Monday, September 17, 2012

Wild




By Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed’s life shattered into a thousand tiny pieces when her mother died unexpectedly, at a young age, from aggressive lung cancer.  She left her marriage, fell into a relationship with a heroin addict, and began medicating her pain with this highly addictive drug.  Her once secure family of origin also fell apart in the wake of her mother’s death, compounding her grief by leaving her essentially alone in the world.  The heroin removed her pain, if only temporarily, and Ms. Strayed could easily have succumbed to addiction, but something deep inside her wouldn’t give up on life and this something sent her on a journey of tremendous hardship to retrieve the tiny pieces of herself so that she could put them back together into someone capable of happiness.

My initial apprehension that Wild would be another Eat, Pray, Love (by Elizabeth Gilbert), fell away within the first few words of the prologue.  Where  Eat, Pray, Love begins with an embarrassingly endless self-pity party, Wild begins with the sudden loss of Ms. Strayed’s left hiking boot in the middle of a rocky trail many miles from the next human being.  I can just imagine Elizabeth Gilbert throwing a tantrum at the loss of the boot and how unfair life is.  Cheryl Strayed did not have energy to waste in crying about a lost boot; it was just one more crisis in a series to be managed.  So she kept walking, on her already ruined feet, because her life depended on it.   From the beginning, pain – both physical and spiritual – had been her constant companion.  By the end, the spiritual pain was gone and the physical pain had become bearable.  Walking barefoot over rough terrain while carrying a heavy weight on her shoulders was a metaphor for how Cheryl Strayed lived her life until she learned the art of letting go.

When a person’s life is in ruins one of three things happens:  she gives up, she tries to heal but eventually fails, or she emerges like a phoenix rising from the ashes.  The first outcome is a waste, the second, a tragedy, but the third is a miracle of the spirit.  When people succeed in recovery from addiction, abuse, or trauma it takes an heroic effort to climb out of the hole they have found themselves in.  As Janis Joplin so famously said, “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” and that is what it means to hit bottom.  Cheryl Strayed knew that she was dangerously close to that point and decided to do something impossible in order to stay alive.  Her story reminded me of the Labors of Hercules but nothing in her memoir suggests that she felt like a hero.  She was a lost and lonely soul who needed to shed twenty something years of baggage before she could find her way in the world.

Wild takes us on Cheryl Strayed’s ill-conceived journey to walk the Pacific Crest Trail from just north of Los Angeles to the Oregon-Washington state line.  From start to finish, Ms. Strayed covered more than 1,100 miles, mostly on foot, wearing a backpack and tent.  Unlike Ms. Gilbert, Ms. Strayed had no lucrative book deal to finance her journey.  Cheryl Strayed worked as a waitress and saved a few dollars here and there until she had what she thought would be enough to keep her in freeze-dried food for the duration of her trek.  Even the shortest backpacking trip requires planning and organization to ensure sufficient quantities of food and water.  When planning a weeks- or months-long trek preparation can mean the difference between life and death or, at a minimum, success and failure.  At 22 years of age, having never backpacked, Ms. Strayed was completely unprepared in every possible way.  And yet, she never turned back once she took her first step on the Pacific Crest Trail for what would either kill her or make her stronger. 

Lots of people (mostly women) liked Eat, Pray, Love because it enabled them to “feast, fast, and f(ornicate)” vicariously through Elizabeth Gilbert’s self-obsessed writing.  Who wouldn’t enjoy eating her way through Italy, slimming down at an ashram (OK, there were some “hardships” in this part), and finding amor caliente with a wealthy, world-traveling, and not too demanding second husband, all the while getting paid to write about it?  Best of all, for Ms. Gilbert, was imagining her ex-husband and ex-lover eating their hearts out over her success which their shortcomings and misdeeds made possible.

Wild, by contrast, is so honest it is painful to read at times.  Ms. Strayed shares her worst self and her worst moments without apology or qualification.  She describes the abuse of her father, the abandonment of her step father , the disintegration of her family, and the mercy killing of her mother’s beloved horse without flinching, anger, or blame.  There is a powerful acceptance of formative events in her life that transcends the book and leaves the reader elevated, even though there is very little of Ms. Strayed's story that is enjoyable other than her descriptions of spiritual gifts from fellow travelers and the natural beauty she encountered on the trail. 
 
In addition to sharing her story, Ms. Strayed’s memoir pays homage to the people who conceived of and eventually built the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,650 mile footpath from Mexico to Canada parallel to the West Coast of the United States of America.  The process began in the 1930s with YMCA volunteers marking the trail but didn’t receive Federal designation and Park Service protection until 1993.  According to the PCT website, thousands of hikers and equestrians enjoy the trail each year, a surprising number of whom hike the entire length.  Given the many degrees of latitude the trail encompasses, as well as changes in elevation, conditions on a given day can range from 110˚ in desert valleys up to 20˚ or colder on mountain tops, with everything in between.  Packing for such extreme conditions would be a challenge for anyone, but for those who must carry their world in a backpack, every ounce requires a decision.  Cheryl Strayed did not know this until well into her trek when the trail humbled her enough to accept help from an experienced hiker.  The author's humility is what makes Wild worth reading and sharing because it holds the key to her transformation.

If, like me, you tossed Eat, Pray, Love the minute you finished, you owe it to yourself to read  Wild.  On the other hand, if you liked Eat, Pray, Love, you might find Wild a bit too “real” for you, although Oprah liked them both, for whatever that’s worth.  Wild could easily have been clich├ęd and sugar-coated, after all the author did some shameful things before deciding to walk for her life.  Ms. Strayed could also have left out a lot of details about life on the trail but chose to love her unwashed and foul-smelling self.  There is nothing like a hot shower after weeks in the wild to make you appreciate what a gift cleanliness is.  Some people never experience true hardship nor face insurmountable objects in life.  While I wouldn’t wish pain on anyone, I know from personal experience that tragedy and suffering give depth and meaning to life, and can foster an appreciation for the difficulties faced by others.  It takes courage to share a painful life story but only a whole and healthy person can do so without self-pity or narcissism.  

Copyright 2012 Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved