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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 Adventure HIker Faded Edgesill 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 

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Overlooking Amphitheater Lake

My father said to me last week, “We don’t want you to end up living in a broken down truck by the Guadalupe River.”

At least, there is a beaver family living down there in San Jose (for the first time in a century too), so perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad.

My parents are generally supportive, but I’ve gotten myself into a challenging situation, which they’re concerned about. I’ve shifted my career all around in order to do this “green thing.” That’s another catch phrase from my father, who is very practical.

I don’t disagree with his practical philosophy either. I’ve had to earn every penny of my savings since college, and I’ve spent nearly every penny too. Not on a house or stuff. Okay, maybe a truck, but that was 10 years ago. I’ve spent most of my savings writing a book about the best places I know and reporting on water policy. My hiking book did win a bronze Ippy for best e-book in the western region this March, and I’m truly happy about that. It indicates that I can put sentences together. But at the moment, I’ve opted to not promote it.

So let me cut to the chase and get to the last chapter—the most important part.

medals1The book is not about how wonderful I am – nor is it a misery memoir. It’s about the most beautiful places that I’ve come to know, and how long it took me to appreciate them. When you travel just about anywhere, you start to see ugly things. Many years ago, I took a hiking trip to northern California, and I came back depressed. I thought there would be trees up there. I thought I would walk among the rich dewy forests of the Cascade Range. The map said forest, at least. But I found a lot of clear-cuts and just little patches of life left on the highway. It broke my heart. I wanted to run away, and eventually I did.

I began to look outside of California, hoping that I could find something as beautiful as my home state, but cheaper, more remote, less damaged. I traveled to Utah, Washington, Arizona, Oregon, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado and beyond. I hopped on planes and flew to South America and New Zealand… searching for utopia.

One day, a woman in a Utah coffee shop said, “You know that place you’re seeking, it’s really on the inside of you.” I paused and looked into her eyes. I understood the essential truth of what she said, but I still didn’t quite believe it. So I fastened on my hat and kept going. I’ve now moved more times than I care to admit. I’m not a flaky girl. I was just possessed with the idea of owning a home far from environmental destruction and isolated from the continuous groan of consumerism, and its shopping malls, freeways, parking lots and trinkets from the dollar store.

Holy LandBut ultimately, my relentlessness pursuit wasn’t making me happy either. No amount of time outside seemed to cure my ailment. The further I went, the more I recognized what I had left behind. And I’m sorry to admit that it took me a full decade to turn around, to face what I feared and grow the courage to fight.

So yes, I’ve done this “green thing,” and I don’t know what’s going to happen now. This isn’t Hollywood. This is real life. But at the very least, I’ve stood for something that I believe in. I’ve pointed my finger at the best places I know and said go there.

If anyone ever gets their hands on the book, they will see a giant circular route that forms a contorted heart over the West, and it is my own.

“This is the true joy in life – being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me, it is a sort of splendid torch, which I have got a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it to future generations.”— George Bernard Shaw

gratitude

Find Your Own Light

Last week, I spoke to high school students for career day. My first caveat is that I can’t be called a career expert. Second, I’ve experimented often and had wildly different moments in my own life. I’ve spent two months studying Tango in Argentina, worked summers in Yosemite National Park, sat at a computer working on a hiking book and written complex reports on water policy; I certainly haven’t followed a traditional path. That said, I have gleaned a few tidbits of wisdom regarding happiness from friends, family and my own experience.

And I’d love it if the students found happiness, and there is an essential question they must answer to achieve it. It is simply, “What lights you up?”

It sounds like such a cliche to say, “Pursue your passion.” But it is vital to long-term health, and it’s a challenge that goes unmentioned for most of high school. In general, students have gone through a regimented system, which requires approval from outside sources, such as peers, family and college admissions committees. So knowing yourself and trusting your instincts is a relatively new thing. It’s a reversal. We’re taught to conform, and suddenly, we’re supposed to make major life choices and create our own purpose. And that’s hard work.

Many people opt to march in lockstep with everyone else, instead. So what’s the big deal if you do that? Say you take a mediocre job, sit in an office, collect a paycheck and vacation in the Bahamas. Is that so bad? Yes.

Actually, in the first world where survival isn’t an issue, it’s quite significant. Being inauthentic leads to bad relationships, poor jobs, physical and mental malaise, and a general sense of dissatisfaction. It means you’ll be looking to others to create meaning for you, and you’ll get lost in the fray and end up in the therapist’s office wondering what happened and why you’re blue. As the Dalai Lama says, “If you look to others for fulfillment, you will never truly be fulfilled.”

Share Your Joy

But how do you figure out who you are? You experiment, you test yourself, you try new things, and you don’t give up. When I was in high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do; I knew only that I wanted to go to college.  So I got in. But I distinctly remember sitting in the dorms, scared by my own thoughts. It was the first time I began to think critically about life. I realized that it wouldn’t matter if I owned a big house, if I’d sold my youth and vitality for it.

Suddenly, the question of “what to do”  loomed large, and I got busy. Three years later, after taking many general education classes and reading a ton of books, I chose to major in journalism and literature, which was my own reversal. (I was voted “most likely to make a million” in high school.)  In writing, I found that I could understand the world better, and I enjoyed struggling to know. I am happy that I made that choice.

People often mistake self-awareness for selfishness, and vice-versa. But generally, if you live a life of your own making, you’ll feel gratitude at the gift of each day. And you won’t be selfish. Instead, you’ll feel empowered to help others. That’s when altruism makes sense. When the Dalai Lama says, “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others,” you’ll get the meaning. But there is an order to these events. When you sit on an airplane, if there is an emergency, you’re supposed to put the oxygen on yourself, and then on others. And that’s because you can’t truly aid others without your own source of light, your own oxygen. While it feels good to lend a hand and it can lift your mood temporarily, the feeling won’t last unless you’ve done your own work. As Bell Hooks says, Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape. 

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