I don’t often read memoir. I’m primarily a reader of fiction, drawn to imagined characters whose stories, when artfully told, hit you in the gut with your own fears, desires, and missteps. (Brief digression to laud the most recent work of fiction I’ve read—the beautifully rendered stories in This is Not Your City by Caitlin Horrocks.) Though they offer up truths, fictional characters are, after all, fictional and remain at a safe remove. There is not the flinch-inducing intimacy of a memoir that chronicles the actual thoughts and actions of a real person.
I read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild because I knew for months it was coming, knew the story behind it, and, in the roomy definition of friend in Facebook World, sort of know the author—okay, met her once.
Last summer, Strayed taught fiction at the Port Townsend Writer’s Conference. I was taking a workshop in, of all things, nonfiction, something out of my realm of comfort and experience, yet a genre I wanted to explore because sometimes some things just resist fictionalization.
I finally got to meet Strayed near the end of the conference week at the VIDA party. I was standing with a circle of women that included Strayed. She was the focus, not just because she was faculty and her reading the previous day had wowed everyone. I, slacker that I was, had missed it, opting to stay in my room with the intention of writing, but spending the hour mostly gazing at the stunning view of Admiralty Inlet. I heard about it later, the excerpt she’d read about her forthcoming memoir, its bold, flinch-inducing candor. I was smitten along with so many others. Strayed is smart and pretty, but that’s not why she commanded attention in that circle. It was her grace and self-possession.
How does one become Cheryl Strayed? Of course, what I mean is not how can anyone become Cheryl Strayed, but how did Strayed become Strayed?
Grief over the death of her mother and shame at her almost willful sabotage of her marriage, she sought escape, atonement, and renewal in hiking 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail—alone. It’s a hell of a story and a hell of a determined young woman at the center of it. Reese Witherspoon plans to make and star in the movie version. I feel though as if I’ve already seen the movie. Strayed’s prose pulls you in and doesn’t let go. You’re with her every blistering step in her ill-fitting boots, bent under the weight of her enormous pack dubbed Monster through all those punishing miles of her pilgrimage. That was the term a woman in Ashland called Strayed’s journey when she insisted on massaging Strayed’s battered feet. A camper Strayed encountered called her trek a “spirit walk” and presented her with a Bob Marley T-shirt—a sacred shirt, he told her. A fellow hiker on the trail gave her a crow’s feather for luck which she fixed to the fame of her pack. These offerings and talismans were bestowed upon her out of awe and respect for the journey she had undertaken, and maybe also out of concern for her safety. Wasn’t she afraid, she was invariably asked.
Being afraid, telling herself she wasn’t afraid, forgetting to be afraid, facing very real reasons to be afraid—such are the inescapable realities of being “the only girl in the woods.” I’m reminded of Elizabeth Austen’s poem in her book Every Dress a Decision. The poem is “The Girl Who Goes Alone” and has the line
I walk into the wilderness alone so I can hear myself.
As Strayed counted her steps through the grueling monotony of a switch-backing ascent, as she navigated a ridge that gave a panorama of sky and snow-laden peaks or trudged a path beneath the forest canopy, as she gave wide berth to a coiled rattlesnake or gazed transfixed into the face of a fox, as rain whipped her face and the sun beat through her hat, as she lay in her tent surrounded by the night, she heard herself.
Wild is a beautiful book. Riveting and inspiring.