Friday, December 7, 2012

Nonfiction: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed's Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is the winner for the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Memoir & Autobiography. I only recently learned about people who will hike along the Pacific Coast for varying amounts of time and for varying distances, and the idea absolutely fascinates me, mostly because it seems so impossible, and yet people do it all of the time. Strayed decided to do this exact thing, and Wild is her account of what lead her to do it, how the experience went, and how it changed her.

The Situation: Cheryl Strayed is a newly single 26 year-old woman trying to navigate life without her husband, her mother, her siblings, her stepfather, and any real stability in the form of a job or education. She bounces around from one waitressing job to another, just as she bounces around from one city to the next. This spiral began with the death of her mother a few years before due to cancer. Strayed's mother was the strong and solid anchor in her life, and now that she was gone, Strayed seems to have lost all of her focus, as well as everyone around her that she was close to.

The Problem: If all of that wasn't bad enough, Strayed has recently become attached to exactly the wrong kind of man. After happening to pick up the Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California while waiting in line at an outdoor store, Strayed is almost inexplicably compelled to come back to the book, purchase it, and read it cover to cover. Eventually, the curiosity that lead her back to the book would lead her to save up her money, purchase hiking tools and gear slowly over the course of a few months, and then, finally, she would do the almost unthinkable (at least to a city girl like me) and decide to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, starting in the Mojave Desert, and ending at the Oregon-Washington border at what is called The Bridge of the Gods. She would do it alone. She would do it without ever having done any major hiking in her life. Needless to say, instead of getting rid of her current problems, the PCT was really only going to present her with a set of new ones.

Genre, Themes, History: Wild is a memoir that takes place in a very specific amount of time during Strayed's life. Actually, I would say the book is almost evenly split between how much she talks about the hike, and how much she talks about her past life leading up to the adventure on the PCT. The main driving force behind the entire experience seems to be the death of her mother. Strayed paints a picture of what the grieving process looked like for her, and how it took over every aspect of her own life, and then seemed to reach out and effect those around her. Strayed also showed what the grieving process looked like for her brother, her sister, her husband, and her stepfather, and how ultimately, these differences in methods lead to the separation between themselves.

Of course, it is nothing new for people to hike the PCT for long distances. The trail was designated a National Scenic Trail in 1968, even though it wasn't officially completed until 1993. So while Strayed wasn't exactly doing something original, she was doing something fairly rare being a single woman hiking the trail alone...and being completely inexperienced in the area. She meets plenty of people along the way, both hikers and non-hikers, that help shape her experience. And while there a short spurts where she hikes with others, for the most part, she tackles the trail alone. She insists on it.

My Verdict: I was being generous on Goodreads when I gave this book three stars. The only reason I held off on only giving it two stars was because of that one thing I always value in nonfiction, and this is honesty. Strayed is upfront about several things that put her in a less than favorable light. Sure, she ultimately accomplished this amazing thing that most of us would never even think of, but she admits to being incredibly broken, unprepared (and yet strangely over prepared in some areas), naive, lonely, desperate, and dead flat broke during the majority of this experience. Even so, that admirable honesty was not enough for me to want to put this with my most favorite of books. Sometimes her lack of preparation would get on my nerves, as would her surprise when something would inevitably go wrong, or at least not go the way she though it would. And her constant need to almost cling to every other male figure that crosses her path was beyond annoying. Ultimately, it felt like one of those stories of someone going on this insane adventure to "find themselves," when really they only want to escape their problems. However, if I ever met Strayed, I would want to give her a high five and have her tell me more about it.

Favorite Moment: When Albert, one of the many other hikers Strayed meets on the PCT, helps her purge her almost comically overstuffed pack. One of the many items he point blank asks her if she needs is a roll of condoms.

Recommended Reading: Strayed starts her journey with certain books , and slowly gets rid of those book as she reads them, while acquiring others with every package of supplies she receives at stops along the way. One of the many books she reads is The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor, a personal favorite of mine (and hers apparently). While Flannery O'Connor's short stories have little (or nothing, really) to do with hiking, I figured I would go ahead and recommend it...mostly because I have absolutely no clue what else I could recommend. But the stories are so good that I feel comfortable in my recommendation anyway. 

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