Strayed, Cheryl. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.
Started reading: 6/30/2014
Finished reading: 7/20/2014
Okay, so I FINALLY finished reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. I don’t mean finally, I’m done with that book, I mean: oh my god, I’m so behind in my reading that I FINALLY DID IT!! It took me longer than usual, just because this summer is not a “devour books at every opportunity” summer (which makes me very sad, but that’s a post for another day). I did have trouble getting into the book, mainly because it deviates from my usual reading list. I typically balance my academic fare with a healthy diet of thrillers, mysteries, spy novels, historical fiction, “literary” fiction, and chick lit. I do read memoirs, but they are more of the humorous genre. Wild has isn’t absurd moments, but it is not humor.
Wild is about Cheryl Strayed’s three-month hike along the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT) following a patch of life that was particularly rough: her mother died four years before her trek, she divorced her husband of six years, lost contact with her siblings and step-father, and generally self-destructed. The book flap describes the story as one in which a young woman is built back up after catastrophe.
Started the book on Sunday. Was a little put off by the constant reminder that her mother died when she was 22. I got when she went through the discussion of her mother’s final days. It did feel a bit as though she was hitting it too hard–not sure if she wanted to feel sorry for her because she lost her mother or she was trying to convince herself that her self-destructive behavior and/or her decision to hike the PCT (without any hiking experience) was because of her mother’s death.
When I entered the book in my “currently-reading” shelf on Good Reads, I made the mistake of reading some of the reviews–most of which called the narrative “whiney” and annoying. I can see that, and I agree with them to a certain extent. Of course, this is also an example of the “ego reading” that Inez Martinez describes: you become angry at a text when it doesn’t deliver what you want it to deliver, or it doesn’t communicate things in the way you want them communicated.
One way to look at the so-called “whiney” narrative of Wild is to consider the description a textual dramatization of the confusion, pain, and chaos in the brain of a 22-year-old woman who lost her mother and struggled to keep a family together when she should have been enjoying her young adult life. The people who are supposed to teach us how to deal with problems in life are our parents, and when they are gone, to whom do you turn for advice? It’s also important to remember that the author was 22 when this happened. 22. At that age, the judgment/decision making part of the brain isn’t fully matured. Reading the text as a woman in her late 30s, it would be very easy for me to say: “Get your shit together, make better decisions, and stop being an idiot.” But that’s a view from someone who has had a decade+ more life experience AND who has a fully developed judgment center in my brain. Thinking back to when I was 22: I was an idiot. I would never want to be 22 again. If I lost my mother at that age, I don’t know what direction I would have gone in. I like to think that I would have been able to cope, but HOW I might have chosen to cope is another question. I also wasn’t married at 19 either (as Strayed was), so I don’t know how I would have handled that. I don’t think that divorce in the wake of a parent’s death is necessarily startling or uncommon. Death of a loved one places a heavy toll on a person. Overall, I think some of the reviews are too critical of Strayed because the readers may feel she isn’t living up to their expectations. Of course, I can’t ask them whether they tried to put themselves in to Strayed’s shoes via an Oprah’s Way of Reading/reading for psyche.
After getting past the whiney part, and trying to get into the Oprah mode, I thought: maybe this whininess is the point. Books create emotion and atmosphere through words, and word pictures. Something like TV or film has an easier time because they can create emotion using light, shadow, music, montages, etc. Strayed created the chaotic feelings and demonstrated the lost (“strayed”) feelings through this “whiney” narrative as it circled back upon itself numerous times. When in a state of complete chaos, when you’re trying to fight the chaos, this is precisely what happens. Or at least this is what happens with me, until the moment when you embrace that chaos, step into the chaos (as Strayed did when hiking the PCT), things begin to come together a little more. The narrative inside our mind becomes less circular, or at least the spirals elongate a bit so that while dealing with the past we remain more a part of the present.
I finished the book two days ago, and I have to say that I can’t readily leave the narrative behind. Whether that’s because I knew that I had to write about it on the blog or that the narrative resonated with me…I can’t say. It’s probably both. I did
Thinking about Oprah’s questions to book club readers, I started reading with “When did you know this was your story?” very present in my mind. The answer to this question: before I even started. This may actually account for my delayed reading of the book (in July instead of June as planned).
I am in the middle of my own trek through the mountains of the AJS (the Academic Job Search). A winding, difficult journey fraught with highs, lows, surprises, disappointments, satisfaction, and transition. While grad school can count as a traumatic experience unto itself, I would have to identify the abusive relationship I was in between 2004 and May 18, 2007 (the day I finally left, safely) as the starting point to my most recent life chapter. The relationship overlapped with the first year of my PhD program. This chapter culminated in my trek through grad school, and up the very windy, treacherous, and exhausting range of the Academic Job Search. I’m still sort of on that trek, but things have grown, developed and settled down into a different type of calmness and contentment than I had expected. I supposed I have reached my Bridge of the Gods (Strayed’s ending point on the PCT).
Grad school and my current career trajectory have functioned as a way to right myself after being shaken to-and-fro by a very chaotic three-year period. In that way, I can definitely relate to the “lost to found” theme of Wild. I’m found…for now, and I think that’s the best anyone can hope to say. We all get knocked off track, stagger, and have to right ourselves. Of course, we may not be able to find the proper footing. Strayed had her pick axe and then a ski pole for those moments when she needed help to find footing in the PCT. Looking at that idea allegorically: we all need someone or something stable to lean on in such situations.
THEMES OF NOTE:
One of the themes that I identified with most in the book was the theme of adaption. Life is always changing. What we plan from one moment to the next can change instantly—sometimes for the better, sometimes not. No matter what happens, we have to be ready to adapt to that new (and often unexpected) circumstance. Strayed dealt with her changes of situations calling for adaption, for example:
- heavier-than-normal snow on the PCT, which caused her to bypass a section of the trail and extend her hike,
- forgetting to pack a $20 bill in a resupply box, and having to make do with six cents for a while, and
- buying the wrong size boots—and then losing one of them before she was able to get a new pair.
We can plan for almost every eventuality…all of the possibilities that we or other people have thought of. But being able to go with the flow, no matter how disappointing or painful the experience might be, will help us get through that difficulty.
I did watched the seven webisodes that went along with the OBC 2.0 reading schedule (see below) that offer 1-2 minute long video discussions on moments in the book. Two themes stuck out to me: change the narrative (webisode 2) and keep walking (webisode 4). You can also find segments of Strayed‘s appearance on OWN’s Super Soul Sunday, along with other information on Strayed and Wild.
Changing the narrative has to do with Strayed changing the view (and maybe even self-perception) that women don’t hike the PCT…alone. I think there’s a lot of that feeling out there, just substitute any activity out there for “hike the PCT” and you’ll find something that apparently people have decide women don’t do…alone. The idea that a woman can’t undertake a daunting journey, and she sure can’t do it alone, is beyond archaic. Yes, things are dangerous but why give up on getting the awesomeness of the experience because you’re a woman AND you’re alone? If we take a step back and look at how we’ve changed our own narrative and hopefully changed people’s view of what we (not just women, but all of us) are doing, I think we’ll find a moment where we’ve made a conscious decision: I am not defined by limits. I am not limited. If I believe the limit, then I am stuck. If I look beyond the limit, I am free. We all struggle against the narratives into which people stick us—and they may or may not represent the way we view ourselves.
Lesson: Don’t be afraid to change your narrative—don’t let other narratives define yours.
Keep walking is a pretty strong theme throughout the book–not just in relation to Strayed’s literal hiking, but also in relation to her having to continue to move forward in life whether she was ready to or not. We do have choices when we meet hard moments in life, we can sit down and give up, or we can keep walking. There’s no guarantee that things will get easier if you chose to keep walking–we’ll still encounter challenges, but the difference at these later points is that the journey has strengthened us. We can use the earlier lessons to solve, or at least deal with, the challenges that come later. In the webisodes, Oprah mentioned the moments that would have sent her back, and ended her journey altogether. When she came upon moments where she thought about packing it in, Strayed just reaffirmed her mantra.
Lesson: Keep walking.
For me, Wild is about not just about surviving personal trauma, but about surviving things in life that threaten to derail us.
We all have our personal struggles (and they all vary in length, intensity, and frequency) and a period in which we do what we can to remain functioning in the world. This time may qualify as a lost period–that doesn’t necessary mean you didn’t know what end was up, but maybe it was a period in which you were trying to find your footing as the After You.
There was the Before You, the person who existed before the momentous upheaval that shook your world. And then there is the After You, the you who is an entirely different person—same, yet changed in ways people can’t understand just by looking at you. You think that if you can get back to the person you were BEFORE the event, things will get back to normal. But what you have to come to grips with is: the Before You is gone. The Before and After Yous share the same body, the same interests, maybe the same friends, the same taste in music…many of the same things, but the way You are in the world, the way you look at yourself, the way you walk through the world…well, all that has changed.
Being “found” doesn’t mean you’ve gone back to being the Before You. It means that you’ve learned to occupy the life of After You with confidence and strength and certainty at a depth that even the Before You didn’t know existed. Before You was confident, strong, and certain…but the After You…well, After You has knowledge, experience, a back-story people can’t guess just by looking at you: you’ve been tested, you’ve been challenged, you’ve been opened, you’ve made it through. On one hand, you are more hardened, but on the other, that hardening has actually made you softer—more open, more forgiving (of yourself and others), more connected with others.
If I had to guess at what might connect me with other readers of Wild, it might be settling into life as the After You.
Kathryn Lofton mentions that the books selected for the televised version of Oprah’s Book Club are not stories that wrap up with a nice, happy ending. The narratives are often anti-climactic and don’t always leave the protagonist in a state of joy. I would say this extends to Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 selections as well. This is not to say that Wild ended on a sad note. Quite the opposite: Strayed informs us that after she finished her hike, she met the man she would marry and that she has two children. She leaves out the difficulties those experiences had in their own right, but that isn’t the point. The point is: she finished one chapter of her life and moved on into the next. And, good things happened.
Happy endings are unsatisfying and false because they don’t complete the picture. If a story ends with the blissful union of two people who struggled to find one another, that’s great; but what happened AFTER that? By not providing the fairy-tale happy endings, OBC books tie us to REAL-LIFE. Our lives don’t end with a happy go-lucky-moment. Once we’ve achieved something grand, we still have to get up the next day and pay the bills. Wild brings that experience into focus a bit: the PCT was a chapter in Strayed’s life, one that led to new and different things. The message that we can take from this is, one event is the beginning of our next journey, which itself is the beginning of the next, and so on.
In other words:
Wild has been made into a feature film starring Reese Witherspoon. Release date: December 5, 2014.