From lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail
a. To move away from a group, deviate from a course, or escape from established limits.
b. To move without a destination or purpose; wander.
This weekend I finished “Wild”, a memoir by the American author Cheryl Strayed where she describes the 1,000-mile-hike on the Pacific Crest Trail that she did as a way of self-discovery. I don’t use to read this kind of books and my first impression was that a memoir about a hiking trip would be “just another autobiographical story”. I was wrong: it has been one of the books I have liked the most.
To put us in context, Cheryl Strayed did the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from south California to Canada in 1995 at the age of 26. Contrary to what we may think, she had absolutely no experience in backpacking. Her mother’s death, her divorce and a difficult period dealing with drugs were the reasons that encouraged her to start this long-distance hike and take back the reins of her life again. She found the guide of the Pacific Crest Trail in a shop by casuality (or by destiny) and saw the hike as the perfect oppotunity. She decided to challenge herself do the route on her own, with the little money she had left and with the only companion of “Monster”, her huge backpack.
In the beginning of the book, Cheryl explains the moments and her first impressions before and during the first kilometers in the PCT. Given her lack of experience and her low physical condition, she has not confidence in with herself and her capabilities. Her backpack doesn’t help her either: it is too big that she could barely carry it and it causes wounds on her skin. She has her feet full of blisters and her toenails start to fall because her shoes are too small for her. Furthermore, as she hasn’t seen or talked to anyone in one week, she is feeling lost, alone and with fear of every sound or possible danger. She has to deal with difficult situations that are completely new and unknown for her.
However, as the reading continues, we see how Cheryl leaves the insecure and weak woman inside herself and become a strong and brave hiker. She develops her strenghts and abilities and learn about how to fight against physical and mental obstacles with the few resources she has. Her goal is completing the hike and she doesn’t give up. It doesn’t matter if it snows, rains or the weather is extremely hot or cold. She is sure about her decision and follows it until the end.
During her journey she describes the different types of landscapes she had to traverse. For example, the trip starts in the Mojave desert, which is an arid area with high temperatures that requires drinking a lot of water and seeking for shades to rest.
She also borders and climbs mountains covered by snow even though there is an historic record that year. Finally, she crosses many forests and has the chance to enjoy the views of some lakes and the Columbia river, until arriving to the Bridge of the Gods.
She also talks about the different hikers she meets in the PCT during these three months and who have a positive or negative impact on her. According to what she explains, the first time hitch-hiking she doesn’t trust the driver at all and she can’t help thinking about all the bad things he can do to her. However, nothing of this happens. Contrary to her prejudices, he invites her to have dinner with his family and offers her a place to sleep and have a shower. She also meet a journalist in the middle of the road, who wants to interview her as “a tramp” for the magazine he is working for.
Cheryl Strayed also share some personal moments of her past that are key to understand why she did the Pacific Crest Trail. She talks about her difficult childhood, the complicated relationship she had with her family and her failures in terms of love. She also describes how she spent the last days before her mother died of cancer, a tragedy that changed Cheryl’s life completely.
In my opinion, the book is so personal and honest that it is easy for the reader to understand the author’s situation and her point of view. Usually, writers try to embellish the literature of their books and put too much effort on every single detail, avoiding in what is truly important. However, this is not the case. Cheryl speaks in a direct way, explaining things as they are and focusing on the most relevant information.
Apart from this, I also empathize with Cheryl in many aspects. She was almost my age when she did the PCT and I understand her way of thinking and acting in most of the situations she describes. We also share the statement that nature and solitude help you focus on yourself and disconnect from the everyday life. Actually, I think that all of us may feel identified in some way with her experience. Who hasn’t thought about doing crazy unexpected things as a way to escape?
We spend most of our time surrounded by people, trying to make a good impression and seeking for a fake happiness which is not always what really fulfills us. This makes us vulnerable and force us to take decisions based on what society is expecting from us but not on what we really want. Not only this, there are facts or events that can have a huge impact in our lives such as the death of a relative, the loss of a job or a heartbreak. Or maybe we just want a change in our lives and need some time to think about ourselves.
I was so pensive after finishing the book that I searched for more information about Cheryl Strayed, the PCT and the other hikers of the 1995 promotion. After doing some research, I arrived to this article of the first hiker Chery met in the PCT with some real pictures of the group. I also found interesting the interviews of the author in many TV channels, for example this one showing “Monster”, the huge backpack where she carried on everything during the 94 days of the hike. She didn’t have any home or plans to follow when she finished the trip. Monster was everything she had and everything she needed. All her life carried on a backpack. Easy to say, but not as easy to do!
I also found out that the book reached the 1st position on the New York Times Bestseller list and that there is a movie from 2014 with Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed. Even if the characters and landscapes look very real, there are plenty of details that are missing and which I consider are relevant to understand the story and the motivations of the author to take on the trip. If I have to choose, I prefer the book, but here you are the link in case you want to take a look!
For me, Cheryl Strayed and her “Wild” memoir are an example of courage, independence and strenght. A balance between a difficult past and a challenging present. She put her problems aside and took a brave decision in order to find herself again. No matter the obsctacles she found, she continued until the end and never gave up until she accomplished her goal. She gained trust in herself and realized about what she was capable of.
The hike turned her a a completely new person: self-realized, happy and with clear decisions about her goals in life. I think we all need to be like Chery Strayed some times in our lifes.
As she says in the book:
“I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me.”