Cheryl’s trip along the PCT was relatively unplanned and somewhat impulsive, a decision made when she was feeling like her life had fallen apart. At the young age of twenty-two, she lost her mother to cancer, and over the next four years, her family scattered and her marriage broke up. Cheryl was on a self-destructive path, which she talks about very honestly in the book, detailing her life as she drank, took drugs, and had sex with strangers. Feeling out of control, Cheryl heard about the PCT and made a snap decision to head to California from her home in Minnesota and hike the rugged trail for several months.
Here’s the most incredible part (especially astounding to me given my own backpacking history): she started on this challenging venture with no backpacking experience at all. She grew up in the rugged backwoods of Minnesota, so she was used to getting by without luxuries, but she had never been backpacking before, not even for a single overnight, had never been to the desert, and started her trip with all new equipment that she’d never tried out before. That – and the size of her pack – left me astonished. As expected, her trip was filled with challenges and difficulties with which even experienced backpackers would have struggled.
But this memoir is about more than just a physical journey. It’s mostly about Strayed’s emotional journey, from grieving, self-destructive basket case to strong, emotionally healthy woman. Along the way, she tells her story with honesty, warmth, and a great sense of humor. The memoir is very well written, with novel-like suspense and a compelling story. She ends up hiking through most of California and all of Oregon on a three-month journey, mostly by herself, though she does make some friends along the way.
Strayed recounts her personal growth as she hiked the trail, and what she learned about herself and about life. As I read this passage, I was nodding along – she perfectly captures the magic and meaning of being out among nature:
“It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way. “
I kept reading excerpts out loud to my husband. I lived vicariously through her physical journey, since I no longer have the stamina to hike for backpacking, visualized the natural beauty and the challenges, and rooted for Strayed’s emotionally recovery, as she encountered and conquered one trial after another and kept moving forward by sheer force of will. This remarkable story, told by a remarkable woman, is captivating from beginning to end.
315 pages, Vintage