PCT. But Strayed also takes her readers up and down mountains and successfully articulates the satisfaction of simple shelter and a solid meal and the way wandering in the wild makes you crave sweet soda and greasy fries, and thankful for a sunny day, a hot shower and a cold beer. Yes, she barely survives the PCT, but that’s the point. Backpacking takes grit and determination, and it hurts, just like life. And it’s wonderful, just like life.
Strayed’s critics need to a giant step back (or forward) and consider the underlying theme.
Consider that Strayed spent the next 15 years learning to write in order to tell this story. Consider that she highlighted the three months that she walked in the wilderness—above all. Consider that on the PCT, she began to recover from her overwhelming grief at that loss of her closest ally, her mother. Consider that by interspersing flashbacks of death, sex and shooting up, she effectively enshrines the haven of the natural world. Her walk in wilderness was the single most powerful and redemptive experience in her life, and it took guts to put her foibles into a book and publish it for all to see. That’s brave, not sad. I wrote my own hiking book for someone just like Strayed – to point my finger at the best places I know and to share beauty with people who most need it.
What saddened me about her book was just one thing. In her Acknowledgements, she forgot to thank the wilderness itself, without which, there would be no journey, no story to tell, no redemption, no place for her children to visit and reflect. So many people spend their weekends enjoying parks, forests and open space and so few work to protect them, and they’re under threat all the time. We’ve allowed rampant logging in our national forests, and what’s left of them seems to be on fire. In California, clear-cutting is still widespread, and in Oregon, where Strayed lives, it’s worse. Just fly to Portland and look down.
Strayed is a beautiful writer, she’s amazingly honest, and she’s achieved something good with this book, despite the barbs. I respect her accomplishment and her tremendous recovery. She’s absolutely headed in the right direction; she’s simply not gone far enough, not near far enough.
What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.―Mahatma Gandhi