Book: Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Reviewed by: Liz W.
Every so often, a book coincides perfectly with a moment in your life. I’m not talking about simply getting lost in a book, when you forget the world around you by tumbling into a new world on the page. I’m not even talking about a book that reflects your life back to you, the type that seems to document an experience you’ve had with uncanny precision. What I’m talking about is an alchemical reaction. This Book + Your Life At This Very Moment = a gleaming, glittering, unbelievable chunk of gold. It’s about timing and transformation. About turning those paper leaves at the very instant that your life is changing, and knowing that the words printed there are—somehow, magically—contributing to that change.
That is what Cheryl Strayed’s Wild has been for me. Years from now, I will be able to think back and say, “Yes. Of course. I made Big Life Decision X while I was reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed.” And I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way. It’s no mere coincidence. The book makes you want to do something. Make a change. See life from a new perspective. Take a big, fat, scary risk.
In 1995, twenty-six-year-old Strayed decided to quit her job, spend almost every last dollar in her possession on wilderness gear, and set off to hike eleven hundred miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. She had one goal: to walk from the Mojave Desert to the Oregon/Washington border. And to do it alone. As she passes over deserts and streambeds and snow-covered mountaintops, there’s plenty for Strayed to reflect on; foremost on her mind is her mother, whose death from cancer at age 45 still haunts Cheryl after four years have passed. But this narrative also dips seamlessly in and out of other difficult moments in her past—an emotional divorce from the man she married at nineteen; a drug dependency; and a myriad of complicated relationships with family members, friends, and lovers.
Not only did this book compel me to take a risk in the way that Cheryl did, it also made me want to be Cheryl. Or at least, be like her. Rarely have I read a memoir that presents such a perfectly honest portrait of a woman’s experience in the world, and one that I’m not at all embarrassed to relate to. As a woman hiking alone with nothing more than a whistle for protection, Strayed suffers from legitimate fears on the trail. Yes, there are bears and rattlesnakes. Yes, there are the very real threats of dehydration and hypothermia. But there are also camp rangers who call her “baby” and invite her back to their cabins for cocktails. There are sexist hunters who make truly frightening advances. Even in the middle of the woods, miles from civilization, Cheryl’s experience on the PCT is specifically female. Yet, these feelings of vulnerability are not constant and by no means do they overpower the book; she also details moments of lust, desire, and kinship with a satisfying frankness.
I believe the remarkable intimacy and honesty of Wild will affect other readers just as powerfully as it did me. In this book, Strayed portrays herself as both weak and strong, daunted and determined, desperately lonely and fiercely independent. She is very humble and very proud. She is human. And as she moves between these contradictory feelings, as she shifts and moves and becomes someone new, it was a truly magical experience to watch my life changing, too.