Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

Book Review

Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Courtesy of Pricegrabber

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Have you ever thought to undertake a long journey on foot to reassess your life? Cheryl Strayed had a life in a downward spiral following her mother's death. The 27-year old decided she needed a thousand-mile walk to find herself again. Her solo backpacking journey on the Pacific Crest Trail took her from southern California to the Bridge of the Gods at the Oregon/Washington border in 1995.

This was an Oprah book club pick in 2012. The motion picture debuted in late 2014, starring Reese Witherspoon as the author, Cheryl Strayed. The movie is very close to the book in the unflinching, introspective feel. It is not a feel-good movie. In fact, it had me flinching from the first scene when (spoiler alert!) she loses a toenail.
Movie Review: Wild

Wild is also available as an audiobook via Audible.com: Buy Direct

A Solo Journey

Cheryl's reasons for taking the through-hike were much like those of many pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. The physical stress and solitude of the hike would shock her into real self-analysis. Walking it solo was a necessary part of her plan. Often she refused offers from others to join them. She wasn't seeking any glory for being a solo woman hiker, and being solo had risks, of which she was aware.

We forget how different the world was in those days before you could find everything on the internet.

She had only a guidebook and didn't have any updates on trail conditions, which included a record snowpack that forced her to detour. Remember a world without GPS, text messaging and great hiking apps on your cell phone, even if you are out of cell tower range?

She follows the advice of her guidebook to pack for the journey and send herself restock packages along the way.

She must rely only on what she carries on her back, in a pack that sounds to be at least half her own weight. She names her oversized pack Monster and makes many rookie mistakes, such as not practicing hiking with a pack, not knowing how heavy water is, and carrying along heavy books for entertainment.

The movie version shows many of her fearful encounters with men while alone on the trail. At times her initial caution is unwarranted as the man turns out to be helpful. At other times it's enough to convince you to never hike alone.

An Unflinching Analysis

This is a very personal memoir written with over 15 years of perspective. Strayed does not go easy on herself. I found myself disliking her as a character in the book. I had to step back and ask myself why I was so judgmental. Yes, she had led a life I did not respect -- promiscuous cheating on her husband and drugs being the the worst offenses. But I'm not usually such a judgey judger who judges. She admits all of her sins and seeks to understand why she did the self-destructive things she did.

I came to the conclusion that the author wanted the reader to dislike and judge her as a character. She may have done it too well, as often I was not rooting for her to succeed, but to quit. The sign of a good book is that I had to think about why I was feeling that. Cheryl didn't train for her journey and she didn't know many of the things an experienced hiker would. But she was no stranger to camping and day hiking, not a city girl heading out into the wild. She came from a low-income family and had the true love of her mother and siblings, all much like me. She worked for everything she had and took nothing for granted. She paid the physical price for not being prepared, but she kept putting one foot in front of the other rather than ever really giving up.

My dislike forced me to go through my own journey in the book. Cheryl has breakthroughs that help her get past the blocks that were leading to her self-destructive habits. I had breakthroughs in how I viewed her. She never presents herself as a heroine, just as somebody on a journey she must make. There will be no brass band at the Bridge of the Gods, just an ice cream cone paid for with the few dollars she has left from her last restock box.

Lessons Learned

In addition to the self-analysis this book inspired in me, Cheryl and I had more mundane discoveries.

  • Read up on lightweight backpacking before you start planning any backpacking journey.
  • Trekking poles are an essential, which Cheryl learned too late. 
  • While REI is generally a great place to get your boots fitted, you still need to guard against getting too-small boots as Cheryl did, or planning that you may need an even bigger size when your feet swell from the punishment on a multi-week journey. Yes, you will likely get black toenails and lose toenails, even with the best-fitted boots. Cheryl also benefitted from their return and exchange policy to get new boots shipped to her on the trail.
  • Water weighs a pound per pint, eight pounds per gallon. Water is very heavy to pack along, but it is critical to have water on a hike or walk. That's why you want the rest of your pack to weigh as little as possible if you need to carry water. Kudos to Cheryl for taking care to purify her water with a filter and iodine tablets along the way.
  • The Pacific Crest Trail in California seemed to be very sparsely used at the time she hiked it. I wonder whether that has changed in 15 years.
  • Hikers get very hungry. They burn more calories than walkers for two reasons. The first is that the backpack weight increases their calories burned per mile. Add 30 pounds and you are burning substantially more calories. The second is that they are likely going uphill, which burns more calories.
  • Most strangers on the trail are good people you can rely on to help you rather than see as a danger. It's the ones in cars you might want to be more wary of.
  • I'm good with my life choices of never wanting to carry more than 15 pounds on my back. I'll stick to llama packing, or having my gear shuttled from inn to inn.

Bottom Line on the Movie Version of Wild

I found the movie to be as angst-filled as the book. While there were some nice views shown along the trail, it is no travelogue. Many fear that the movie will result in unprepared hikers hitting the Pacific Crest Trail and needing rescue.

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