CBR-V Review #48: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

It’s pretty unusual, I think, for books with a lot of buzz to live up to the hype. Or really, for books that are more literary to gain mainstream popularity. There are some, of course–books like Freedom by Jonathan Franzen come to mind–but generally I find that the books that everyone seems to be reading aren’t that appealing to me. Wild is absolutely one of those books–it’s popular for a reason, because it’s spectacular. 

I was actually pretty apprehensive about reading this, initially, because I have a hard time reading sad books. I know that’s silly, but I read a piece by Strayed in one of my college classes about the death of her mother (a piece that was actually expanded and reformatted to become one chapter of Wild) and it was so devastating and raw that I was actually kind of traumatized by it. I knew Wild was about (among other things) her mother’s death, and I really didn’t feel like I could handle 300+ pages of that level of pain and sorrow. After reading and loving Tiny Beautiful Things, though, I couldn’t resist giving this a go–and I’m so glad I did.

Wild is about Strayed’s time spent hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in California and Oregon as a twenty-something following the death of her mother and her subsequent descent into depression, drug abuse, and general self-destruction. After serendipitously finding a guidebook for the PCT, she impulsively sets out on her journey, determined to change her life and leave her old world behind. It’s part coming-of-age story, part catharsis, part travel/nature narrative.

I LOVED this memoir. One of Strayed’s biggest strengths as a writer (and, especially, a writer of nonfiction) is that she is incredibly honest and doesn’t hold back in the things she reveals. And the things she reveals aren’t pretty. She lays it all out there and I think that really makes this book so special–you’re getting a true insight into who she is and who she was. I also appreciated how she presents her experiences and actions in hindsight–she has had twenty years, give or take, to reflect on everything that has happened to her, and although she acknowledges that she was kind of a dumb twenty-something the way all twenty-somethings are kind of dumb (and I say this as a twenty-something myself), she doesn’t judge or condemn herself. I’ve heard complaints that Strayed is self-absorbed and selfish, naïve and laughably clueless. I don’t disagree with those assessments, but I think there is, very clearly, a distinction between the Strayed hiking the trail and the Strayed writing this book. Strayed the author is older and wiser and able to recognize–and even point out and laugh at–her flaws. That perspective really helped offset any irritation I may have felt with Strayed and her choices as a character.Although my experiences and circumstances are very different from hers, I think she does an amazing job of capturing the sense of confusion and loss and dislocation that is so common at this point in people’s lives (hers, of course, being complicated by the extreme trauma she experiences).

Beyond that, it’s just an amazing story of someone doing something that seems impossible. I hate to use the word inspiring, because this is so far from the fluffiness that word usually brings to mind when talking about memoirs, but it is inspiring. It’s pretty amazing to read about an average woman doing the seemingly impossible, pushing herself to her physical, mental, and emotional limits. I don’t want to hike the PCT myself, but the memoir did make me think about my ability to take on challenges and do things I didn’t think were possible.

Seriously, go read this book–it’s just as good as everyone says.

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